Martin Aston - MOJO Magazine
was blessed with a beautiful face,a
voice that sailed into uncharted regions of the cosmos
and a seductive charm that beguiled everyone he
encountered. And a fat lot of good it all did him.
Buckley was a man out of time who struggled to make his extraordinary talents
heard. This is the story of that lone ranger.
was born a blue melody/A little song my mam sang to me/Such a blue you're never
seen" (Blue Melody)
1965, the Los Angeles Magazine Cheetah dubbed
three emerging singer-songwriters -- Jackson Browne, Steve
Noonan, and Tim Buckley -- 'The Orange County Three'.
progressed towards a comfortable feted stardom which endures to this day. Noonan
vanished into the ether after one album. And somewhere between their two paths
drifted the late Tim Buckley. Between rabid adulation and ignoble obscurity, between
legendary status and the loser's list, his is a fixed position, like a star that
shines fiercely in the night sky but in space was extinguished eons ago.
years after his death on June 29, 1975, diehard disciples complain of the mismanagement
of Tim Buckley's legacy. Here was a man whose recordings remain extraordinary
cross-pollinations of folk-rock, folk-jazz, the avant-garde and all points in
between. They are, in the words of Lillian Roxon's famed 1969 Rock Encyclopedia,
"easily the most beautiful music in the new music, beautifully produced
and arranged, always managing to be wildly passionate and pure at the same time."
A shame, then, that they are still to be posthumously rewarded with a decent
CD reissue campaign.
an artist finally comes through all this mess, you hear a pure voice," said
Tim Buckley three months before he died. "We're in the habit of emulating
those voices when they're dead."
Charles Buckley III was born in Amsterdam,
New York on Valentine's Day, 1947, his family uprooting westwards a decade later
to Anaheim, home of Disneyland and strip malls. He grew up with music. Grandma
dug Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, mom adored Sinatra and Garland. Timothy Charles
III himself leaned towards the gnarled country of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams,
the lonesome sound of the singing cowboys. The kid even taught himself to play
Beckett, the Buena Vista high school friend who added erudite lyrics to Buckley
melodies over the years, recalls how schoolboy Tim always wanted to sing. Buckley
had learnt how to use his perfect pitch from crooners like Nat 'King' Cole and
Johnny Mathis but chose to exercise his range by screaming at buses and imitating
the sound of trumpets. His voice set sail for the edge early.
Fielder, Tim's other best buddy at school, recalls first hearing the Buckley voice.
"One hesitates to get flowery but the words 'gift from God' sprung to mind,"
he says. "He had an incredible range of four octaves, always in tune, with
a great vibrato he had complete control over. You don't normally hear that stuff
from a seventeen-year-old."
by C&W combo Princess Ramona & The Cherokee Riders, Buckley played guitar
in a yellow hummingbird shirt and turquoise hat. The Princess soon saw that Timmy's
heart wasn't in country -- his nascent love of Miles Davis and John Coltrane testified
to that -- so suggested he turn instead to the burgeoning folk scene.
a intuitive gift for its melodic nuances, 'folk-rock' was a tag that would later
irk him. Buckley was always cynical about how that business worked. "You
hear what they want you to play when you're breaking into the business,"
he told Sounds in 1972, "and you show 'em what you've got."
Felder on bass and lyricist Beckett on drums they formed two bands, the Top Forty-oriented
Bohemians and the more esoteric, acoustic Harlequin Three, who would mix in poetry
and freely ad-lib from Ken Nordine's Word Jazz monologues.
quickly won great notices in L.A., and the 'Orange County Three' accolade only
heightened the interest of the music business. Mothers Of Invention drummer Jimmy
Carl Black was impressed enough to suggest a meeting with Herb Cohen, a manager
with a curiously dual reputation for unswerving broadheadedness and courageous
work with mavericks from Lenny Bruce and the Mothers to Captain Beefheart and
Wild Man Fischer.
