Artists who die young tend to become frozen in myth, often because their recorded legacy is small and relatively homogenous, leaving fans to wonder what they would have become. Tim Buckley died at 28 but his story is slightly different from that of, say, Nick Drake or his own late son, Jeff. Lasting less than nine years, his commercially unsuccessful recording career was brief but productive: he managed nine studio albums, plus enough material for numerous posthumous releases. The immense diversity of his work makes it hard to categorize in simple terms — and even harder to imagine the direction (or directions) he might have pursued.
Along with Orange County, California, contemporaries Jackson Browne and Steve Noonan, Buckley signed to Elektra in the mid-’60s. Although he was perceived as a coffeehouse folk singer-songwriter (as was anyone who strummed an acoustic guitar and didn’t do pop covers in those days), that scarcely describes him. Buckley’s 1966 debut album was already shot through with electricity and displayed flashes of psychedelia; by 1968, he had embraced a jazzier vibe that looked beyond straightforward song structures. Nevertheless, he wasn’t content with just pushing artistic boundaries; rather, he crossed them to explore more difficult avant-garde territory, quickly leaving fans and commercial viability behind. In the process he transformed his rich tenor, which had captivated audiences, into a fierce wailing instrument and dropped his laid back ballads in favor of dissonance and rhythmic complexity. Even more surprisingly, Buckley ultimately reinvented himself as a strutting barroom rocker, pumping out gloriously sleazy white funk.
Buckley recorded his eponymous debut in his teens. Not surprisingly, it’s by no means a mature work, and he doesn’t sound entirely comfortable amid the arrangements and production, which are emblematic of Los Angeles in the mid-’60s. Still, this record does indicate Buckley’s enormous potential. Over half the tracks were co-written by high-school friend Larry Beckett, who has a weakness for awkward, mannered lyrics. On “She Is,” for instance, Buckley’s sublime voice belies his youth, but fey pseudo-poetry like “A mischief mystery she plays upon the flute of early morn” does him no favors. Although often excessively romantic, Buckley’s own songs are superior, especially “Aren’t You the Girl,” “It Happens Every Time” (with a sweeping string arrangement by Jack Nitzsche) and “Wings,” a big symphonic pop number that was certainly hit single material. One of the co-written tracks — the smoldering, psychedelic “Song Slowly Song,” with delicate guitar courtesy of Lee Underwood — anticipates the less conventional musical structures Buckley would later explore.
Recorded in summer of 1967, with Jerry Yester producing, Goodbye and Hello was a considerable step forward for Buckley. While it shares some of the debut’s preciousness, it’s less one-dimensional and more ambitious. This doesn’t always work. The psychedelic touches are more pronounced, and there’s a tendency to incorporate Elizabethan motifs, but over-produced numbers like the title track or “Hallucinations” don’t fare too well. Beckett co-wrote five of the ten songs, including the stirring protest “No Man Can Find the War,” but the more memorable tracks are again Buckley’s own. They show him growing, finding his own voice and developing a highly personal vision (particularly “Pleasant Street,” “Once I Was” and “Phantasmagoria in Two”). The standout is “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain,” an intense epic of competing rhythms fueled by Carter “CC” Collins on congas. The lyrics might be melodramatic and juvenile, but Buckley pushes his five-and-a-half octave range to the limit, and that makes it work. (The song makes passing reference to his son, who eventually performed it in 1991 at a tribute concert in New York.)
Although Goodbye and Hello captured the counter-cultural zeitgeist with its anti-establishment sentiments and psychedelic feel, Buckley quickly distanced himself from that scene and balked at suggestions that he might speak for a generation or catalyze political change with his records. Disillusioned with rock and the music business, Buckley opted to follow his own creative instincts. He and guitarist Underwood gravitated toward jazz, listening to Mingus, Miles and Monk, artists whose influence declared its presence on the near-perfect Happy Sad. (Echoes of Davis’ “All Blues” are unmistakable on the lilting “Strange Feelin’,” and vibes player David Friedman jokingly labeled the band on this release “the Modern Jazz Quartet of folk.”)
Jerry Yester, who overproduced parts of Goodbye and Hello, shared the job with Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful, and gets the balance right on Happy Sad. It would have been hard to go wrong with this material. Buckley composed all six songs, evidence of a newfound maturity, alone. In keeping with its title, this is very much an album of moods. Apart from the ecstatic, 12-minute “Gypsy Woman,” Happy Sad focuses on the mellower, introspective end of the emotional spectrum. The only electric instrument here is Underwood’s quietly intense guitar, which, along with Friedman’s vibes, adds tone and coloring (for instance, on the atmospheric epic “Love From Room 109 at the Islander” and the yearning “Buzzin’ Fly”). Happy Sad reached the Top 100, capping his albums’ chart success.
