Timothy Charles Buckley III, February 14, 1947, Washington DC, USA;
29, 1975, Santa Monica, California
voices deliver a vocal charge, its impact detonated by a plangent lyric
and a narcotic melody. Some trigger our attention even though objectively the
song would barely brush our attention span. A minuscule minority achieve escape
velocity using sounds instead of words as fuel.
Buckley did not always sing remarkable songs - at least a quarter were dull, dire
or downright self-indulgent - but his voice was incendiary. Vocally he could explode
from a grumble to a falsetto shriek. Stylistically he was will-o'-the-wisp, all
over the place.
the perceived consternation of his audience, album after album presented new directions
("perceived" being the received voice of record industry orthodoxy wailing).
For Buckley, songs were trapezes for musical and improvisational risk taking,
albums stylistic springboards.
downside was that at some point in his personal life he took to understudying
oblivion too strenuously for comfort. Eventually he forfeited his life.
high school bands behind him, he slipped into what the marketing moguls sold as
"folk" folk-protest, folk-rock and kindred hyphenated folk permutations.
In the years leading up to 1967 Elektra made massively important contributions
to the folk scene. These included recordings by American and British folk acts
such as Judy Collins and Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Theodore Bikel, Alasdair Clayre
and the Incredible String Band, Cyril Tawney and Johnny Handle. And Tim Buckley.
perhaps when Elektra celebrated its 40th anniversary with Rubaiyat (1990),
despite Happy Sad prominent in its booklet, nobody had dared realize one
of Buckley's songs. Having a voice like Buckley's and writing such idiosyncratic
material dissuaded future covers although 4AD's musicians' collective This Mortal
Coil bravely essayed Starsailor's Song To The Siren in 1983.
to Elektra's usual policy of eponymous debuts, Tim Buckley (1966) was fairly
conventional "folk" fare for the period. Goodbye & Hallo
(1967) was wordy soft-rock with Greenwich Village troubadour inflections. (Fred
Neil, whose Dolphins would turn into a showcase for Buckley's vocal calisthenics,
was a particular influence.) Happy Sad (1969) found him maturing as an
artist, blending musical genres in arrangements unusually using vibraphone, congas
to Straight, he would begin to reel off a series of albums with a frenetic willfulness
which flouted the prevailing recording-promotion-recording catechism. Blue
Afternoon scraped in scant weeks before the release of Lorca (1970)
(named after the poet Federico Garcia Lorca murdered by the fascists in the Spanish
Civil War in 1936).
hot pursuit came Starsailor (1971). Starsailor would have been genuinely
testing of most fans' loyalty. Live shows made few concessions to expectations,
dousing listeners in free-form work-outs.
vehemently electric Greetings From L.A. (1972) broke new ground, especially
in its lyrical content which was avowedly sexual, a coarse revelation cloaked
in the garb of the sexual revolution. Sefronia (1973) could be skipped
but for its Dolphins and Honey Man. Look At The Fool (1974)
merely levied a poll tax on fans' ears. It proved an unseemly swan song.
playing a gig in Dallas in June 1975 Buckley drank some, hoovered some heroin
and shuffled off his particular mortal coil. A signpost to a posthumous career,
it was rumored that at the time of his death he had been planning a live document.
work began undergoing a reappraisal from the mid-1980s onwards.
ground swell of interest built, the artist as a young casualty
syndrome. First came a dribble of bootleg recordings of concerts
or radio broadcasts, Italy being a particular source due to
Italian copyright vagaries the later CD bootleg Blue Obsession
(1990) was typical.
trickle of authorized archival concert recordings followed. Sealing everything,
finally along came the son he barely knew, Jeff Buckley .
release that initially stoked the fires of interest was Dream Letter (1990)
recorded in July 1968 at a point in his career between Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon.
The flow continued with Tim Buckley -The Peel Sessions on Strange Fruit
(1991) five tracks recorded in April 1968 with Buckley backed by Lee Underwood
(guitar/vocals) and Carter C.C. Collins (bongos).
1994, bolstered by two tracks, Dolphins and Honey Man recorded in
1974 for BBC TV's Old Grey Whistle Test, Peel Sessions blossomed into Morning
At The Troubadour 1969 on In-DiscReet/Demon (1994) further fed the stream
while Honeyman (1995), released by Manifesto and Demon and recorded in
New York in 1973, drew on his Sefronia period and revealed superior performances
to those in circulation on bootleg.
Callous though it may sound, Buckley's voice-as-instrument approach was often
more engaging than his songs. The lows expressed as albums in his career outweigh
the highs. Nevertheless, hearing him imbue the same song, prime examples being
Buzzin' Fly or Dolphins, with new emotional depth over several readings
only confirms what a magnificent vocal technician he could be. Better, he could
charge songs with extraordinary emotional depth.