Pre-Publication Interview with Lee Underwood
Lee Underwood’s much-anticipated book, Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered, is partly a biography of the great singer and songwriter, and partly a memoir of Underwood’s life during his years as Buckley’s lead guitarist. Underwood played on seven of the nine albums Buckley recorded during his lifetime, and remained one of Buckley’s closest friends until the troubadour’s untimely death in 1975 at age 28.
This is Underwood’s first interview about Blue Melody, conducted shortly before the book’s publication by Toni Diaz and Riny van Eijk in November, 2002.
- When did you start writing Blue Melody, and what inspired you to do so?
I began conceiving the idea of a book about Tim back in 1977, two years after he died, when I interviewed several people who knew him. In 1997, twenty years later, I made my first effort to write it (calling it Tim Buckley: Starsailor). But then Tim’s singer/songwriter son, Jeff, died and there was no market for Starsailor, because everybody wanted a book on Jeff, not Tim. I stopped writing the Tim book, but nevertheless put in a great deal of time, money, and heartache continuing my efforts to get somebody interested in publishing Tim’s story. In 1999, without a contract, I started at the beginning one last time, wrote the entire manuscript in three months (June-August), and kept contacting publishers. In 2001, Backbeat Books in San Francisco saw the value in the story, and here we are today. From start to finish, Blue Melody took 25 years. I was inspired by Tim’s brilliance, by our interactions as friends, by the events of our lives, and by the music.
- How is Blue Melody different from the Tim sections of David Browne’s book Dream Brother?
I wrote Blue Melody some two years before Dream Brother appeared. When I read that work, I thought Browne did a splendid job researching Tim’s life and presenting the information he had accumulated. At the same time, he did not know Tim personally; he is not psychologically oriented; and he never even saw Tim perform live, so a certain kind of experiential insight is missing. Browne admittedly wanted to write about Jeff, not Tim, and yet in spite of that bias did a good job covering the external facts of Tim’s activities, skimming through the highlights in well-honed journalistic fashion. I knew Tim as a close friend, worked with him for over six years, remained a friend until he died two years later, and have been thinking about his life and work since 1966. I have a clear perspective of his inner psychological workings, a great appreciation of his aesthetic evolution, and an enormous respect for his creative strength. In other words, I include Tim’s external public life, and delve into his inner life as well. Browne and a few people on the web chipped away at a few of my surprises while I was trying to get Blue Melody published, but there is still an abundance remaining. I explore Tim’s psyche and celebrate his heroic stature as an artist, which Browne and others missed. I also tell numerous personal tales about Tim and myself and the people we knew, giving lots of insight and inside information never before seen in print. In addition, I provide a considerably fuller picture of my own life and work within Tim’s context than Browne did.
- Besides writing the book, what else have you been up to lately? Anything music-related?
I played guitar professionally until only a few years ago. When I finally set it aside in 1996, I took up piano. I am very much involved with original piano music, either improvised completely from scratch, or revolving around certain repeated themes that weave themselves in and out of spontaneous free-flights. I have performed several concerts locally and on the road in central California, and am thinking about recording a CD. As always, I continue writing poetry and prose, and have been hard at work on a book entitled Watch, Listen, Know: The American Journey of a Universal Mystic. It’s a fictional work in which music plays a paramount role in the main character’s evolutionary psycho-spiritual development.
- You often mention the quality of evolution when you talk about Tim.
Yes, because it is so relevant to his personal and artistic development. It is a key concept when it comes to understanding Tim Buckley and the full scope of his life and art. It is not as if he worked in an office, then went home to a different life and a different set of values. His life was his work and his play. His work and his play were his life. They were not separate. That is why his own songs were nearly 100% autobiographical, and his developmental progress was central to his growth as a human being and an artist. Tim said what he had to, and we who remain have the music—which dates back more than 35 years, and is still going strong. Tim did not let his detractors annihilate him. He kept on evolving and changing. He did it right as an artist, and those of us who have open ears and a receptive heart reap the benefits.
- I think much of Tim’s music is as good today was it was all those many years ago. Do you agree?