Instantly smitten -- "there was no question that Tim had something unique"
-- Cohen sent a demo to Jac Holzman at Elektra, home of folk-rocking excellence.
must have listened to it twice a day for a week," said Holzman. "Whenever
anything was getting me down, I'd run for Buckley. He was exactly the kind of
artist with whom we wanted to grow -- young and in the process of developing,
extraordinarily gifted and so untyped that there existed no formula or pattern
to which anyone would be committed."
in turn told Zigzag that he respected Holzman because he believed Jac only
signed multi-talented acts who made each album an individual statement. Yet Buckley's
self-titled debut album (1966) was also his most generic. "I was only nineteen,"
Buckley later recalled in Changes magazine, "and going into the studio
was like Disneyland. I'd do anything anybody said."
beat-guitar chime of Lee Underwood and the songs' baroque dressings were blood-related
to The Byrds, par for the folk-rock course. "Naive, stiff, quaky and innocent,
but a ticket into the marketplace," was Underwood's verdict. But you can
discern what Cohen and Holzman had so clearly appraised : above all, that soaring
counter-tenor voice and remarkable melodic gift.
followup, Goodbye & Hello (1967), was tainted less by convention than
by overambition. Producer Jerry Yester probably saw the chance to drape Buckley's
ravishing voice in all the soft-rock flourishes at his disposal, while Beckett's
convoluted wordplay was just the wrong side of pretentious. Buckley had radically
outgrown the first album's high-school origins, his vice now adopting the languid
resonances of his Greenwich Village folk idol Fred Neil on the aching ballads
Once I Was and Morning Glory.
and Tim hung around in Greenwich Village during the 1960s," recalls the reclusive
songsmith of Everybody's Talkin' and Dolphins. "Tim was completely
immersed in the music twenty-four hours a day. He ate, drank and breathed music.
I would not be at all surprised to learn that Tim worked on chord progressions
and melody lines in his dreams, he was that committed to the art form."
the Neil vein, Buckley's bristling I Never Asked to To Be Your Mountain
is a six-minute epistle to his already estranged wife Mary Guibert and son Jeffrey
Scott - better known now as Jeff Buckley.
marriage was a disaster," says Jim Fielder. "Mary was full of life and
talent, a classical pianist and Tim's equal. But the pregnancy made it go sour,
as neither of them was ready for it. To Tim it was draining his creative force,
and Mary wasn't willing to take the chance on his career, putting it to him like,
Settle down and raise a baby or we're through. That kind of showdown."
the climax to I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain, Buckley yelped, pleaded,
even shrieked "Baby, pleaEEESSE!", the first evidence of the
places his pain would take him. Honesty was the key. When Buckley and Beckett
played it autobiographical -- exquisitely vulnerable, naive yet insightful --
the results were stunning. When they played to the gallery it sounded forced.
the title track's anti-Vietnam tract, Buckley said, "I just hate the motherfucker.
It's like, 'OK motherfuckers, you want a protest song, here it is'. They were
bugging the hell out of me so I figured, just this once, and then I wouldn't have
to do it again.
about the war is futile," he reckoned. "What can you say about it? 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 with America...but the people
in America, not the politics. All I can see is the injustice."
Jac Holzman, however, felt positive : a poster of Buckley loomed large over Sunset
Strip. "As we got deeper into 1967 and Vietnam," Holzman observed, "the
combined effect of his words, his music, his passion, his persona struck a particular
resonance. To some extent he was the bright side of people's tortured souls, and
maybe of his own tortured soul. He could express anguish that wasn't negative."
& Hello reached 171 on the Billboard chart, but Buckley wasn't in the
mood to consolidate. Instead, when Tonight Show guest host Alan King made fun
of his hair, the singer retorted, "You know, it's really surprising, I always
thought you were a piece of cardboard." On another outing he refused to lip-synch
to Pleasant Street and walked out.