The Tim Buckley Archives



Tim Buckley

by Mike Jahn

Standing at the edge of Fire Island surf at seven in the morning is like standing with arms outstretched at the edge of the universe, taking it all in and knowing that all is a friend. Fire Island?

Fire Island is a 32-mile stretch of sand five miles off the south shore of Long Island, N.Y. At most places it is only about a hundred yards wide. Crammed along this geographic noodle are 18 communities: two of them well-known faggot havens; one a very up-tight alcohol scene; the others places to grow.

Five years ago I was nineteen and docking boats for pseudo-wealthy Long Island businessmen at a municipal beach called Atlantique on Fire Island. This was a nice thing to be doing only in that it was work on the island, and work there is not always easy to come by.

Life on Fire Island is slow, but not purposeful. Relaxed, but not lazy. When you live on Fire Island you live by the standards of nature, not by the standards of man. All movement is with the sea and the sun, and there they are everything.

The ocean is inescapable, as it should be. There is no place to go on Fire Island where the sea cannot penetrate. Its sound puts you to sleep, keeps you company during the day, eases the mind into a quietly flowing high during the evening. The sea wind blows from the south west as inevitably as the day. It warms during the day, chills at night, and is a constant reminder of the roots of life. All life came from the sea and the sun; the wind their messenger. All three are there to let you know that you are theirs, and they are yours, no matter how much concrete and steel you try to erect.

And so you sit and listen. At seven in the morning I was sitting alone on the beach, listening to a calm surf and breathing in the cool breeze. Things swing toward the natural on Fire Island, since there is so much of it to swing to. I was sitting in the sand thinking about nothing but watching and just being a part of things when I saw a dot way down the beach, getting larger and larger.

The dot and I were alone then, and the wind was blowing along as it always had and always will. The dot came closer and became a person. When it got a few hundred yards away it became a girl. Tall, with long black hair. Very tan. A natural way of walking, and walking slowly, like all things on Fire Island. Slowly, like the sea and the sand.

Her feet were in and out of the water, then, leaving light spots. Her hair came down around her shoulders, her cheeks. She had high cheekbones, and could have been part Indian. She could have been. She was walking slowly, not caring who was there. Fear causes awareness of presence, more so than love. There was no fear. People who are afraid do not go to places like that, and soon leave if they are brought there accidentally.

She walked closer, moving slowly, looking down. She was wearing the bottom half of a bikini and holding the top half in her hand. She was walking slowly and watching her breasts move up and down, watching the surf run in and out of her toes, watching the sand. She walked by, in and out of the water, and looked up slightly, quickly, and smiled hello. And I smiled hello. And she kept on walking, slowly, naturally, and walked on down the beach to the east, and finally disappeared, with the wind.

It did not seem like it was going to be a day for docking boats. It wasn't.

And it hasn't been ever since.

And I wave goodbye to ashes, and smile hello to a girl.

The wind blows everywhere, and there is a cool wind, a silvery, spray-filled wind that blows easily in the sound of Tim Buckley.

The voice comes like the sea at its most quiet time, early in the morning before the day interferes. It is high and smooth, twisting and elevating like the breeze, and filled with the sound of beauty. It is the sound of a beauty in nature, a beauty that has long been forgotten. It is not man-made, not urban and bluesy, but natural and wild; calm and reflective under all, but at times soaring and awesome.

It can soothe or anger, lift or put down. But the energy is that of realism and light, of an early tide or a screaming gale. It can go from one to the other, like the world, or it can be calm forever. Tim Buckley's voice is very much like all human energy, since it lies so closely to that of nature. And, like nature that has been forgotten by many men, it must be relearned.

Buckley is a tenor, and that is unusual enough in Pop. But he adds a certain confusion by coupling his voice with the strange words: the words of life, death, and machines, of rivers and fields, of new children and old.

The soldiers die on fiery battlefields when Buckley's voice soars into its shattering falsetto. Antique people create and are created by vast machines when his voice touches that near-violent agony. The new children run through the fields and touch balloons, hands and each other when he sings of what he hopes will be.

With a nimble, near Gregorian effect: I saw you walking, only yesterday. When I ran to catch you, you disappeared and the street was gray. The candle died. Now you are gone. For the flame was too bright. Now you are gone.

With a fiery hopefulness: All the stony people, people walking round in Christian licorice clothes. I can't hesitate, and I can't wait for Pleasant Street.