Whole heartedly, yes. That very same evolutionary developmental quality we just talked about is also why Tim and much of his music touch so many people in this new century. His maturity and intelligence infused some of those songs with a timeless quality, because he spoke not from his past, but from his own pure present. As a result, those who loved him then can love him today without having to drift into nostalgia, because so much of his music remains in the present, stylistically undated, without time. Here we are, and here’s the music. There is no gap. He does not exist as a relic in a Top 40 Memory Lane museum. We do not have to travel backwards inside our lifestream in order to be touched by Tim’s music in the living present. We can if we want to, of course. I am just saying it is not a prerequisite. And new listeners are thrilled to discover a musican from yesterday’s era who sounds incredibly relevant to the here-and-now passions and sorrows and joys of life as we live them this very moment. Again, there is no gap. In both ways, a great deal of Tim’s music remains contemporary.
These are some of the reasons I speak of Tim’s exploratory nature, his liberated mind, his willingness to step outside the moronic limitations of conventional thinking, and his evolutionary development both as a man and an artist. In a thousand ways he was a Starsailor.
- During the fall of 1966 and the winter of 1967 you performed a lot, was there already some track of chord progressions near jazz?
Actually, during the fall of 1966, we were recording the first album, Tim Buckley, and then waiting for its release. We were broke in L.A., living mostly on beans and optimism. Then, a year later, we recorded Goodbye and Hello. During that interim Tim spent time in New York as a solo player, then worked with conga player Carter Collins, while I played guitar in a few other groups out here in California, some of which played jazz standards. As a listener, my love of jazz went back to the ’50s. During the ’70s I wrote a great deal about jazz and jazz musicians for a variety of magazines, especially in its emergent new forms. Jazz grows too. It does not stay locked in ’50s bebop, although many of its listeners seems to think it does. In the late ’70s as a listener/writer, I left jazz, and rarely look back. As a player, I don’t do anything on piano that remotely refers to jazz stylings. Most of my listening today has little or nothing to do with music per se. I spend a lot of time listening to the stream that runs past my two-storey cabin and to wind whispering through the pines. If we grow in our hearts and minds, we find that art music leads to natural music, and natural music leads to inner silence. The music I play on piano emerges out of that silence and hopefully leads the receptive listener into the same place.
- Although many reviews use to assimilate Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, what’s the difference between the respective vocal styles of Tim and Fred, justly two singers who were light years from the others?
Tim and Larry Beckett heard Fred record “The Dolphins” and some of the other great Fred Neil songs in a studio in New York. Needless to say, Tim’s mind was blown wide open, not only by Fred’s incredible baritone/tenor voice, but by the fact that Fred never did two takes of the same song the same way twice. Everything was different each time—Fred’s phrasing, the instrumental improvisations, the subtle shadings. And Fred, of course, had enormous heart, soul, passion, and power in his music in those early days. As well, he was an individualist, not a cardboard cutout industrial showbizzer. So Tim learned a lot from this initial contact with Fred. I think the four main things were: loyalty and dedication to music above all; naked honesty; unbridled passion; and courageous freedom tempered by responsible intelligence.
As for differences between styles, well, Tim moved beyond his early folk stylings, while Fred never moved at all. Fred stayed more or less stuck in the same musical grove and the same self-pitying emotional posture. Tim grew, while Fred remained inert and finally dropped out of professional music altogether. Fred was a gentle guy who would rather sing to dolphins than cater to jaded New Yorkers. Tim was fiery and prolific. He was driven by creativity. He had no time to sit still. Fred could lay back on his royalties from “Everybody’s Talkin’” and fritter away his life any way he saw fit. Tim was a Starsailor exploring life through his music—and music through his life.
- Which is your preferred version of “Dolphins”?
I wouldn’t presume to make comparisons. They were both great. I will say, however, that I have heard a number of other people attempt to sing it, and in my opinion nobody except Fred and Tim could do that song justice. Others lacked either the vocal power or the emotional intensity, or both.
- Did Tim get to listen to the raga guitar excursions that Fred Neil or Richie Havens made in some of his LPs and in the Village clubs, when Tim hung out there? “I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain”, “Gypsy Woman”, and “TheTrain” seems to me pretty influenced by Havens. Did he get to play with him? He always told that he played with Eric Clapton and Tim Hardin backstage…
Tim listened to Richie and Fred’s albums, and often indicated in interviews that he regarded both singers as authentic, serious, dedicated musicians. He liked their music and respected them as writers and players. He knew Fred personally in the Village. Fred and Richie’s “raga excursions” meant a lot to Tim, as you heard when he launched into “Gypsy Woman” and took it out there for long stretches. The whole notion of expanding beyond constricted song forms and delving ever-further into improvisational freedom may well have come from Neil and Havens, at least in part, and of course definitely from jazz people, who were musically more sophisticated than the pop bands of the day. Tim particularly liked Miles Davis and Roland Kirk.
