Dreamy, Driven And Dangerous

From folk rocker to jazz-inspired visionary in three short years. Ben Edmonds uncovers the story of Tim Buckley’s musical legacy.

Jeff Buckley departed this sweet swingin’ sphere in his 30th year, without having completed a second album. By contrast, Tim Buckley was two years younger than his son when he died, and yet graced us with no less than nine albums, a record legacy that has been enlarged and illuminated by the release of several supplemental recordings in recent years.

In David Browne’s forthcoming book Dream Brother, and Martin Aston’s fine biographical piece in Mojo 22, we learn much about the life of Tim Buckley. But it is in the recordings he left behind that Buckley truly lives. Like old friends, these works have something new to tell us whenever we encounter them. Taken together, his first three albums: Tim Buckley (1966), Goodbye And Hello (’67) and Happy Sad (’69) – represent his coming of age as an artist, roughly the same stage in his son’s life represented by the making of Grace.

Tim Buckley on record is like hearing a snapshot of a performance. He was a performing artist in the sense that Paul Williams has applied it to Dylan – an artist who rewrites his songs each time he opens his mouth to sing it. Though a snapshot can freeze an eternally pleasing moment, its subject will always be somewhere else the moment the shutter has clicked. Tim Buckley was forever on his way somewhere artistically, the many stylistic stops on his restless journey all handled with ease and fire by a voice that is said to have made fans of Jacques Brel, Paul Robeson and Leontyne Price.

It was that magnificent instrument – a high, pure Irish tenor, beneath which lurked a three-and-a-half octave range its possessor would spend the rest of his life exploring – that leapt off an acetate given to Elektra Records president Jac Holzman in 1966. It had been cut to promote a young Orange County, California band called The Bohemians, in which Buckley sang and played rhythm guitar, seems to have been academic. “I can’t remember it ever being spoken about.” says group bassist Jim Fielder, who would go on to play with The Mothers Of Invention, Buffalo Springfield and Blood, Sweat And Tears. “But it was always understood that, ultimately, it was about Tim. He was the one, and there were no hard feelings whatsoever when it turned into a solo situation.”

The debut album recorded a few months later, produced by Paul Rothchild and Jac Holzman, was based on The Bohemians’ repertoire, pleasant enough folk-rock that functions primarily as a showcase for a remarkable new voice. But with this artist, even the conventional was never ordinary, as a closer look at the beginning of Tim Buckley reveals.

“In the opening notes of I Can’t See You, the first song on his first album, you can hear Tim Buckley’s career and his soul,” ventures Larry Beckett. The Bohemians’ drummer was Buckley’s creative partner during this early period, a poet who would collaborate on songs with Buckley throughout his career. “He hammers on a flat-ted fifth, doubled by the lead guitar. It’s normally a blue note, when it resolves to another note inside the chord.  But this one doesn’t resolve, it’s pure dissonance, and that atonality becomes even more striking as the song unfolds and the note returns. I wrote the verses in five lines instead of the usual four so the melody couldn’t be a standard 32 bars.  Then Tim added the riff that didn’t resolve; it was there, in your face.  I think he felt like that flatted fifth, like he didn’t belong anywhere.  That dissonance was expressing him inside and out, and all the experiments to come are in seed in those first notes.”

The rhythm section assembled to back Buckley included Jim Fielder, Mothers drummer Billy Mundi, and Van Dyke Parks on various keyboards.  On lead guitar was Lee Underwood, a Californian the singer had met in New York who would be an influential fixture for years to come.  Wings (with lovely strings courtesy of Jack Nitzsche) and Song For Jainie are about as good as folk-rock gets, but Beckett concedes that the song selection tended toward the conservative.  “We had total control,” he says, “but I think we favored the ones that audiences had responded to live. It was like putting what we thought was our best foot forward.  But there was another side to the Bohemians that Tim loved just as much, these extended, drifty pieces of which only Song Slowly Sung made the album.”

