The following interview took place in April 1975, two months before Tim Buckley’s death by chemical misadventure. He had just removed himself from the cross fire between his management firm and his record company and had an upcoming date at the Starwood club in Hollywood, so he was eager to talk to the press. He was open to discussing his entire career and some of the philosophical underpinnings of his music, not just his then-current situation, and came off as one of the brightest people I’ve talked to in 12 years of interviewing. After his stupid, tragic death, some spoke of him as a burnout, but this was definitely not the case. His Starwood show was a success, a far cry from his Bitter End West gig a few years earlier with the Starsailor band, where he had had to charm the waitresses out of cleaning all the tables off so he could do a couple more tunes at the end of the night. He drew a healthy crowd to the Starwood and the music was fit as well. Older tunes like “Buzzin’ Fly” and newer ones like “Get On Top Of Me, Woman” both benefited from his quintets solid if hardly exploratory, funk-rock style and his voice was in fine form. Backstage, Buckley told me that plans were in the works for a live album; it was never to be.
Listening back to this interview tape, a chilling moment occurred at the end when, after Buckley had mentioned Lenny Bruce several times, I noted that Bruce had a reissue album on the charts. The idea that Bruce could have a posthumous hit cracked Buckley up but good. Yet in 1984, Rhino Records issued a Best of Tim Buckley LP and his star is once again on the rise, particularly in England. Ex-Teardrop Explodes leader Julian Cope has spoken highly of him and a version of “Song To The Siren” (from Starsailor) recorded by This Mortal Coil, a one-off project featuring vocalist Elizabeth Frazer from British chart-toppers the Cocteau Twins, has spent several weeks in the British single charts. Makes you wonder if somewhere, Buckley’s spirit isn’t enjoying an ironic chuckle at it all.
Goldmine: Tell me about the management and record company changes that are going down at this point.
Tim Buckley: It’s basically just a cleaning house. The management, which I’m no longer involved with, has been a big problem and that was tied in with Warner Bros. so there was bad blood all around. I wasn’t really involved with it but my music was getting the bad end of it. My music wasn’t getting promoted, period, and since I feel really deeply about every project I do, I hate to see ‘em die like that. All I know is that I’m free and it’s great.
Goldmine: I assume you’re searching for another record company at this point?
Tim Buckley: Right, preferably one where one man makes the decisions. The first record company I signed to was Elektra and it was Jac Holzman that made it all happen. Talking to one man is really phenomenal, knowing that something is going to be done. When you’re talking to a committee… I don’t know. There are large companies where one guy does it: Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic, Clive Davis at Arista, the ones that have a genuine concern for the artist.
Goldmine: What were your reasons for leaving Elektra in the first place?
Tim Buckley: Jac sold the company. That was the beginning of my problems businesswise, though I didn’t know it at the time. I knew that it was real sad and I also knew that I probably couldn’t go on at that high pitch of big business. When he left Elektra, a huge gap opened as far as quality in the music.
Goldmine: Are there any musical changes going down at this point?
Tim Buckley: Well, I’m not gonna write about record companies and management (laughs). Musically, it’s not the same as Greetings From L.A. or Sefronia or Look At The Fool. In a lot of ways, it’s more simple but then again, more musical. Have you ever met anyone who could successfully explain his music at any given time? If you have, you’ve talked to a Top 40 artist (chuckles). I really don’t know until I hear the first tracks back.
Goldmine: Have you done any recording towards the next project?
Tim Buckley: Uh, no. I’ve written a few things that are ready to play but I still don’t know how they’re going to sound.
Goldmine: What sorts of artists were you listening to when you started getting your music together?
Tim Buckley: Well, I was never a folkie. I was always rooted in African rhythms. I still listen to Duke Ellington; all those people playing together as a quintet is just amazing to me. That takes great writing and a great understanding of the people in the group.
I pretty much went on that principle with the quintet; I try to understand the people that work for me as well as he did his. He would write for what they were good at. If you don’t do it that way, the music just becomes a prop for the lyrics. It’s okay to …. one the same way. If you’ve said it once, you should just leave it alone until you’ve gone through a process where you either understand the situation better or put a new slant on it or something.
