Lee Underwood Interview (JAM Magazine)

You are still giving a very important contribution in keeping Tim’s memory alive. Do you think that the world is finally aware of his greatness?
It has been more than thirty years since Tim’s demise in 1975. Many of his admirers have remained loyal to him, and many new listeners have discovered him along the way. Today, more than ever before during these posthumous decades, Tim’s name and music is alive and well. It will take more time for “the world” at large to become aware of him. However, I believe that his music is timeless. It remains beautiful and potent in every era. It will continue to deeply move people as they discover him, and will continue to enchant new listeners every year.

Even though his son, Jeff Buckley, rarely mentioned him during his lifetime, he eventually had a considerable role in the recent discovery of Tim’s work, because of his talent, his fame, and because they shared the same tragic destiny. Don’t you think Jeff’s music is a good way for younger listeners to approach Tim’s music?
It is one of musical history’s great ironies that Jeff often bitterly criticized his father in interviews and on stage. After all, Tim left Jeff’s mother before Jeff was born, and was not a father who shared Jeff’s life as Jeff grew up. So his anger was understandable.
At the same time, as I point out at length in the final chapter of my book Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered, Jeff listened to all of his father’s recordings. He especially admired and learned a great deal from Tim’s most avant-garde albums, Lorca and Starsailor. He incorporated dozens of Tim’s technical approaches to singing and blended them with his own originality. When Jeff recorded Grace, he became a beloved international star — which drew attention to his father’s nine studio albums and thereby gave Tim new musical vitality. Thousands of young listeners discovered Tim through Jeff’s work. The two of them are now forever linked in the annals of music history. It’s a poignant story, touching and beautiful.

When it first came out, the world wasn’t ready for a record like Starsailor. If it was released today, would it be as revolutionary as then? Can you recognize any effect of that record in contemporary pop music?
When Starsailor came out in late 1969/early 1970, it was a remarkable departure from mainstream pop music (say, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who). It used none of the blues clichés of the day, and Tim’s singing stood head and shoulders above anybody else — not only the astonishing beauty of his voice, but the amazing ways in which he utilized his voice as a musical instrument. The music itself was conceptually rooted in avant-garde jazz and modern classical music, and vocally innovative — Tim often sang none-verbal sounds, swooping, yodelling, yelping and cooing. Mainstream audiences of that day simply did not know what to make of it.
Since that time, listeners the world over have heard zillions of interesting and sometimes provocative approaches to sound in general and music in particular. I think Tim’s Starsailor music will delight and shiver the spines of modern listeners – as evidenced on this “My Fleeting House” DVD, the section called “The Show,” taped in 1970, where Tim soars out into the stratosphere on the song, “Come Here Woman.” Great composition, brilliant singing, ultra-modern — and imminently accessible to contemporary ears.

Generally speaking, do you find traces of Tim’s work in today’s music?
I live in a cabin in a canyon where I get no radio reception, and so I am not in touch with whatever is going on in popular music. I listen to people like Bach, Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin, David Parsons, Miles Davis and Chopin, and therefore do not regard myself as qualified to speak about Tim’s possible influence in today’s pop domain.

You have been a key figure in Tim’s musical development, introducing him into jazz and playing inspiring guitar parts in his records and concerts. What did he give you, as a musician?
He gave me a sense of adventure. Throughout my book, I stand in admiration of Tim as a man and as a musician. He was funny, brilliant, quick with his insights and incredibly talented. As a musician, he absorbed new ideas, transformed whatever he learned, combined those ideas with original ideas of his own, and created new music on almost a daily basis. Conceptually, he leaped from one musical domain to another, through no fewer than five major phases: folk, folk/rock, jazz, avant-garde, and white funk soul music. It was thrilling to be around him. You never quite knew what was coming next.

Apart from Starsailor, in which of Tim’s records you think is your best guitar playing?
I suppose I felt most comfortable with Happy Sad and Dream Letter: Live In London.

