The Tim Buckley Archives

Tim Buckley: An Overview

Part Two

Identification as a folk singer was something Buckley never cared for, but his first two albums for Elektra set him in that mold. The first, recorded in Los Angeles with Van Dyke Parks on keyboards and Jack Nitzsche adding string arrangements, was a 12-string guitar-led set perfect for the times. It was released in October 1966 and Buckley seemed to have all the trimmings of electrified folk rocker.

The second album, Goodbye and Hello, released a year later, is Buckley's most commercially successful. Ironically, it also is his only disc to now sound dated. Some of the wistfulness, and dreamy, almost oriental flavor of a few of the songs on the first album carried over to the second. Hallucinations and Phantasmagoria In Two hinted at what Buckley's sound was to become. Most of Goodbye and Hello, however, was mired in big, gimmicky production. The overblown peak came in the eight-minute, 38-second title song.

The large string section and pretentious horns of Joshua Rifkin's uncredited arrangement surrounding Beckett's voluminous lyrics had their striking moments, and Buckley gives it all a good reading. But it is mostly Rifkin's and Beckett's show. The album closed with what is probably Buckley's best-known song. Morning Glory was a touching way to end the record. It is also one of the best marriages of Buckley's music to Beckett's words.

Manager Herb Cohen recalls the early days of Tim's career after the release of his 1966 debut album, Tim Buckley.

Tape courtesy of Veit Stauffer

Buckley came to regard his first album as "a naive first effort; a ticket into the marketplace." But it was the second album that put his name in lights. He was asked to score a film called Changes and he put together a subtle set of tracks employing vibes, guitar and conga. But the score was eventually canned. He was also chosen for a film role in Raoul Coutard's Wild Orange, playing the part of an Indian named "Fender Guitar." But that project, also never came off.

At the end of a Monkees TV episode, Buckley sang a haunting, skeletal version of his Song Of The Siren. The song wasn't to appear on record for another two years; Buckley was working ahead of himself.

The popularity he had found after Goodbye and Hello only led to disenchantment. He didn't want to be a rock star. Lee Underwood's influence as a proficient and unorthodox lead guitarist had been felt on the fist two albums. Underwood's roots were in jazz. He played with Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. Later, in the '70s he became west coast editor of downbeat magazine.

Turning to Underwood for inspiration, Buckley listened intensively and extensively to jazz recordings. His third album, Happy Sad, was the first product of his study.

David Friedman on vibes, and an upright bass, gave the album a sound reminiscent of that of the Modern Jazz Quartet, a stripped-down, improvisational sound worlds away from that of Goodbye and Hello. The wide plangent range of Buckley's voice, that had only been suggested earlier, came through loud and clear on Happy Sad. It emerged atop a strange hybrid of folk and jazz that played off of soft riffs and delicate balances between Buckley's twelve-string and the moody improvisation of the other musicians.

The result of Happy Sad was more than a pop star merely exhibiting jazz tendencies. Buckley's new sound was rich and convincing in its influences. Strange Feeling, the album's opening cut, for instance, was directly inspired by the recurring riff in Miles Davis' All Blues.

"... for those who care about what a genius can do with lyrics, a twelve-string guitar, and a wind-milling voice, Tim Buckley is to be investigated..."

Creem Magazine

Happy Sad, Buckley's journey into experimentation, was well-received. But the critics lambasted Lorca, Buckley's next release. There were no lilting melodies, such as Buzzin' Fly that kept the feet tapping on Happy Sad. It appeared Buckley had overreached in what he called "delving into the deepest depths of human emotion."

Lorca's title song ran nine-minutes, 53-seconds; the album's opening cut, it was led by a big ominous organ that sounded right out of Phantom Of The Opera. Buckley's dark emotionalism on Lorca is at times staggering, but the audience he established with the previous records couldn't accept the strange experimentations.

Some critics called the album morbid, and at times even the band seemed to fall flat. His music had by then become almost completely improvisational, but on Lorca the freedom just didn't work. Commercially, critically and artistically Lorca was a failure. With its eerie din ringing in their ears, Elektra dropped Buckley.

Meanwhile, Herb Cohen had formed an independent publishing and recording company with Frank Zappa, Bizarre/Straight. Buckley's business people suggested that he do something quick to regain some public favor. There was little choice, so he dipped into his bag of older songs and released Blue Afternoon on the Cohen/Zappa label. The album brought back some of the fans Lorca had scared off but Buckley viewed it only as a temporary detour on the creative journey he had begun with the two earlier albums.

Concession made, Buckley went full speed ahead on producing and recording the album Lee Underwood later described as his "magnum opus." All influences and experiments led to Starsailor, the tour de force of Buckley's career. Few artists have come close to doing with vocals what Buckley accomplished on Starsailor.

In a Warner Bros. biography he spoke about his technique: "I even started singing in foreign languages -- Swahili, for instance -- just because it sounded better. An instrument can be understood doing just about anything, but people are really geared for hearing words come out of the mouth ..."

He wasn't actually singing in Swahili, but the vocal swoops, flutters, grunts, and screaming tongue trills he sails through on Starsailor sound right out of the jungle dawn. Many of the songs were written in odd time signatures. Healing Festival was in 10/4, for instance. And the title song, with Buckley's pipes overdubbed on all 16 tracks, is all voice, one layered upon another to rise and fall and soak through into the next.

Exposure to avant-garde composers such as Luciano Berio and John Cage, especially his discovery of Cathy Berberian, had been quite an inspiration. Like Berberian, Buckley was using his voice to explore every nuance of emotion. The sheer vocal thrust of Starsailor is astonishing. No one has equaled such an exuberant exhibition of one man's voice in a recording studio.

Even the usually cynical Creem magazine said: "... for those who care about what a genius can do with lyrics, a twelve-string guitar, and a wind-milling voice, Tim Buckley is to be investigated." The highly regarded downbeat gave Starsailor a five-star rating.

Buckley had finally received some of the recognition he needed in the identity he struggled for as a unique artist working outside the boundaries of standard rock form. There was only one problem. Starsailor sat in the record-store bins like a dead fish, a commercial disaster. This financial failure was the last straw. His management and the record company took away all creative control in the production of his own records.

Initially the setback made Buckley angry. But the anger was soon replaced by depression. And as all too often happens with creative people, Buckley tried to dim the pain with alcohol and drugs.

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