Go Live Your Own Life

Tiny Tim Buckley is standing on the stage at Philharmonic Hall looking appealingly undernourished behind his big twelve-string guitar. The hall is packed with his fans, thousands of girls who look to be about sixteen, dozens of whom are at this moment crawling up the aisles toward him, snapping pictures and bearing gifts.

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.

At the risk of stretching a point, a message can be read into that gesture, which took place at Buckley’s concert here recently. Since 1966, Buckley has been playing and singing his own kind of folk music, poetic, wordy plaints about love and dreams and adolescent confusion.

The lyrics, his hypnotic alto-to-falsetto voice and sensitive mother-me appearance came together, and caused a whole lot of young people to identify with him. Tim was 19 when his first record for Elektra came out; he is 22 now (he has birthdays on Valentine’s Day), growing up personally and musically, and he could do with a little less of the identifying.

It is the kind of emotional response that rock ‘n’ roll has fed on and the fact that Buckley has been caught up in it is not only beside the point, he feels, but destructive to music. “Here’s the thing I gotta say: I really wish people would try to live their own lives and stop trying to make musicians do it for them. There’s a lot more to music than sex; I play heart music.”

“… Socrates, starts spewing truth like anybody would, because you gotta be honest. And the people kill him. Ha. I don’t know if I’m being pretentious but I can see what happens. It happened to Dylan…I don’t know what to do about that…”

His third album, Happy/Sad, will be released early in April and it is a real change from his previous work. It is about as close to modern jazz as a folk singer can come: progressive folk jazz. “If the Modern Jazz Quartet likes it,” he says, “I’ll be happy.” He talks a lot now about Milt Jackson and Mingus and Monk. And you never saw anybody rush the stage to touch Thelonious Monk’s toes.

In other words, Tim Buckley is going his own way, and if a lot of his present fans want to come along, they’re going to have to shape up and start listening. “You know, people don’t hear anything. That’s why rock ‘n’ roll was invented, to pound it in. My new songs aren’t dazzling; it’s not two minutes and 50 seconds of rock ’em sock ’em, say lots of words, get lots of images. I guess it’s pretty demanding.”

Happy/Sad has only six cuts, a couple of which run ten and twelve minutes with extended instrumental solos and improvisation. The lyrics, which Buckley composed alone, are simple, more blues and soul than folk. What about all that famed poetry of his? “A song is a song, not a poem. If people want poems, they should read Dylan Thomas.” (This, remember, from the lad whose most lavishly praised song, Goodbye and Hello, has some 600 words and not one but two poems.)

Buckley isn’t worried about where pop music is or isn’t going, and the news that George Wein’s jazz series flopped not long ago at the Fillmore East is not going to change his direction. “It’s really too bad, though. It seemed like the logical progression, that kids should start digging the cats who have taught all these rock ‘n’ roll groups what they’re doing.

“Part of it, too, is that middle-class kids want middle-class people playing for them. When a cat comes along that’s been playing saxophone for 20 years and he’s black and kinda scraggly and looks like John Handy, they don’t dig him because they can’t ‘relate’ to him. And it just gets farther and farther out of proportion; what does it matter what his image is?

“That whole stuff has got to stop, because music is being poisoned by the people. Plugging into a wall is not the answer either–that volume bull, ego-rock. Soon musicians are going to have to split and go back to the few little ghettos where they can play music. I see where I’m headed–yeah, into a progressive thing–there’s going to be a change and I can’t help the people.”

As Buckley’s music turns a corner, his “image” will no doubt follow. Since early in his career, he has been boxed as a kind of poete trouve, fragile as a Meissen fawn wandering on moonbeams. Vogue has eulogized him as they might a new hair spray (“Instant waif with dimples”); photographers have indulged themselves in his halo of curls, delicate features and black eyes: He could probably make a living standing in front of a camera looking soulful.

He has chosen to try to stay natural–funky but not tragic. The only movie camera he has agreed to stand in front of so far is that of Raoul Coutard (the press agent swears he has been signed), the brilliant French cinematographer who has shot most of Francois Truffaut’s and Jean-Luc Godard’s pictures.

The film, Wild Orange, is to be directed by Robert Cordier. “It’s a 42nd Street kinda thing” is the most anybody could find to say by way of description, and Buckley, who stars as an American Indian named Fender Guitar, is plumping for Jenny Dean, a “girl of the streets” and non-star, to be his leading lady. Shooting is scheduled to start April 15 in New York.

