Richard Lehnert: Sterophile Magazine - 1990
Buckley? Ill forgive you if you havent heard of
a minor figure of several distinct late-60s L.A. music
scenes, Buckley never had a huge following, his songs were
seldom covered, and, as he never made the same album twice,
few of the fans who started out with him were still around
by the time he blinked out in a haze of heroin and morphine
after a long 1974 tour and more than a year of being clean
and sober. He was 28. (His last words: Bye bye, baby.)
name never makes the lists of his rock-casualty contemporaries
Jimi, Janis, and Jim. But he deserves more remembrance than
he ever got: Buckley burst on the Los Angeles and national
scenes in 1966 in an explosion of earnestness, grace, and
light, with all the pure passion of 60s youth. With
his powerful lyrics, amazing gifts for melody and harmony,
and his five-octave voice swooping and shape-changing like
Yma Sumac in drag, he was unprecedented.
light began to dim almost immediately, as the rest of Buckleys
short life became a struggle to balance the demands of his
art and his habit, and his outlook grew ever more seamy and
narrow as he grew up far too fast in an age when there was
a lot of that going around. And it never helps if youre
marketably talented. But
his first six LPs were remarkable in their variety and integritysome
of them brilliant, at least one of them horrendous. I dont
think anyone likes all of them.
first, Tim Buckley, like the next three, was released
on Jac Holzmans Elektra label, before that company was
snapped up by Warners.
On it a 19-year-old singer/songwriter performs, in pretty advanced mid-60s
folk-rock style, some of the most, by turns, heroic, tender,
passionate, innocent songs youve never heard, performed
with deft deferencethe album opens with the chiming dissonances
of I Cant See You, then theres
the pastel Valentine Melody, the mounting
cry of Arent You the Girl, the seance
of Song Slowly Song, and much more. Lean
string charts by Jack Nitsche, keyboards by Van Dyke Parks.
Elektra hasnt yet reissued Tim Buckley. They should,
and you should buy it. [Editors note: An expanded
2-CD version of Tim Buckley was released by Rhino
Records in 2011]
next two discs are finally available again, and were probably
his most popular albums. Goodbye and Hello, recorded
in L.A. during the Summer of
Love, is an example of all that was good about late-60s
rock music. Every song is absolutely Buckleys own, but
so differs from all others on the album that youd think
different songwriters, arrangers, and musicians were involved.
the dark media critique of No Man Can Find the War
to the fever-dream Carnival Song to the nightmarelike
junkies anthem Pleasant Street to the
positively superhuman I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain
(in which Buckley sounds like a 19th-century Romantic hero singing
from the top of that mountain, cape unfurling in the Wagnerian
gale) to the near-Eastern Phantasmagoria in Two
to the baroque Knight-Errant to the metaphysical
State of the Union address that is the title song to the closing,
poignant Morning Glory, which, of all people,
Blood, Sweat & Tears covered 20-odd years ago, this album
is a sleeper, an underrated pop classic, inspired psychedelia
at its very best. And thats true for music and lyrics,
half of the latter by Buckley, half by his lifelong collaborator
Goodbye was no introduction at all to 1968s Happy
Sad, similar to the former only in title. Writing in the
language of drugs, as the first generation of rock critics
so often did, Goodbyes psychedelics had given
way to Happy Sads heroin.
voice, words, and music seem, to quote Buzzin
Fly from this album, to melt like honey in
the sun. Instead of the orchestras, electronics, and
massive, inspired studio manipulation of the previous album,
Buckley here restricts himself to a quintet of two guitars,
congas, acoustic bass, and vibes. The music is haunting, jungle-like,
the melodic lines long and ephemeral, Buckleys voice
swooping, hovering, screaming. And Love from Room
109 at the Islander (on Pacific Coast Highway) is
11 minutes of almost static sonority underlaid with the constant
sound of surf. (This was my favorite make-out album of 20
Sad was Buckleys first attempt at a more jazz-flavored
music, but all of his experiments in this vein, no matter
how varied the settings, had the same strengths and weaknesses:
great sonorities (a holdover from the folkie tradition) and
tonal colors, but the music seldom went anywhere; Buckley
simply was not a jazz musician. So many times during his records,
you realize hes holding on to a note or letting rip
with a guttural yell or a near-supersonic scream because he
probably doesnt know what else to do, as his band cranks
on, oblivious. The folk-rock contingent of Buckleys
fans began to hear their mothers calling. (Of Elektras
CD reissues, Hello and Goodbye is so far superior to
my mint-condition LP, fuzzy, boxy, with no bass, that theres
no comparison. Happy Sad, on the other hand, sounds
virtually identical in both formats.)
