The Tim Buckley Archives


October 20, 1974

Buckley: Digging Deeper to the Roots

By Chris Charlesworth

In a world that seems grossly over-populated with singer/songwriters whose crotchets and quavers reflect their personal attitudes and experiences, Tim Buckley stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. He doesn't preach, he doesn't claim a right to solve the world's problems and he doesn't bore the listener with waves of songs of interest only to himself or immediate friends.

He does not slot conveniently into the category that encompasses the drifter with the guitar and few simple songs. Instead his music comes from an endless variety of influences fused together into a complex assortment of rhythm patterns, ideas and innovations.

In short, he is original.

Buckley is no spaced-out American hippy, nor pretentious underground figure. He's a serious young man with thoughts on all manner of subjects apart from music; he's educated and articulate more in the fashion of a forward-thinking college professor than a contemporary musician.

His appearance, too, is deceptive: his curly black hair is short if unkempt; he could not be called stylish and the head shot on the sleeve of his Sefronia album flatters his looks.

 Buckley was born in Washington, but his musical roots seem to have strayed far and wide, lingering not a little in the Southern States where he picked up on both country music and jazz.

It was in 1966, though, that Buckley headed West, met up with Frank Zappa's manager, Herbie Cohen, and became a professional musician.
"It's strange how temperamental the voice can be from one evening to the next. One night it can be poor, and another night it can be pure and clean..."
He's kept working ever since. Initially, he put a band together in New York to play whatever dance craze was going in the discotheques, working to survive, getting his name known in influential circles -- including the Andy Warhol clan -- and building gradually on the foundations he laid.

He made albums for Elektra before changing to Cohen's Straight and Discreet labels, played two tours of Europe and largely retained the same musicians over the years.

His own material has dominated all his albums.

"Roots depend largely on the instrument you learn to play and when you start to learn," said Buckley after some thought when we met at Cohen's offices on Sunset Boulevard last week. "In 1960 when I started thinking about music, there was rock and roll and jazz and some folk stuff to look at. Folk and country-blues were the first things I learned to play well, and then as you progress you get into more complex things.

"In America, if you are brought up here, you grow up with music whether you like it or not. You know about country music and all the ethnic music and although I was born in Washington I traveled around a lot hearing all kinds of things.

"My parents listened to Miles Davis and Coltrane, Jerry Mulligan, Stan Kenton and the big bands and when Elvis broke, the media started playing Little Richard and Chuck Berry. On record I've touched on all these influences, but I'm still in the process of learning now."

Buckley is shortly to embark on a two-month US college tour. He prefers to play smaller venues than as supporting attraction at sports stadiums holding five figure attendances.

"Up to about 4,000 is the limit; in the arenas it's stupid," he says. "The Stones can fill those places and we've done a few supporting Curtis Mayfield and Zappa. They're too big to mean anything and the music is too loud to mean anything.

"Most of the big English groups cannot get through to an audience at a medium volume, they have to play loud. I'm not putting them down for that, but it isn't as musical and there has to be music if you want to cook with an audience. Curtis Mayfield managed it at a lower volume and I'd enjoy playing with him more than with an English group. Clubs, too, I like when I am visiting a town for the first time."

To a lesser extent, Buckley has become involved with films, both as an actor and as a scriptwriter.

"In America, films are part of one's development -- more so than school in many cases. I got the bug when they called me up to do a singing bit in one film, but it was a turkey (US term for movie that's never released) just as was another in which I had a straight acting role.

"I love Orson Welles because he knows America better than most directors do, and America is a hard place to know. It's so big and there are so many different kinds of people who are Americans, and the amazing thing is that they get along as well as they do. Welles has captured it as well as any.

"It was when I was sitting round the lights watching one film that I knew I had to try one and check out the whole process, but this one was with a Russian director trying to do an American film and understand the climate of America. He couldn't do it.

"Right now I'm waiting for something better to come along. I've written two scripts; one is a million-dollar comedy which nobody will finance, but I'd love to do some parts. All the parts I get offered are those of musicians. The caster says, 'You're a musician so act that way' and you don't even get a script half the time. Then they want you to talk about heroin, drugs and bi-sexual sex and all the things they think a musician is supposed to know about, but I don't want that. I'd play any part other than a musician."

© Jonathan Takami
Tim Buckley in 1974

Traveling around America says Buckley, is essential for someone who expects to make a successful movie -- and he feels few people other than musicians actually know the whole of America well.

"Even politicians don't travel around enough, but those that do and understand about how certain sections of the country will vote are the ones that know America better than anyone. Knowing how someone will vote, I think, is next to God; far more intelligent than knowing whether a person will lay out three dollars for a record or going to see a film.

"This all has a bearing on a musician, one that is presenting a show around the country rather than one who is just out to make a record. To present a show, you have to be able to present different styles because you never know where they're from, especially in colleges where they're from everywhere.

"It's great to be able to get young and old, black and white and others all in one concert hall and see them relate to the whole thing while you are playing. To see a mixed audience congenially relate to one thing while you are playing is phenomenal. I've never even seen it in a church. It's the one thing that music has that's never been captured by anything else. I've managed to do it a few times and you can notice it from the stage."

It is this rapport between artist and audience that Buckley hopes to capture on a live album in the near future.

"It's strange how temperamental the voice can be from one evening to the next. One night it can be poor, and another night it can be pure and clean which is the style I went for on my last album. If you have the pipes to begin with, there's a lot you can do to change your voice to get a certain sound.

"I think all rock and roll people do a lot of drinking because they want to sound black when they sing, especially the English singers. I don't know why they do it because it's limiting their music when they have so much else to offer. The Kinks never did that and they've always been one of my favorite English bands. They've written some great songs and Ray Davies is one of the most under-rated songwriters there is."

Turning to other personal likes, Buckley says he is a great admirer of Rodgers and Hart. "The hard thing about writing within a rock and roll beat is that it's difficult to write a good chord pattern, unlike the stuff that Rodgers and Hart wrote. It's so rigid, it's like a march. I think the Beatles songs are really great for playing at half-time during football matches. The Beatles wrote a lot of great marching songs and so did Burt Bacharach.

"Among the Americans, I like Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Hoagy Carmichael, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles. I know Charles doesn't write but his interpretations and arrangements are fantastic. I never heard 'Yesterday' until Charles did it, and that always gets my quarter in the juke-box."

Buckley feels that an artist who is influenced by another artist should discover the background of that influence.

"Right now the problem in America is getting new artists to learn what other artists have done before them, to really get the roots. When you are talking about roots in America you are talking about all sorts of things, newspaper reporting and Walter Winchell, crime, old singers and writers, old shows and old movies.

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