to Tim Buckley
Buckley's best shot at rediscovery may have washed up on the
Memphis Harbor shore last year. That was where, on June 4,
1997, a riverboat crew found the body of his 30-year-old son,
Jeff, who had been missing for six days.
Buckley had actually been dead for nearly 22 years when the
son he barely knew went wading in the big muddy river and
drowned after being swept under the Mississippi River waters
by the wake of a large boat. But he was alive in the hearts
and minds of many.
the bright light surrounding Jeff Buckley's fledgling but
soaring career -- a career built on one EP, one full-length
CD, and a host of incendiary live performances -- Tim Buckley's
radical musical legacy garnered a certain amount of reconsideration.
But with the tragic demise of the son, I fear the equally
tragic but incomparably brilliant father has been cast back
into the shadowy margins of pop music history.
dredge him up now? Because Tim Buckley was born on Valentine's
Day, 1947, and every Valentine's Day I pull out the CD version
of Tim Buckley's 1966 eponymous debut and bathe myself in
his Valentine Melody. And because that inevitably leads
me into a listening orgy of every Buckley recording I own,
including the nine studio albums he recorded from 1966 through
1974 and the handful of live recordings that have trickled
out since his death in 1975.
despite the occasional print paean, such as Scott Isler's
July 1991 profile in Musician magazine and Martin Aston's
July 1995 story in England's Mojo, Buckley has yet to be honored
with the kind of box-set, remastered CD retrospective his
career deserves. And because I just can't pass up any opportunity
to infect others with the Buckley bug.
musical way in which Buckley channeled his emotions
and applied his voice seems every bit as revolutionary
now as it did in 1971 when he released his startling
masterpiece Starsailor. Maybe even more so...
thumbnail biography is ultimately as unenlightening as a recounting
of his less-than-blockbuster record sales. He was born in
New York and spent his adolescence in the Anaheim/Orange County
area of Southern California. Smitten with the collegiate folk
revival of early '60s, he started playing music with friends.
One connection -- drummer Jimmy Carl Black of the Mothers
of Invention -- led to another -- Herb Cohen (manager of the
Mothers, Lenny Bruce, Fred Neil, and Captain Beefheart) --
and yet another -- Jac Holzman of Elektra Records.
before he turned 20, Buckley had married, dropped out of college,
fathered a child, divorced, become a coffeehouse performer,
and recorded his first albums under his Elektra contract.
As unsettled in his relationships as he was in his musical
styles, he battled constantly for both his soul and his artistic
integrity, experiencing intermittent successes and frustrating
failures in the realms of romance and self-expression before
dying of an accidental heroin-morphine-alcohol overdose on
June 19, 1975, at the age of 28.
the two things that mattered most were his voice and his musical
vision. Possessed of a remarkably flexible, Irish-rooted tenor,
Buckley sang with unfettered passion, extreme vulnerability,
and uncanny virtuosity. He inspired such purplish prose as
Isler's description of his singing: "His warm tenor curled
around listeners like mellow pipe smoke. Its throbbing resonance
bored into the heart with surgical precision."
like "ethereal," "naive," "honest,"
and "heroic" trip off people's tongues when they
recall the way Buckley communicated with that voice. But his
most telling album title was probably the prosaic and oxymoronic
Happy Sad. As Jac Holzman noted to Isler, "To
some extent he was the bright side of people's tortured souls,
and maybe of his own tortured soul. He could express anguish
in a way that was not negative."
musical way in which Buckley channeled his emotions and applied
his voice seems every bit as revolutionary now as it did in
1971 when he released his startling masterpiece Starsailor.
Maybe even more so today, when the pop music idea of experimentation
is often nothing more than another technological twist on
"postmodern pastiche." Absorbing influences ranging
from Dylan and the Beatles to the electronics and avant-garde
composition of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the word-jazz of Ken
Nordine, the "sheets of sound" of John Coltrane,
and the fusions of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, Buckley
rapidly progressed from a psychedelic-tinged, acoustic 12-string
guitar-strumming troubadour into a shocking stylistic renegade.
He was a romantic, and he was wondrously weird.
his albums became more experimental -- from the baroque pop-rock
of Goodbye and Hello and chamber folk-jazz of Happy
Sad and Blue Afternoon through the spacier Lorca
to the shivers-inducing Starsailor -- he made his voice moan,
warble, and wail from oceanic depths to Yma Sumac-like peaks;
he toyed with song structures and tempos, brought unusual
instruments, such as vibes and pipe organ into the mix; and
he adhered to an improvisational aesthetic like few others
in pop music before or since. It's for good reason that producer
Hal Willner, who staged a Tim Buckley tribute concert at St.
Anne's Church in Brooklyn in 1991, argues that Buckley "should
be seen on the same level as Edith Piaf and Miles Davis."
had his genre-defying peers, of course -- including Fred Neil
(whose song, Dolphins, Buckley often performed in concert
and recorded on 1974's Sefronia), Van Morrison (whose
Astral Weeks is often cited as a parallel to Buckley's
boundary-dissolving work), Laura Nyro, Nick Drake, and the
Grateful Dead. But there was/is something uniquely haunting
about the sound of his voice and his music. Maybe it stems
from his early death. Maybe it hinges on the chameleon nature
of his sound (in 1972, Buckley went for the jugular of funky
rock and roll with the torrid, lyrically lascivious, and musically
raunchy Greetings From L.A.)
again, maybe it's just me. In 1975 my father described the
experience that knocked him off the wagon he'd been on for
11 years. He was walking up Sutter Street in San Francisco
when he looked into the eyes of a raggedy man shuffling towards
him on the sidewalk. He saw nothing but the most profound
sadness in those eyes. The next doorway was a bar. My father
turned in and had the drink that sent him on the most harrowing
bender of his life.
never saw Tim Buckley perform in concert, but in the early
1970s, I saw him walking alone on Santa Monica Blvd., not
far from the Troubadour in West Hollywood. It was a hot, bright,
clear summer day. I don't think I've ever seen a sadder looking
figure. When I listen to his music today, all that melancholy
comes rushing back, but in a way that is soul-cleansing, in
a way that exposes the human potential for joy as well as
my Valentine's Buckley binge prepares me for the spring that
is just around the corner.
February 12, 1998
Richardson is a veteran music writer who lives in the Bay
This article appeared on sfgate.com