its weaknesses, Happy Sad was a popular record, unlike
its far superior successor of the following year, Blue
Afternoon. This was his first on the Straight label, and
the first Buckley record I ever heard. It remains my favorite;
nostalgia aside, it stands beside Tim Buckley and Goodbye
and Hello as his best work. Buckley added a piano and
drums to his basic band, and came up with eight songs that
sound as if written from beyond the gravemusic so achingly
sad, so serenely without hope, so drenched in drugged ennui
that they could be songs of a spirit wafted by his own vague
memories of his former life on earth.
remember wondering, when I first heard this, what price Buckley
had had to pay to be able to write such songs (Beckett was
not involved in this one). They were that powerful back in
69, more so five years later, when Buckley ODd,
and almost too painful to listen to today. In a just universe,
Happy Time, Chase the Blues Away,
I Must Have Been Blind, So Lonely,
Cafe, and Blue Melody would
all be instant classics, folk torch songs.
But no one ever sings them; no one ever did. This music could
have been written at almost any time, and is therefore timeless.
Blue Afternoon was terribly recorded: too distant, too dry,
too rolled-off in highs and lows. The CD improves over the
LP somewhat in the highs, but the LPs bass still wins.
But musically a winnerwhen Lee Underwoods vague,
distant, smoky piano starts off Blue Melody,
the Café Rick is still open, and Bogies still
leaning on the bar, looking miserable through clouds of nicotine.
And just as Bogart will always be walking off into that final
fog, so Buckley will always be singing this song.
less said about Lorca, Buckleys 1970 contractual-obligation
album to finish out his Elektra agreement, the betterhe
sounds as if he was making it up in the studio as he went along,
stoned out of his gourd. Lorca remains in the vaults along with
his first album, and should probably stay there. No tunes, no
arrangements, ridiculous lyrics, and an incompetent band. Buckleys
fans rightly stayed away in droves. [Editor's
note: Richard did later modify his opinion of the songs on Lorca.
See his 1994 review of Tim's
Live at the Troubadour 1969]
awful as Lorca is, it was still more accessible than
the truly avant-garde Starsailor, which, if hardly
easy on the ears, is still often interesting. Buckley considered
this his best work, though few would agree (I dont).
Static, atonal tone clusters abound, with dolphin-shouts,
electronics, high guitars, and horns wailing like Penderecki
as Buckley whispers, whoops, and hollers. That said, this
is the only one of Buckleys late albums that fully succeeds
on its own harsh, stark terms.
notes for the title cut are instructive: Harmonic structure:
a set of horizontal vocal lines is improvised in at least
three ranges, the vertical effect of which is atonal tone
clusters and arrhythmic counterpoint. Performance: the written
melody is to be sung, after which the lines of lyric are to
be reordered at will and sung to improvised melody, taking
advantage of the opportunity for quartertones, third note
lengths, and flexible tempo.
is a pretty accurate description of what actually happens
in the grooves, right down to the almost total lack of any
kind of emotion or heart. Whether or not you are at one with
the free-blowing mentality is a matter of taste and sensibility.
This a-human album brings up images for me of bright, brittle
insects toiling over rocks under a desert sun. But, pasted
like a daub of aromatic ointment on the back of a giant, meticulously
glittering fly, we find Moulin Rouge, a
charming little toy song in bad French, 1:57 of gamin grace.
