The Tim Buckley Archives

The High Flyer - Part Three

Progession was now Buckley's watchword. Dream Letter, recorded in 1968 at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, was already more diffuse than Happy/Sad, lacking the pulse of Carter CC Collins's congas. The budget couldn't afford him or bassist John Miller, so Pentangle's Danny Thompson was drafted in to play an intuitively supportive -- and barely rehearsed -- role.

"I got a call asking me to turn up and rehearse everything at once," recalls Thompson. "He refused to get into a routine of singing 'the song.' We did a TV show, and when it came to doing it live Tim said, 'Let's do another song,' which we'd never rehearsed. It was two minutes longer than out time slot, and the producer was putting his finger across his throat, and Tim looked at him with a puzzled expression and carried on, like art and music was far more important than any of this rubbish that surrounds it. He was fearless."

Clive Selwood, who ran the UK branch of Elektra records, recalls the same episode : "Tim had got a slot on the Julie Felix Show on BBC. He turned up to rehearsals with Danny Thompson an hour late; he shuffled in, nodded when introduced to the producer, unsheathed his guitar, and they launched into an extemporization of one of his songs that lasted over an hour.

The producer and Felix watched open-mouthed, not daring to interrupt. The most exhaustingly magical performance I have ever witnessed -- and all to an audience of three. When it was done, Tim slapped his guitar in the case, said 'OK?' to the producer, and departed."

A year later, after a heady bout of touring, including the Fillmore East's opening night alongside BB King, Buckley's muse was flying high. In 1968 he'd sounded enraptured, a wayward choirboy testing the limits of a new-found sound, but the voice of 1969 scatted and scorched, twisting and ascending like a wreath of smoke. The music mixed blues, jazz and ballads, throwing in calypso, even cooking on the verge of funk. A key Buckley moment arrived at the climax of a simmering fourteen-minute Gypsy Woman (from Happy/Sad), when he yelled, "Oh, cast a spell on Timmy!", like an exorcism in reverse. Few singers craved possession so hungrily.

A little-known artifact from this period is his soundtrack music for the film Changes, directed by Hall Barlett who later went on to helm Jonathon Livingston Seagull. A live set from the Troubadour, finally released two years ago, previewed material that surfaced on Lorca (1970). The album was named after the murdered Spanish poet, whose simultaneous violent and tender poetics Buckley was vocally mirroring. On the song Lorca itself, and on Anonymous Proposition and Driftin', Buckley floats and stings over a languid blue-note haze -- crooning and stretching half-tones over shapeless stanzas.

"We never had any music to read from," bassist John Balkin remembers. "We just noodled through and went for it, just finding the right note or coming off a note and making it right," Buckley regarded the title track as "my identity as a unique singer, as an original voice."

The timing wasn't great. Now tuning into such mellow songsmiths as James Taylor, the Love Generation was in no mood to follow in Buckley's wayward footsteps, any more than Buckley had kowtowed to Elektra's craving for old-style troubadour charm. As Holzman says, "he was making music for himself at that point...which is fine, except for the problem of finding enough people to listen to it."

"An artist has a responsibility to know what's gone down and what's going on in his field, not to copy but to be aware," the creator responded. "Only that way can he strengthen his own perception and ability."

Around this time Holzman was poised to sell Elektra, which upset Buckley. Although major label offers were on the table -- "a lot of bread, which makes me feel really good" -- he decided that money wasn't the issue : "That's not where I'm at. I can live on a low budget."

After some deliberation he signed to Straight, a Warners-distributed label formed by Herb Cohen and Frank Zappa. "It would be better for me to stay with one man who had taken care of me," he said. "No matter what anyone thinks of Herbie, he's a great dude." But he capitulated to Cohen's demand to record a more accessible record : aptly named, Blue Afternoon (1969) is a collection of narcotic folk-torch ballads.

"Tim always wrote about love and suffering in all their manifestations," says Lee Underwood. "He felt that underneath love was fear, fear of love and success and attention and responsibility." In the album's centrepiece, Blue Melody, Buckley keens : "There ain't no wealth that can buy my pride/There ain't no pain that can cleanse my soul/No, just a blue melody/Sailing far away from me." In So Lonely, he confessed that "Nobody comes around here no more". In press material for the album, Buckley said the songs had been written for Marlene Dietrich.

Blue Afternoon beat Lorca to the shops by a month. With two albums vying for attention, his already diminished sales potential was halved. (Lorca didn't even chart). Buckley, never commercially-minded, was still looking forward. "When I did Blue Afternoon, I had just about finished writing set songs," he told Zigzag. "I had to stretch out a little bit...the next [album] is mostly dealing in time signatures."

Has any troubadour ever stretched out quite as Buckley did on 1970's Starsailor? Buckley's third album in a year, in the words of bassist John Balkin, was ""a whole different genre". Balkin, who ran a free improvisation group with Buzz and Buck Gardner of the Mothers, had introduced Buckley to opera singer Cathy Berberian's interpretations of songs by Luciano Berio, inspiring the ever-restless Buckley to new heights.

Over throbbing rhythms and atonal dynamics, the Gardners' blowing was matched by Buckley's gymnastic yodels and screams : one moment he sounded like an autistic child, the next like Tarzan. Everything peaked on the title song, with its sixteen tracks of vocal overdubs. Larry Beckett, recalled to add impressionistic poetry to expressionistic music, also had a field day : to wit, the likes of "Behold the healing festival/complete for an instant/the dance figure pure constellation." Indeed.

"For the Starsailor track itself," recalls Balkin, "we wanted things like Timmy's voice moving and circling the room, coming over the top like a horn section, like another instrument, not like five separate voices. His range was incredible. He could get down with the bass part and be up again in a split second."

Fiercely beautiful, Starsailor is a unique masterpiece. Aside from Song To The Siren, the album was the epitome of uneasy listening. "Sometimes you're writing and you know that you're not going to fit," Buckley responded. "But you do it because it's your heart and soul and you gotta say it. When you play a chord, you're dating yourself...the fewer chords you play, the less likely you are to get conditioned, and the more you can reveal of what you are."

If Starsailor came close to Coltrane's 'sheets of sound', it was hard not to see it as commercial suicide. Attempts to reproduce Starsailor live didn't help. "The shows Tim booked himself after Starsailor were total free improvisation, vocal gymnastics time," recalls Balkin. "I can still see him onstage, his head down, snoring. There was one episode of barking at the audience too. After one show, Frank Zappa said we sounded good, and he wasn't one who easily handed out compliments."


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