The Tim Buckley Archives


Lee Underwood: Lead Guitarist

Room 109 Interview - January, 2000

The performer/audience relationship

By Jack Brolly

Tim lost his audience in 1970. I, along with many others, represent a different type of fan than most of our forum members. You see, we were there watching and listening to Tim and the band at Central Park, and Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall, and the Fillmore East.

We couldn't help but feel that we were a part of it too. But, we were on the other side of the stage. We were buying the tickets, buying the albums, and listening to Tim's music for hours on end. We have a completely different perspective than you and I'm afraid that I'm one of those fans who temporarily left Tim after Starsailor came out. I returned to Tim's music with Greetings, but I was totally disenchanted and I felt that I lost a good friend when Tim's music went in a different direction. I can now appreciate Starsailor to some extent, but as a youngster, I was lost.

When I started the forum, I had a reason and a goal to reach within a certain time frame. My intention, strictly as an ardent fan, was to see if I could find out why Tim didn't become the icon that he should have become. In my mind, there were two reasons why it didn't happen. I was angry and I just wanted to blame someone, and now I see how selfish and foolish that mind set was.

Nevertheless, I started this project with the pre-conceived notions that the Lorca/Starsailor albums and poor management were the culprits. I've been at this for nine months and instead of coming to a decisive conclusion, I've now added a third reason. That reason would be Tim's own fear of success and inability to handle fame.

Allegedly, Herb Cohen felt that you 'jazzers', as he referred to Tim's band, had Tim under your spell. I personally don't believe that, after having heard everyone's take on Tim's love for jazz and the jazz greats. I do however have some tough questions for you about that "Lorca/Starsailor" period.

I apologize if any of them offend you. I really do apologize in advance, because I've come to appreciate you and your talent a great deal in the last six months. I know that Tim was an artist only looking to grow, but why didn't he care about his audience - you know, the people who had supported him and praised him for over three years?

Thanks for giving me an opportunity to talk about that issue, Jack. More than a few people share your feelings about the matter, so when I say you, I mean not only you personally (whenever it fits you in your own mind), but a more general you, whenever what I'm saying fits the larger group of people who feel as you do.

It seems to me that you are basing your comments and questions on a fundamental negative assumption: that Tim did something wrong both artistically and commercially when he created the concepts and music that went into the Lorca/Starsailor albums. And you would like an explanation. I don't think I would be off-base if I said you (and others who feel the same way) felt disappointed, resentful, baffled and offended, first with Lorca, then with Starsailor.

Disappointed, that Tim was not giving you more of the kind of music you had come to love in earlier albums, notably Happy Sad and Goodbye and Hello.

Resentful, that he was giving you instead, a kind of music that you couldn't relate to, didn't understand and therefore didn't like. Baffled, by the sheer strangeness and unorthodoxy of the music.

And offended, that he not only did not seem to care about you and your hurt feelings, but he seemed at times to even be defiant and hostile when you complained about the music and the concept and refused to support him either as a listener or a consumer.

"Tim was a very bright guy. From day one, he gathered intelligent, well-educated people around him. He knew he wasn't going to learn what he needed by going to public schools. Instead, he chose to gather knowledgeable people around him, and learn what he needed from them. As he changed perspectives, moving from folk, to folk-rock, to jazz, avant-garde and funk-rock, he changed the people and teachers..."

I also know that he felt that he was going to die young, but why destroy the career that he had worked so hard to build?

You indicate that instead of feeling dazzled by the new vocal techniques and compositional/improvisational innovations, you felt disenchanted. You felt as though you had lost a friend. And yet, look closely at what happened. It was you, was it not, who insisted that he give you what you wanted - more of the music you already loved?

It was you, who wanted him and his music to fit your mind set, rather than adjusting your mind set to his. It was the collective you who felt he should be more like a conventional entertainer who catered to your expectations, tastes and limited capacities for enjoying the new and unusual in music--after all, he owed you, because you had supported and praised him for over three years, and now here he was, refusing to care about his audience.

You blame him for leaving you, when, in truth, it was you who turned your back and abandoned him when he ventured into territory that was too new and strange for you to comprehend, embrace, understand and enjoy.

You ask, why did he destroy a career he had worked so hard to build? Why don't you ask instead, Why did WE destroy his career? You might have said what a number of receptive, enthusiastic listeners did say--Wow, look what he's doing with his voice.

Look how he's creating new song forms. Look how far he has transcended conventional pop music and left his orthodox, blues-oriented, conventional peers behind. Look how fast and how far he moved, first into jazz (with Happy Sad), then into avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical music (with Lorca and Starsailor).

