The Tim Buckley Archives

Interviews

Lee Underwood: Lead Guitarist

Room 109 Interview - January, 2000

The Early Years

Lee Underwood biography

In the 60s and early 70s, Lee toured, recorded, and played lead guitar for singer/songwriter Tim Buckley, appearing on seven of Buckley's nine albums released prior to Tim's untimely death in 1975, and on four of the six CDs released posthumously
.
In addition to writing poetry and short stories, Lee Underwood plays piano, enjoys hiking, camping and photography, and co-hosts a Fresno radio show with Preston Chase, Between the Lines: Poetry to Take You Home. He has published poems in In the Grove, Light of Consciousness, Zambamba, The Central California Poetry Journal and Say Yes.

Throughout the '70s and '80s he wrote extensively about jazz (West Coast Editor, Downbeat, 1975-1981) and Spacemusic (Body/Mind/Spirit, New Realities, Yoga Journal, others).

He co- authored flutist Paul Horn's autobiography, Inside Paul Horn (Harper Collins, 1990), and received the Crystal Award for Music Journalism in 1991

Underwood presently lives in Oakhurst, California, in the mountains near Yosemite

By Jack Brolly

Our interview begins with Lee's responses to a series of questions on a variety of subjects related to the early stages of his career, his relationship with Tim, his views on Tim's first album and Blue Afternoon, some technical questions, and a fond memory or two.

I must admit that it certainly read like a shopping list, but what we actually check out with, is a shopping cart full of informative insights.

(Editors Note: This interview has been transposed from Jacks 'shopping list' of questions into a more reader friendly format. Some questions have been combined. No text has been altered)

When did you first pick up a guitar?

Thanks for including me in your interview series, Jack. You have been doing wonderful things to honor Tim's memory and bring new insights to those of us who love his music. I feel proud to be included among the fine group of people you have spoken to.

I had been playing guitar for about a year and a half before meeting Tim. Blues players and folk musicians were primary influences--Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and a terrific foot-stomping, contemporary seven-string guitar picker blues- shouter, Spider John Koerner.

Among folk musicians, I loved Odetta, who showed me that folk music did not have to be simple-minded or unmusical. I also liked Pete, Mike and Peggy Seeger.

Who was your first teacher?

Peggy showed me a few licks on guitar, and before that, Stu Goldberg (owner of Marina Music in San Francisco) taught me some chords and strums.

What kind of music did you first play?

I got into guitar and writing songs in late '64 . Throughout 1965, I played and sang solo gigs in coffeehouses in San Francisco.

When did you arrive in Greenwich Village? Did you live in Manhattan or did you just visit Greenwich Village to work in the clubs? How and when did you and Tim meet?

In the Spring of '66, I drove to NYC, where I met Tim through a mutual acquaintance, manager Sean O'Brien. Tim asked me to play guitar on his six-week gig at the Night Owl club in the Village (a gig held over for more than a month), and on his upcoming debut on Elektra. He and Jainie Goldstein and Larry Beckett lived in a Village apartment, while I lived in a rented room.

Did Fred Neil hang out with you guys or were you close at all?

It has been said that Tim hung out with Fred Neil during this period, and afterwards, in the period between Tim Buckley and Goodbye and Hello, and that Fred turned Tim on to heroin. During the first period, I never saw Fred. During the second period, Fred showed up at a Cafe Au Go Go show.

As far as I know, they did not hang out together during either period, and I know Tim was definitely not into heroin. Like all of us during those early years, he smoked pot, drank a few beers, occasionally took acid (not for mere pleasure, but as a psychotropic activator which helped him explore his psyche in creative ways, i.e. songwriting).

Do you still feel that Tim's first album was just a bunch of teenage love songs ? I'm curious if your opinions of any of Tim's music has changed at all over the years? I thought that there was a lot of great guitar playing on that album for a first album attempt.

After the Night Owl, he and I and Jainie Goldstein and my girlfriend, Jennifer Stace, and Larry drove out to L.A., where we recorded Tim Buckley. Although the songs on Tim Buckley were an unrelated assemblage of high school loves songs he and Larry Beckett wrote, that did not mean I did not like them.

True, I was coming from the blues school, and my personal writings were more visceral than, say, Wings or Valentine Melody. But as I worked with Tim on the material and got acquainted with it, I found that his music opened up a new dimension in myself-a gentle, ethereal, tender side I had never known before, perhaps especially in Song of the Magician and Song Slowly Song.

I think one of the great strengths of that album is its youthful, innocent quality. There is a beauty there that can never be duplicated. That sensitive, intimate quality of Tim's earliest music brought out the best in me and became my favorite emotional climate. My own sense of melodic lyricism was born on this first album, and became my greatest strength in his music thereafter.

Did you play lead guitar on all the tracks of that first album?

