Previously unreleased recordings will fill you with joy over the music’s beauty, and sadness over the early loss of this troubadour
For anyone who missed him the first time around, 2016 and 2017 have been great years to catch up with the musical comet that went by the name Tim Buckley (1947-1975). Most recently, two double albums of new Buckley recordings have been released, comprised of a compilation of live recordings from his 1969 shows at The Troubadour in Los Angeles—a double CD entitled Venice Mating Call and a double LP entitled Greetings From West Hollywood. These two treasure troves—capturing Buckley at the peak of his powers—come in the wake of last year’s Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974.
Check out the live track ‘Gypsy Woman’, one of the many tracks that are featured on Venice Mating Call.
Often compared to lyrical poet and contemporary Jackson Browne, Buckley began his music career as a folk-rock artist but, like Bob Dylan, he was constantly reinventing himself, always in search of a new sound or instrument that would spark his imagination. Over the course of his short career—he died at 28 of a heroin overdose—Buckley released nine studio albums. His style has often been described as a cross-pollination of folk-rock, jazz, avant-garde and psychedelic rock. But it is the voice that captures you—an unrivaled choir-boy Irish tenor with amazing range and flexibility—regardless of the style of his musical backing.
As a teenager, Buckley, along with Jackson Browne and Steve Noonan, were crowned by L.A.-based Cheetah magazine as “The Orange County Three.” Although only 28 when he died, his recordings have inspired generations of other musicians. His “Song to the Siren,” for example, has been covered by a range of artists, including Robert Plant, Bryan Ferry, Cocteau Twins and John Frusciante. And his recording of his song “Once I Was” closed the award-winning film Coming Home.
For those of you who are Tim Buckley fans, you probably were exposed to his music by attending one of his shows, purchasing one of his albums, or hearing about him from an older sibling. Perhaps (if you belong to a later generation) you even discovered his music after listening to albums by his son, Jeff Buckley, in the 1990s. For me, the circumstances were a bit different. I got turned on to Tim Buckley by The Monkees TV show. Go ahead and laugh, but the Monkees knew where it was at! When they were given creative control of their show, their musical guests included people like Frank Zappa, Charlie Smalls and Tim Buckley, who appeared on their last episode “Mijacogeo / The Frodis Caper” in 1968.
During his appearance on The Monkees, Buckley is seated on a wrecked truck, the victim of an onslaught by Monkee Mike Nesmith and his earlier guest Frank Zappa. In complete contrast to the earlier shenanigans, Buckley proceeds to perform the sorrowful and beautiful “Song to the Siren”. Since it was a live performance, you could hear the emotion in his voice as he sang this ballad: “Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow. Oh my heart, Oh my heart shies from the sorrow.”
As Buckley’s performance comes to an end, the camera zooms in on his guitar, and the scene slowly fades to white. It’s one of those rare, powerful television moments that leave a mark.
See for yourself:
As a teenager, I was mesmerized and couldn’t begin to describe what I had just heard. Rather than describing his music as ‘folk,’ I thought of his songs as poetry that was set to music. I think for a lot of people it’s difficult to describe what his music sounds like to someone who hasn’t heard it. As it turned out, that is exactly what Buckley had intended.
Timothy Charles Buckley III (1947-1975) was born in Washington D.C. in 1947 to Elaine Scala and Timothy Charles Buckley Jr., a World War II veteran. Although he spent his early childhood on the East Coast, Tim and his family eventually moved to the city of Bell Gardens in Los Angeles County. Buckley showed an interest in music from an early age, and he would often listen to his parents’ record collection. It was through his mother’s albums that he developed a taste for modern jazz, his favorite jazz artists being Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. At 13, Buckley purchased a banjo and taught himself to play. With his newfound talent, he formed a folk group with a few friends and would play concerts at his local high school.
