The Growing Mystique of Tim Buckley

He doesn’t talk very much and journalists are almost unanimous in their frustration of trying to get a word out of him. His presence is electric, almost disquieting, but he rarely says a word. He wrinkles his nose, flashes his eyes and contorts his mouth into a teasing scowl while he raises his eyebrows and creases his brow. When he smiles, his whole face crumples with mirth. But he rarely says a word to writers.

Friends describe him as shy, complicated and very uncomfortable with strangers. He changes his mind often–about everything–and is very hard to pin down. I saw literally hundreds of photographs at the Elektra publicity office, and he looks more at home in a serious visage than a smile. “That’s because the photographers were strangers,” I was told.

He stands, or more accurately, sways, on impossibly slender legs which seem devoid of inflexibilities. When he sits, which is most often on the floor in a corner, his arms and legs fall in a haphazard tangle as if they were folded up and put away when not in use.

You could get lost in his face. The photos showed him in a variety of poses, moods and changes, but with all their diversity one gets the niggling feeling that something is missed, something is lost; much, it would seem, is misunderstood.

Buckley’s intimate moments are on stage, and even then there is a paradoxical distance. He careens and weeps through elaborate poetic fugues, sometimes losing the words in the sound, writhing sensually behind an enormous Gibson twelve-string.
“For a moment he turned his face off-mic and trilled a riff of the melody with delirious abandon, a joyous ad lib for the moment, suspended, and somehow found his way back into the song…”
He sings in a passionate counter-tenor, skidding around the notes of a song as if possessed by the melodies…the songs, at times, seem to sing him. His eyes are nearly closed most of the time and when they open, briefly, for a contemplative moment they peer out from behind a jungle of dusky curls and recede. Aside from a few very glib introductions, he rarely says a word.

His mystique is not a staged or deliberate one; he’s a uniquely gifted artist whose sensitivities run deep–so deep it would be almost fearful to reach bottom and unthinkable to come over the top.

He spent two weeks in a recording studio in New York last March and none of the material is going to be used. It seems to have been an extremely uptight time for all concerned. There were hassles on the floor. The material, it was decided didn’t suit him, or could it have been the other way around?

That was the historic week of the opening of Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. He seemed to be under a strain, having to hold his fragile own surrounded by Big Brother and the Holding Company and the legendary bluesman, Albert King. But asking around the audience, I found that a good portion of them had come primarily to see him.

He took his own good time, as usual, tuning up and shuffling around the stage. Somebody yelled from the balcony: “Sock it to us, Timmy baby!” He mugged a high sign and broke into a crinkly grin, the tattered marionette transformed into a goofy kid.

And then he began to sing, receding into his special tousled grace for the love songs, all sad and heartsick, some almost violently agonized, and his own brand of grim, gutsy California countryside blues. For a moment he turned his face off mike and trilled a riff of the melody with delirious abandon, a joyous ad lib for the moment, suspended, and somehow found his way back into the song. His musicians, the elegantly black Carter C.C. Collins and bearded C/W guitarist Lee Underwood, fell in right behind him as if such wanderings were the most ordinary occurrence in the world.

At one point he took a backward glance and staggered into the light show, comically astonished, hopping around and shaking his head, laughing at his own burlesque, almost reluctant to return to the performance, obviously enjoying this enormous merry prank. He is slowly becoming a showman as well as a superlative performing artist, gradually letting the audience in. He is learning to trust himself.

But there was a new sadness in him throughout that performance beyond the delicate plaintiveness he embodies, a spark of uncommon resignation that played ever so slightly on his face which at times seems expressive in spite of himself. One wondered why he looked a little more forlorn this time around, a bit harried, a trifle weary and why his enormous eyes, traditionally misty were now decidedly clouded.

He’s what I call a “give” performer, so what does he get back? Success? Goodbye and Hello, his second album, has sold over 75,000 by now, and the first album, Tim Buckley, according to Elektra “increases its modest momentum each week of its life.” Appreciation? I have yet to see an audience leave a Buckley performance without the almost mystical breathlessness he inspires. Publicity? His clipping file weighs over five pounds.

He’s 21 years old, he’s about to be a star of monumental proportion. It scares him. He would leave soon for a four-week tour of Europe. There were troubles at the studio. Somebody suggested domestic problems. He has been married, I am told; there is a child somewhere…

He once told an interviewer: “The songs serve as sort of a diary. They are written about other people, sometimes for other people; a song is sometimes a present or a gift. I live for and with my music. It’s the only thing that’s real to me. We (Buckley and poet Larry Beckett with whom he collaborates) are getting into a whole concept of songwriting where the lyrics won’t be poverty stricken: they’ll be seen through other eyes. When you are poor you see everything through self-pity.”

His recent outburst of hostility about Elektra in the April HP is countered by his answer to a reporter from the Haverford (Conn.) News who asked him why he records for Elektra. “Nobody else would have me,” he replied. And Elektra, in their press biography, asserts “We must disqualify ourselves as critics and reviewers, for when it comes to the subject of Tim Buckley, we must confess that we love him too much to be quite objective.”

Which is not to imply that a performing and recording career, regardless of the label, is not inhumanly demanding. The recording sessions I refer to were held from one to five a.m. and he had to prepare for a major concert appearance in addition.

Tim Buckley walks on stage, slouches around his guitar and slings his guts against the wall. Somewhere in the audience a girl breaks down and weeps. I turn around and discover it is me.

I’ve got no cause for complaint if he rarely says a word.

– Ellen Sander
Hit Parader, 1968