Enigma Retros CD has more highs, but they dont
sound real; as if someone had turned the Treble knob all way
up. The LP is deeper, rounder, the CD more spacious but flatter.
with Starsailor, Buckley had put the royal kabosh on
whatever following hed managed to keep. Wryly bemoaning
this in an interview at the end of his Elektra contract, he
said, The way Jac [Holzman] had set it up, you were
supposed to move on artistically, but the way the business
is, youre not. Youre supposed to repeat what youve
done before, and theres a dichotomy there.
shit. Buckley found himself without an audience, and it was
a good two years before he released the almost abjectly commercial
(by comparison) Greetings from L.A. in 1972. Musically,
the album was definitely a compromise, produced by Jerry Goldstein
with a bunch of crack L.A. session players and back-up singers
(Clydie King, Vanetta Fields, etc.). With the exception of
the acoustic Hong Kong Bar, the tunes were
all slickly funky-tonk R&B, with L.A.s version of
the Muscle Shoals rhythm section and the occasional string
arrangement, and wouldnt have been out of place on an
Al Green album; Buckley stayed with this very professional,
though not very challenging or interesting, General Business
Band instrumental sound through the end of his life. The lyrics,
however, were a very different story.
Happy Sad on, Buckleys lyrics had been entirely
pagan, having nothing to do with Judeo-Christian notions of
guilt, remorse, good, or evil. As he sang on Blue Afternoons
So Lonely: No pretty ladies, no pretty
boys . . . songs and singing embodied
pure sensualism, an omnisexual amorality with none of the
tender deference of Tim Buckleys love songs, or the
social conscience so brilliantly displayed on Goodbye and
these were the words of a man in thrall to his appetites;
those hungers reached a leering high (or low, depending on
your sensibilities) in Greetings from L.A., which,
except for Nighthawkin (a rollicking
tune about a crazed Vietnam Vet holding a knife to the taxi-driver
narrators throat, hoping to kill a gook before
dawn, Clydie King wailing in the background; and this
sounds like a happy song, believe it or not), is about nothing
but sex; the few mentions of love couldnt
be considered anything but bullshit foreplay. And Buckley
waxes graphic, even to the titles: Move With Me,
Get On Top.
can you say about an album that opens with these lines: I
went down to the Meatrack Tavern and I found myself a big
ol healthy girl. Now she was drinkin alone, aw
what a waste of sin? The album was notorious for its
X-rated lyricslike a bitch dog in heat,
beat me, whip me, spank me, lick around
the stretchmarkswhich manyincluding virtually
all of his female fans, in that age of burgeoning feminismfound
offensive; no surprise, it got almost no airplay.
Buckley sang on in gutter glossolalia, having a high old time,
sounding as if looped on some evil gumbo of rum, codeine,
and smack, dripping greasy sweat, sounding as richly rotten
as early-70s Saigon. Halfway through this record, my
fiancée called out from the bathroom, Has he
come yet? Not for everyone, believe me; the world will
seem a seamier place when the records over. The original
Straight LP is far superior to the Enigma CD, with that great,
fat, early-70s electric bass; the CDs sound is
just plain skinny.
which followed in 1973, was a much more engaging, friendly
sort of record. Though Buckleys promoters called it
his most eclectic, the album sounds to me more
like a standoff between the singer-songwriter and his producer,
exMamas & the Papas Denny Randell: you get a song,
I get a song. This is the only Buckley album with covers of
other writers tunes, and there are no less than five,
starting out with Dolphins, by Fred Neil,
the composer of Everybodys Talkin,
a fellow junkie and the only other folkie with a vocal style
similar to Buckleys.
works. But Buckleys duet with Marcia Waldorf (who?)
on Randells I Know Id Recognize Your
Face is disastrous, Buckley phoning it in; hes
barely audible in the mix, and sounds embarrassed. Peanut
Man is Buckleys rather labored and overproduced
answer to Harry Nilssons Coconut,
but his cover of Tom Waitss Martha toes
a thin line between getting more out of the song than Waits
ever did, and sounding uncomfortably like late Neil Diamond.
Stone in Love has a great, lopsided groove,
and the album closes with what is probably my favorite version
of the traditional Sally Go Round the Roses,
here severely modernized.
Sefronias centerpiece is the titular diptych,
two impressionistic panels about two black women named Sefronia,
one a slave in the US, the other an African maiden in shells
and feathers who has captivated a young black king. This is
Buckley at almost his best, crooning a hot-beach reverie that
sounds half dream, half reality. The CD is cleaner,
more analytical, but this is hardly clean music;
the LP (all of these LPs are out of print, by the way) hangs
together more as a cohesive, musical whole.
same LP/CD comparison is true of Look at the Fool,
Buckleys final album, recorded and released in 1974.