Look at the adventurous new musical dimensions and bedazzling psychological domains he is revealing to us. Look at how new and exciting and original and thrilling this new music is. By listening to it, by giving myself to it, by letting it touch me and deeply affect me, he makes me into a whole new person. Wow, this is great!

Instead of reacting like that, you abandoned him and accused him of abandoning you. He loved you so much that he gave you something new instead of repeating the same old pop formulas--his own, and the other rock 'n' rollers--and yet you refused to open yourself to the music and follow his lead. Instead, you decided to feel disenchanted.

You could have felt respected, challenged and dazzled, but you didn't, and then you blamed him instead of yourself and your own limitations. You stood in the presence of genius, and yet wanted from him only the repetition of what you already felt comfortable with. He gave you diamonds. You wanted pebbles. As philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once put it:

The man of talent is like a marksman who hits a target others cannot hit, but the man of genius is like a marksman who hits a target others cannot see.

Did he lack a competitive nature or was he (after only three albums) already tired of competing? What spawned this let the public be damned attitude? Was it management? Was it the label? Was it his personal life?

You say you know he felt he was going to die young, and that you know he was an artist only looking to grow, and you say, I can now appreciate Starsailor. That is, you say you can see now what he saw then, but this now is thirty years after the fact. Was he supposed to wait for you to catch up before he gave you his masterpieces?

That was the point. It wasn't a damn the public attitude - he loved you, but he knew there was no time, he couldn't wait for you, he had to get it done while the vision was with him. And it wasn't that he wasn't competitive, either. To the contrary, he was taking on the entire mass-mind domain in the recording industry, in radio, concert production, other pop musicians, and, most of all, you, the audience, the people who supposedly loved him and regarded him as your friend - as long as he fit your preconceived ways of thinking and feeling.

He was daring to pursue a new vision, a unique way of seeing and hearing. He stood alone after you and his other so-called friends turned their backs, because he believed in the beauty and intensity of his music, and he respected you enough to give you something new instead of merely doling out the usual musical pap of the day.

© Bob Campbell (Please contact us)
Lee and Tim onstage at the Fillmore East

He had enormous hope for the music, and enormous confidence in himself and in the power and grace and beauty of what he was doing. He wasn't merely trying to churn out hits or manipulate your tastes and preconceptions for dollars. He was giving himself up to something much greater than himself, to something grand. He never felt better than he did when creating and fulfilling the Lorca/Starsailor concepts.

George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman described this feeling of strength and creative integrity when he said:"This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy..". He literally threw it all away. He could have gotten into jazz a little more gradually and gotten away with it. Why didn't he see that he was going in the wrong direction commercially after Lorca bombed? Why didn't he care about that?

Of course, Tim suspected you would reject Lorca/Starsailor music. Of course, he knew it wasn't commercial, because he knew you. But he wasn't playing the businessman game. He was a genuine uncompromising artist on the one hand, and he loved you, the listener, on the other. He refused to exploit you by going backwards creatively to his old music or pandering to your pop-music tastes, and gave you brilliance instead.

He dared to step out of the immediacy of his own his day and time, dared to compete--not within conventional values and structures, but outside those protective conventions, on his own terms--and dared to follow the sound of his own musical vision until he fulfilled it.

From mid-1968 until early 1972, he did everything he could to make his Starsailor music successful. He gave three and a half years to it--more time and effort and creative energy than he devoted to any other of the five musical phases he explored during the course of his nine brief years.

Listeners wanted him to be an icon because they wanted to like someone who was a big deal in other peoples' eyes. They wanted to like music that other people liked, too. See what a big deal he is? And isn't his music great? In other words, they wanted to use Tim and his music to inflate their own egos.

When Tim came out with Lorca and Starsailor, they couldn't do that. He wasn't understood and embraced by everybody else. Listeners had to choose between remaining in the herd or stepping outside into the cold, alone, where Tim was, sailing among blue stars, beckoning you to summon up courage and imagination enough to follow. Some listeners did. Others didn't.

Those who couldn't understand did not blame themselves for being unable to get it, nor did they blame themselves for becoming turncoats. Instead, they pouted and cursed, and blamed Tim. Seems to me that most of them haven't gotten over it to this day.

They are still feverish selfish little clods of ailments and grievances complaining that Tim didn't devote himself to making them happy. More and more, however, I see people waking up to what he accomplished, and that warms my heart and gives me hope that it is not impossible for people to awaken, grow and evolve.

Was it management?

As for management, how can anybody blame Herb Cohen? He didn't like the Lorca/Starsailor music any more than you or your friends did. He came at it purely from a business standpoint: these musics did not fit industrially proven models of what is commercial. He wanted Tim to change--in fact, as discussed elsewhere, he insisted Tim dig up some previously created songs and record Blue Afternoon immediately after Lorca, so he (Herb) could get an album of conventional material out there before Lorca's release.