I don’t personally know if Tim ever played with Clapton or Hardin backstage. He regarded the blues as an outmoded form, and that was pretty much the only thing Clapton played. And I never heard him say anything nice about Hardin. But these things, if they took place, occurred during that interim in ’67 when Tim was back in New York alone, and I was in California, just before Goodbye and Hello.
- Do you think that Goodbye & Hello could have been a better album if it had been produced in another way, maybe more acoustic and less pop-arranged oriented?
I would have defer to Tim and Larry Beckett’s judgment on that. It seems to me that they and producer Jerry Yester did a terrific job. Part of the goal was to create a pop music album, which they succeeded in doing. At the same time, my personal favorites on G & H are primarily acoustic, including “Pleasant Street,” “Hallucinations,” “I Never Asked to be Your Mountain,” and “Once I Was.” On Goodbye and Hello, everything clicked: the music and the arrangments and the thinking matched the times. Ironically, because it fit the times so well, it is now regarded as Tim’s most dated album. Many of his other works, such as Happy Sad, Starsailor or Greetings From L.A.,stand apart from passing sociological phenomena. They don’t date as much, if at all, and thereby remain contemporary. But I think Goodbye and Hello is one of Tim’s best works. It would probably be presumptuous of me to suggest that I or anybody else could have done it better. Jerry Yester was the perfect producer for that album. He did a great job. And Tim and Larry were the perfect song-writing team at that time.
- Tim and you grew together musical-wise. Which one of his qualities do you think helped him come into the instrumental freedom that commenced to develop clearly in 1968? His voice, his songs, his concept of music…?
His songs and the use of his voice were extensions of his on-going conceptual development. Inner changes brought outer changes, right? He was always searching inwardly for new dimensions. “Creativity” was his middle name. “Change” was his watchword. And wherever he took it, he was gifted with a voice that could do it phenomenally well. Let me say it another way. Tim explored himself in multiple dimensions and came to know himself far better than most people do in lives that last a lot longer. As he explored his interiority, learning and growing while journeying through the sometimes beautiful, dangerous, or slightly kinky by-ways of his heart and mind, he discovered new dimensions in himself, which generated new musical concepts, which generated new kinds of music. That’s why he moved through five different stylistic phases: folk, folk-rock, jazz, avant-garde, funk-rock. He was continually flowering. He never stopped moving, changing, growing. Of course that drove the stick-in-the-muds crazy. Still does. Myself, I found his journey enormously exciting and rewarding both as a player and as a listener. New listeners today are discovering that excitement for themselves. It’s great to see. It is my hope that Blue Melody will give them some insight into how Tim’s mind worked and a few helpful handles for exploring the music.
- Jerry Yester has said that he had nothing to do with Happy Sad, as if Tim’s expansion leap hadn’t allowed him to produce the album. If Yester wasn’t the producer, who was? Tim himself?
I am not aware that Jerry Yester has said he had nothing to do with producing Happy Sad. Yester and Zal Yanovsky officially represented Elektra’s corporate business interests. They were the suits who got the producers’ credit. I think the problem you are pointing to has to do with Yester’s resentment about his superflous role in Tim’s musical approach to Happy Sad. Yester was a great help to Tim with Goodbye and Hello, but when Happy Sad rolled around, Tim was not interested in Yester’s pop mentality approach to corporate business-music. Tim regarded Yester as a disgruntled functionary who kept trying to insert irrelevant opinions into the mix and assert his authority instead of simply turning a few knobs and tweeking a few dials the way Tim wanted him to. Evidently, Yester saw himself as being musically irrelevant, tolerated merely as a peripheral functionary. His ego got singed. Since then, he has seen fit to trash Tim and the rest of us without provocation. I take time to deal with this issue only to defend Tim and his musicians against uncalled for abuse. I am not sure why journalists give Yester credibility in the first place. He was just a technician who over 30 years ago made things a little difficult, and has been stuck like a fly in the vanilla pudding ever since. Nobody asks about other producers in Tim’s life. Why not Paul Rothchild or David Anderle, both of whom were considerably more interesting? In the name of commercial radio music Yester tried to disrupt our creative process. To his chagrin, he failed. Nevertheless, in spite of his well-meaning efforts to sidetrack Tim, Happy Sad remains one of Tim’s most popular and successful albums. Isn’t that ironic? Yester has nothing to complain about. He still gets the producer’s credit and a little publicity every time a rock journalist talks about Happy Sad. For all I know, he’s still raking in producer’s royalties as well.
