To mark fifty years since his debut album and this week’s release of unearthed demos via Light In The Attic, we tell the tale of one of folk rock’s most restless adventures, melting the walls between folk, blues, psych, jazz and soul, before his untimely death in 1975.
Words: Martin Aston
Given Jeff Buckley’s sublime voice, sublime music, personal charisma and tragic denouement, drowning in 1997 at the age of 29, and the continuing posthumous campaign to feed the fans, it’s easy to forget the talent of his father Tim. For me, Dad possessed an even better voice, deeper and richer and more resonant, stretching several octaves, just as he shifted through multiple musical styles, driven more by the principles of jazz (improvise, don’t repeat yourself, keep moving) than the folk scene he emerged from in 1966.
What’s more, Tim had recorded nine albums by the time he also died prematurely, in 1975, at the age of 28, of an accidental heroin overdose, compared to Jeff’s one completed album – Grace – at the same age. Tim was fortunate that his era allowed for experimentation rather than nailing success the first time around, though his constant changes – this, years before Bowie – bewildered even his fans, progressing from folk-rock to folk-psych to folk-jazz, to a new vocal-led blistering rock-jazz, before moving into R&B funk and – when things started sliding – into AOR sophistication and supperclub soul. But like fellow mavericks such as Nick Drake and Laura Nyro, Tim was too singular a talent, and driven by his demons, to have the crossover appeal that other, safer singer-songwriters held.
It’s not only the fiftieth anniversary of his debut album, but on October 21st, Future Days/ Light In The Attic are releasing an album of unearthed Buckley demos, Lady, Give Me Your Key: The Unissued 1967 Solo Acoustic Sessions, half of which were re-recorded for his second album Goodbye And Hello and the others mostly discarded. Though a treasure trove for Buckley fanatics, it’s Buckley’s nine studio albums, and a handful of posthumous live albums (rounded up in one go as the tenth album here) that best documents his ch-ch-ch-changes.
‘Grief In My Soul’ from Tim Buckley
The liner notes called Buckley, “an incredibly thin wire… already a kind of quintessence of nouvelle,” but his debut, recorded when he was 19, is one of Buckley’s most conventional outings. The beat-guitar chime of long-term guitar foil Lee Underwood and the songs’ baroque dressings were blood-related to The Byrds, par for the folk-rock course, but ‘Grief In My Soul’ shows the hints of more open-ended jazzy cadences that also threaded through his Elektra labelmates Love and The Doors. What’s special about the record is that soaring, supple counter-tenor of a voice. The Rhino Handmade reissue (2011) includes stereo and mono versions, and adds a CD of unreleased demos, half of which were never recorded.
‘I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain’ from Goodbye And Hello
Buckley looked ten years older on the sleeve than on his debut, and half of his sophomore record is already light years beyond, the ambitious arrangements sometimes to the songs’ detriment. Of the more concise numbers, the mood is more soft-rocking psychedelia, as songtitles ‘Phantasmagoria’ and ‘Hallucinations’ underline. ‘Once I Was’ and ‘Morning Glory’ remain two of his most exquisitely aching ballads, echoing the languid resonances of his Greenwich Village folk idol Fred Neil. But ‘I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain’ is, in several ways, the key track, spun out over six minutes, as Buckley soars, wildly, uphill and down dale, over scrubbed acoustic and spindly electric guitars and rumbling congas, with a hair-raising falsetto as the song closed.
He was singing to ex-wife Mary and his baby son Jeffrey, feeling the angst while excusing himself from the familial duties he never anticipated or wanted; how ironic, then, when 23 years later, at a Tim Buckley memorial concert in New York, an unannounced guest got up to sing this very song, to the bewilderment of the audience, some of who thought Tim’s ghost was on the stage – but it was Jeffrey, in his first meaningful public performance, saying goodbye to his dad in a way he couldn’t when he was eight.
‘Strange Feelin’ from Happy Sad
Van Morrison, Laura Nyro and John Martyn were also melting the walls between rock, blues, folk and jazz, but at 22, Buckley was the youngest, and had caught the jazz bug the hardest – and the lifestyle that went with it. He’d started dabbling with heroin (on the Live At The LA Troubadour album recorded that year, he paraphrases John Lennon, quipping “this song’s called ‘Give Smack A Chance’”– remember, none of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin were yet dead), but it was also the impact of finding new love, and a home right on Venice Beach.
