Tim Buckley: Live At The Troubadour 1969

He was, above all, a beautiful boy. Sure, the album sleeves show those impossible good looks steadily thickening into manhood and by 1974’s Look At The Fool, he is beginning to look a trifle worn, but somehow the pictures return again and again to a dreamy, often smiling face blinking in the sunlight, the strong features wreathed in that unruly but archetypally late ’60s mess of curls.Tim Buckley was a mere 18 years old when he recorded his 1966 debut and 28 when he died of an accidental heroin overdose in the summer of 1975. It’s a cliché that the ’60s didn’t end till midway through the ’70s but it’s impossible to trace Buckley’s mercurial career without being led back to the Utopian myths and the bitter harvest of those ten mad years.

The beautiful boy had charm, integrity and a voice that could swoop and soar like an eagle, sometimes rising into a glass-rattling scream of lust so carnal that it’s on the threshold of dementia and sometimes hanging mournfully over a note sustained at the very pith of sorrow, sustained until everything within range seems saturated in blue.

Buckley recorded nine albums in a relatively short career during which he enjoyed what his guitarist Lee Underwood recently described as no less than five creative stages: folk became folk-rock then folk-jazz then free jazz then bumped back to earth with the sex-funk of the last three albums. None of these stages were exactly distinct and though this latest discovery – a live album from September 1969 – finds Buckley and co. poised between Blue Afternoon and Lorca, deep into a kind of swinging but dreamily languid folk-jazz, there are plenty of echoes of his folk-rock past and hints of both the starsailing and the urgent funk that was yet to come. He had it all and he wasn’t about to coast – at least, not yet.

Buckley was one of those rare artists who wasn’t only unafraid to change but who regarded change as the very lifeblood of what he did. The singer-songwriters of the ’70s largely dealt in resignation and placed a premium on the cleverly wrought meaning of their couplets. Buckley started off as an archetypal mid-’60s folk-troubadour, exploring the edges of the kind of chamber-folk that produced records like Bob Lind’s ‘Elusive Butterfly’; then he simply cast off the shackles of pretty phrases for the sheer, luxurious pleasure of sound.

Like Tim Hardin, Fred Neil and even Richie Havens, Buckley took folk into jazz but more than any other folk artist he embraced improvisation. When he sang of resting places he always seemed to use the phrase “for awhile”. He made music that was of the moment, that wasn’t afraid of the next place, the next sound, the next note. Other singer-songwriters used their accompanists as decoration, Buckley turned his voice into an instrument that was buoyed on the rhythms of the congas and the drums and locked in an endless dance with Lee Underwood’s guitar and electric piano.

Underwood has described 1966 to 1969 as Buckley’s glory years, the years in which he lived life to the very full, enjoyed a fair measure of commercial success and reveled in the sunlight. Yet the music, like the times, just kept on changing. 1968’s Happy/Sad suggested an impossible balance of joy and sorrow. With Blue Afternoon and Lorca, the balance shifts into an ever deeper introspection that is still muscular, absolutely committed to the moment but increasingly drenched in a cool, West Coast brand of jazz-blues.

This is the second Buckley live album of the ’90s. Dream Letter, recorded live on Buckley’s first British date in July 1968, but only released in 1990 finds him balance between the folk-poetry of the first two albums and the jazzy improvisations which lasted until 1973’s Greetings From LA. Buckley is stretching, flexing, almost frighteningly confident and unafraid. The sheer poise of that set suggests that Buckley still believed he could capture the shifts and eddies of the moment and yet stay in control. Live At The Troubadour was recorded a mere 13 months later, Buckley is still only 22 but now he sounds completely gone, lost in the kind of blurred trance that only Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks can match.

This isn’t to suggest that he no longer knew what he was doing. You need only to listen to the Troubadour collection’s reading of ‘I Had A Talk With My Woman’ to hear Buckley riding his blue ballad like a master, wrenching every last drop of emotion from each measured note. When he suddenly breaks into a whistle near the song’s end, you have to marvel at the sheer chutzpah of his performance and the apparent ease with which he has pulled it off. The whistle is nearly 25 years old but it sounds impossibly close, brazenly alive.

Yet as Martin Aston points out in his excellent sleeve notes, Buckley has begun to sound as if he is “gently frazzling” in the “dizzy sunlight”. He now sings each song as a kind of “sweet surrender”, immersing himself in the funk of ‘Gypsy Woman’ or the sombre croon of ‘Chase The Blues Away’ as if he had no intention of ever escaping from the mood he has allowed to overtake him. The closing 16-minute epic, ‘Nobody Walkin”, is typical: an extended swoon with all the languid pull of an opium dream that swoops and teases around its relatively simple blues form and seems to offer no reason why it should ever end. The moment has now become all-enveloping and Buckley sounds like he’s drowning.

After this, Buckley went on to the cerebral but often impenetrable masterpiece that is Starsailor before exchanging the ether for the classic, driven funk of Greetings From LA. Only on the last two albums did he finally sound like he was marking time; the voice was still a wonder but he was reshuffling former glories as if the life of the moment had finally exhausted him.

Live At The Troubadour, however, comes from the very heart of Buckley’s blue period when he was still on a creative high but increasingly drawn to ruminations on the moment’s vanishing, the something lost. He is still the golden boy, but now he stands autumnal as if he knows there may be a price for all that sunlight, all that temporary grace. Buckley was as true to this knowledge as he was to his every other artistic intuition in this period and that is why this belated message from 1969 confirms him as both a child of the ’60s and as an artist who was true enough to the moment to effortlessly transcend it.

– Mark Cooper
MOJO, April 1994