Pure, Sweet, Kinky Honeyman

The “alternative” rock and roll scene has been intent on the excavation and exaltation of semi-obscure cult figures in the past few years, with sporadically talented people like Roky Erickson of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators getting the tribute disc treatment. So it seems amazing–to me, at least–that Tim Buckley remains for the most part ignored, at best recognized as the “avant-garde folksinger” father of Jeff, whose 1994 debut, Grace, saw him become the rock world’s newest Bright Young Thing. Yet describing Tim Buckley as a “folksinger” is like calling The Beatles a mere “pop band”: such a restrictive, narrow term doesn’t begin to tell the true story.

In reality, Tim Buckley was a musical chameleon, a man whose prodigious talent­­mainly expressed through an amazing multi-octave voice­­wouldn’t let him rest, who changed his musical stripes as often as David Bowie once changed costumes. As such, he most often left those who were transfixed by his previous incarnation behind: by the time they figured that one out, Buckley had already moved on down the road, hot on the trail of his elusive muse.

Radical stylistic metamorphoses which riled his corporate sponsors became the norm for Buckley, who seemed to delight in driving record company executives nuts. In fact, Buckley was a “punk” in the original musical sense of the term, more as a matter of sensibility than of three-chord riffs. He did what he wanted to do, even as others tried to convince him to do something else for money. Tim Buckley was his own man.

Buckley’s idiosyncratic muse took him at breakneck speed from the folk roots displayed on his 1966 self-titled debut, to the psychedelic folk-pop of his 1967 sophomore effort Goodbye And Hello. The latter release featured a sound which, combined with his photogenic good looks, saw Buckley hitting the Top 20 for the first and last time, making a semi-splash on the current 16 Magazine-styled “pop scene,” even making an eventual appearance on The Monkees TV show! Next followed the languid jazz (punctuated by the thumping R&B blast of the torrid “Gypsy Woman) of 1968’s Happy Sad, this newfound experimentalism culminating through a series of releases in the extreme avant-garde stylings of 1970’s Starsailor. Here, Buckley took the human voice to its furthest limits, yipping and yodeling in spasmodic, abstract spasms of psychosexual ecstasy whilst riding undulating waves of alinear, “out” backing music that didn’t bring to mind anything resembling “rock and roll, dude,” either then or now.

By going so far out so fast, Buckley finally found himself cut off from the rock world almost entirely, without a record label, playing concerts in tiny clubs, if at all. Finally, there was nowhere else to go but inside, back to the body and its beautiful and terrible needs and desires: Buckley thus re-emerged as The Honeyman, a soul shouter of blazing intensity with a take on matters sexual that made the viewpoint of “rock stars” like Mick Jagger seem puerile. This was to be the final phase of his career, which was cut short by an overdose of heroin on June 29, 1975. Honeyman ­­ the third, fine posthumous live Buckley release -­ documents this final phase, most thrillingly displayed on the material from 1972’s Greetings From L.A., an album every bit as breathtaking in its exploration of human sexuality, via bracingly frank lyrics and hotwired R&B and punk-funk rhythms, as Starsailor was in its heady trek through the cosmos.

Some members of the small but devoted Tim Buckley cult have taken it upon themselves through the years to downplay this latter phase of Buckley’s career, as if this “version” of Buckley were somehow less worthy, less pure than what came before. These people–no doubt the sort who were dismayed when Dylan went electric–will surely turn bright red upon hearing Honeyman, an album which often revels in subjects that squeamish middle-class types abhor, matters both sacred and profane which the Honeyman had taken it upon himself to discuss with thrilling gusto. This album, recorded before a small studio audience in November 1973, proves once and for all that latter-period live Buckley was, if anything, the best Buckley, as he ranges­­with his head still in the stars but his feet firmly fixed in the mud­­through material both early and late with equal amounts of aplomb, perhaps in his finest voice ever.

The album opens with a long-time Buckley fave, the elegant ballad “Dolphins,” a Fred Neil composition which was featured on his then-current album Sefronia, but had in fact been in his live repertoire for years (an earlier version appears on 1990’s double-live album, Dream Letter: Live In London 1968)

A sweeping, elegiac number which revolves around the line “this old world will never change,” this version is no great departure from the previous ones, but it does prove once again that Buckley could have ruled the world as a Sinatra-esque balladeer if he had ever deigned to do so. If anything, the yearning romanticism of a number like “Dolphins”–and the following number, “Buzzin’ Fly” (from Happy/Sad)–becomes more resonant in the company of some of the scorching funk-rockers to come: Buckley had simply widened his artistic scope, and could now encompass light, darkness and all shades in-between in his work.

As Buckley makes his way through the initial older material here, however, you can literally hear the Honeyman itching to get loose, this being evident in some of the hyper vocal inflections and asides which only appeared during the late phase of his career. Thus, there is literally an explosion of energy as the band (with an especially smoking Joe Falsia, who joined the band around the time of Greetings From L.A., replacing longtime Buckley cohort Lee Underwood on lead guitar) finally head into the incredible “Get On Top” from Greetings. Punkish in intensity, and lyrically direct (“Like a bitch dog in heat honey / we had those bed springs a-squeakin’ all night long”) the Honeyman immediately hits his stride here, scatting and yodeling up, down and around the musical scale, and you can only sit open-mouthed as the band crash on through to the next song, “Devil Eyes,” (also from Greetings), and proceed to cut the studio version to ribbons, Falsia sharply redefining the song’s main riff as a thermonuclear James Brown tribute hovering on the verge of meltdown.