Long story short: Tim did it his way. Yester gets to laugh all the way to the bank. Those who actually played the music and did the work receive no royalties whatsoever, but they can feel proud of what they accomplished. Personally, that’s fine with me. Pride in the music is a heck of a lot more satisfying than a few cheap bucks, and lot more nourishing than bitter memories. Everybody except Yester had a wonderful time working on Happy Sad. Too bad he missed. His loss, not ours. He is as irrelevant now as he was then. Instead of talking about him, I’d rather listen to “Sing a Song for You.” The music is what counts. Happily, much of Happy Sad’s music endures forever, which is exactly what we were going for.
- You have always said that you don’t like Blue Afternoon that much. Was it because that album wasn’t created as a whole concept, but that it was kind of a collection of old unreleased takes to keep Herb Cohen happy?
Thank you for asking that question, because certain journalists have misinterpreted my statements about Blue Afternoon, and those misinterpretations have sustained themselves over the years. For the record, I think Blue Afternoon is a terrific collection of wonderful songs, including “Blue Melody,” one of my all-time favorite Buckley compositions. I even named my book Blue Melody after that song. The reason this notion persists, I think, is because Blue Afternoon, with its conceptual extension of Tim’s Happy Sad middle-ground jazz orientation, was recorded after Lorca. By the time Tim had evolved into the beginnings of his avant-garde phase with Lorca, it was conceptually regressive to go back to Happy Sad’s aesthetic perspective for Blue Afternoon. I pointed that fact out in print. Certain people later misinterpreted that comment and said I didn’t “like” Blue Afternoon. Pure balderdash, silliness, and horn-swaggled twaddle! Some of Tim’s all-time great songs are on that album, and I would love to see it re-issued. True, Blue Afternoon was a collection of old songs, but it was not a collection of unreleased out-takes from previous recording sessions. We recorded them new and fresh specifically for that album. And Blue Afternoon was not recorded just to keep Herb Cohen happy. Tim knew Lorca was unlikely to be a big hit in the marketplace. He loved Blue Afternoon’s old tunes, which had found no home elsewhere. He was shifting labels, moving from Elektra to Herb’s new label, Straight, and he wanted to help give that label a commercial launch. For all of those reasons, Tim and the rest of us worked as hard as we could on Blue Afternoon, even though it was a conceptual step backwards; we had little time in which to record it; and it was somewhat difficult adjusting to those conditions. So it was a mixed atmosphere, a kind of aesthetic detour, but it was also an effort that Tim wanted and needed to make. Needless to say, it was not the commercial success Herb and Tim and others hoped it would be. A lot of critics totally trashed it. And yet today it is one of his most sought after albums! After recording Blue Afternoon, Tim got back on track. He immediately returned to the work he had already begun on Starsailor. Detour over. Return to the living present. Straight ahead—up and out into the stratosphere!
- It is evident that the band, since early 1968, started to improvise live, but did Tim improvise the lyrics too? Where did he take them from?
Although Tim was not well educated (a high school graduate), he was a very bright guy. He had a marvelous feel for language, for words and ways to use them, not as an acrobatic academician might, but as extensions of intimate, heartfelt emotion. The more he moved in the direction of free-form instrumental improvisation, the more he explored vocal and verbal improvisations too, spontaneously creating verses and sometimes whole songs on the spot, especially during the Lorca and Starsailor period. In his last phase, Greetings From L.A., Sefronia, and Look at the Fool, he composed songs with set lyrics (more or less), and left room for vocal and instrumental improvisations as well. I call that period “mergence music,” because he included all of his previous concepts within the new funk-rock context.
- After you quit the band at the end of 1970, did you keep track of Tim’s live performances? What facts do you remember from that period after he gave up the live sets and before the Greetings From LA recording?
I played in various groups of his into 1973, and was friends with him until the end in 1975. Although I did not attend his gigs on the road outside of the L.A. area, I did see him in Escondido with two different Starsailor bands in 1970 and ’71. I played with him during the Sefronia tour in 1973. In 1975, I saw him at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach and at the Starwood in Hollywood (his last L.A. gig). I remember a great deal about that period, far more than we can talk about here. However, in Blue Melody I go into detail about the years between 1970 and 1975. Things got pretty crazy in there for both of us.
