At The Troubadour 1969
You Wish Upon A Starsailor...
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.