Buckley responds feverishly to the band’s challenge, finally taking things down low over the funky backbeat supplied by Buddy Helm: “I said woman, roll those black silk stockings down . . . I want to lick those stretch marks honey . . . I got to talk in tongues, now.” And then he does. This is truly delirious music in every sense of the word.

After the climax of “Devil Eyes,” things come back down to earth gorgeously with the afterglow provided by another older number, “Pleasant Street,” from Goodbye & Hello. This version beautifully transforms the spacey psych-pop of the original into a more languid r&b ballad, courtesy of some ace soloing by Falsia and some added rhythmic juice from the rest of the band. What once seemed a romantic plea for a kind of hippy utopia now seems far darker, much closer to the junkie’s longing for drug-induced oblivion: “Lord, I can’t hesitate / and I can’t wait, for Pleasant Street . . . I love my little Pleasant Street” wails Buckley desperately. Then it’s off to his downright oily cover of the Jaynettes (an early 60s “girl-group” a la the Ronnettes) “Sally Go Round The Roses,” the Honeyman persona back in full force with a spoken word intro to a song first heard “way back when you were sniffin’ amyl nitrate and sniffin’ glue / and climbin’ all over that little girl in the back of your daddy’s car / you had one foot in the glove compartment / and the other toe was tryin’ to change the dial on the radio.”

Perversely, the Honeyman shifts the original’s innocent lyrical intent to a much kinkier situation, as he moans that “the saddest thing in the whole wide world / is to find your baby’s been layin’ with another girl,” before finally resolving to go downtown and “drink myself blind / because “it’s been a long time since I’ve had my way . . . I wanna do that drunken belly roll.” Perhaps only Lou Reed’s mid-’70s work was ever as emotionally frank as this.

Of the three remaining songs, only the next, “Stone In Love” (from Sefronia), prevents Honeyman from being an all-out classic, as it is a fairly pedestrian (if only by Buckley’s standards) funk workout, which, while far from hard on the ears, is just too easy to ignore, with only an inspired solo by Falsia elevating things above the merely ordinary. Things rise back to their usual majestic level, however, on the following title track (also from Sefronia), Buckley now in full-on white-bluesman mode, taking his latest persona to the limit: “You can’t hold out against a boy / who is whiskey-faced / and honey slow, alright” he warns the object of his affections. Again, Falsia, who emerges as the unsung hero here, drives the proceedings to a higher level with some funkified wah-wah guitar, as Buckley turns in a truly unhinged segment of blues scatting that truly sounds like the aural emissions of a man possessed. If the blues idiom­­especially that odd sub-genre known as “white-boy” blues­­has often been guilty of producing uninspired, assembly-line product, Buckley’s performance here once again proves that the form itself is always alive with inherent possibilities, merely waiting for someone worthy to come and exploit them. The performance here is pure voodoo, and never mind the “white-boy” tag: this kind of magic is colourblind.

Thematically, “Sweet Surrender” provides no false resolution, but only the finally liberating knowledge of true human motivation: “But now you’re gonna go out and get yourself a reputation” Buckley acknowledges, “But I’m gonna have to show you where to start / And then you’re gonna bring back your little reputation / And prove to me what I could not prove to you.” The album thus ends on the highest of its many high notes.

Honeyman, no doubt, won’t end up on the Top 10 of ’95 lists of many rock critics, dominated as those usually are by trend-of-the- moment nonentities usually forgotten by the time of the following year’s poll, or by “living legends” usually far past their prime. No doubt the continuing fact of his obscurity wouldn’t surprise Tim Buckley, who it seems was not only miles ahead of his time, but of ours as well. Nonetheless, this entry, alone among those released in 95, is in a league by itself, as everything Buckley did was. And for those rare but enlightened Buckley fans who have by now memorized every single lick of Greetings From L.A., Honeyman is surely a dream come true. Far more than just some thoroughbred cult stud who produced a talented colt, Tim Buckley, as this album proves, was one of the greatest performers of popular music of any genre to yet appear on the face of Planet Earth.

Last but certainly not least comes Greetings From L.A.’s “Sweet Surrender,” which gets my vote for the best Buckley composition of all time. Lyrically a frank tale dealing with the confessions of a male adulterer to his partner (“Well you wanna know the reason / Why I cheated on you / Well I had to be a hunter again / This little man had to try /to make love feel new again”), Buckley’s impassioned vocal turn takes this song to new heights, eclipsing even the sterling studio version. This is hallowed soul music, the sacred and the profane yoked together, a music whose power is only equalled in Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, maybe the greatest record ever made by anybody, and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, one of its main rivals. Falsia once again slightly restructures the song’s main riff, until what we have in tone is the companion piece to Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”: sublime, sanctified R&B.

– Johnny Walker