Works in Progress, a collection of previously unreleased sessions from 1968, documents Buckley’s evolution from Goodbye and Hello to Happy Sad. Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 is a superb two-hour live set from that transitional period, recorded with Friedman, Underwood and Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson. Full-band workouts of “Morning Glory” and Fred Neil’s “Dolphins” are outstanding, but solo performances by Buckley and his 12-string steal the show; “Wayfaring Stranger” and a rendition of “Pleasant Street” segueing into “You Keep Me Hanging On” are truly spine-tingling. Further recordings from 1968 appear on 1991’s Peel Sessions EP, which was later reissued with additional material on both Morning Glory and Once I Was.
Buckley produced Blue Afternoon himself, continuing in the melodic folk-jazz vein of Happy Sad with the same players, plus drummer Jimmy Madison. Strictly speaking, however, this was not Buckley’s next album. He had already recorded Lorca for Elektra and was due to record an album for the Straight label, which had been set up by his manager, Herb Cohen, and Frank Zappa. Based on what Cohen had heard of the direction taken on Lorca (he produced the album with Beefheart/Mothers of Invention engineer Dick Kunc), he was concerned about the commercial potential of Buckley’s debut for Straight and asked him to record something more in the spirit of his earlier work. Buckley’s heart wasn’t really in it as he had already set off on a new creative path with Lorca but he complied, quickly recording songs he had already written and worked on in sessions but had not committed to vinyl. Remarkably, some of these tracks, which Buckley had pretty much discarded, rank among his finest: “Chase the Blues Away” and “Happy Time” (both of which also appear on Works in Progress), “Blue Melody,” “I Must Have Been Blind” and “The River.” These epitomize Buckley’s aptitude for taking the folk song as a departure point and expanding it, infusing it with elements of jazz to explore new dynamics, stressing mood and atmosphere.
After the detour of Blue Afternoon, Buckley returned to the experimentation already underway. Blue Afternoon was released to a largely indifferent reaction. Lorca followed shortly thereafter. If, as Debbie Burr commented in Creem at the time, Blue Afternoon “[is] not even good sulking music,” then the five-track Lorca certainly gave folks something to cry about. “Driftin'” and “Nobody Walkin'” show some continuity with Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon, but the album isn’t remembered for those songs, if it’s remembered at all. The dark, brooding title track, which began Lorca, marked Buckley’s most dramatic shift yet. He had often emphasized the importance of vocals as an overlooked instrument and focused on that aspect of his music for Lorca. The voice of mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian on electronic works by Luciano Berio had impressed Buckley and “Lorca” displays kinship with her technique. Buckley’s previous records had attested to his range and his ability to hold notes, but “Lorca” was an attempt to produce something like Berberian’s highly idiosyncratic vocalese, with an unsettling acrobatic performance that eventually went beyond language into wordless shrieks, wails and vibrato crooning up and down the scales. Moreover, the accompanying avant-garde jazz arrangement in 5/4 time (with pipe organ and electric piano by bassist John Balkin and Underwood respectively) showed little interest in tunefulness. The absence of a comforting song structure only made it all the more uneasy for fans expecting something along the lines of “Blue Melody.” The album, a critical and commercial failure, was Buckley’s final release on Elektra.
1994’s Live at the Troubadour 1969 captures Buckley in performance around the time of Blue Afternoon and Lorca and draws songs primarily from those two albums and Happy Sad. Listened to alongside Dream Letter, the live album recorded less than a year earlier, it dramatically underscores the changes in Buckley’s sound. While epic, unbridled renditions of “Gypsy Woman” and “Nobody Walkin'” offer excellent examples of a more improvisational approach, “Strange Feelin”‘ is a distant, far bluesier cousin of the version on Dream Letter.
Despite Lorca‘s poor reception, Buckley pressed on with Starsailor, a record that drew inspiration from contemporary classical composers like Messiaen, Penderecki and Stockhausen as well as avant-garde jazz. Buckley self-produced his most uncompromising album, a work of genius or folly (or perhaps both) that provokes sharply divided reaction. Buckley expanded his instrumental arsenal with Maury Baker on tympani and Mothers of Invention horn players Bunk Gardner (tenor sax and alto flute) and Buzz Gardner (trumpet, flugelhorn). Sustained melodies and “songs” aren’t a priority here — the more challenging arrangements are fragmented and dissonant, set in unusual time signatures. Although Buckley had proven himself as a lyricist with a distinctive introspective vision, Starsailor makes it abundantly clear that he felt words weren’t necessary to communicate. He often forsakes conventional language for glossolalia, conveying a gamut of emotions — from anguish to euphoria and everything in between, sometimes leaping from one end of the emotional register to the other. The eerily hypnotic a cappella title track features Buckley alone — with fifteen overdubbed tracks of his voice.
