The Tim Buckley Archives

Tim Buckley : The High Flyer

By Martin Aston - MOJO Magazine

He 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.

Tim Buckley was a man out of time who struggled to make his extraordinary talents heard. This is the story of that lone ranger.

 

"I was born a blue melody/A little song my mam sang to me/Such a blue you're never seen" (Blue Melody)

In 1965, the Los Angeles Magazine Cheetah dubbed three emerging singer-songwriters -- Jackson Browne, Steve Noonan, and Tim Buckley -- 'The Orange County Three'.

Browne 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.

Twenty 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.

"When 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."

Timothy 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 the banjo.

Larry 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.

Jim 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."

Recruited 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.

Despite 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."

With 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.

Buckley 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.

"I 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."

Buckley 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."

The 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.

The 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.

"Me 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."

In 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.

"The 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."

In 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.

Of 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.

"Talking 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."

Electra's 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."

Goodbye & 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.

   


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