Lee Underwood Interview (Record Collector)
In watching this footage back again, was there anything that you’d forgotten existed? If so, how was it to revisit it again?
Although I remembered our being on “The Show” in Pennsylvania in 1970 (with Catch-22 author Joseph Heller), I had forgotten about the discussion Tim had with the audience of college students. That discussion was an upper, as were the musical performances of two songs from Starsailor, “I Woke Up” and “Come Here Woman.” Great to hear how well we did, especially Tim, who was brilliant both intellectually and musically. I had mentioned that TV show in my book Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered. “Fleeting House” producer Rick Fuller read the book, went to Pennsylvania, tracked that video down, and brought it to us. That’s one heck of a find. “Fleeting House” is the first presentation of that performance. It also includes a little bit of Tim’s interaction with the audience that modern viewers have not seen. I hope someday they will release all of it in its entirety. I don’t know of video footage that has been released that is not on this DVD. There must be a number of unreleased musical outtakes from studio recordings, which I assume will be dug up and released someday. Tim didn’t want them out there, which is why they are outtakes. I hope that if and when the commercial people release them, they have enough heart to at least try to do him justice.
Blue Afternoon and Starsailor haven’t been released on CD since 1991, and people sell even these CD issues for upwards of £70. Why do you think they haven’t been reissued?
According to lawyer Evan Cohen, WEA/WMG in Europe owns the rights to those albums. The question about why they have not been reissued should be directed to them.
Do you think that Tim was aware of a musical lineage or tradition, and his standing in it? Or did he just follow his own instincts regardless?
Tim was very much aware of previous musicians in every generic area. Along the way he listened to everything from Duke Ellington, Pete Seeger, Johnny Mathis and Fred Neil, to Miles Davis, Stravinsky, and Penderecki. By the time he reached Lorca and Starsailor, he knew he was the most impassioned and technically innovative singer of his era. I spend considerable time in my book examining Tim’s intelligent approach to music and learning and performance. He was a fascinating guy, brilliant, quick to learn and absorb, driven by insatiable curiosity and exceptional creative abilities. He knew the past; he knew the present; he stretched his psyche and his soul into the future. That’s why we’re here today with him.
As a player for Tim, did you ever get much say or input in his music? Were you given much freedom to play what you wanted?
For better or worse, Tim gave me and all of his other musicians complete freedom. That is, he did not hire us as sidemen to simply play memorized parts. He hired us for our unique approaches to his music. We didn’t have any input into the composing part, but the playing was ours alone, nearly all of it improvised.
On the DVD you make the point that Chuck Berry gives people what they want night after night, but that Tim didn’t necessarily go in for that crowd pleasing. Was he overly conscious of doing that, or did he not really realise it?
It is not that Tim did not want to please his listeners. He very much wanted them to enjoy his offerings. However, he also wanted to grow as an artist, to seek new approaches to composition and performance. He wanted to evolve. And he did, through five distinct generic phases: folk, folk/rock, jazz, avant-garde and white funk dance music. Alas, many of his listeners wanted him to keep repeating their favourites from previous albums, while Tim wanted to present new material. So, yes, he wanted to please, but also he wanted to expand and do it on his own terms. That stance lost a few people, but it also won high praise from adventurous listeners who appreciated his integrity, courage, and creative brilliance.
How did Tim’s appearance on The Monkees affect his status? (And how did that appearance come about?)
As I recall, Tim said he knew Mike Nesmith from pre-Monkees days, “back when Mike was still singing his own songs.” Mike or one of the other Monkees asked Tim to come on the show in 1968, which Tim did, taping “Song of the Siren.” At the time, nobody particularly cared and nothing much came of it. In 1984, nine years after Tim’s demise, Elizabeth Frasier of the Cocteau Twins recorded that song. It became something of a hit. Today, Tim’s performance of “Siren” on that final Monkees show has become a classic.
Do you think that his break from Larry Beckett in 1968 gave him more freedom to take his music in different directions, without having to worry about someone else’s lyrical input?