In the interviews for the DVD, Larry Beckett said that Lorca was a failure (even though it’s “a great artist’s failure”). Do you agree with him?
I would not have used that particular word, because I see Lorca as a seminal album, a conceptual steppingstone to Starsailor. True, Lorca did not work especially well if viewed as an isolated recording; it was Tim’s first adventurous foray into new compositional and vocal areas. But it was not a “failure” in my eyes (or in Tim’s). In fact, he regarded it as the birth of his authentic personal and musical identity, particularly on the songs “Lorca” and “Anonymous Proposition.” That album was a major leap for him, an admirable effort that was only the beginning of what eventually became Starsailor and the three-year period that he spent exploring and developing to astonishing degrees the concepts that began with Lorca. So, yes, Lorca was rough-hewn, only a beginning. It was a great leap that did not fully actualize itself, but then you don’t expect a baby in a cradle to speak like a college graduate, do you? Nothing is a failure if it leads to greater things. Lorca was simply part of the on-going creative flow.

Honestly, do you think he made any big mistake in his career?
I’m not sure what you mean by “mistake.” Are you speaking in terms of business? Music? His personal life? We all make mistakes, don’t we? That’s how we learn, how we grow. There are all kinds of things we might do differently if we knew then what we know now. But an adventurous, creative present is not based on the past. It’s based on leaping into the unknown. That’s why with Tim you can’t legitimately separate the man from the music or the music from the man. They were one and the same.
I think he gave himself to music and to life 100 percent. He plunged into himself, the world, the music, and every performance with his total being. He gave it all to you and me and his other listeners. Very few people have enough courage or strength to do that. They live timid, driftwood lives, rarely committing themselves to any sort of creative vision. Conformity pays well. Creativity takes risks. So if you ask me, it is people who hold back out of ignorance and fear who make the big mistake, not Tim.

He wrote Dream Letter for his little son Jeff, but for most of his life he wasn’t a real father for him. When you were working together, did he ever talk to you about him?
He did. That “Dream Letter” song beautifully expressed his love and concern for Jeff, and his own anguish at being unable to be present in Jeff’s life (not because of Jeff, but because of his career and because of the soured relationship with his ex-wife Mary). On more than one occasion, he told me he loved Jeff and that he hoped to bridge the gap when Jeff was older and able to understand the complexities involved. Alas, Tim didn’t live long enough for that. In my book I present a conversation I had with Jeff about Tim in late 1989, shortly before Jeff left L.A. for New York. Sadly, Jeff was so angry with Tim that he wasn’t able to absorb what I said.

What was your role in the compilation for this DVD, “My Fleeting House”? Which one of those clips awakes the most pleasant memories in you?
Producer Rick Fuller interviewed me on video tape for four hours. He included very little of what I said, but at least some of it is there. Also, he read Blue Melody, where I talked about the TV program we taped in 1970, called “The Show,” with author Joseph Heller. Rick travelled to Pennsylvania, tracked the tape down, found our performance, and brought it to this DVD. That was a major find. I didn’t know it still existed.
I suppose “The Show” section of “My Fleeting House” is my favourite, especially because of Tim’s spectacular performance of two songs from Starsailor, “I Woke Up” and “Come Here Woman.” I also like the “Boboquivari” selections from this same Starsailor period. It includes the only videotaped version of “Blue Melody” that I know of. I play guitar on it (not piano, as I did on the album Blue Afternoon). And listeners can hear why I loved that poignant song so much that I selected it for the title of my book. As well, this “Boboquivari” section showcases “Venice Beach,” with lyrics by Tim’s friend and sometimes collaborator, Larry Beckett. As I recall, that was the only time we performed it.

Every posthumous release under the name Tim Buckley has brought at least one unreleased song: this time it’s the turn of “Venice Beach” from the Starsailor era. Do you know about other studio or live recordings of unreleased songs (enough for a CD or a box set, maybe)? As far as you know, is there any other official release of previously unreleased material scheduled for the future?
I understand that Rhino may be working on a box set, but I am not sure about the details.

What about the live bootlegs currently on the Internet?
I don’t check into Tim-oriented things on the Net very often, so I have to claim ignorance. However, if Rhino’s box set materializes, I would imagine it might include the various bootlegs.

– Antonio Puglia
JAM magazine (Italy). March 31, 2007, “My Fleeting House” DVD