The Tim Buckley Archives

Articles

1979

The Fantastic Voyage Of A Starsailor

Looking Back - Part One

by Max Bell

They used to call Tim Buckley a love child in 1966. “I want to be perfect for you,” he tells the boys and girls that cluster at his feet in The Trip club and if they listen, that’s fine.

Tim Buckley doesn’t want to be mobbed, doesn’t relish the prospect of false idolatry. His medium is not messages but songs; he is a singer pure and simple. Every journalist wants to know if the songs are therefore poetry, if Buckley is a man with that old metric muse, if he has something he wants the people to know.

No.

“Let’s erase poetry to begin with, because there’s never been poetry in music. If you call a song poetry, you have been able to read it. Songs are songs. Calling things poetry….why that’s a whole other thing, that’s literature. I write songs that are almost like letters sometimes. A lot of things don’t rhyme , and they’re all out of metre. It doesn’t make sense as a song or poetry."

By the time he’s nineteen Tim Buckley has made two albums for Elektra records and already the difference between what his songs say and what emotions they evoke are acute. He contradicts himself, deliberately, or as a privilege of youth. Some people think he must be a protest singer in the vein of Tom Paxton, Tim Hardin or Bob Dylan. After all, he has curly dark hair and hollowed chiseled features and being sent to fight in Vietnam is a distinct possibility. He could be a rock and roller with one foot in the grave like all the other poor saps.

“Talking about war is futile. What can you say about war? You want it to end, but you know it won’t. Fear is a limited subject but love isn’t. I ain’t talking about sunsets ’n trees, I’m involved in America... but the people in America, not the politics. All I can see is the injustice."

Timothy Charles Buckley III was born on St. Valentines Day, 1947 in Washington D.C. He spent nine years in Amsterdam, upstate New York before his family moved to the Promised Land, the flatlands of California. In the formative years of adolescence, Buckley lived in Anaheim, a place famous for its proximity to Disneyland and its preponderance of oranges - Orange County USA.

Buckley is a promising scholar but not a dedicated one. His big thing is music, country and western, and he hangs out in the yard of Buena Vista High School with two guys called Jim Fielder and Larry Beckett. “At school I got drunk a lot and fell asleep in class.”

He gets the pocket money working in a Mexican restaurant. Buckley is acquainted with the troubadour’s life when he was twelve and plays behind a lady, Princess Ramona and the Cherokee Riders. They all wear sequined shirts and moccasins but this boy isn’t going to be happy being a backwoods Indian for long so the Princess advises that he study the folk song and listens to the sounds emanating from the East coast, a gathering storm.

At home, Buckley grows up with his mother’s taste for the stylists, singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Lena Horne and white folks in the country idiom, Hank Williams, Flatt and Scruggs, Johnny Cash. As the kid learns, he develops a taste for those musicians who bring a certain defined passion to their playing. Although he never had a music lesson or a voice lesson in his life, Buckley learns to exercise his voice by screaming at buses and imitating trumpet players.

He also develops a unique rhythmic guitar style which becomes a natural adjunct to his singing but technically is all wrong; as a kid in school, Buckley had broken his left-hand fingers in a football game. He could never make a barre chord and used to ridicule his withered, lumpy hand.

He listens to guitarists and saxophone players alike, checking out the range and considering their melodic invention. Buckley is already rather more interested in the tones of Stan Kenton and John Coltrane than he is in the social observations of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen.

“I want to function in society instead of withdrawing from it. I want to be able to live with policemen. Torment doesn’t make music – that’s an American pop fallacy that’s come out of the Negro soul thing – no matter how much a white person gets beat up he never has the soul that a Negro has.

“You have a lot of white singers going around wanting to be spades, because they think they want to have soul. But BB King sounds like a college professor, his diction is better than anybody I’ve ever heard.”

When writer Tom Nolan, in Cheetah magazine, christened Buckley, Jackson Browne and Steve Noonan the ‘Orange Country Three’, the title was only used in jest. In reality, the similarities between Buckley and his singer/songwriter folksy peers were entirely superficial, though they inhabited the same place and the same haunts. The mid-60’s had a positive virtue in that before people started thinking about modern popular music – rock – as a marketable commodity there really were no rules and no boundaries.

Buckley could frequent the bohemian watering holes in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York alongside the other hopefuls fresh from art school and film school. There were exotic creatures like Nico and The Velvet Underground in the Dom to swap thoughts with and long drinking bouts in Nobody’s where Tim, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix (the four horsemen of one particular Apocalypse) could be seen downing shots of tequila and raising hell.

Buckley had a small band with regular dates in Hollywood’s It’s Boss club where he sang his and Larry Beckett’s songs. Beckett, according to Buckley, was “a poet – he’s starving in Venice (California) now.” Old friend Jim Fielder played the bass sometimes but often the band was Lee Underwood on lead guitar, Carter CC Collins on percussion and Buckley on 12-string and vocal instrument. Throughout 1966 they played in the right places, the Night Owl or the Troubadour, until one night Jim Black, drummer with The Mothers of Invention, came down and was impressed enough to suggest that Mother’s manager Herb Cohen take a look.

Cohen couldn’t figure out what to do with the kid with the counter-tenor and the plaintive love-lorn songbook but he had a demo and took it to Jac Holzman, president of Elektra.

“I must have listened to it every day for a week,” Holzman recalled. “Whenever anything was bringing me down I’d run for the Buckley; it was a restorative. We spent a long late afternoon together and I explained to Tim that Elektra was growing in a new creative direction and that he was exactly the kind of artist with whom we wanted to grow, young and in the process of developing, extraordinarily and uniquely talented, and so ‘untyped’ that there existed no formula or pattern to which anyone could be committed.”

The qualities which Holzman saw in Buckley were good enough for Cohen, who couldn’t think much beyond career, getting gigs and taking a cut – a manager to the bare bones but one with influence. Apart from Zappa, Cohen had Linda Ronstadt and Wild Man Fischer on the books and was able to showcase his latest find on the same bill as B.B. King on the opening night of the Fillmore East.

Buckley’s début album ‘Tim Buckley’ was recorded in three days flat and released in October 1966, graced with an effusively precious liner note that suited the boy’s melancholic countenance.

To quote: “Tim Buckley – an incredibly thin wire, just 19 years old, is already a kind of quintessence of nouvelle, the sensitivity apparent in the very fineness of his features. The man is a study in fragile contrasts: yet everything is in key, precise.

“His songs are exquisitely controlled: quiet, complex mosaics of powerful electric sound, they hold the magic of Japanese water colors. The voice – crisp, full of strength and character - can soar, yet remain tender and delicate.”

That was what Buckley called his ‘Bambi’ image and in truth, he was only finding his feet. The band, Underwood, Fielder, Billy Mundi on drums and emergent enigma Van Dyke Parks on keyboards, matched Buckley’s romantic aspirations with a decidedly baroque flair – flat out weepy strings and lavish arrangements in the early psychedelic mode, too lush not to have become dated but adventurous enough to merit the listener’s indulgence.

Songs like ‘Strange Street Affair Under Blue’, ’Aren’t You The Girl’ and ‘Understand Your Man’ give an indication of the area the singer is going to move into, although the strictly West Coast tripsichord blues doesn’t enhance the direction, only the naivety. Producers Paul Rothschild and Holzman used some of the techniques they’d tested on Arthur Lee and Love’s first album and would perfect on The Doors’ debut, but they didn’t suit Tim so well.

 

 


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