I did play lead guitar on that entire album. - the photo on the back of Tim Buckley was taken at the Night Owl. It includes some of the bass player's face and his electric bass (I don't recall his name, Andy something), but leaves out the drummer and me.

Which guitars did you use on which albums?

Initially, I was playing a D-28 acoustic six-string Martin guitar, but it couldn't be heard in the Night Owl, so Tim and I went to a pawn shop, tried out a few guitars, and I bought a second- hand Epiphone jazz guitar. Later, in L.A., I purchased a maple-neck Telecaster and a Fender Super Reverb amp (customized with two 12-inch Electro-Voice speakers).

Any favorite memories that you'd care to impart?

I suppose some of my favorite memories revolve around the two years or so we spent in Venice, California, in a pink house two blocks from the ocean. There in Big Pink, named after the Band's album of the same name, and later on Park Place, Jennifer painted pictures (including Tim's portrait, used as the cover of the recently released Works in Progress).


© Unknown
Lee Underwood (left) and Carter C.C. Collins on stage with Tim

Larry used to visit Big Pink with his girlfriend, Manda, a painter who later became his wife. Another high school friend of Tim's, writer Dan Gordon, hung out and partied with us, as did several other friends. Jennifer's son, Michael Cavanaugh, learned how to play piano at this house.

The whole lot of us toodled down to the beach every day, laid up in the sun, body surfed the waves, walked up and down the beach collecting seashells, or up and down the boardwalk looking at Venice Beach characters, or ambled around Pacific Ocean Park, the amusement park with a roller coaster, ferris wheel, merry- go-round, restaurants, game booths.

Did you and Tim ever sit and play acoustically together?

We'd come back home and Tim and I would play music together. Later at night all of us would get high and listen to Dr. John, Aretha Franklin, Fred Neil, Jimmy Hendrix. It was a time of great love, creativity and optimism.

Do you still feel that :Blue Afternoon" was an almost effortless album? I hear some of Tim's most incredible vocals on that album, don't you?

You asked about Blue Afternoon - a much misunderstood album.

It was not effortless. A great deal of effort was put into it. We gave it everything we had and performed as well as we could. And, no question about it, some of Tim's very best songs appear on that album, including Blue Melody, which he sang in nearly all of his live performances until the end, Cafe, which he also sang off-and-on until the end, I Must Have Been Blind and The River.

However, it was in some ways a difficult album to do. We had already embarked upon a new conceptual journey. Tim Buckley emerged from folk music. Goodbye and Hello helped create the folk-rock genre. Happy Sad drew from jazz influences. During the Happy Sad period, Buckley had begun exploring vocal improvisation, moving further and further toward avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical music. With Lorca, he introduced some of the odd time signatures, extended song-forms and melodic dissonance that emerged from those experiments.

We were well on our way with avant-garde concepts when Jac Holzman sold Elektra Records and Tim's manager, Herb Cohen, set up a new label, Straight Records. Herb knew Lorca was going to bomb in the marketplace, and needed a commercially viable album from Tim with which to launch the new label. He asked Tim to dip into his grab-bag of old songs, which Tim did.

That's how Blue Afternoon was born. Confusion results here, because although Lorca was recorded first, Blue Afternoon, recorded immediately after Lorca, was released first. It was difficult to do Blue Afternoon because it interrupted the creative momentum that had been launched with Lorca.

Blue Afternoon was a conceptual throwback to Happy Sad. It interrupted the directional flow and forced us to regress to an earlier, now-outmoded period. In other words, having begun the Lorca journey, which led directly to Starsailor and the abstract avant-garde period that followed, it was hard to turn back, regroup, and record the Happy Sad-type music of Blue Afternoon.

This is not to say that we did not enjoy the music, or that we did not do our best. We did, on both counts. But it was a shift of direction backwards, which felt unsettling, and we had to record it quickly - Herb needed the album right away.

We worked hard, we worked fast, and I, for one, am glad we did it. Otherwise, those terrific songs would simply have settled into oblivion and never have been heard. It is also proving to be a more popular and deeply loved album over the long haul than it was at the time.

Back then, except for one review in The New York Times, it was panned or ignored. Today, many people want to hear it, and it will undoubtedly be re-issued in CD along with the rest of the catalogue. Meanwhile, immediately after we finished Blue Afternoon, we moved forward again, directly into further developments of the avant-garde concepts, and into Starsailor.

On the album "Starsailor", was that your guitar on "Song To The Siren" or Tim's?

It was Tim's guitar on Starsailor's Song to the Siren. On Works in Progress however, I played guitar along with him on that song. Let me also add that bassist John Balkin played a major role in helping Tim conceive the arrangements on several of Starsailor's tunes-particularly the criss-crossing vocal lines on some of the upbeat pieces- and especially the overlapping vocal tracks on Starsailor.


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