Talking In Tongues

If Tim Buckley was alive today I’d probably get in touch with him to apologise. You probably don’t remember me, I’d say, but I interviewed you in a Hollywood rehearsal studio in September 1972 when you were just getting ready to go on the road supporting Frank Zappa. The fact is I never did write a story based on that encounter and so your then-new album, Greetings From LA, didn’t get the plug you may have wanted.

It was my first trip to America, I’d been put on to you after asking Warner Brothers whether they had anyone I could interview for England, and I’d been given no press kit. I’m sure you noticed that I never asked a question about any of your songs. To be honest, I didn’t know much about you at the time. I’d seen that photo of you which went out on the Goodbye & Hello album cover, and I’d heard some album tracks which John Peel would play on his Sunday afternoon radio show here in England — Once I Was, No Man Can Find The War and, of course, Morning Glory.

Playing back the tape I can sense your frustration with this young Englishman who seemed determined to classify you as a rock star and who looked a bit blank when you mentioned the likes of Eric Dolphy and Krzyysztof Penderecki. Yet you said your piece. What shines through clearly 23 years later is your tenacious commitment to your art and determination to cross musical boundaries.

So, I’m sorry for not understanding back in 1972. I hope we’d get on a lot better now.

# How did you begin playing music?

I had the mumps and my mother bought me a banjo and I started playing. I must have been about 11. I just started learning music and stuff — learning to read and learning how to play certain songs. Then I took up guitar and began playing with country and western bands when I was 15 years old.

# Did you work the folk club circuit in the early days?

In those days — 1962 and 1963 — they were just starting to have folk clubs and they were a big thing. Then I discovered I could sing and I started learning how to do that, because I hadn’t done it before.

# So you’ve been a professional musician ever since you left college?

High school. I didn’t go to college. I did my first album in 1966 and then I was discovered in 1969!

# Are you selling more albums with each release?

No. They’ve each sold about the same number. The last one [Greetings From LA] has sold more because it’s very commercial. It’s getting a lot of AM and FM radio play and it’s selling a lot more than some of the more creative albums I’ve done. I don’t really know about record sales. I guess 80,000 – 100,000. Around there all the time. But there were a couple of things that were to my mind creative which didn’t sell that well.

# Are you happy to remain the secret of a few?

I don’t care if you said to me, “You’re never going to record in this town again”. I’d still record and I’d still create. I don’t need the rock world to be a person or a singer or a musician or to play for people. All I have to do is walk up on a stage and play

# But if people stopped turning out to see you?

I’d call up Miles Davis and say, “Hey Miles, Hollywood’s against me. Can I come and sit in with you?” He’d say “Sure,” and I’d go on and sing with his people and with him. I don’t really think about record sales. It’s nice that the businessmen are happy because that does allow me a certain amount of freedom but I really don’t think about it. The only thing worth doing in moderation is fame because it’s such a bullshit trap. If you’re famous you have to play a lot of places all year. You live in a lot of hotels. You have no family. You have a lot of empty relationships with women which you can’t fullfil because you’re only one day in each place. Fame is really a trap unless it’s done in moderation. With drinking or sex you can forget about moderation, but anyone who is creative is chained to fame. It’s terrible.

I haven’t deliberately avoided fame. It’s just that I’m too odd for the white middle-class. But I’m happy. I get to create. There’s nobody like me so they’ve got to keep me around. It’s like the predicament of Roland Kirk. Nobody’s going to cut Roland but 300,000 people aren’t going to go to his concerts like they might go to a Stones concert. Roland’s expressing too much for people to accept.

# Is it really a chore for you to write commercial material as you suggest you have done on Greetings From LA?

Pretty much. Ball and chain on the old brain! I don’t see it as a compromise though. It’s just part of my life having to do something like that and doing it the best that I could. You always try to do the
best you can do, right? When you run out of ideas for a particular type of song you have to move on. In my early career it was the semi-rock folk ballad which was a pretty creative form of song, because it got you to stretch out and it enabled you to say a lot. It was almost like an art song. But then when I started playing more gigs and going out on stage just before the psychedelic people it was fruitless to do an art song, so I stretched out by experimenting with rhythms and time signatures. Having the voice that I do I became more and more an instrument. I became more and more about my voice.