(Popular myth has it that the letters ‘LSD’ are hidden in the wrinkles of Buckley’s trouser leg on the cover. “I’m afraid it’s just a legend,” Beckett laughs. “Like the faces of The Beatles were supposedly hidden in the cover of John Wesley Harding. It’s a product of the hallucinations of the time.”)

As so often happens with a volcanic young talent, Buckley was light years beyond his debut album before it even reached the shelves. He had agreed to work with producer Jerry Yester, the former Modern Folk Quartet member who was also managed by Herb Cohen. (The manager’s stable of Fred Neil, The Mothers Of Invention, Linda Ronstadt And The Stone Poneys and Judy Henske would frequently intersect the Buckley timeline.) Before beginning what would be the singer’s first masterwork, they took a little-known test drive when Elektra asked Tim to record a single.

“I wish I could freeze that moment in time,” Yester say, today.  “Tim and Larry Beckett were a creative partnership back then; there was an artistic intimacy between them.  Their absolute idealism was just a kick in the ass, in the most pleasant sense. They came to me and said, Elektra wants to do a single, so we decided to sell out.  We’ve written these crass, commercial songs, and they’re gonna be smashes!” If commerciality was to be considered, it was gonna be on their own terms, which was endearing. Really sincere idealism is always a pleasure to be around. “

Larry Beckett: “Once we got the project in our heads, we decided, in sort of a mock-way, that we were going to mock-record a mock-single. We lay around my apartment in Venice and actually listened to the radio for about 24 hours straight, alternating between AM Top 40 and more adventurous FM programming. We decided that the A-side, the AM radio side, was going to be a fairy tale, and that the B -side, the FM side, had to have discreet allusions to drugs and sex.  At the end of the 24 hours we tossed off two songs.”

Once Upon A Time was the AM fairy tale.  It did feature a cracker-jack guitar solo by John Forsha, and all kinds of Beatlesque overdubs jack guitar solo by John Forsha, and all kinds of Beatlesque overdubs “to make it nice and mock-psychedelic” – including, according to Yester, a music box playing Pop Goes The Weasel hand-cranked in time with the track. “But it was a woefully lame song, and we really didn’t believe in it.  However, the other tossed-off song, Lady Give Me Your Key, turned out great. Tim couldn’t help but give it a completely and utterly haunting melody, and the words were poetically elusive in a nice way. When we played it for people, their eyes would always start to shine. I always assumed that single had been released, but I’m now told it wasn’t. So Lady Give Me Your Key is a lost masterpiece of early Tim Buckley music.” (As we went to press, Rhino was scouring Elektra’s vaults for the track, hoping to add it to a planned Buckley anthology.)

It was during this time that another lost Buckley tape was recorded. Herb Cohen took Buckley, Beckett and bassist Jim Fielder into a cheap studio to demo “every song you’ve ever written” for publishing purposes. “It went on for hours,” Beckett recalls, “me holding up lyric sheets as Tim ran through volumes of songs.  There were several songs that are the equal of anything on the first two albums.” Among the titles he can recall are Six Face (“Based on six different ways of looking at a girlfriend”), Found At The Scene Of A Rendezvous That Failed, Land Of Lie, Rainbow Blues (“Where I go through a different color of the rainbow in each verse”), Long Tide, Cripples Cry (“Mary McCaslin sang this for years; she probably still knows the words and music”) and Birth Day. The tape is reportedly buried somewhere in the Cohen archives but a copy has yet to surface.

Beckett: “We saw ourselves as sailing along in the direction that Bob Dylan was taking lyrics and The Beatles were taking instrumentation – making rock’n’roll into art songs.”

Though it has been called “folk music’s Sgt.  Pepper” for its album-size canvas and summer of ’67 studio fairydust, Goodbye And Hello was pretty well in the can by the time The Beatles’ broadside was issued in June.And for that matter, though he played acoustic 12-string guitar, what Tim Buckley did bore only a passing resemblance to folk music.  If there is a comparison to be drawn, it is with his hero Fred Neil, another utterly uncompromising artist with an amazing voice and an acoustic 12-string who was also no folkie. (Buckley believed that Neil’s eponymously titled album, released earlier in 1967, was miles better than both his album and The Beatles’.)