Although Buckley often came off as timid, he was well known at his school and was the quarterback of the football team. After a few years, he lost interest in his studies and football, in deference to writing music and playing his guitar, teaming up with schoolmates Larry Beckett and Jim Fielder (the former would go on to co-write many of Buckley’s songs, the latter to play bass for Blood Sweat & Tears). After a short-lived college experience, Buckley began to play local gigs, eventually landing a spot at the Monday night hootenannies at the Troubadour in LA.
By 1966, not yet 20, Buckley was in a tough predicament. He had married a local girl named Mary Guibert, as the couple both thought she was pregnant. The pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm, but within a few months, they were expecting their first child. The idea of being a father frightened Buckley, as he didn’t want to raise a child. He was convinced that bringing up a child would stunt his career, and that same year, the couple divorced. His son, Jeffrey Scott Buckley, who would go on to a recording career of his own, was born shortly after the couple split.
At this point Buckley was living on his own and performing at local venues and coffee houses. After one of his shows in Hollywood, he ran into Jimmy Carl Black, the drummer of the Mothers of Invention who immediately got him in touch with the Mothers’ manager, Herb Cohen. Cohen, like Black, was impressed by Buckley’s musical ability, and he began to arrange for him to play gigs on the East Coast.
“Tim was completely immersed in the music 24 hours a day. He ate, drank and breathed music. I would not be at all surprised to learn that Tim worked on chord progressions and melody lines in his dreams, he was that committed to the art form.” – Fred Neil (folksinger / songwriter)
It wasn’t long before Buckley had moved to the Bowery in New York City and was playing at clubs and cafés in Greenwich Village. His first gigs, booked by Cohen, were at the Nite Owl Café on West 3rd Street and MacDougal. Folksinger Fred Neil recalled, “Me and Tim hung around in Greenwich Village during the 1960s. Tim was completely immersed in the music 24 hours a day. He ate, drank and breathed music. I would not be at all surprised to learn that Tim worked on chord progressions and melody lines in his dreams, he was that committed to the art form.” During Buckley’s time in the Village, he befriended musician Lee Underwood who would go on to play lead guitar with him for the majority of his career. With Larry Beckett as his co-writer and Underwood as his lead guitarist, Buckley was approached by Herb Cohen to record an acetate disc with a handful of tracks for Elektra Records. The founder of Elektra, Jac Holzman, was impressed by the up and coming folksinger, and after hearing the demo tracks, Buckley was offered a recording contract.
Buckley’s first self-titled album was released in 1966, and featured Lee Underwood on guitar, Jim Fielder on bass, Van Dyke Parks on piano, celesta, and harpsichord, Billy Mundi on drums, and Jack Nitzsche, who was in charge of string arrangements. The majority of the album consisted of tracks that Buckley and Beckett wrote when they were in high school. Unfortunately, the album (labeled as folk-rock), though it contained the excellent singles “Wings” and “Aren’t You the Girl?”, didn’t make it onto the charts. Critics described Buckley as an artist that seemed unsure of himself and the music that he produced.
In February of 1967, Buckley accompanied German singer / songwriter Nico on guitar at the Dom on St. Marks Place. According to author Richard Witts, “I met Danny Fields who was working for Elektra Records. He said ‘Why don’t you get Tim Buckley? He’s got an album out, nobody’s buying it. He could be the second act’. So I got him. Young Tim Buckley played his own songs – he had a beautiful, high, Irish voice – and then out of the kindness of his heart, accompanied Nico.”
Later that year, Buckley released the album Goodbye and Hello, which was well received and rose to #171 on the charts. This time around, the album was produced by Jerry Yester, instead of Jack Holzman and Paul Rothchild, and he was given more creative control when it came to structure and song material. With songs like “Phantasmagoria In Two” and “Pleasant Street”, Buckley sang in a high falsetto, the minor chords giving his music a deeper and darker sound. It was evident that Buckley had found his voice, his songs having morphed into a combination of folk and poetry that listeners embraced.