Elsewhere on Starsailor, freeform pieces like “The Healing Festival” (in 10/4 time) and “Jungle Fire” (in 5/4) at times give the impression that each musician is playing a different song on a different planet, albeit with absolute control and precision. If Starsailor has any parallels in rock, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica would be one — especially in its rigorously disciplined madness. While “Monterey” threatens to become a rock song but never quite coalesces as such, there are some conventional moments, one of which provides the album’s highlight: the ethereal “Song to the Siren,” the track for which Buckley is best known thanks to a 1983 cover by the Cocteau Twins as part of This Mortal Coil. (Even Pat Boone recorded the song in 1968, before Buckley himself had released it.)
When he next returned to the studio, in 1972 for Greetings From LA, Buckley bit the bullet, playing the conventional mainstream fare being demanded of him. If it’s true that he felt frustrated by what he saw as the limitations of rock’n’roll with its clichés and formulas, and that he was unhappy with his new identity, it doesn’t show on this album. Far from it, in fact. Backed by a new band (except for Carter Collins), Buckley sounds completely at home, stretching easily from swampy blues to straight-ahead rock, injecting a generous dose of funk into the proceedings. Both musically and lyrically, this is an orgy of a record, dripping with sweat and sex, and Buckley — whose sense of humor is fully evident for the first time here — throws himself headlong into it. With its conventional rock songs, there’s nothing innovative about Greetings From LA. Even so, Buckley’s character is all over it. His impressive vocal range is still obvious on the opening triad of “Move With Me,” “Get on Top” and “Sweet Surrender,” as well as on the string-washed finale, “Make It Right.” These tracks are light years from the abstractions of Starsailor, whose wailing and moaning suggested a pre-Oedipal, cosmic sexuality — this one is much earthier. (Buckley called this album a response to the likes of Mick Jagger, who sang about sex without ever saying anything sexy.) Buckley may have sung in tongues on Starsailor, but “Get on Top” puts a different twist on the concept: “Get on top of me woman / Let me see what you learned tonight /Then I talk in tongues mama / Oh when I love you / Yes I talk in tongues.” Instead of “flute of early morn” and “O whither has my lady wandered?,” “Get on Top” offers “Like a bitch dog in heat we had those bed springs a squeakin’ all day long.” In “Make It Right,” he’s looking for a “street-corner girl” and implores “Come on and beat me, whip me, spank me.”
The radio-friendly Sefronia was cut from similar cloth. Numbers like “Honey Man” and “Stone in Love” provided additional evidence of Buckley’s new identity as funk-rock sack master, but the record is weaker than its predecessor. Denny Randell’s anachronistic-on-impact LA white-soul production, which pours syrupy strings over several numbers, is hardest to digest on poorly chosen middle-of-the-road love songs that didn’t suit Buckley at all: a sentimental rendition of Tom Waits’ “Martha” and a cloying duet with Marcia Waldorf, “I Know I’d Recognize Your Face.” The genuinely soulful ballad “Because of You” and a stellar version of “Dolphins” (featuring Lee Underwood’s only appearance on the album) do compensate somewhat but, overall, this is a bland affair.
Demos of Sefronia songs — some of which didn’t make that album — are on the posthumous Dream Belongs to Me, which also features a handful of 1968 demos that appeared on Works in Progress. Broadcast live as a radio session in 1973 and released in 1995, Honeyman draws largely from Greetings and Sefronia. While he might have been declining on record, Buckley was still absolutely fine live. This album would stand as a respectable epitaph, were it not for Look at the Fool, which ended Buckley’s career on an inglorious note. Although the title track and “Who Could Deny You” stand up reasonably well, the rest sounds burned out and is best forgotten, especially the dreadful “Louie Louie” rip-off, “Wanda Lu.”
Surprisingly, it took until 2001 for a Tim Buckley retrospective CD to be assembled. The two-disc Morning Glory reflects the struggle between Buckley’s artistic goals and commercial pressures. Two dozen of the set’s 33 tracks date from the period covered by the first four records. There’s only a live version of one song from Lorca, and Starsailor is represented by its three most accessible numbers (including two versions of “Song to the Siren”). By privileging material from the less challenging wandering-troubadour and folk-jazz periods, this collection once again suppresses the material in which Buckley was most invested, and for which he tragically failed to find an audience during his lifetime, which ended in 1975.