“When Buckley and Beckett came to me,” Yester recalls, “the only idea they had was that the album would be free of restraint or commercial consideration.  Working with Tim was like an open field of imagination – a stretch, a joy. When someone says you can do anything you want, it’s a little intimidating at first, then it’s totally exciting.”

Though all 10 songs can be reduced to Buckley and his acoustic guitar, Goodbye And Hello is the most richly textured of all Buckley’s albums, a richness achieved with only minimal shifts of instrumentation.  Underwood is back on lead guitar, Jim Fielder alternates with Jimmy Bond on bass, Eddie Hoh performs supportive wonders on drums, while the congas of Carter Collins would also become a fixture of Buckley music. Keyboards were by Yester or Don Randi, and there were guest appearances by guitarist John Forsha, Bohemians lead guitarist Brian Hartzier, MFQ member Henry Diltz on harmonica, and Kingston Trio founder Dave Guard.

The real richness is in the diversity of material: the Saigon Coney Island of the mind that is No Man Can Find The War, the rejection of druggie desperation in Pleasant Street, and the riveting catharsis of I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain (addressed in part to ex-wife Mary Guibert and son Jeffrey Scott). Once I Was nods toward Fred Neil’s Dolphins (which Tim performed regularly), and has elevated the emotional impact of scenes in three major films: the Oscar-winning Coming Home, Hal Bartlett’s Changes and the Emmy-winning Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam. Morning Glory (“Write me a song about a hobo,” was the singer’s entire instruction to his lyricist) is Buckley’s most covered song.  What holds it all together, and animates its occasionally bombastic artistic conceits, are a string of vocal performances of staggering authority for a young man not yet 21. Beckett: “Jerry used to refer to Tim as ‘Mr First Take’.  It’s an attitude that goes back even before the first album.  Tim hated any take past number one. He would do it if something wasn’t coming together to his satisfaction, but it seldom had anything to do with his vocal performance. As far as he was concerned, the passion dissipated with each succeeding take.”

Yester: “He was ideal in the studio.  He always wanted to nail it with the earliest possible take, but he’d bear down until he was satisfied. When we got to take 17 of I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain I didn’t see how it could possibly get any better, but he wanted to do it again.  My job was just to provide an atmosphere that would free him to go for it.”

The nearly nine-minute title track contains all that is best and worst about the album. Time has been not at all kind to Beckett’s verses, their stilted, strident rants against “antique people” dripping with the self-righteousness particular to young men not yet 21 in the late 1960s.  The lyricist had devised dual choruses which he envisioned Buckley singing on top of each other, but Tim decided to weave the two choruses together with a gorgeous melody that transcended the petulant topicality of the verses and dignified the entire enterprise. The different sections of this kaleidoscope were stitched together and given to Yester to score, with the mandate that each section be orchestrated differently.

Beckett: “Lee Underwood had come back from some weird gig in Las Vegas or somewhere.  He was totally exhausted, but he was booked to overdub the lead guitar parts onto all the sections of Goodbye And Hello. I’ve since noticed that musicians tend to play better when they’re tired; they achieve some weird breakthrough. Lee played like I never heard him play before or since. He played magnificent, inspired lines to all of these pieces that were stylistically diverse. The sound of his guitar was also magnificent; instead of his electric he was playing a rich acoustic 12-string.  His motific ideas were so brilliant that when Jerry Yester took the tape home to write the orchestrations, he found himself drawn to Lee’s counter-melodies. In fact, he based many of his charts on them, and as a result some of the arrangements lie right over some of Lee’s best guitar parts. So you can almost consider Lee Underwood the secret composer of Goodbye And Hello.” Morning Glory was the final track recorded. “The choir of angelic voices that wells up is actually all Tim and Jerry overdubbed on top of themselves,” the lyricist remembers. “Listening to them build those voices was inspiring.  When they finally played it back completed, it was so powerful that as we listened we forgot for a moment that we were the ones who’d made it.”