After the release of Goodbye and Hello, journalists often questioned Buckley about his song “No Man Can Find A War.” They assumed he was going to become a poster boy for the ‘anti-Vietnam’ protests, though the idea was something that Buckley instantly rejected. Buckley clearly opposed the war, but he was determined to record new albums and introduce new sounds. The last thing he wanted to do was release a string of protest songs. At the time, Buckley said, “It’s like, ‘OK motherfuckers, you want a protest song, here it is’. They were bugging the hell out of me so I figured, just this once, and then I wouldn’t have to do it again.”
“Talking about the war is futile. What can you say about it? You want it to end but you know it won’t. Fear is a limited subject but love isn’t. I ain’t talking about sunsets ‘n’ trees, I’m involved with America…but the people in America, not the politics. All I can see is the injustice.”
With the success of his latest album, Buckley was on the verge of stardom, and he began to make several appearances on television. His first TV appearance was on the above-mentioned final episode of The Monkees in 1968. Micky Dolenz, who wrote and directed the final episode, chose Buckley as his musical guest, as they were good friends, and Dolenz was a big supporter of his music.
Unfortunately, not all of Buckley’s television appearances went this smoothly. It is well documented that during an appearance on The Tonight Show, Buckley insulted Johnny Carson and refused to lip synch to his song “Pleasant Street”. Shortly afterwards he began to shy away from the media, and avoided journalists who wanted to interview him.
On March 17, 1969, Buckley performed at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City, and received a positive review from the press. Billboard’s Fred Kirby wrote: “Buckley set himself a tough challenge by beginning with ‘Morning Glory’, perhaps his finest number. But the folk singer-guitarist-composer never faltered thereafter, whether up-tempo as in ‘Grief in My Soul’ or tender as in ‘Wings’.” However, this was the same concert that saw the now infamous ‘red carnation incident’, as told by New York Times’ Michaela Williams: “A huge red heart is dropped at his feet, notes are passed up to him, secret treasures in manila envelopes are slid across the stage. Suddenly a tall blonde rises to her feet and dramatically hands him up a red carnation. Oh, very tender–she’s offering herself to him. Buckley looks down at the bloom, smiles at the girl, and…What?! Chomp, chew. He’s grinding the petals between his perfect teeth. Phtoui. He’s spitting them out. ‘That really tastes terrible,’ he says of her gift of love.” It was clear that Buckley wanted his audience to listen to the music and digest it, rather than fawn all over him. He didn’t want to be anyone’s idea of an ‘idol’.
That year, Buckley released his third studio album, Happy Sad, which was produced by former Lovin’ Spoonful members, Jerry Yester and Zal Yanovsky. This was a difficult period for Buckley, as his songwriting partner Larry Beckett had been drafted in the Vietnam War. His album was described by critics as an ‘experimental period’, as the album contained jazz-inspired tracks, and the use of different instruments, like the conga and vibraphone. Happy Sad would end up to be Buckley’s most well-received album, rising to #81 on the charts.
“The timing could not have been worse. He was at a point where he was going to make the big move. Even though he never got the recognition, he was head and shoulders above the big names in the business. And he was right.” – John Herron (Buckley’s keyboardist)
In September of 1969, Buckley played one of his most infamous concerts to date, “Live at the Troubadour”. It was at this show that Buckley’s performance began to become more improvisational – mostly with his lyrics, to the point that fans had no idea what they were listening to. Throughout the show, he would make shrill unintelligible sounds or go off on a 15-minute-long jam session that left his audience bewildered. It was this particular show that prompted Rolling Stone magazine to run an article entitled “Buckley Yodeling Baffles Audience”. It would be a long time before the public realized that Buckley had not lost his mind. He was simply creating sounds inspired by one of his many muses, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. At the time, Buckley stated, “I can see where I’m heading, and it will probably be further from what people expected of me.”
