to Tim Buckley
Tim Buckley's best shot at rediscovery may have washed up
on the Memphis Harbor shore last year. That was where, on
June 4, 1997, a riverboat crew found the body of his 30-year-old
son, Jeff, who had been missing for six days. Tim Buckley
had actually been dead for nearly 22 years when the son
he barely knew went wading in the big muddy river and drowned
after being swept under the Mississippi River waters by
the wake of a large boat. But he was alive in the hearts
and minds of many.
the bright light surrounding Jeff Buckley's fledgling but
soaring career -- a career built on one EP, one full-length
CD, and a host of incendiary live performances -- Tim Buckley's
radical musical legacy garnered a certain amount of reconsideration.
But with the tragic demise of the son, I fear the equally
tragic but incomparably brilliant father has been cast back
into the shadowy margins of pop music history.
dredge him up now? Because Tim Buckley was born on Valentine's
Day, 1947, and every Valentine's Day I pull out the CD version
of Tim Buckley's 1966 eponymous debut and bathe myself in
his Valentine Melody. And because that inevitably
leads me into a listening orgy of every Buckley recording
I own, including the nine studio albums he recorded from
1966 through 1974 and the handful of live recordings that
have trickled out since his death in 1975.
despite the occasional print paean, such as Scott Isler's
July 1991 profile in Musician magazine and Martin
Aston's July 1995 story in England's Mojo, Buckley
has yet to be honored with the kind of box-set, remastered
CD retrospective his career deserves. And because I just
can't pass up any opportunity to infect others with the
toyed with song structures and tempos, brought unusual
instruments, such as vibes and pipe organ into the
mix; and he adhered to an improvisational aesthetic
like few others in pop music before or since...
thumbnail biography is ultimately as unenlightening as a
recounting of his less-than-blockbuster record sales. He
was born in New York and spent his adolescence in the Anaheim/Orange
County area of Southern California. Smitten with the collegiate
folk revival of early '60s, he started playing music with
friends. One connection -- drummer Jimmy Carl Black of the
Mothers of Invention -- led to another -- Herb Cohen (manager
of the Mothers, Lenny Bruce, Fred Neil, and Captain Beefheart)
-- and yet another -- Jac Holzman of Elektra Records.
before he turned 20, Buckley had married, dropped out of
college, fathered a child, divorced, become a coffeehouse
performer, and recorded his first albums under his Elektra
contract. As unsettled in his relationships as he was in
his musical styles, he battled constantly for both his soul
and his artistic integrity, experiencing intermittent successes
and frustrating failures in the realms of romance and self-expression
before dying of an accidental heroin-morphine-alcohol overdose
on June 19, 1975, at the age of 28.
the two things that mattered most were his voice and his
musical vision. Possessed of a remarkably flexible, Irish-rooted
tenor, Buckley sang with unfettered passion, extreme vulnerability,
and uncanny virtuosity. He inspired such purplish prose
as Isler's description of his singing: "His warm tenor
curled around listeners like mellow pipe smoke. Its throbbing
resonance bored into the heart with surgical precision."
Words like "ethereal," "naive," "honest,"
and "heroic" trip off people's tongues when they
recall the way Buckley communicated with that voice. But
his most telling album title was probably the prosaic and
oxymoronic Happy Sad. As Jac Holzman noted to Isler,
"To some extent he was the bright side of people's
tortured souls, and maybe of his own tortured soul. He could
express anguish in a way that was not negative."
musical way in which Buckley channeled his emotions and
applied his voice seems every bit as revolutionary now as
it did in 1971 when he released his startling masterpiece
Starsailor. Maybe even more so today, when the pop
music idea of experimentation is often nothing more than
another technological twist on "postmodern pastiche."
Absorbing influences ranging from Dylan and the Beatles
to the electronics and avant-garde composition of Karlheinz
Stockhausen, the word-jazz of Ken Nordine, the "sheets
of sound" of John Coltrane, and the fusions of Miles
Davis and Ornette Coleman, Buckley rapidly progressed from
a psychedelic-tinged, acoustic twelve-string guitar-strumming
troubadour into a shocking stylistic renegade. He was a
romantic, and he was wondrously weird.
his albums became more experimental -- from the baroque
pop-rock of Goodbye and Hello and chamber folk-jazz
of Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon through the
spacier Lorca to the shivers-inducing Starsailor
-- he made his voice moan, warble, and wail from oceanic
depths to Yma Sumac-like peaks; he toyed with song structures
and tempos, brought unusual instruments, such as vibes and
pipe organ into the mix; and he adhered to an improvisational
aesthetic like few others in pop music before or since.
It's for good reason that producer Hal Willner, who staged
a Tim Buckley tribute concert at St. Anne's Church in Brooklyn
in 1991, argues that Buckley "should be seen on the
same level as Edith Piaf and Miles Davis."
had his genre-defying peers, of course -- including Fred
Neil (whose song, Dolphins, Buckley often performed
in concert and recorded on 1974's Sefronia), Van
Morrison (whose Astral Weeks is often cited as a
parallel to Buckley's boundary-dissolving work), Laura Nyro,
Nick Drake, and the Grateful Dead. But there was/is something
uniquely haunting about the sound of his voice and his music.
Maybe it stems from his early death. Maybe it hinges on
the chameleon nature of his sound (in 1972, Buckley went
for the jugular of funky rock and roll with the torrid,
lyrically lascivious, and musically raunchy Greetings
again, maybe it's just me. In 1975 my father described the
experience that knocked him off the wagon he'd been on for
eleven years. He was walking up Sutter Street in San Francisco
when he looked into the eyes of a raggedy man shuffling
towards him on the sidewalk. He saw nothing but the most
profound sadness in those eyes. The next doorway was a bar.
My father turned in and had the drink that sent him on the
most harrowing bender of his life.
never saw Tim Buckley perform in concert, but in the early
1970s, I saw him walking alone on Santa Monica Blvd., not
far from the Troubadour in West Hollywood. It was a hot,
bright, clear summer day. I don't think I've ever seen a
sadder looking figure. When I listen to his music today,
all that melancholy comes rushing back, but in a way that
is soul-cleansing, in a way that exposes the human potential
for joy as well as for suffering. And my Valentine's Buckley
binge prepares me for the spring that is just around the
February 12, 1998