Followers of Paul Butterfields postBetter Days
records will be on familiar ground here, as Buckley mixes
slick good-ol-boy production values with his by-now-patented
south-of-the-border ambiance, sounding as if crazed on wormy
mescal on the fourth day of a three-day drunk, when the whores
look as bad as you feel. Tijuana Moon and
Mexicali Voodoo are filled with border-town
fever, dark drugs, and danger.
all that, Look at the Fool is a refined, more efficient
Greetings from L.A., and not half as disturbing. The title
cut turns the sea into a vast ironic being sighing these words
with the hushed voices of women: Look at the fool love
brings me. Its a nifty conceit, and works like
a charm. And the hand-clappin Wanda Lu,
had it been released 15 years earlier, might have become a
high-school rock classic like Gloria or
Louie Louie. I found myself singing this
one years after the last time Id played the record.
Who knows if its good or not? Cant get it out
of my head.
Buckley wrote only three songs in his life, as far as I know,
that were not about himself and his women: No Man
Can Find the War and the title cut from Hello
and Goodbye, and Down in the Street
here. This ones about summer in the city: riots, rent-control
demonstrations, murders, drug-dealing, and rock festivals
(1974, remember): All through the night you hear gunshot
warnings; This time it wasnt you. Paid your dues.
Look at the Fool is short, clean, and slight, a clearing
of the palate before a second course that never came.
recorded life of Tim Buckley is a frustrating thing for a
writer to wrap his word processor around: so much talent so
young, wasted so soon; so much all-encompassing vision brought
so despairingly low. Whats left us are the first two-thirds
of a cycle that most artists go through at least once: early
inspiration, middle cynicism, and late wisdom.
Whether or not Buckley had his best work still ahead of him
when he died is something well never know; such projections
were made of so many 60s rock musicians who never again
captured more than a hint of their first glory that Im
cautious not to mourn too much. Consider his life and career
a cautionary tale. Too often, you hear Buckleys effort
at recapturing his former grace, not the grace itself. What
makes him fascinating is how many different ways he tried
to get back there, giving his all every time but one. Few
rock survivors have shown such guts.
just one more thing, dear reader. As of press time, Enigma
Retro has just announced a 2-CD set of live Tim Buckley material,
recorded in 1970 at the London Palladium; release is scheduled
for the 26th of this month. And, as yet more previously unknown
in-concert tapes have just been discovered, there might be
another disc after that. These will be the first new
Tim Buckley recordings in 16 years. Perhaps it isnt
quite Bye bye, baby, after all. Thanks, Enigma.
Keep up the good work.
Published in Stereophile, March 1990, Vol.13 No.3
Some of these re-issues are long longer available on CD. However,
many of the albums in this review can be purchased on 180g vinyl
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BUCKLEY: Hello Goodbye
Elektra 74028-2 (CD only).
Jerry Yester, recording dir.; Jac Holzman, prod. sup.
AAD. TT: 42:53
TIM BUCKLEY: Happy Sad
Elektra 74045-2 (CD only).
Bruce Botnick, eng.; Jerry Yester, Zal Yanovsky, prods.
AAD. TT: 44:45
TIM BUCKLEY: Blue Afternoon
Straight/Enigma Retro 7 73504-2 (CD only).
Dick Kunc, eng.; Tim Buckley, prod.
AAD. TT: 39:56
TIM BUCKLEY: Starsailor
Straight/Enigma Retro 7 73505-2 (CD only).
Stan Agol, eng.; Tim Buckley, prod. AAD. TT: 36:04
TIM BUCKLEY: Greetings from L.A.
Straight/Enigma Retro 7 73506-2 (CD only).
Stan Agol, Chris Huston, engs.; Jerry Goldstein, prod.
AAD. TT: 39:43
TIM BUCKLEY: Sefronia
DiscReet/Enigma Retro 7 73508-2 (CD only).
Kerry McNabb, Larry Hirsch, Roy Cicalo, Greg Venable, Roger
Dollarhide, engs.; Denny Randell, prod.
AAD. TT: 38:26
TIM BUCKLEY: Look at the Fool
DiscReet/Enigma Retro 7 73509-2 (CD only).
Stan Agol, eng.; Joe Falsia, prod.
AAD. TT: 34:22