Goldmine: How were you exposed to these African rhythms?
Tim Buckley: Through dance groups and people like Olatunji. In New York, African, Latin, Puerto Rican and African things passed through from time to time. Also, working with Carter (C.C. Collins), my conga player.
Goldmine: Out here, you were associated with the fabled Orange County folk scene.
Tim Buckley: It didn’t exist. Jackson Browne was from there; I wasn’t. I just happened to play there a couple of times. I was from New York and Washington, D.C.; when we moved here, it was the City of Commerce, Bell Gardens. At that time, the folk thing was really booming and the kids in the suburbs needed guitars; it was very important to be just like the Kingston Trio or the Limelighters. So I was buying up these Martin guitars at downtown L.A. pawnshops — the guys there didn’t know what they had and some of those Martins dated back to the ’30s — and I was running them out to the suburbs and meeting these strange rich people who were buying their kids guitars. Now those kids are probably lawyers or wiretappers or whatever. That’s how I got into Orange County. I found a few clubs that served sassafras tea and coffee that were actual coffee houses with no liquor so a brat of my age could play there. Before that, I had played in country bands, lead guitar and stuff, and I could play in bars because they didn’t care.
Goldmine: What led to your first recording contract?
Tim Buckley: My high school band and I went to Hollywood.
Goldmine: Did that include bassist Jim Fielder, who was later in Blood, Sweat & Tears?
Tim Buckley: Uh-huh. Also, I had gone to school with Larry Beckett who I’ve been writing with ever since. Beckett was a drummer and we had a guy named Brian Hartzler on guitar. He’s writing operas now but he started out on a Stratocaster. Anyway, we went to Hollywood to find a manager and a gig to establish ourselves. We went to a club called It’s Boss; now it’s called Art Laboe’s. We auditioned for this guy and we didn’t finish one tune. We played 25 tunes for him and halfway through each one, he’d say, “Okay, let me hear the next one.” We had an amazing repertoire; we did everything. We didn’t know anything about the Top 40 thing at that time; we thought, “They’re gonna love us, man; we wrote all our own songs.” Not so; he wanted Top 40 — “The Midnight Hour” or “Knock On Wood.” But then he’d heard that we had all these songs so he wanted to find a record company for us. We ended up sending a tape to Jac Holzman and he made the decision; he called back. So we went by Volkswagen to New York. Beckett and I were the only ones that stuck together because Brian was underage and Jimmy Fielder wanted to play with this more successful rock group he was with. He had a funny turn of events; he got into the Buffalo Springfield who folded as soon as he got into the group (laughs) and then about three other people whose things folded as soon as he got into the group. Finally, when we got to New York, he teamed up with Al Kooper as the Blues Project was folding. Those were great days in New York. Just the other day, I heard that first Blood, Sweat & Tears album that Al Kooper did and the arrangements were just amazing. At the time, I really didn’t dig it that much but when I heard a tune from it just the other day, it sounded just great, really innovative.
Goldmine: There were a lot of musical innovations happening in the late ’60s.
Tim Buckley: Well, we all believed in something.
Goldmine: Were the socio-political songs on the second album just of that period or were they more Larry than you or what?
Tim Buckley: Yeah, but in those days, that worked, because there was a street and the word of the street was the best publicity you could have. Now, when a record company tells you that, it’s a joke. But before each of my first three albums, I didn’t have a guitar until a week before the sessions because I had had to sell them to live. It wasn’t until after Happy/Sad that I was making enough bread to pay a band. I had Carter Collins on congas and Lee Underwood on guitar; we did that for years until it was getting pretty ridiculous to go on after the people that plugged in the Grand Coulee Dam, the mind-wipe music. It was like a fart after a hail storm to go on after Pink Floyd or Blue Cheer.
Goldmine: What happened to change things when you were writing the material for Happy/Sad?