There, Buckley and Underwood immersed themselves in the East Coast jazz titans – Miles, Coltrane, Monk and Mingus – and the band – vibraphone, string bass, congas, acoustic twelve-string, gently rippling electric guitar and Buckley’s ravishing voice – jammed out sessions that evolved into Happy Sad, Buckley’s first great album. It’s the polar opposite to Goodbye And Hello‘s crowded ambition: spacious, supple, a sea of possibilities, and though sun-dappled, it’s steeped in introspection. Two spellbound tracks top ten minutes, ‘Dream Letter’ re-addresses his sadness about leaving his son behind, and there’s no better place to start than the eight-minute intro ‘Strange Feelin’’, anchored to the bass line of Miles Davis’ ‘All Blues’.
‘Chase The Blues Away’ from Blue Afternoon
“I can see where I’m heading, and it will probably be further and further from what people expected of me,” Buckley said at the time, which culminated in the 1970 album Lorca. But first, he had to negotiate a new deal. With Elektra’s owner Jac Holzman about to sell his label, Buckley signed to Straight, set up by his manager Herb Cohen with another of Cohen’s charges, Frank Zappa. Cohen also persuaded Buckley to rein it in a little, and record some of the more accessible material that he’d already discarded. Blue Afternoon is just heaven; eight songs with a narcotic, torchy feel, only two spilling over five minutes, and some of Buckley’s choicest tunes, such as ‘I Must Have Been Blind’, ‘Café’ and ‘Blue Melody’. But my favourite is ‘Chase The Blues Away’, the quintessence of Buckley’s blissed-out nouvelle, stoked by Underwood’s picked luminescent guitar, altogether the aural equivalent of sunbathing with a cool breeze wafting in from the shore.
This is when Buckley really started to challenge audience preconceptions, taking them into uncharted and uncomfortable territory, at least for a singer-songwriter with folk-rock roots. The jazz aspect is freakier, sometimes even atonal, such as the peal of notes ushering in the opening title track, at a shivery ten minutes long. Buckley’s spirit guide now included poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, executed by Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War, whose simultaneous violent and tender imagery Buckley seemed to be channelling.
On ‘Lorca’, as with ‘Anonymous Proposition’, Buckley floated over a mercurially languid blue-note haze, crooning and stretching half-tones over shapeless stanzas while Underwood scurried up and down scales on both guitar and electric piano. The Love Generation was in no mood to follow but Buckley didn’t care; he rightly regarded the title track as, “my identity as a unique singer, as an original voice.” There was just one problem; Blue Afternoon beat Lorca to the shops by a month, and with two albums vying for attention, Buckley’s already diminished sales potential was halved.
‘The Healing Festival’ from Starsailor
Buckley was anything but ruffled by his sales figures, going on to release Starsailor in the same years as Lorca, which sounded like easy listening next to this one. Zappa applauded risk and all manner of strange musical configurations, and Buckley served it up: his vocal exercises included howling and barking (bassist John Balkin who ran a free improvisation group with horn players Buzz and Buck Gardner, had introduced Buckley to opera singer Cathy Berberian’s interpretations of songs by her husband Luciano Berio), and his new music was heading to outer space (the album title said so), with a new fierce, molten energy far removed from Happy Sad’s blissfulness, of which ‘The Healing Festival’ is something to behold – in Balkin’s words, its, “a whole different genre.” Over throbbing rhythms and atonal dynamics, the Gardners’ blowing was matched by Buckley’s gymnastic yodels and screams. He got down with some ecstatic soaring stuff too, but you better be prepared for Starsailor’s take-no-prisoners attitude. A unique, visionary masterpiece.
(Starsailor also included Buckley’s arguably best, and certainly most recognised and covered song, ‘Song To The Siren’; it’s unrepresentative of Starsailor as a whole, though it’s still an uncanny, extreme version. It would have been quite different had it appeared on Goodbye And Hello, which is when Buckley wrote it, but producer Jerry Yester’s wife, singer Judy Henske poked fun at the line, ‘”I’m as puzzled as the oyster” and Buckley, who always took criticism to heart, instantly retired the song from his repertoire, and only resuscitated it after lyricist Larry Beckett changed the offending line).
‘Get On Top’ from Greetings From L.A.