Bruce Botnick was called in to mix Goodbye And Hello.  Though he’d engineered the first album, Botnick had heard nothing from the new sessions. “I was astonished when I heard what they’d gotten down on the multi-tracks,” he says. “Each song different, and every one of them great.  This was the kind of album that fulfilled the promise so apparent when you first heard Tim Buckley sing.”

Impressive as Goodbye And Hello was, before people could begin to digest it Buckley was headed in another direction.  His touring trio that included Lee Underwood on guitar and Carter Collins on congas had expanded to include upright bassist John Miller. When Underwood left the group for a spell, Miller recommended his friend and vibraphonist David Friedman. Thus was born what Friedman liked to call “The Modern jazz Quartet of folk’.  In keeping with the jazz background of his players, an interest Buckley always possessed but now accelerated, the arrangements were opened up to accommodate improvisation on the part of all, including the vocalist. The material changed as well. The first two albums had been split between Buckley and Beckett-Buckley compositions, but the singer now informed the lyricist that he would be going it alone this time out. “For years I wondered if that was because he attributed the success of Goodbye And Hello to my lyrics and wanted to see if he could do it all on his own,” Beckett says. “Tim genuinely cared so little for acclaim, though, that I no longer think this theory holds water.  I can see how he might have felt that my more literary approach was not gonna work with the jazzy, melancholic feeling he was going for, where his voice was another instrument.”

David Friedman: “I loved the quality of his voice, of course.  But I wasn’t into singers much at that time; I was a jazz instrumentalist. What I loved most about him was his ability to improvise vocally. He was a little like Miles Davis: uncompromising as a musician, and one who could tell the difference between playing and really playing.  He would sometimes scream at you on-stage if he didn’t think you were giving everything.  When you consider how young the guy was, it was incredible what an intuitive, spontaneous sense of music he had.  One day John and I were passing time with the changes to the Miles tune All Blues. Tim came in, picked up his guitar and began to play along, jamming instrumentally and vocally until eventually it turned into the song he called Strange Feelin’. We fine-tuned it before it was recorded for Happy Sad, but as I recall the words didn’t change too much from the ones he’d improvised on the spot. If you listen to the way he sings them, you’ll understand that those lyrics are as much jazz as any of my solos.”

Musicians loved playing with Tim.  “His concern was always what was on the horizon and how to get there,” according to Bunk Gardner, the former Mother whose tenor sax would be a big part of Buckley’s later Starsailor band.  “He couldn’t have been more unlike Frank Zappa, who had such a critical eye that you lived in fear of making a mistake.  It was no holds barred. He was genuinely interested in seeing what you could add to the mix, and liked it when you surprised him.”

Lee Underwood: “During the years of the first two albums, we created, memorized, rehearsed, repeated and recorded the arrangements. After Goodbye And Hello he dropped rehearsals, eschewed memorized arrangements, and began creating living music based upon spontaneity and improvisation. He left the realm of show business, served music instead of mammon, and gave listeners the real thing, some of the most exciting, deeply moving, thrilling, heartfelt, living, breathing music that mainstream popular music has ever known.  Don’t get me wrong. It didn’t always work, and it was dangerous, that’s true – sometimes it went on too long, or bombed with people who wanted reruns of Once I Was. But often it did work, and Tim’s genius set the stage on fire.”

The sessions for Happy Sad were recorded in late ’68 at Elektra’s new Los Angeles studios, Jerry Yester back in the producer’s chair accompanied by his partner, former Lovin’ Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky. Yester hadn’t seen Buckley almost since the Goodbye And Hello sessions and found the singer dramatically changed, not necessarily for the better. “He was tight with his band to the exclusion of everyone else,” the producer says. “His musicians couldn’t have been snottier.  ‘Adversarial’ is the word that best describes them. I guess I represented the corporate ogre or something.  Which was completely silly, because Elektra never gave Tim Buckley anything short of carte blanche artistically. They’d say, ‘This is it, man. This take is it. There are no others.’ That’s not necessarily a bad idea, but in their snotty way they took it to an extreme. Charlie Parker did more than one take, for Christ’s sake.  They were an excellent band; I won’t contest that. But certain members were really shitty to Zally and me, and it made for an unnecessarily uncomfortable atmosphere.”

