The Tim Buckley Archives

Album Reviews

Live At The Troubadour 1969


When You Wish Upon A Starsailor...

By Martin Aston

Since his tragic demise at the age of 28, diehard acolytes at the altar of Tim Buckley's starlit muse experienced a desperately faithless time until the live Dream Letter album was released in 1990, only 22 years after it was recorded. Imagine that, since the death of Jimi Hendrix, there had been no live concert revelations, no dusted-off outtakes, no celebration or maintenance of the legend.

Perhaps that would have been the preferable path. Buckley did at least release nine studio albums during his lifetime, hardly shortchanging his fans: in comparison, Hendrix only managed three, Janis Joplin three, The Doors--before Jim Morrison died--seven. Yet all, for better or worse, were posthumously decorated.

Unlike Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison (with Tim--as New Musical Express writer Max Bell put it, "The four horsemen of one particular Apocalypse"), Timothy Charles Buckley III was never deemed an iconoclast. He never opened new vistas in contemporary rock music for others to pursue the way Hendrix did, but that shouldn't belittle his contribution: if anything, it should exemplify how impossible Buckley's vocal inventions were to follow. Anyway, it was hard to accept that there was no archival Buckley left, especially given that he was working on a live album--a retrospective statement covering all far-reaching corners of his fantastically mutable career--at the time of his death.

Dream Letter, the first evidence of Buckley in front of an audience, went a long way toward restoring the faith. Herb Cohen, who ran the Straight and Bizarre labels, unearthed a live performance from London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, July 1968, Buckley's British debut. For those diehards, the two-hour, double-album set arrived out of the heavenly blue, having escaped even the bootlegger's grasp. the music was equally heaven-sent.

Recorded between his third album, Happy/Sad, and his fourth, Blue Afternoon, with songs mostly culled from album number two, Goodbye and Hello, Happy/Sad and six tracks that were never subsequently recorded, the evening was an astonishing, near-faultless encapsulation of Buckley, only 21, at the transitional point between his folk-rock origins (he emerged from the same Orange County, Californian scene as Jackson Browne) and a more intoxicated folk-jazz odyssey.

The sound behind Buckley's 12-string was featherlight, with just ember-glowing guitar (Lee Underwood), vibes (David Friedman) and bass (Danny Thompson, on loan from British folk-rock pioneering Pentangle, who got a last-minute call to turn up and had one afternoon rehearsal before performing, a fact which makes the intuitive interplay even more stupefying). Due to the expense, conga player Carter C.C. Collins and bassist John Miller couldn't make the trip; ironically, the lack of rhythmic drive only served to increase the music's elasticated space, leaving Buckley freer than ever to stretch back up to the ether.

Above all, there was the voice, a euphoric, five-and-a half octave spanning vehicle of mercurial depth, from baritone to tenor to castrato, plaintive and soaring, of spine-shivering clarity and poise that managed to transport the honey from his heart with perfect pitch. So the story goes, Buckley learned to exercise his voice by screaming at buses and imitating trumpeters.

Saxophonists are also checked out for their melodic, blue-noted invention. East Coast jazz improvisation, not Bob Dylan, becomes his yardstick: Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Monk and Mingus.
Buckley's long-term collaborator Lee Underwood reckoned, "He sang like nobody else I've ever heard." Respected 70s American critic Lillian Roxon went as far to say that, "There is no name yet for the places he and his voice can go."

Indeed, Buckley was driven by the desire to boldly go where no curly-haired folkie had gone before--to the edge of jazz improvisation. In that sense, he was attempting to do for the voice what Coltrane had done for the saxophone and Hendrix for the guitar. It was a voice both impossibly young and prematurely old (goodbye and hello, happy and sad, eternal opposites), one which imbibed his work with what Melody Maker's Simon Reynolds described as, "A poignant premonition of loss, of an inevitably autumn."

Dream Letter probably arrived too late to rescue Buckley from the cult corner afforded those who led their expectant public a merry dance and then died young, but it made people talk again, In any case, the climate had never been right before. When Buckley died in 1975, rock culture was stuttering and stymied, at a nexus of a crisis. Progressive rock had floundered on technical and lifestyle excess; glam rock had dissipated as style transcended content; disco was creaming off the mainstream swell, and anything American West Coast, or remotely rootsy--only Little Feat escaped the culling--was anathema. Punk's ascension, like a gleeful, Stalinist banshee, exiled most things touch by the hand of Hippie.

It was only after punk's own dissipation that certain music genres lost their taboo status in the new wave's more expansive climes. A small swell of appreciation was launched when British dream-weavers The Cocteau Twins recorded a version of Buckley's Song To The Siren (from 1970's stellar Starsailor, the pinnacle of Buckley's experimental phase) as part of a studio project initiated by Ivo Watts-Russell, where 4AD acts would muck together with guest collaborators, under the collective name This Mortal Coil.

Ivo was big on maverick, pre-punk heroes: Big Star's Alex Chilton, Pearls Before Swine's Tom Rapp and Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett were also paid tribute to, but Buckley was his favorite, and the success of Song To The Siren (the new arrangement actually matched, and gave new feeling, to the original's feverish restlessness) was the catalyst for the subsequent album, preceding it as a single in the summer of 1983.

The track was later coied by an anonymous session team--the Cocteaus wouldn't authorize their contribution--for a package holiday advertisement (sleek bodies diving into water slo-mo dreamtime: Aquamarine Afternoon!), an ironic moment given how Buckley denied and derided the commercial pressures of his day. It still took Dream Letter another six years to surface, but it's only been three years gap until this newly unearthed live set, recorded at The Troubadour in Los Angeles on September 3rd and 4th, 1969.


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