The Tim Buckley Archives

Album Reviews

Once I Was

by Wilson Neate

When he died at the age of 28 in 1975, Tim Buckley left a rich, diverse and, at times, difficult legacy.

But while numerous forms of homage have been paid to his work, its significance remains under-appreciated. Music writers routinely eulogize Buckley's shooting-star genius, contemporary artists have covered his songs and cite him as an influence, and his work has even been sampled by the electronica generation.

And yet Tim Buckley, arguably, still awaits the full degree of recognition that he merits.

Buckley once noted: My life does not depend on Top 40. . . . "I just don't fit there. . . . You gotta come up with something new. You gotta go places you haven't been before."

His musical legacy bears out the integrity and veracity of those statements. In a recording career lasting eight years ('66-'74), his nine albums mapped the odyssey of a unique creative spirit that refused to settle into a consistently commodifiable style, choosing instead to follow a path of ongoing self-reinvention, sometimes at the cost of critical acclaim, not to mention commercial success.

Drawn largely from sets recorded in London for John Peel's BBC radio show in 1968 and Whispering Bob Harris's BBC TV program The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1974, Once I Was captures the mercurial Tim Buckley at his best. Save the final track, this material was previously available elsewhere.

But this CD puts Buckley's shape-shifting career into a well-wrought, gilded nut-shell, bringing together the folk-rock -- on the threshold of jazz -- of the early years with a brief glimpse of the sexy, white funk soul brother that is late-period Buckley.

Emerging from the mid '60s Southern California scene with Jackson Browne and Steve Noonan as one of the so-called Orange County Three, Tim Buckley's eponymous 1966 debut and his sophomore effort Goodbye and Hello (1967) were youthful, passionate and romantic folk-rock documents that were very much of their time. The latter in particular stressed what would prove to be two of the constants throughout his stylistic metamorphoses: an inimitable vocal prowess and an ability to pen songs with hit potential as well as innovative, elaborate and less compromised material.
For anyone who has yet to discover the wonder of Tim Buckley, Once I Was is an ideal introduction. For the converted, this is another posthumous treasure in the spirit of Dream Letter...

Goodbye is well-represented here with captivatingly pure, melodic renditions of Morning Glory, Hallucinations, and Once I Was, on which Buckley's legendary five-octave range stands as an instrument itself, perfectly integrated within the arrangements. On Morning Glory Lee Underwood's minimal, smoldering lead guitar complements Buckley's assured, unfaltering vocals, while Hallucinations (including Troubadour) stretches out gloriously over nearly eleven minutes, its subtle yet driving rhythms, changes of pace and intricate lead guitar recalling the sound of British folk bands like The Pentangle.

The melancholy beauty of Once I Was is conjured up by a magical combination of Buckley's voice and his chiming twelve-string, trimmed with percussion and almost imperceptible electric guitar. This is a haunting piece, its poignancy redoubled now in the knowledge that the late Jeff Buckley played it at the 1991 New York City tribute concert for his father.

The measured balladry of Sing a Song For You is somewhat atypical of Happy Sad, from which it is drawn. Recorded in 1968, Happy Sad coincided stylistically and chronologically with Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and saw Buckley moving in the same direction as Morrison, toward a fusion of jazz stylings and drifting, bluesy folk.

Those characteristics would coalesce superbly on 1970's Blue Afternoon, represented on Once I Was by Happy Time, during which Buckley shares the spotlight once more with Underwood's fragile but evocative lead guitar.

Once I Was glosses over Buckley's complex period, a phase that, for some, found him at the peak of his creative powers and that, for others, was his musical nadir. After the release of Lorca in 1970, critics and fans blanched at his apparent attempt to commit commercial suicide in concert as he pursued an uncompromising avant-garde jazz approach that, at its most challenging, allegedly sounded not unlike a meeting of Messiaen and Mingus complete with cocktail trumpets, gongs, crooning and howling. "Buckley's Yodeling Baffles Audience" proclaimed a review of a particularly difficult 1970 gig.

Starsailor (1971) fared no better. "Buckley Goes Bizarre" wrote one journalist, knocking it as a collection of tuneless wailings and Doctor Who effects. Ironically, that album features his finest achievement, the ethereal Song to the Siren, covered by This Mortal Coil, sampled directly and indirectly by Everything But the Girl and the Chemical Brothers respectively, and -- in sacrilegious fashion akin to the fate met by Nick Drake's Pink Moon -- hijacked for TV ads.

The 1974 recordings on Once I Was stand as bookends to Buckley's career. Dolphins from Sefronia (1974) was a song he had played live since the late '60s and, while a marvelous version is immortalized on Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 (1990), this joyously lilting rendition tops even that with the rich, honey-in-the-sun lower reaches of Buckley's voice yielding to momentary flourishes up the scale.

Equally majestic vocals reign over the raunchy, electric bump and grind of Honey Man, a track that neatly encapsulates Buckley's explorations of an unbridled and earthy white blues/funk sound begun on Greetings From LA (1972).

As a bonus, Once I Was contains an unreleased twelve-minute version of I Don't Need it to Rain that differs markedly from the rendition on Live at the Troubadour 1969 (1994). Taped live in Copenhagen in 1968, this is a more understated -- but more breathtaking -- version that stresses Buckley's ability to bring an unparalleled intensity and intimacy to live performance.

For anyone who has yet to discover the wonder of Tim Buckley, Once I Was is an ideal introduction. For the converted, this is another posthumous treasure in the spirit of Dream Letter, underscoring the timeless genius of one of the more innovative, passionate, eclectic, and yet largely unsung singer-songwriters of the late '60s and early '70s. Lillian Roxon once said of Buckley: "There is no name yet for the places he and his voice can go".

He may be long gone but on Once I Was, Buckley again manages to transport his listener to a unique and beautiful realm which words prove inadequate to describe.

© 2000

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