This was an important time in Tim’s life. I examine it thoroughly in Blue Melody, because a certain aura of misunderstanding remains. Tim loved Larry and his writing, and continued their friendship and very often their working relationship to the end of Tim’s life. Whenever he asked Larry to write lyrics, he welcomed Larry’s efforts. First, Larry wrote the lyrics; then Tim wrote music to them, demonstrating an amazing gift of melody. At the same time, Tim very much wanted to write his own lyrics, and he often did that. When Larry got drafted and went away, Tim composed all of the music and lyrics for Happy Sad, Lorca, and Blue Afternoon. Happy Sad, which includes the extraordinary five-movement song “Love From Room 109,” topped the collaborative effort of Goodbye and Hello on the Billboard charts and remains one of Tim’s best sellers. Blue Afternoon contains some of Tim’s all-time best songs, including “The River,” “I Must Have Been Blind,” and “Blue Melody,” a melodically beautiful, poignant piece the title of which I used for my book. Lorca marked a stylistic breakthrough of major artistic proportions, which led the way to Starsailor on which he and Larry once again collaborated on some of the pieces.
As you point out in the DVD, he couldn’t play barre chords. How did he use that to his advantage?
In addition to playing conventional non-barre guitar chords that he could manage well, he invented new chord positions that gave new textures to his sound.
Around the Happy Sad time, you had Tim on 12-string, yourself on lead six-string, the double bass from John Miller, the vibraphone with David Friedman, and Carter Collins providing a rhythmic, groove-based percussion – how did you make such disparate influences work together?
Remember, Tim was the centre of the group. We played his songs, within his stylistic framework. He generated the fundamental perspective and set the tone and direction. We simply worked within Tim’s context, offering whatever we could to enhance his concepts, which at that time were greatly influenced by jazz pianist Bill Evans, trumpeter Miles Davis, and multi-sax player Roland Kirk.
Do you think that the Dream Letter: Live In London set is a fair representation of what Tim’s live shows were like at the time?
I love Dream Letter. It was released posthumously as a double-CD and shows quite clearly the relaxed, varied, imaginative ways in which we played live. Studio recording is a self-consciousness producing affair. It can be fun and it can work well, but live is, well — it’s alive. Dream Letter flows in a relaxed, inspired fashion. I was happy to write the liner notes for it (as I did for Works In Progress, also released posthumously). On the whole I think Dream Letter is one of the best representations of Tim’s approach to live performance during that early Happy Sad period.
How true is it that Elektra initially ‘refused’ to release Lorca? It seems that Tim had to make Blue Afternoon for Bizarre Straight, which, excellent though it is, is a bit of an artistic step backwards…
Lorca was a decidedly non-commercial, avant-garde album, particularly the first two pieces. Ultimately, Elektra did release it, which speaks well for them. Conceptually, you’re right, Blue Afternoon, recorded after Lorca, was a conceptual step backward. It returned to the mellower, jazz-flavoured Happy Sad context. But what was Tim supposed to do with all of those great songs that appeared on Blue Afternoon? Throw them away? No way. I’m glad he recorded them. Someday this album will be reissued.
Can you remember what it was like to hear the Lorca/Starsailor music for the first time?
Most popular music is written in 4/4 time. That is, four beats to a measure. Tim wrote Lorca in 5/4 time, which was something of an innovation in the pop domain. It was a long song (almost 10 minutes) and it also showcased a rather dark, brooding atmosphere. I loved it. I was amazed by Tim’s creative imagination. Another song on there, one of his best, was a ballad entitled, “Anonymous Proposition,” which Tim sang a cappella for his encore at Carnegie Hall. He thought of it as a tribute to Marlene Dietrich. On this album, Tim felt he had for the first time discovered his unique identity as a songwriter and singer.
Who was his biggest influence then?
By this time — the Lorca and Starsailor period — Tim had left the commercial domain. He was listening to avant-garde jazz (Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy et. al.). He also listened to avant-garde classical music, notably vocalist Cathy Berberian, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (To the Victims of Hiroshima), and French composer Olivier Messiaen (Quartet for the End of Time). As I indicate throughout Blue Melody, Tim explored himself and his creative powers through music. When he grew, his listening expanded, incorporating influences from brilliant composers in whichever conceptual domain he wished to enter. When he changed, his listening changed; when his listening changed, he stretched himself to the limit. Miles Davis and Picasso learned and evolved. So did Tim, doing it very much his own way.