Tim Buckley: Larry and I were writing differently at the time and if you write together, you’re usually good enough to know when you can’t. What I was doing on Happy/Sad was a lot more musical. The overall lyric expression is pretty hot to this day but I’m not the giant of the lyric that he is. For people to write together, it takes a lot of understanding because you’re not just writing a song, you’re writing an album. A song is just part of it, you know. Even though they cut the music up into different bands on the record, still, each song has got be part of the whole. I keep real good track of what I’ve done before and try to add on a new dimension, which wreaks havoc with business because they have to sell something over and over again if it clicks. But I know to this day I could never write another “Goodbye and Hello” because why say it twice? Followups are never as good as the original song.
Goldmine: At that time, your material became more personal; was this a choice that you sat down and thought about or did it just flow at the time?
Tim Buckley: It flowed. After doing Goodbye and Hello, Beckett wanted to get even rawer than I did so that’s why I did the album by myself. At that time and still today, i do believe that things cannot be changed in the world by hammering into people’s minds that some things are right and some things are wrong. You can’t pound in a point of view or a lifestyle. It has to be done by example, and doing songs on one-to-one relationships because you’re talking about rudimentary things that we all live on. I don’t regret doing the political trip; I just regret that the American people haven’t been told anything. And now, the paranoia is becoming real; it’s real great for a lot of us to know that what we were fearing in those days was right.
Goldmine: So we find out 10 years later that the CIA really was spying on a lot of people back in the ’60s.
Tim Buckley: Right (laughs). Now that we’re off the streets and demobilized, it’s okay to tell us.
Goldmine: So how did the spacier direction of your music come about?
Tim Buckley: We were attempting to make, and did make, a contribution to the writing of a song. I did three albums in one month at that time; I did Blue Afternoon, Lorca and Starsailor. That was because of Jac selling the company; I had an obligation to him and also had to give an album to Warner Bros. at the same time. I liked it because in one way, I satisfied a desire to write songs for Blue Afternoon, varying types of songs, three of which I still do because they’re some of my best songs. When I went in to do Lorca, I decided right then it was time to break open something new because the voice with 5 1/2 octaves was certainly capable of coming up with something new. We were getting real tired of writing songs that adhered to the verse, verse, chorus things. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise though; as a matter of fact, it was a thing that finally Miles did with In a Silent Way. It happened with the Fender Rhodes electric piano and using one bass line which kept the idea of key in mind. In Silent Way, Miles had a melody line that he played on a trumpet and I had a lyric and a melody that went through “Lorca.” To this day, you can’t put it on at a party without stopping things; it doesn’t fit it. The real advance comes in “Anonymous Proposition,” the song that comes after “Lorca.” It deals with a ballad in a totally personal, physical presentation, to cut away the nonsense, the superficial stuff. It has to be done slowly; it has take five or six minutes; it has to be a movement. It has to hold you there and make you aware that someone is telling you something about himself in the dark. That’s what music is all about on record. It is very personal; there’s no other way to deal with it. There are certain things that great singers have to deal with; it’s their duty to. Then with Starsailor, we decided that, now that we’re good at this, we’ll present a new way of writing a song. On the first side of the album, we do songs in the traditional sense. They are free but there are certain moments of rhythm, certain moments of letting it drift. It’s all got lyrics and melody. “I Woke Up” is the one I remember a lot off that album; “Song To The Siren” was a terrific song, one that was more conventional. But then there were the cuts “Starsailor” and “Healing Festival.” The intro to “Healing Festival” is about Harlem; I overdubbed all the voices. I overdubbed 16 voices on Starsailor. It’s the first album that I overdubbed on or had anyone overdub on. I figured if we were going to do overdubs, I’d do ‘em; that was a lot of fun. It’s okay for musicians to do that but when a singer does that, he betrays a trust, the image of a vocalist. Its getting more away from that now because people are using their voices for different things but when those were done, it was almost sacrilegious.
Goldmine: Was there much of a reaction from the jazz community?