And then, when Tim went ahead and recorded Starsailor and insisted on further developing the Starsailor concepts in live performances, Herb refused to be his manager. First of all, blame in any sense of the word is not appropriate, and I think the notion of culprit is dead-wrong, because Tim was not doing something wrong in the first place; secondly, Herb did everything he could to make Tim return to orthodox pop music. So how can you or anybody else blame management? Herb did what he could, and Tim was making the bravest most musically positive statement of which he was capable. So Herb threw him away.

And there was Tim, stranded, but unbroken; by himself, but courageous. As psychologist Wayne Dyer once wrote: "Willingness to confront fear is called courage... "

Courage means flying in the face of criticism, relying on yourself, being willing to accept and learn from the consequences of all your choices. It means believing enough in yourself and in living your life as you choose so that you cut the strings whose ends other people hold and use to pull you in contrary directions.

Some people say that the “jazzers” were leading Tim by the nose. He was younger and pressure from band members was the reason for his choice of direction. Was he that weak?

I know Buddy Helm said that allegedly Herb called us jazzers and said we held Tim under our spell, that I and John Balkin and other Starsailor musicians were leading Tim by the nose, that Tim was younger and peer pressure was the reason for his choice of direction. I am not convinced it was Herb who said that, and not Buddy himself, but it probably was indeed Herb.

And then you ask, was [Tim] that weak? Tim was a very bright guy. From day one, he gathered intelligent, well-educated people around him. He knew he wasn't going to learn what he needed by going to public schools. Instead, he chose to gather knowledgeable people around him, and learn what he needed from them.

As he changed perspectives, moving from folk, to folk-rock, to jazz, avant-garde and funk-rock, he changed the people and teachers around him. Most people lasted through one, maybe two of the five phases before running out of information and insight.

I lasted through four. He inhaled their knowledge, utilized whatever he regarded as relevant, combined it with his own talent, intelligence and creative perspective, and evolved as a human being and musician. He opened himself to those who could give him information and received from them whatever they offered of value--peer pressure. Emphatically, no. It was he, not they, who set the course and led the way; he, not they, who decided what was valuable and relevant; he, not they, who made the decisions about concepts and directions.

At every step on the journey, including his final funk-rock period, he was the one who carried the flag forward. Weak? Hardly. He was one of the most responsible, courageous, imaginative human beings and musicians I have ever known.

The unamused Herb Cohen
Seems to me he deserves a heck of a lot of respect for this--in fact, if he had been weak and deferred to peer pressure during the Lorca/Starsailor period, he would have bowed his head to the collective you and Herb Cohen and some of his personal so-called friends who also abandoned him; he would have bowed his head to Jac Holzman and other record company executives; he would have catered to popular tastes instead of conceiving and recording Lorca and Starsailor, and then daring to spend the following two years playing Starsailor music in public whenever he could. He was never under anybody's spell. He was his own man, and deserves to be respected for that. I, for one, tip my hat. He had balls.

After spending all the time and energy he could in fulfilling the Starsailor concepts, the time came to change. Where could he go after the abstract, cerebrally exciting, avant-garde extravaganzas of Starsailor? To the opposite extreme, of course, namely funk-rock dance music, sex-drenched rock 'n' roll.

His wife liked it. Herb liked it. You liked it. Greetings from L.A. was born in late 1972 as another natural evolutionary phase in the on-going musical journey. Yes, it partly had to do with money, because by this time, the collective you had rendered him broke, but it also had to do with music--he had always come up with new ideas, phasing from one dimension into another, and he was doing it again.

He had fulfilled the Starsailor concepts, and now it was time to move on. In this case, his funk-rock music merged everything he had developed in the past with everything new he was working on in the present: great songs, spectacular Starsailor vocal improvisations, crotch-rock rhythms, passion, humor. To my mind, this last phase had it all: sex, heart and smarts. It lasted through three albums, ending with his death in 1975. Of course, as soon as Greetings appeared, a whole new batch of grumpy listeners came out of the woodwork, calling Buckley a sell-out. Different music, same situation. No matter what Tim did, those who would not allow themselves to follow and experience Buckley's changes inevitably condemned him instead of themselves.

What a shame, not only for him, but especially for those who missed him along the way. Every single one of his aesthetic/stylistic periods offered a different kind of beauty, intensity and value. Listeners who allowed themselves to be touched by each stage gained everything Buckley had to offer. In my opinion, he offered more than any other single singer/songwriter of his day. I am reminded of pianist Bill Evans' words; My creed for art in general is that it should enrich the soul. It should teach spiritually by showing a person a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise. . . That's the real mission of art.

