The Tim Buckley Archives



Sound Opinions

(Dis)Like Father, (Dis)Like Son

Was the Buckley family saga two generations of tragedy;
or unjustly rewarded self-indulgence?

by Jim DeRogatis & Greg Kot 

Jim DeRogatis: I admire David Browne's book, Dream Brother, as a fine work of music journalism and an impressive double biography; I just don't want to listen to Tim or Jeff Buckley ever again. If neither of them had died young in that classic rock-cliche manner -- the doomed young prince who meets his fate long before his time -- I really don't think that anyone would care about them. Their music is like Gordon Lightfoot. They're both pathetic, over-emotive folkies. And I hate folkies.

Greg Kot: You are so wrong. It's tragic that Tim Buckley died of a heroin overdose at age 27 in 1975, and that his son, Jeff Buckley, drowned in the Mississippi at age 30 in 1997. But the music transcends that. Let's just evaluate the work they left behind. Tim Buckley packed a career's worth of music into a very short time. He released nine studio albums from 1967 to 1975. 

DeRogatis: But they're nine bad records! As a young rock critic, you get handed all this information from previous generations of rock writers: "Tim Buckley was an undiscovered genius. He was ahead of his time." Then you play the records, and they're unlistenable.

Kot: Discerning listeners admire Tim Buckley's music because they realize this singer was not only technically gifted -- he had a four-octave range -- but he used that talent to take immense artistic risks as well. As you can hear on Morning Glory, he never sat in one place for very long. He started off as an acoustic troubadour with an almost Elizabethan formality, and then shot off into areas like Pleasant Street, which is a pretty stark acid-folk piece. On his third album, Happy Sad, he was doing introspective jazz-tinged songs that suggest the influence of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.

Of course, not all of these experiments worked. I think the songs from his 1972 experiment in kinky erotica, Greetings from L.A., are pretty embarrassing in retrospect. But what I like overall was his sense of daring. He took a lot of chances with his music. Not all of them paid off, but that's what great art is all about. Just listen to Song to the Siren. The way he uses just his guitar and voice, both the lead vocal and those haunting backing harmonies, to create this reverie of temptation and desire -- it's one of the best pieces of music from the late Sixties.

DeRogatis: Wait a minute -- you're saying that song ranks with, like, the best of Hendrix, the Byrds, and the Beatles? You're nuts!

Kot: Yes, I'm saying that. It's a shame that it wasn't more widely heard during its day. His best work was pretty much ignored by commercial radio and the rock press. And I think it's because his music was so uncategorizable, and also so erratic. But the best stuff -- Song to the Siren, the live take on I've Been Out Walking, Chase the Blues Away -- is beautiful.

DeRogatis: I don't know what you're hearing. I hear moaning, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. All that stuff you're talking about -- the serpentine vocal lines and the mixing of every genre from Elizabethan folk music to free jazz -- I hear that in Robin Williamson and the Incredible String Band from the same era, and I think their music is a hell of a lot more interesting than Tim Buckley's. Song to the Siren? Sirens ought to be ringing to call the police, it's so melodramatic! That's my problem with Jeff, as well. Jeff was so histrionic, so over the top, such a drama queen.

Kot: There's a fine line between drama and melodrama, and they both crossed that line more than a few times. I saw Jeff perform several times, and it was almost unbearably intimate at times. You either were pulled in or you brushed it off as self-indulgence. But there was no in-between with these guys, and that's what is so fascinating about the music. The best of it was just so uncompromising.

DeRogatis: Jeff Buckley played the role of the tortured artiste to the hilt. That's my problem with his album Grace, and with his stage persona -- that over-emotive, "I-am-such-a-sensitive-soul" crap.

Kot: Those sensitive souls are the people who give us great art. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Van Gogh, F. Scott Fitzgerald -- they were tortured artists too. 

DeRogatis: I notice you didn't name a single rock and roll artist. To me, rock and roll is a Dionysian celebration. It is not tortured moaning.

Kot: By saying that, you rule out way too many artists that have been important to the evolution of rock. A lot of what makes art compelling is wrestling with those demons.

DeRogatis: I don't like it when the demons win. David Browne in his book traces the sycophants that surrounded the Buckley's, and it's creepy. Dozens of artists are exploited after they die, whether it's Jim Morrison or Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon. Rock and roll does this. It's easier to deal with an artists when he's dead. It happens again and again, and it's despicable.

Kot: But the only way that a cult of personality like that sustains itself is if there was something of substance there to begin with. Forget about Blind Melon; in the case of Jeff and Tim Buckley, the substance was there. The cult of the Buckleys is based on music, and all you need to do is listen to Radiohead, Coldplay, Nelly Furtado, or the Chris Cornell solo record to hear how wide ranging their influence is.

DeRogatis: I'm not so willing to let Jeff off the hook. If you listen to the second, work-in-progress album that was eventually released as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, a lot of those lyrics obsess about death and passing into the next place. Some of this we read into it after the fact, but to me it says he was always thinking about this.

Kot: If the father you hardly knew died at age 27, you might obsess a little about it too.

DeRogatis: Oh, come on, Jeff had a death wish; he had an obsession with death and the drama of death. You can hear it in his reading of that Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah, or in the lyrics for the Sketches album. There are people in art who become seduced by that nihilistic death trip, and he was one of them.

Kot: I think Jeff Buckley was obsessed with life. You listen to his cover of Lilac Wine on Grace, a song that Nina Simone once sang -- that's all about savoring every bittersweet moment. It could be a really corny song, but he makes those emotions feel earned. When I listen to that song, Jeff Buckley is very much alive.

Jim DeRogatis is the pop music critic at the Chicago Sun Times.
Greg Kot is the rock critic at the Chicago Tribune.

Sound Opinions, a rock and roll radio talk show, began on Chicago's WXRT-FM.

The show was then carried on Chicago Public Radio. It is now an independent website

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