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Album Reviews


Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion & Rock n' Roll
Starsailor Review

By Simon Reynolds & Joy Press

Tim Buckley's Starsailor (1971), is perhaps the ultimate conflation of ocean and cosmos, homesickness and wanderlust reconciled within a single image.

Having started as a folk-rock minstrel, Buckley's songs and singing grew progressively more improvisatory as he absorbed the influence of Coltrane and Miles, and composers like Xenakis, Berio, Cage and Stockhausen. He also fell under the spell of avant-garde singer Cathy Berberian, with her menagerie of "clucks, gurgles, sighs, yowls, splutters, screams, cries, weeps, wails' (as Lee Underwood, Buckley's friend and lead guitarist, put it).

Buckley himself declared: "The most shocking thing I've ever seen people come up against is dealing with someone who doesn't sing words. If I had my way, words wouldn't mean a thing." In his struggle to get beyond language, he used his voice as a freeform jazz instrument, mad-scatted, gushed glossolalia
"Buckley's eerie vocal polyphony lies somewhere between babytalk, orgasmic moan, and the shattering ecstasies of mystical rapture..."
like a geyser, even sang in Swahili.

Drunk on all these heady avant-garde potions, Buckley produced Lorca - 1969 - and Starsailor, one of the most feverishly out-there albums of all time. Come Here, Woman is both a carnal encounter with a real woman and Tantric congress with the Great Mother Goddess. Sex transports them to an intoxicated realm where pain is abolished; the lovers are carried by the tide to a 'coil of peace' (an explicitly uterine image).

In Thalassa, A Theory of Genitality, Sandor Ferenczi declared that the motive of the male sex drive is 'none other than an attempt . . . to return to the mother's womb.' The mother, in turn, 'is the symbol of and partial substitute for the sea.'

Far more than words, though, it's Buckley's voice that incarnates his lust for some kind of eroto-mystic apocalypse. On Jungle Fire, his voice is volcanic, an eruption of deep-body lava, hurling the stricken ululation 'mama!!!' across the song's horizon like a flaming comet.

As with Come Here, Woman, the object of his desire for union is at once a flesh-and-blood soul 'mama' and some kind of Ur-Mother. The title track, Starsailor, is composed entirely of Buckley's treated and multi-tracked voice; it's a schizophrenic chorale with each voice situated in a soundscape of labyrinthine complexity.

Buckley's voices ooze like plasma, coagulating in globules, filaments and tendrils that bifurcate then reconnect, forming a sort of honeycomb of vocal jouissance - a grotto of glossolalia. Buckley's eerie vocal polyphony lies somewhere between babytalk, orgasmic moan, and the shattering ecstasies of mystical rapture.

Wilhelm Reich believed mysticism was a sublimated longing for orgasm' s 'cosmic plasmatic sensations.' Buckley literally sculpted an entire song out of orgasm, taking the ecstatic vocal sounds that appear in most pop only at the climax of a song, and molding them.

Simon Reynolds writes about music and popular culture for the New York Times, ArtForum, the Observer, and Melody Maker, and is the author of Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock.

Joy Press writes about music, books, and women's issues for Spin, the Guardian, Village Voice, and New York Newsday.

'The Sex Revolts - Gender, Rebellion, and Rock 'n' Roll' written by Simon Reynolds and Joy Press was named a Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Book of 1995 in the Music and Performing Arts Category. Published by Harvard University Press.

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