Scott Isler: Musician Magazine - July, 1991
doorbell rang. Judy Buckley was expecting her husband,
returning that day from yet another tour. It was Tim, all right, but he wasn't
alone. He also didn't seem conscious. He was supported on either side by a man
and a woman. Judy didn't know the woman; the man was the Buckleys friend
Richard Keeling--"Cool Richard."
wrong with Timmy?" Judy asked. "He did some stuff," Keeling replied,
adding that it wasn't enough to hurt himself. They brought Buckley up to his bedroom.
Keeling thought Buckley was up to his old tricks, once again pretending to be
more messed up than he was.
few hours later, Keeling's phone rang. It was Judy Buckley, hysterical. This time
Tim wasn't faking. Keeling returned to the Buckleys and called a paramedic.
It didn't help. The evening of June 29, 1975, 28-year-old Tim Buckley came home
death ended a decade-long career marked by fits and starts, brilliant bursts of
creativity followed by seeming sabbaticals, and serpentine turns in musical direction.
Buckley might have been more popular if he'd stuck with one style. But the word
"commercial" did not loom large in his vocabulary.
had no head for business whatsoever," says his vibes player David Friedman.
"He was a true, spontaneous, creative artist--and way ahead of his time,
really didn't care about the money part of it," his mother Elaine Buckley
says. "He just loved to play music and he loved to sing."
lot of people love to sing; that's why showers were invented. But Buckley's voice
was a phenomenon of nature. With no formal training he was a model of diction
and phrasing. His warm tenor curled around listeners like mellow pipe smoke.
throbbing resonance bored into the heart with surgical precision. His upper register
segued seamlessly into a falsetto for acrobatic flights of fancy. "He used
to laugh and say what he was aiming for was to get the range of Yma Sumac,"
his friend Daniella Sapriel says.
technical equipment was a blessing. The uses to which the Los Angeles-based Buckley
put it were more self-willed. If he had been born into another generation, he
could have been one of the great saloon singers. Friedman remembers Buckley's
"fantastic" version of One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).
Bassist John Balkin recalls that Buckley would "go around singing Is That
All There Is? It got to him."
a baby-boomer, though, Buckley treated the cabaret songs strictly as a sideline.
He had too many melodies of his own, tunes that gave form to the inchoate feelings
of his audience as well as himself. "What made him such an intense experience,"
Sapriel says, "is that the music transcended the personal and touched things
that all of us longed to express but can't, or feel we can't. That's a lot to
ask somebody to carry."
most people, that was the only Tim Buckley they knew. His friends and associates
saw another side. Being with Buckley, John King says, was "like hanging out
with Eddie Haskell." He couldn't walk past a pool table in a bar without
knocking the balls around; or past a fire alarm in a hotel hallway--in the wee
hours of the morning--without setting it off. One of his favorite films was A
remembers one not atypical evening of club-crawling with Buckley. They ended up
at a relatively conservative Santa Monica bar featuring a singing pianist on a
raised platform. "As always, Timmy wanted to take over the crowd. So he began
by heckling the guy. Then he pretended to be so drunk that he fell down; Timmy
staggered up and 'passed out,' as if he had fallen asleep on that runway.
singer said something like, 'Maybe you'd like to finish this song for me?' Which
was exactly the wrong thing to say. Up jumps Timmy, crystal clear, sings this
song like the guy could never have sung it, knew all the words, other verses--just
kicks the guy's ass musically. That was Timmy, in a nutshell. Then we closed the
bar and took the guy out to breakfast at a Denny's nearby. He used to do things
like that all the time."
thing he wasn't was a pop star in the accepted definition of either word. His
albums weren't big sellers, even in the relatively scaled-down record business
of the late '60s: At the height of his fame he barely cracked Billboard's Top
100. Singles? Forget about it.
Tim Buckley's importance can't be measured in chart placings or dollar amounts.
He lived his life almost in defiance of such standards. If he paid the price for
his rebelliousness, he also left an enduring legacy.
1966 and 1975 Buckley released nine albums that could have been recorded by no
one else. Buckley put his vocal virtuosity in the service of an artistic vision
that showed little consistency beyond a restless searching, an impatience with
the present. The sadness in his voice reinforced the heroic futility of his music.
His was the sound of defenselessness.
impressed those who knew him as one of the most remarkable people they'd met.