# You began to regard your voice as more of an instrument?

I always had been an instrument but I hadn’t used it that way, because when you write a song you become a slave to the lyrics.

# Where did your vocal technique come from?

I developed it. I was inspired, I suppose, by classical people — Penderecki, Boulez, Messiaen. As far as forms of music go I really don’t listen to pop or rock’n’roll. I don’t read rock magazines although I think when you’re out of work you read Downbeat because there are some interesting writers in that magazine who write about music specifically rather than about showbiz. Show business is fine but I’m pretty much involved in music alone — in playing it and performing it and in entertaining.

# Is your guitar playing as important to you as your singing?

All my writing is done on guitar but I’m not a guitar virtuoso. There are too many great cats around for that. I have a very good guitarist working with me now called Lee Underwood. I can’t relate between my guitar playing and my singing. I sing so full-out that I couldn’t think about playing along with it.

# You talk about “art songs”. What’s an art song?

A song I wrote called Goodbye & Hello is pretty much an art song. I guess an art song is like a Kurt Weill or a Jacques Brel song.

# Should it tell a story?

Anything can tell a story if you’re not at a party listening to a record. Jacques Brel tells a story specifically through his lyrics, but when I listen to John Coltrane that man tells me the story of his life
just by playing what he plays. He tells me about Chicago and he tells me about New York and Harlem. He tells me about being a musician and he tells me all of his love just by what he plays. That’s how it is to my mind. I don’t expect anyone else to feel that way. I don’t think that you have to convey a story through words alone. In fact, words can be pretty inadequate because words which sound good in songs don’t always mean what you would want them to mean.

# They could also mean more than you want them to mean.

Yes, conversely! Talking in tongues is the best.

# Is that what you think you do?

In a way. When I’m inspired. Gospel music and modern classical music are the only two musics I would really trust.

# Do you really think you speak in tongues?

I do.

# Is it a gift from God?

No. It’s a gift of humanity. I don’t know anything about God or religion or anything like that. I just believe in people and what can happen between people. Being a musician I see the power of music much more than I see the power of God.

# What is that power?

Music. It’s the total communication between people in a room. You can take me to a political rally and the relationship between the politics and the people is pretty far removed, so that room doesn’t cook. I see music and religion — like the gospel thing — and that cooks. But I see the music as separate from God. The people may do it out of praise for God, but what happens in that situation happens because the people are singing their souls out. You can’t talk in tongues without other people communicating back to you to their fullest extent. That is basically what black jazz is all about — Coltrane, Miles, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy and people like that. I don’t go for everything in jazz but there are some great people in it. Certain rock’n’roll people are great. Hendrix is great, Clapton was great. But basically I like gospel and classical music.

# Do you collect gospel records?

I don’t collect anything. I listen to gospel music on the radio on a Sunday. It’s great to drive to.

# You sound as though you see yourself as totally separated from the rock business.

Business I’m certainly divorced from. Rock? I’ve really never known a rock musician that I could talk to for longer than five minutes at one time. What is there to talk about? The musicians I have played with and the musicians I play with now I feel a phenomenal empathy with, but rock’n’roll I don’t know anything about. People like Elton John get away with so much that I don’t understand how they do it. Basically I think it’s due to the mediocrity of the last decade.

# Are lyrics important to you?

Yes, but it’s hard being a lyricist now because there are so many of them around. I remember in the mid-’60s not many people wrote their own lyrics and it was easier to be unique as a singer-songwriter. Today there are so many so-called poets traipsing about the land and turning up on the Dick Clark show. Everybody has a message, of course, and there are incredible depths of meaning to their lyrics! It’s harder to be unique being a lyricist who sings today than it was five years ago.

– Steve Turner