“I’m sorry Jerry Yester feels this way,” responds guitarist Lee Underwood, who’d rejoined prior to the Happy Sad sessions. “I’m not sure why Yester’s views are given credibility. He had virtually nothing to do in the studio – Tim and the band knew the music. Yester was a peripheral functionary who could have had a wonderful time, but clearly he missed. I suppose it’s because he thrived in the realm of orthodox song-forms, conventional musical concepts and standard attitudes about recording. In the radio-music domain, he has always done well as a musician and producer. As a corporate representative, he had little patience with our efforts to create something thrilling and spontaneous in the studio. I can understand his discomfort and confusion, although I see no reason to get nasty about it.”

Yester earned his producer’s stripes when engineer Botnick made a gaffe before a crucial take. “Dolby is a noise reduction system,” Yester explains, “but if it’s not engaged properly it can actually add noise to the tape. I knew we had a problem when I heard Bruce say, ‘Oops.’ You couldn’t tell until you played it back, but there it was: this whoosh going all the way through Love From Room 109. Tim had a total snit about it. This was the performance he wanted, didn’t want to do another. We listened back, and it was wonderful. I had a brainstorm. The song was about the Pacific Coast Highway, and I got the idea that the sound of surf might be in the same frequency as the hiss. So we set up two microphones under Tim’s house in Malibu where the tide washed in. We wound up with a half-hour of great stereo surf, and laid it in under the track. It masked the hiss and, best of all, suited the mood of the piece perfectly.”

Lee Underwood: “With Dream Letter on Happy Sad, I for the first time created some original, innovative techniques on guitar that I developed more fully as we evolved into the avant-garde musics of Lorca and Starsailor. During this period, I played with both hands on the fretboard, rubbing strings to create sustained melodic lines, tapping chords in arrhythmic patterns, holding chords with the left hand while lightly brushing my right hand index finger over the strings, creating harmonic overtones that generated beautiful textures and moods. Sometimes these fit well within orthodox harmonic progressions. Other times they moved into purely atmospheric enharmonics. I had no outside influences, but simply followed my own explorations.” Having played an extended engagement at the Troubadour with Underwood back on board, the modern jazz quintet was ready to seize the studio moment. Whatever was happening in terms of personal frictions, the musicians nailed it on their side of the glass as did the production team.  Happy Sad is a triumph of small group communication and discrete, song-sensitive jazz improvisation.  It’s a favourite among Buckley fans because it sits comfortably at the fork in his artistic road, balancing the surefire songwriting structures of his past with the flights of an increasingly improvised future that would test his hardiest listeners.

The conventional wisdom about Tim Buckley is that you have the “safe” folk-oriented period of these early years, followed by the “adventurous” excursions into out-jazz and the avant-garde. A closer listen to these albums, and the entire Buckley catalogue, says otherwise. In truth, all his records, with the possible exception of the unfortunate curtain-closer Look At The Fool, are driven by their sense of adventure. Goodbye And Hello is not one iota less uncompromising than Starsailor.

Folk-rock, art-rock, jazz-rock – Tim Buckley had slipped all these skins with his first three albums, and with them his adolescence. He was now a mature artist, with a universe of possibilities spread open before him. With characteristic bravery he chose to fling himself headfirst into the unknown, soaring into the avant-garde jetstream with Starsailor (1970) before dive-bombing the rock’n’roll gutter with Greetings From L.A. (I 972).  In these and the other recordings he made after our slice of the story ends, he explored a maturity his son Jeffrey was robbed of. Yet for all he achieved in his nine albums and countless performances, the future Tim Buckley’s death robbed him of was no less overflowing with promise than his son’s.

– Ben Edmonds
(MOJO 79 – June 2000)