And, in what is so far his main work, Goodbye and Hello, he combines two poems, singing a line from one then a line from the other, to make a unique chorus: O the new children dance / I am young / All around the balloons / I will live / Swaying by chance / I am strong / To the breeze from the moon / I can give / Painting the sky / You the strange / With the colors of the sun / Seed of day / Freely they fly / Feel the change / As all become one / Know the way.

Similarly hopeful choruses are alternated with tense tracts on the people who do things like create wars. The antique people are fading out slowly. Like newspapers flaming in mind suicide. Godless and sexless directionless loons. Their sham sandcastles dissolve in the tide. They put on their deathmasks and compromise daily. The new children will live for the elders have died.

Then, the eulogy, and the ending of the song: And I wave goodbye to America. And smile hello to the world.

Tim Buckley is the chief propagandist for the New Children, those who can touch the sun without worrying about its consistency. His words stir hope for a world of love without exploitation, beauty without plasticity, passion without destruction.

He is short and very thin. His face, with very precise, definite features, sits in the midst of a mass of wiry hair. On stage he is a locus of placid movement. Every song, every chord drives him and is driven by him through a natural motion. He does not contort, as does Jimi Hendrix, nor writhe, as does Jim Morrison of The Doors. His movement is natural and circular, a rhythmic head and body motion that is both a calm flow of blue light and a long, winding river.

The motion lulls while the words entice. All of his material is as important musically and musical-emotionally as it is verbally, and this in itself removes him from most folk, in which category he would otherwise be placed, cautiously but firmly.

Mike Jahn was the first rock critic at The New York Times and is an award-winning author, reporter, critic, syndicated columnist and cultural commentator who was in the center of the golden age of rock and in the company of its biggest stars. His articles were compiled on his website 'Tales of the Ancient Rocker'

On stage he uses acoustical six and twelve string guitars. Lee Underwood provides an often-brilliant lead guitar (electric), and Carter C.C. Collins does some strange and beautiful things with congas.

In concert there is no audience contact in the usual sense. He does not speak, other than to name the song. "I look out there and I see, I guess I see light waves and all kinds of things," he says. He does not talk to the audience, often doesn't even see anyone. Arlo Guthrie and Richie Havens spend a large part of the evening talking to the audience. Tim Buckley speaks to the audience in vibrations, and in the world he wants to see vibrations are the best means of communication.

The fact that Tim Buckley makes this work despite the many special barriers provided in the concert hall is a good sign that his vibrations are real and work, and that there is potentiality for a world of New Children.

On record, additional instruments and effects add to the importance and effectiveness of the music. It is more than an accompaniment to his voice. It is a part of his voice, the emotional part of the message. The vocal part switches back and forth from emotion to messagery.

At times his words give well defined thoughts: The vaudeville generals cavort on the stage. And shatter their audience with submachine guns.

Sometimes the words are impressionistic: Oh Flying Flying fish please flutter by my door. Yes you can drink my lies if first you read my eyes: Each one is titled 'I'm drowning back to you.'

But at all times the words lead inescapably to a feeling of destiny, that the author is a young man (age 20) looking down the tunnel of long despair to a land of flowers. The flowers are there. But while Donovan presents flowers by sticking pictures of them all over the place, Tim Buckley presents flowers by constructing little pieces of sound and word.

He has two albums. The first, Tim Buckley (Elektra EKS 74004) is a good introduction to a particularly sensitive folk writer/singer. The second, Goodbye and Hello (Elektra EKS 7318) is a mélange of all that is good in him: the words and the music of a strange world looking for a place to renew itself.

A third album will very likely have been released by now. As he plans it, it will be lighter, less concerned with the down aspects of today's world, and more involved with the bright chances for tomorrow. It will, he says, be more specific about more beautiful things. It will be of world renewed.

After that album there will be a film. He doesn't know where it will be shot or what it will be about, only that he has wanted a film of his own for sometime. Other plans will be guided by the fact that he is only 20, and at that age a performer who shows more promise than did Dylan at a comparable point in his career.

Warning: it isn't always easy to like Tim Buckley the first time you hear him. His voice is high-pitched and wild, a natural voice with no artificial training. Our minds have been trained by years of radio to accept well-modulated, soothing sounds. Tim Buckley never soothes unless the listener has nothing to hide. Having nothing to hide is to him the biggest step toward becoming one of the New Children. And it does not presuppose an age requirement.

The difference between liking Tim Buckley and not liking him is the difference between looking at a girl with no clothes on and seeing a girl without clothes or seeing a girl. A person who sees the latter will understand Tim Buckley. Those who don't can at least try.

Converts are made, not born.

© Mike Jahn/New York Times

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