Although young listeners once embraced his music, they wanted Buckley to remain a ‘folk rock hippie boy’ forever. This was a time where the general public was hooked on ‘Easy Listening’ artists like James Taylor, and they simply weren’t ready for Buckley’s progressive, jazzy style. His later albums like Blue Afternoon (1969), Lorca (1970), and Starsailor (1970) received no commercial success, as the public couldn’t understand why he had incorporated this avant-garde style into his songs. For some, Buckley was viewed as a talented musician who could develop numerous sounds and styles of music, but to the majority of Buckley’s fan base, he was considered a burnt out talent who’d lost his ability to write.
Depressed and nearly broke, it was during this period that Buckley turned to drugs. By 1970, Buckley had married Judy Brejot Sutcliffe in Santa Monica and had adopted her son Keith. Since Buckley needed the money, he decided to try his hand at acting, eventually appearing in the 1971 cult film Why?, co-starring (of all people) O.J. Simpson. Ironically enough, the plot is about a struggling musician (Buckley) who blows up an audience that continues to request his old songs. Linda Gellen, his co-star, recalled, “We were only earning $420 a week on the film, and I said (to Buckley), ‘Is that all the money you have right now?’ and he said, ‘No, I’m getting a song covered,’ which I think was ‘Gypsy Woman,’ which Neil Diamond was going to do.”
“I realized all the sex idols in rock weren’t saying anything sexy – no Jagger, no Morrison. Nor had I learned anything sexually from a rock song. So I decided to make it human and not so mysterious.” –Tim Buckley (In a 1974 interview with NME journalist Chrissie Hynde)
Over the next couple of years, Buckley recorded Greetings From L.A. (1972), Sefronia (1973), and Look at the Fool (1975). He referred to his new direction in music as “Sex Funk”, though these albums had little effect on his remaining audience. With lyrics like “I’m looking for a street corner girl and she’s gonna beat me, whip me, spank me, make it all right again,” radio stations refused to play his records.
In 1974, Buckley played his first UK show in six years at the Knebworth Festival in Hertfordshire, England. That day, the grounds of Knebworth House (the Tudor mansion on the estate) were filled with 60,000 people. Sharing the bill with Buckley were the Allman Brothers, Van Morrison and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, to name a few. Although there were some audience members who weren’t familiar with Buckley, it was evident that he’d developed a cult following.
By 1975, Buckley finally succumbed to his audience’s demands, and released (with the help of Beckett) a live album containing many of his earlier songs. Starsailor and Lorca were purposely left out of the song catalogue, as he realized that this was not the material his audience wanted to hear.
On June 28, 1975, the night before Buckley’s death, he played a sold out show to a crowd of 1,800 people at the Electric Ballroom in Dallas, Texas. At the time, he was without a record label, though Arista and Asylum showed interest in signing him. According to his friends and family, he was involved in the music department in UCLA, and was in the process of completing a screenplay and a novel. Rumor had it that he had also been considered for the role of Woody Guthrie in the Hal Ashby film Bound For Glory, though he didn’t live long enough for these plans to materialize.
The following evening, Buckley stopped at his friend Richard Keeling’s house. According to Keeling, Buckley ingested a large quantity of heroin from a bag that Keeling had given to him. Upon returning home, he collapsed, and his wife helped him into bed. A short time later, she discovered that he was blue in the face and unresponsive. Buckley was rushed to the Santa Monica Hospital emergency room, but he was pronounced dead on arrival. His death was ruled as “acute heroin / morphine and ethanol intoxication due to inhalation and ingestion of overdose.”
At first it was thought that Buckley had died due to a combination of heroin/morphine and alcohol, though Keeling later confessed that he had supplied him with the heroin. At a hearing that year, Keeling pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 120 days in jail, with four years’ probation.
“There ain’t no wealth that can buy my pride, there ain’t no pain that can cleanse my soul. No, just a blue melody sailing far away from me.” – Tim Buckley, “Blue Melody”