The Tim Buckley Archives



Dreaming, driven and dangerous

From folk rocker to jazz-inspired visionary in three short years.
Ben Edmonds uncovers the story of Tim Buckley's musical legacy.

by Ben Edmonds

JEFF BUCKLEY DEPARTED THIS SWEET SWINGIN' SPHERE in his 30th year, without having completed a second album. By contrast, Tim Buckley was two years younger than his son when he died, and yet graced us with no less than nine albums, a recorded legacy that has been enlarged and illuminated by the release of several supplemental recordings in recent years.

In the David Browne's forthcoming book Dream Brother, and Martin Aston's fine biographical piece in Mojo 22, we learn much about the life of Tim Buckley. But it is in the recordings he left behind that Buckley truly lives. Like old friends, these works have something new to tell us whenever we encounter them. Taken together, his first three albums: Tim Buckley (I966), Goodbye And Hello ('67) and Happy Sad ('69) - represent his coming of age as an artist, roughly the same stage in his son's life represented by the making of Grace.

Tim Buckley on record is like hearing a snapshot of a performance. He was a performing artist in the sense that Paul Williams has applied it to Dylan - an artist who rewrites his song each time he opens his mouth to sing it. Though a snapshot can freeze an eternally pleasing moment, its subject will always be somewhere else the moment the shutter has clicked. Tim Buckley was forever on his way somewhere artistically, the many stylistic stops on his restless journey all handled with ease and fire by a voice that is said to have made fans of Jacques Brel, Paul Robeson and Leontyne Price.

It was that magnificent instrument - a high, pure Irish tenor, beneath which lurked a three-and-a-half octave range its possessor would spend the rest of his life exploring - that leapt off an acetate given to Elektra Records president Jac Holzman in 1966. It had been cut to promote a young Orange County, California band called The Bohemians, in which Buckley sang and played rhythm guitar, seems to have been academic.

" I can't remember it ever being spoken about," says group bassist Jim Fielder, who would go on to play with The Mothers Of Invention, Buffalo Springfield and Blood, Sweat And Tears. "But it was always understood that, ultimately, it was about Tim. He was the one, and there were no hard feelings whatsoever when it turned into a solo situation."

The debut album recorded a few months later, produced by Paul Rothchild and Jac Holzman, was based on The Bohemians' repertoire, pleasant enough folk-rock that functions primarily as a showcase for a remarkable new voice. But with this artist, even the conventional was never ordinary, as a closer look at the beginning of Tim Buckley reveals.

"In the opening notes of I Can't See You, the first song on his first album, you can hear Tim Buckley's career and his soul," ventures Larry Beckett. The Bohemians' drummer was Buckley's creative partner during this early period, a poet who would collaborate on songs with Buckley throughout his career.

"He hammers on a flatted fifth, doubled by the lead guitar. It's normally a blue note, when it resolves to another note inside the chord. But this one doesn't resolve, it's pure dissonance, and that atonality becomes even more striking as the song unfolds and the note returns. I wrote the verses in five lines instead of the usual four so the melody couldn't be a standard 32 bars. Then Tim added the riff that didn't resolve; it was there, in your face. I think he felt like that flatted fifth, like he didn't belong anywhere. That dissonance was expressing him inside and out, and all the experiments to come are in seed in those first notes."

The rhythm section assembled to back Buckley included Jim Fielder, Mothers drummer Billy Mundi, and Van Dyke Parks on various keyboards. On lead guitar was Lee Underwood, a Californian the singer had met in New York who would be an influential fixture for years to come.

Wings (with lovely strings courtesy of Jack Nitzsche) and Song For Jainie are about as good as folk-rock gets, but Beckett concedes that the song selection tended toward the conservative. "We had total control," he says, "but I think we favoured the ones that audiences had responded to live. It was like putting what we thought was our best foot forward. But there was another side to the Bohemians that Tim loved just as much, these extended, drifty pieces of which only Song Slowly Sung made the album."

Popular myth has it that the letters 'LSD' are hidden in the wrinkles of Buckley's trouser leg on the cover.

"I'm afraid it's just a legend," Beckett laughs. "Like the faces of The Beatles were supposedly hidden in the cover of John Wesley Harding. It's a product of the hallucinations of the time."

As so often happens with a volcanic young talent, Buckley was light years beyond his debut album before it even reached the shelves. He had agreed to work with producer Jerry Yester, the former Modern Folk Quartet member who was also managed by Herb Cohen. (The manager's stable of Fred Neil, The Mothers Of Invention, Linda Ronstadt And The Stone Poneys and Judy Henske would frequently intersect the Buckley timeline.) Before beginning what would be the singer's first masterwork, they took a little-known test drive when Elektra asked Tim to record a single.

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