"Certain people in your life," guitarist/Stick inventor
Emmett Chapman says of Buckley, "you carry them around with you. He's a person
outlived his friend Jim Morrison by nine months. But while the media keep resurrecting
the Lizard King, the equally photogenic Buckley has proven harder to exploit.
Score a Pyrrhic victory for Buckley's spiky artistic integrity. (Buckley referred
to Morrison, three years his senior, as "the baby" and walked out of
a Doors concert in disgust with Jimbo's concept of drunkenness as entertainment.)
1965 Buckley was finishing high school by day and working odd jobs at night. His
family had just bought a house in Anaheim, crossing over the Los Angeles County
line from Bell Gardens. He was already deeply involved in music. When he was 13,
in 1960, Buckley caught the folk-music bug. He took banjo lessons and started
playing in a folk group with Dan Gordon and a couple of other school friends.
"I would love to say our roots were Hank Williams," Gordon says, "but
it's just not true. It's all Kingston Trio."
the '60s unrolled Buckley fell under the sway of the Beatles, but his eclectic
taste didn't stop at the pop border. In Anaheim he met fellow student and bassist
Jim Fielder and, through Fielder, Larry Beckett. The three used to meet at Beckett's
house and listen to Dave Brubeck and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
switched to guitar, Buckley was an archetypal '60s folkie. Beckett suggested that
they write songs together. Their first efforts, Beckett says, "were extremely
conventional simple rock 'n' roll. But right away we both became really experimental."
dropped out of college in his first year. He saw it
as a waste of time as his career began taking off...
returned from a year in Israel he was amused to find Buckley had reinvented himself
for his new high-school crowd. "Bell Gardens enjoyed a reputation of being
a tough cowboy/Okie town," Gordon says. "So Tim had made up a lot of
shit about playing in country-western bars; he never did. But they bought it.
Everybody winked, 'Sure, why not?' Because musically he was really exciting."
Beckett and Fielder, Buckley formed two bands. The Bohemians concentrated on Top
40 rock 'n' roll. The acoustic Harlequins 3 played folk clubs, alternating music
with Kahlil Gibran recitations and monologues swiped from Ken Nordine Word Jazz
the Anaheim studio where he gave guitar lessons Fielder met a drum teacher who
also played in the Mothers of Invention: Jimmy Carl Black. Black invited Fielder,
Buckley and Beckett to see the Mothers, and introduced them to the band's manager,
client list has always shown impeccable taste. Besides Frank Zappa and the Mothers,
Cohen's handled Lenny Bruce, Fred Neil, Captain Beefheart, Linda Ronstadt and
Tom Waits, among others. Fielder recalls Cohen's initial interest in Buckley was
as a songwriter. After hearing a couple of demo tapes he arranged for Buckley
to play an afternoon audition for him at The Trip. "It was unbelievable,"
Cohen says. "This voice, so unlike what anybody else was doing at the time.
And he knew how to sing!"
of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black recalls the early days of Tim's career in
had just graduated high school. That summer he performed regularly at a coffeehouse
co-founded by Gordon. "That's really where he began to blossom," Gordon
says. "We had packed audiences every Friday and Saturday night."
was growing up fast, and not just professionally. His senior year in high school
he shared a couple of classes with Mary Guibert, a self-described goody two-shoes.
time I'd walk past his chair he'd bleat like a lamb! One time I confronted him;
I was in my cheerleader's outfit and I'd had enough of this insolence. He just
gave me a look and said something about my true womanhood and I should be something
set apart and not follow along with the crowd. I guess that's all I needed!"
Guibert laughs heartily. "Something in me said yes to this young man. He
was a very powerful person."
the end of the school year they ran away, a few days on the lam from parents.
By November 1965 Buckley was a college student, an aspiring professional singer--and
a year younger than Buckley, was still in high school. Beckett remembers "riding
around in a car with them and him saying, 'I just want you to do the laundry and
clean house'; and she's saying, 'You don't want a wife, you want a maid!' We were
all unbelievably immature."
dropped out of college in his first year. He saw it as a waste of time as his
career began taking off. He was playing Orange County coffeehouses--also a breeding
ground for Jackson Browne, Jennifer Warnes and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band--and
Monday-night hootenannies at Los Angeles' famed Troubadour. The most exciting
development was his signing to Elektra Records.