- Do you think that, at the end of his career, with his last two albums, the businessmen won the battle? Why did he allow the producers to do what they wanted?
I do not think of that as a one-sided situation. Tim explored Starsailor’s concepts to the hilt. Herb Cohen could not sell that music, because not enough people wanted to buy it. Having fulfilled the Starsailor concepts, and needing a new direction, where else could Tim go? Judy, his wife, was capable of understanding sex-oriented body music. Tim liked to play it. Herb could sell it. Greetings launched a whole new phase, and Tim re-created himself for the fifth time. That’s it in a nutshell. In the book, I explore some of the complexities at greater length. Personally, I think some of Tim’s most potent and touchingly beautiful songs came out of his final three albums, including “Sweet Surrender,” “Because of You,” “Who Could Deny You,” and “Look At the Fool.” The more upbeat sex romps like “Move With Me” or “Honey Man” are a heck of a lot of fun, great for dancing.
- There has been some talk about Tim’s problems with drugs. Some say he was addicted. Others say not. What is your view?
Tim used different substances at different times of his life, but was not addicted to any one of them. That is, he used drugs and alcohol, sometimes in excess, but straightened up whenever he needed or wanted to. As for his death, the coroner, Dr. Choi, testified in court that there were no needle marks and no signs of addiction. Tim had been clean for two or three weeks on that last road tour. When he returned, he snorted heroin on top of a few drinks. The combination proved too much for his clean system. Journalists always mention the heroin part, but leave out the alcohol, which makes him sound like a junky, which he was not, and they never mention that his system was clean and Dr. Choi said addiction was not involved. It was an accidental overdose, and Tim chose to snort the heroin himself. He was responsible for his own actions, nobody else.
I am legally prevented from talking about the reasons why he went to the friend’s house instead of going directly home from the airport that fateful Sunday, except to say he was not a junky, even though he snorted the heroin. Joe Falsia, Tim’s last lead guitarist, has stated publically that Tim was upset and concerned about something, although he didn’t know what, and he appears to be right. Tim had reasons other than heroin for going to the friend’s house, but I cannot discuss them.
- Some people say there were questionable circumstances surrounding his dying, and maybe cover-ups afterwards. What do you say?
I interviewed the key people involved and concluded that there was no “murder,” no “conspiracy,” no “tainted dope,” and no reason at the time to think Tim had ingested more heroin and alcohol than he had on numerous previous occasions with impunity. His overdose became apparent only after the fact. I talk about Tim’s objective behavior in the book, but am legally constrained from discussing questions of motivation. To the extent that his songs may be autobiographical, he himself says a great deal about certain aspects of his own state of mind during that last period in pieces like “Look At the Fool,” “Sweet Surrender,” “Who Could Deny You,” “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses,” “Ain’t It Peculiar,” and a few others. They reveal a lot. Other than that, I can only suggest that all questions about circumstances and motivation and various relationships before and after Tim’s death should be directed elsewhere. I am legally allowed to say that in my opinion the friend who gave Tim the heroin and spent four months in jail for it got rail-roaded.
- Do you still listen to Tim’s albums and do you have a favourite?
While writing the book, I of course listened to different pieces for different reasons. And every once in a while, aside from writing, I play an album and simply drift away into the music, re-living some of the old days with their beautiful pictures of Venice and the ocean, our friends Larry and Jainie and Danny and Jennifer, seeing Tim in my mind on stage or on airplanes or in buses, the marvelous concerts we played, the recording sessions, the wonderful people we met, the friends and lovers I will never forget. Memories of those days and times are there for me. They will always be there, of course. I treasure them and share them with you in the book. And once in a while I go back and listen to the music too, not very often, but sometimes. And I always find something new and beautiful in it. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite album of Tim’s, because there is so much good music on each of them. So my selection of Happy Sad is purely personal. It does not indicate a value judgement against other albums or other musical stages Tim went through. It is merely a simple acknowledgement of the recording that is closest to my heart. Meanwhile, I dearly love dozens of songs from his other albums too.
Thank you for your questions, Antonio and Riny. I greatly appreciate your interest in Tim and the music. It has been a pleasure talking with you. I wish you and the readers well.
Written permission from Lee Underwood must be obtained before reprinting any part of this interview in any form or fashion, except for brief excerpts for purposes of review.
Lee Underwood photo by John Balkin.