I think Buckley did that in a dozen different ways. Perhaps the most complex of those ways was the music contained in Lorca and Starsailor, and, indeed, sometimes listeners need a little help. I can understand and appreciate that. Although I wrote the following passage a few months ago, some readers may have missed it. Maybe it would be helpful if we included it here:


It is true that much of the music on Tim's Starsailor album is difficult, complex, and far-removed from conventional forms of popular music. Listeners who approach Starsailor unprepared for Tim's extraordinary innovations on this album may find themselves a bit confused, even intimidated...but only initially. If they give themselves and the music a chance, by listening more than once and by opening their hearts and minds and tapping into their own sense of adventure, they will discover why Tim himself regarded this album as his masterpiece.

They will also find out why writer Michael Bourne of Downbeat magazine gave the album five stars and a rave review, and why writer Lester Bangs of Creem Magazine said of Tim, after listening to Starsailor, "I steadfastly maintain that Tim Buckley is one of the most underrated and misunderstood musicians ever to develop out of the dead-end of rock into the free-form fusion of rock and jazz coupled with his already original sound."

Tim had already explored folk music, folk/rock and mainstream jazz. With Starsailor, he dared to move into territory that was completely uncharted in pop music. He created new song forms on this album, and dove into odd time signatures (moving away from conventional 4/4 rhythms, into 5/4, 7/4 and 10/4), and combined basic harmonies with dazzling original discordant criss-crossing melodic lines. Tim also wrote some of the most vividly impassioned lyrics he had ever penned.

I was proud to be included on this project. At that time, I was exploring new techniques and new sonic approaches to music in general and guitar music in particular. I used both hands on the fretboard, playing criss-crossing lines that created percussive atmospheres, enharmonic sound-washes and brightly colored tonal textures previously unheard of.

My own technical and musical innovations, and my adventurous creative spirit at the time, complimented Tim's. We were definitely in sync with one another at this point in our careers. Together with bassist John Balkin, trumpet and sax players Buzz and Bunk Gardner, tympani-drummer Maury Baker and engineer Stan Agol, we created extraordinary music that to this day has remained unmatched.

Interestingly enough, Jeff Buckley was thoroughly enamored of Tim's vocal and conceptual innovations on Starsailor. Although Jeff often criticized his father in public, he intelligently and wisely chose Tim as his mentor. He listened over and over to Tim's music, especially Starsailor, and incorporated many of Tim's original techniques into his own arsenal of potent and exceptionally beautiful skills.

Listeners who love Jeff's music are in many instances loving Tim's music too, perhaps without being aware of it. Those people who give Tim's Starsailor music a receptive, open-minded hearing will find themselves transported into a psycho-sonic inner world that will prove both incredibly exciting and profoundly nourishing.

Portions of this passage appeared in Lee Underwood's book

Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered
By Lee Underwood, John Goldsby
Published by Backbeat Books, 2002

If we are brave enough and adventurous enough, we can discover for ourselves the power, grace and beauty that Tim and his musicians and the sound engineer on this album found almost thirty years ago. Clearly, the music still lives. It is here with us now... as vital and beautiful as it was in 1970. The music itself is alive and singing...all we need are the ears to hear it--once this music touches us, we will wonder how we could have missed it in the first place!

Gee-Lee, I think I hit a nerve there. I thought that I was Tim's biggest fan. You pounced on those questions like a bulldog on a fresh cooked leg of lamb. Seems like you wanted to say those things for years. I'm glad I gave you an opportunity to vent your feelings at my expense. I'll get even with you somehow LOL. ...Excuse me while I wipe the egg off my face and bow at your feet. I'm not worthy...I'm not worthy...I'm not worthy!!!

All kidding aside Lee, you made some incredibly good points in your argument. I think that everyone would agree with most of what you said. I have to tell you that it wasn't easy asking you those questions. Your responses were captivating to say the least. You clearly made several points that gave me and those who felt as I do a real lesson in understanding.

You also taught me something else through our little debate here. I've learned that I didn't really understand the Tim Buckley that I thought I knew. I was always aware that Tim was an artist, but only recently did I find out the true meaning of the word artist.

I've also discovered that the role of a true lover of art is one of a quiet observer. One can only watch and listen to a true artist and revel in the good fortune to have been able to grasp the meaning of what that artist is trying to say. My ignorance was profoundly brought to light in this dialogue, and I've become a better person for having learned that my opinions on anyone's art are no more important than those of a fly on the wall of a museum. Tim Buckley never compromised. His art always came first.

By bringing forth your insight that the role of a true lover of art is that of a quiet observer, you put in a nutshell the way in which audiences can best perceive, understand and appreciate an authentic artist such as Tim. Seems to me, that is a tremendous service to both Tim and the audience, do you agree?

Yes I do. Let's move on, shall we?


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