Starsailor seems to have been Tim’s limit into the outer reaches of what he could do with music. Do you think that level of intensity could have been stretched any further?
He told me he felt that Starsailor was his masterpiece. But let us not forget. All we have today is that one recording. As it happened, Starsailor was only the beginning of Tim’s three-year exploration of those avant-garde concepts. He dove deeply and flew to mighty heights during those three years. He spent more time developing this musical concept than any other in his nine-year career. True, he lost many conventional listeners, but he also gained a strong following of fellow explorers.
Today, I think many modern listeners are hungry for real music. Some of that music appears on this DVD, perhaps especially in the TV “Show” section, where we performed “I Woke Up” and “Come Here Woman,” both of which give you a good taste of what Tim was up to then.
From such a distance, it’s hard for us to comprehend what playing with Tim was like around this period. Could you please give some colour and thoughts on this?
Right from the beginning, Tim moved me deeply with his music, his attitude, his intelligence and sense of humour. I played guitar with a number of people back then, but he was different. He was not afraid of change. He kept me and the other musicians on our toes. When he moved into this avant-garde or modern classical dimension, I felt both challenged and thrilled. It was one of the most exciting times of my life, as were all of my seven years playing, touring and recording with him. It was out of respect and appreciation for him as an artist and extraordinary being that I wrote Blue Melody. This Starsailor period played a major role in that book, because it was conceptually the most demanding and adventurous — and controversial — of all of his phases. It made it problematic for Tim to get a live draw, but that didn’t matter at the time. At the end of that period, when he had thoroughly explored the concept and given his all, it was time to change still again.
What was your reaction when Tim came out with the white-boy R&B after a two-year lay off?
First of all, he didn’t lay off two years. He was performing Starsailor music wherever he could with four different bands during that period, including the band in the Boboquivari clip on this DVD (in which, by the way, there is a rendition of “Blue Melody,” the only video taped version of this tune that I know of.) As for his last three albums, many of his listeners had mixed feeling about them. Some people didn’t understand the music, especially on Greetings From L.A. — “How could he do this? He’s a sell-out.” I loved Greetings, perhaps the best of those final albums. I loved the sensuality of it, the incredibly positive energy in it, the sweaty-hot dance rhythms that even his wife was capable of understanding. I loved the abrupt conceptual shift from Starsailor’s heady complexity to the “belly-to-belly” rhythmic sex trip. Most importantly, he was able to merge all of his previous concepts into an integrated organic whole: his melodic writing; his sense of rhythm; his appreciation of life, sex, love and laughter – AND his exceptional abilities as a vocal improviser. He sailed and soared at the end of some of those songs, giving full expression to the vocal techniques he had devised during the Starsailor period. Alas, I understand that his producers on these albums deleted much of that music at the end, but it was originally there, as we heard when Tim performed live. That’s why I call the music of this period “merger music.” He could bring it all together — the low down gutbucket rhythms of “Move With Me” and “Get on Top,” the extraordinary lyricism of “Sweet Surrender” (one of the best songs he ever wrote), and his improvisational artistry. Of course record company people encouraged him to write music that was more commercial than Starsailor’s extravaganzas. And why not? As I said, he had already given his all to Starsailor’s musical complexity. His manager could not sell it, because clubs and record companies would not buy it. Tim gave over three years to avant-garde exploration, developing it as much as he could and sacrificing both money and time for it. Where could he go from there? Most importantly, what new musical place could he now explore both artistically and commercially? Why not turn around and jump to the other extreme? Why not leap into barrelhouse rock and roll? It offered a new direction, a new set of artistic demands, a new context altogether — AND it offered the possibility of commercial success. These are also reasons why I call it “merger music.” He always followed his muse, and this was another outstanding example of it.