Buckley could only go so far out, so the only creatively fresh way to react was a complete about-turn; instead of rootless avant garde, conceived in the head, Buckley threw himself into rootin’, tootin’ funk and soul: body music. It was music you could dance to and more carnal activities too: someone, sometime, labelled Greetings From L.A. “sex funk” and given the lyrics, you can hear why: Buckley’s songs imagined a sultry New Orleans populated by a constellation of pimps, whores and hustlers, opening with I went down to the meat rack tavern, and closing on, I’m looking for a street corner girl/And she’s gonna beat me, whip me, spank me, make it all right again. “I realised all the sex idols in rock weren’t saying anything sexy – not Jagger or [Jim] Morrison,” Buckley said. “Nor had I learned anything sexually from a rock song. So I decided to make it human and not so mysterious.” To do so, he enlisted a new band, a tighter bar-band style of support; though there were moments of, as one title had it, ‘Sweet Surrender”, a protracted sensual seduction, and ‘Make It Right’ is a swooning finale. The album’s heart is in the faster material, such as ‘Move With Me’, ‘Nighthawkin’’ and especially ‘Get On Top’, a sensationally cooking, grooving stew.
‘Dolphins’ from Sefronia
If fans of Starsailor thought Greetings… was a sell-out, what would they have made of Sefronia? Released by Cohen and Zappa’s new DiscReet label (under the aegis of Warner Brothers), the album heralded a sea change in attitude; though Blue Afternoon was made in order to present a more accessible Tim, he didn’t compromise the base of his music, but cover versions (suggested by Cohen) occupy half the album, and the stylistic mish-mash – part sex funk (but a paler facsimile), part AOR, even MOR – sounds like it was made by committee; like, what do we do now that Greetings… hasn’t sold well either? ‘I Know I’d Recognize Your Face’ is a sorry, sappy duet with one of his backing singers, Marcia Waldorf, and though Tom Waits’ ‘Martha’ is a sweet tune, it’s syrupy in Buckley’s hands. That said, I unconditionally adore a third of Sefronia, such as his version of ‘Sally Go Round The Roses’, and another of Buckley’s recognised standards, his take on Fred Neil’s ‘Dolphins’ (a feature of Buckley’s teenage repertoire). Anyone wanting more of a challenge can head for the two-part title track (or rather, ‘Sefronia: After Asklepiades, After Kafka’ and ‘Sefronia: The King’s Chain’), which reprises Happy Sad’s blissful reveries.
‘Look At The Fool’ from Look at the Fool
Sefronia gives Look At The Fool some stiff competition, but what proved to be Buckley’s last album could be his recorded nadir. Still, like Sefronia, there are odd saving graces, such as the title track, which emulates Al Green’s sizzling presence, and the frazzled, Tijuana-soul feel at least felt more authentically Buckley, without any of the AOR/MOR template. But the songwriting meandered badly, and it really shouldn’t have ended like this. It obviously wasn’t meant to; he planned a live album, embracing all the different stages of his catalogue, and a musical adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Out Of The Islands. But as he came off tour, when his system was clean, he was dared to ingest a larger-than-usual line of heroin, and Buckley was the daring type, or rather, “whenever he was threatened or told what to do, he rebelled, said Underwood. Buckley died soon after.
‘Pleasant Street / You Keep Me Hanging On’ from Dream Letter (Live In London 1968)
(Demon Records, 1990)
In 1990, fifteen years after Buckley’s premature exit, the early flush of CDs produced a startling gem, a double album from Buckley’s live UK debut, supporting The Incredible String Band slot at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. For starters, this was 105 minutes long – did they really let support acts play that long? – and it gave Buckley the chance to practise what he preached when Carter CC Collins ‘s congas and John Miller’s bass were absent due to the budget, so Pentangle’s Danny Thompson was drafted in to play an intuitively supportive – and barely rehearsed – role.
There are breathtaking songs unavailable elsewhere, such as ‘The Earth Is Broken’, during which you could have heard a pin drop, so reverent was the audience in thrall to Buckley’s compelling charisma (not to mention incredible singing), but it’s the album’s three medleys, ‘Wayfaring Stranger / You Got Me Runnin’’, ‘Carnival Song /Hi Lily, Hi Lo’ and especially the combination of ‘Pleasant Street’ (off Goodbye And Hello) and The Supremes’ ‘You Keep Me Hanging on’ that are pure goose-pimples. Live at the Troubadour (released in 1994) is Buckley + band, and the atmosphere is white-hot; Honeyman: Live 1973 and Live At The Folklore Center 1967 are more for diehard fans.