Tim Buckley: No, ’cause I’m white. That’s if there is a jazz community; it’s become more continental and Miles Davis is the reason for that. Music is not as territorial as it used to be.
Goldmine: It was almost like a jazz quintet.
Tim Buckley: It was a lot of fun. I’ve got some tapes; it was fun to listen to, too. It was pretty adventurous because a singer hadn’t done it. You’d hear trumpets and saxophones explore and it was okay, but never a voice. You have to come up with lyrics; you can’t just babble on. Instantaneously writing a lyric and have it make sense with something is very hard. I can’t do a chant because that’s not part of where I’m from; for Leon Thomas it is. In a lot of ways, it really was folk music; I’ll always define that as folk music if a voice is involved. You’re still trying to relate something but to relate out of a more holocaustal environment.
Goldmine: What happened with the changing of bands after the Starsailor period?
Tim Buckley: I was stopped by Warner Bros. saying, “Please! No more!” (laughs). I didn’t fight it much at the time because I had pretty much exhausted that syndrome. It kind of refreshed me to come back to writing more lyrical oriented songs. I bear no malice towards Warner Bros. at all; they helped me get out of these contracts. But I can’t be with such a metropolis; it’s like a plastic factory. It takes a lot of impetus to break something new in one respect, the music, and old in another, the artist. But they got used to me changing; in fact, they looked forward to it.
Now since I’ve gone with Greetings From L.A. the response is almost greater than before. All the vocal things I do now are in a rhythm and a presentation that is immediately recognizable in a lot of ways and unique in others because music has grown. Jazz has merged with rock, with Latin, etc., and everything has come under the heading of rock. With Greetings From L.A., I brought in the technique of talking in tongues, which is very religious, out of the Holly Roller thing and very much American, a part of the country. Words lose their meanings after awhile and in a lot of ways, word are just preliminaries to the real thing in music.
Goldmine: Was the move to a new band an attempt to reach more people?
Tim Buckley: It wasn’t a compromise, if that’s what you mean; it wasn’t a commercialization. As a matter of fact, the songs are probably more controversial because they are more sexual than the political ones. When I get on the radio stations across the United States and “Get On Top Of Me, Woman” or something like that is played, there is a huge furor.
Goldmine: I wondered how much airplay tunes like that get.
Tim Buckley: Some, on FM of course. AM can’t sell soap with that.
Goldmine: May I assume that the style of what you are doing is not as important as the content?
Tim Buckley: Right. The style is merely a vehicle for my popular type of music writing. I haven’t turned my back on my Starsailor period; I still write things that have been spawned out of that period but I just realized that it’s more classically avant-garde. Ultimately, I would love to secure a record deal that could give me a classical contract and also a commercial contract; that’s basically what I’m seeking. I really need the outlet for my classical music. It involves choirs and different stories, just a better platform for my voice and my writing. I would love to be able to merge them monetarily successfully but it’s a little bleak in ’75 because the big phenomenon is paranoia. I remember when I took my Starsailor band to New York City. Leontyne Price came to see me. She came up and said, “Boy, I wish they were writing things like that for us opera singers.” And I said, “Well, do what I did; get your own band.” It was a little off-the-cuff comment but really, it’s hard to teach classical people how to relate to eachnother, in the sense of somebody playing a lick and somebody catching it and playing it back. Now there are a lot of people who respect that they can read and play terrifically and depend on the composer but that way of doing things is becoming more and more obsolete because the composer is dead and he’s not there to argue with the orchestra or the conductor. So I’m telling opera singers that they’re really lazy because they are not using their voices to the fullest extent. They haven’t played the road like I have or Leon Thomas has; they haven’t related to the common people. They’ve been playing basically for cocktail parties so they don’t know what the hell music is about in America. They are constantly being told what to do and you don’t learn that way; you learn by messing yourself up. The little successes here and there that you pick up, that’s how you learn. I take my hat off to Cathy Berberian for sticking her neck out because you get no encouragement whatsoever. As long as she sticks with Luciano Berio, sooner or later, they’ll know what to do. Carla Bley is a perfect example. Now she’s getting together with Jack Bruce. It may fall apart (it did) but what the hell, go to it; it has my applause …. and the … taken by the artist, not by the record company because it will not move from what it’s making its money on.