What was Tim’s approach to/ thoughts on the actual music business itself? He seems to have been a true lone ranger…
Indeed,Tim was a loner. He always put music before money, even when delving into the radio-oriented music of those last three albums. Sefronia and Look At The Fool, his final two recordings, for example, include not only some fun-loving, upbeat, shake-your-booty dance tunes along with some over-produced commercial slosh (e.g. Tom Waits’ “Martha”). They also include Fred Neil’s classic “Dolphins,” Tim’s own “Because of You,” “Look At The Fool,” “Who Could Deny You” and “Helpless” (four of his greatest songs). In addition, “Sally Go Round the Roses,” Ain’t it Peculiar” (and “Who Could Deny You”) three perhaps autobiographical songs that give a clear picture of his increasingly embittered state of mind during these last couple of years and the reasons he felt that way. Serious Buckley fans concerned about the end of his life might want to listen carefully to the lyrics of these pieces, especially in conjunction with “Look At The Fool.”
On this footage, Tim never comes off as a drug user at all. Part of the footage even sees him talking about inner city drug problems in a really intelligent way. Why do you think Tim got mixed up in heroin later?
All along the way, Tim remained non-addicted to drugs. That is, he utilized marijuana, acid and other substances primarily as catalytic agents for creativity. The notion of “recreational” drug use was not really appropriate for him, nor was the notion of addiction. Utilize? Yes. Relief? Yes. Junky? No. And again, why single him out in terms of drug use’s narrow characterization? He was a great conceptualizer and singer. That’s where the emphasis should be. Lots of people enjoy drugs. How many of them sing like he did, and how many of them record nine full studio albums in nine years? As for heroin, he stayed straight while working, then used heroin to come down from the intense pressures of being on the road. That last time around, heroin in conjunction with booze killed him, in part precisely because his system had been clean for two weeks.
What do you think he would have done, had he not died so young?
Who knows? He was a talented guy. He had in mind a song cycle collaboration with Larry Beckett based on Joseph Conrad’s Outcast of the Islands. He was thinking about re-recording some of his favourite songs from the beginning of his career to the present. He loved many of the great classic songs from the Thirties and Forties and may have recorded an album of standards. He looked good on camera and may have pursued acting. And I have no doubt that he would have continued writing and singing his own material as well.
10 years ago, people seemed to celebrate Tim for his groundbreaking, really out-there work, but the recent Rhino best of pretty much ignores that entire period. It seems the trend is to now celebrate his more straightforward recordings. Do you think there’s some revisionism going on, trying to put Tim into the box of the more traditional singer-songwriter?
Tim’s legacy is in the hands of business people now. They want to airbrush his image, both in terms of his musical life and his personal life. You know how that goes, appeal to mainstream listeners; make everything nice-nice; keep it simple, familiar, and warm-hearted; avoid the messy, the complex, or the truly deep and inspiring thoughts and challenging forms of music that motivated Tim. That’s why Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered is an important book, even if I say so myself. It is an honest book, insightful and appreciative both psychologically and artistically. It is not superficial and it is not a fanzine airbrushing of the realities. I was there. I knew him well. I thought about writing this book for 25 years and know what I’m talking about. Blue Melody is directed toward serious Tim listeners who respect Tim, not only for various favourite songs he sang, but for the extraordinary creative heights he achieved in his life and work in spite of his weaknesses, faults and mistakes. In some respects his shoes were tied together. He still ran a hell of a lot of touchdowns, didn’t he? Quite a guy.
Finally, as a player, how do you think your own playing developed over your time with Tim?
As Tim evolved, so I evolved. I started out as a simple folk picker on an acoustic Martin D-28 guitar. I moved with him through his folk, folk-rock, jazz and avant-garde periods (along the way developing an approach and style that utilized both hands on the electric guitar’s fret board, a little of which listeners can hear on some of Starsailor’s tracks). I was never a rock ‘n’ roller, so I did not participate in Tim’s final period. I went on to earn a living composing and performing my own music in Santa Fe, recording a mellow solo acoustic guitar tape entitled California Sigh. I switched to piano in 1996, and have recorded a solo piano CD of original music entitled Phantom Light.
- Jason Draper
UK magazine ‘Record Collector’, February 27th, 2007, “My Fleeting House” DVD