Buckley’s initiation into moviemaking was a film called Changes, for which he wrote a score (it was later dumped) and several songs. “Wasn’t it a crummy movie?” he says, no question intended. “It was a 50-year-old concept of what young people should be.”

The movie traces a young man’s search–for self, truth, meaningful relationships and other clichés. “I told them I hated it from the beginning, but I felt obligated. I also wanted to learn something about movies. I wrote a very subtle, alive score for guitar, vibes, congas, things like that…What a bummer. Mess up my body, man, but don’t mess up my music.”

The major demands Buckley makes on his life, apart from the musical ones, are that he stay simple and away from the hype that has taken over the rock ‘n’ roll business. “Rock musicians are businessmen. The focus is more on clothes than music–you change your clothes every day, ride around in limos and airplanes and you never see the ground. It’s like a thing Woody Guthrie said–when you’re not living with the people, something wrong happens. I ask myself what do I really need, an’ I figure I can only make it with a certain number of clothes.”

Despite money in the bank, he still travels with a bright canvas duffel bag containing only “stuff to keep me warm” (a ratty pea jacket, overalls, a couple of turtlenecks) and “stuff to keep me clean” ( a brown paper bag full of toothbrush, razor, Listerine and soap). He has a real fear of losing control of himself and his work to “the economy” or “the businessmen–they want to control you. They don’t want you to be yourself because then they can’t say, ‘Look, now he’s gonna do this. Watch him do that.’ Dangle, dangle.”

Privately, however, he lets people close to him boss him. Jainie Goldstein, referred to variously as Peaches, My Lady, and, most frequently, My Old Lady, has been organizing his life for the past three years. “She takes care of me,” says Tim, nodding in unnecessary assent. Jainie has just found them a house in Venice, Calif. She didn’t come to New York with him this time because she was moving them there from Topanga Canyon and because, Tim says, “This is my gig. The milkman doesn’t take his old lady on his milk run.” (Jainie is also the subject of Song for Jainie and other tunes on his first LP.)

Tim was married when he was 17 and divorced at 20. His son, Jeffrey, now 2 1/2, was born after he and his wife had separated. The Pisces in his song, I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain, is his former wife’s sign. (“The Flying Pisces sails for time–And tells me of my child.”)

“Yeah, Jeffrey. Great kid. He’s in a Montessori school in L.A. I’m not sure I ever want him to go to regular school. It took me almost two years to throw away all those patterns they lay on you in school, but I was fighting it all the time I was there [in Bell Gardens, Calif.]. I was playing and studying music all the way through the morning, then it was time to go to school and I’d go and couldn’t relate to anything. I went to college for two weeks.

“I was just beginning to get together then. My father, he’s a brilliant guy, but he never should have gotten married, never should have been in the war–he was in the paratroops, heavy stuff. He sort of lost his purpose. I just learned he’s in prison in Chattanooga. I don’t even know what for.

“I wouldn’t get married again. Just that word messes you up. Me and My Old Lady been together for three years and we’re more married now than I ever was. She’s still in school; we got time.”

Tim remembers hearing his first progressive jazz when he was about five. “My mom dug Miles Davis.” But more recently, he has been influenced musically by the people he is backed up by on Happy/Sad: David Friedman, a Juilliard graduate who plays vibes and bass marimba; John Miller, from the University of Michigan, who plays acoustic bass; and Lee Underwood.

Underwood, a tranquil, intelligent man and accomplished musician, has been playing lead guitar with Buckley since 1966. He also plays with modern jazz artists like Monk, Bill Evans and John Handy. There seems to be a perpetual rap going on about Milt Jackson, or Jimmy Giuffre, or Mingus, or Horace Silver. Or Gary Burton.

“It’s what I’m comfortable with,” says Tim. “It’s more direct and simple. I’m gonna start playing jazz clubs anyway. I’ll just play a set with whoever’s there. ‘Cause I feel good about it. I can see where I’m really headed, and it will probably get farther and farther from what people expect of me.

“My Old Lady was telling me what she was studying in school–Plato, Sophocles, Socrates and all those people. And the cat, Socrates, starts spewing truth like anybody would, because you gotta be honest. And the people kill him. Ha. I don’t know if I’m being pretentious but I can see what happens. It happened to Dylan…I don’t know what to do about that.”

– Michaela Williams
New York Times, 1969