And so the artist faces the proposition of becoming another renegade, running on the outskirts of what society loves and how he knows he can make his living. It takes the very best to do this, to take a new voyage, a new exploration. I mean, that’s all there is. We’ve been to the moon; we’ve traveled across the deserts. We’ve come to California, rubbed up against each other and been bored shitless for the past 20 years. California: where a sucker is born every minute and can live forever (laughs). And these new explorations have to be done through personal contacts with people.
Goldmine: Speaking of people, are you still doing any work with Emmett Chapman, the inventor of the Stick?
Tim Buckley: That’s in limbo for the time being, until I get a classical contract. Chapman is an amazing force. He’s a musician that invented an instrument that works and that’s pretty rare. We worked together for about eight months and it was terrific to a point. He fits into a segment of the classical things I’ve written, along with a choir of my own voice. These things are just different innovations that aren’t displeasing to the ear, they’re just odd. Anything that doesn’t have a four-four bass line and a backbeat, fatback, is odd. That’s why it’s classical; it doesn’t have a beat (laughs).
Goldmine: Are these classical things written out in manuscript or on tape or in your head or what?
Tim Buckley: All three, in fact. The ones that are in my head are obviously the choral things. Beckett and I have one thing written based on Conrad’s book Outcast of the Islands. We wrote different songs for each of the eight characters and by the end of the eight songs, you understand the whole story. So it’s not like a song cycle; it’s quite an ambitious endeavor on Beckett’s part. That would be one of the things I’d love to work on before the decade’s out. These are not things that are going to be done by anybody else; I’ve reached that point in music where I don’t fear that.
Goldmine: I don’t recall that ever being a problem (laughs).
Tim Buckley: It used to bother me. I would write something and say, “I’ve got to get it into the studio, to get it out.”
Goldmine: Somehow, I can’t see hordes of bands waiting to try to beat Tim Buckley to the punch.
Tim Buckley: No, it’s not commercially profitable. There are things though, that they lift and that’s cool. I saw a guy in Texas try to yodel and it was great.
Goldmine: Did it work?
Tim Buckley: To “Proud Mary”? (cracking up). No, it didn’t work. Obviously, he didn’t understand the concept or the theory.
Goldmine: What do you think about the European system of subsidies for artists?
Tim Buckley: I would love to have the menial things taken care of but there is something about the fight, the American spirit. I just know that I couldn’t create in any other country ’cause this is for the connoisseur to figure out. It makes for a more vital expression when it finally comes out. Our credentials in America hold up against anybody’s in the world. Because with all the pretext of freedom of speech in this country, we go through more shit to get heard, for the real world, to get out to people. Not the surface, not the facade, not the fake creativity, not the decadence that is constantly flaunted in our faces by the media, but the real thing. When an artist finally comes through all this mess, you hear a pure voice and it’s American. And Europe can’t touch it.
Goldmine: Do most Americans hear those voices though?
Tim Buckley: We’re in the habit of emulating those pure voices when they’re dead, reading about ‘em in history books. The classic example is Lenny Bruce. It’s at a safe distance; he doesn’t have to be interviewed so you don’t have to take his scorn. You don’t have to come into contact with him so you don’t have to be made a jerk in front of him or anything like that because you’re running a big risk coming in front of people like that. Anybody is. It’s hard for people to come backstage to meet somebody, Oh, there are pros at it but when somebody comes back that truly wants to meet you and has really been touched by what you’re doing, it’s real hard for ‘em.
Goldmine: If you’re touched by someone’s art, you tend to place them above you somehow.
Tim Buckley: The funny thing is, the more someone has touched you, the more basic and day-to-day the guy is. I’ve never seen it fail. He’s usually a pretty average cat because that’s where he got it from the people.
- Michael Davies