Dream Letter (Live In London 1968)
Melody Maker, June 16th 1990
by Simon Reynolds
TIM BUCKLEY feature
director's cut, Uncut, 2000
by Simon Reynolds
Tim Buckley was the Hendrix of the voice. "I became more and more an instrument," he said in 1972, reflecting on his evolution from pure-toned mid-Sixties folk troubadour to the zero-gravity vocal acrobat circa his 1970 masterpiece Starsailor. Stretching conceptions of what could be done with vocal chords and throat muscles, Buckley smeared and twisted his voice like some voluptuous plasma-like substance, vaulted and dived across his five octave range, built sonic landscapes and audio-mazes out of his own breath.
Hendrix was actually one of the few rock artists Buckley admired--generally, he hated rock's crude mega-amplified bombast, its lack of subtlety and improvisational spontaneity. There are other parallels. Both died young (Buckley at 28, Hendrix a few months short of his 28th birthday), from drug overdoses, during periods of disillusionment and artistic dwindling. In both cases, the abrupt cut-off of their life trajectories, while tragic and foreclosing any possibility of creative
renaissance, nonetheless serves to make them stand out in bold relief, rockmyth-wise. (No embarrassing twilight appearances on the Jools Holland show, no abortive comebacks, none of the usual Sixties survivor trail of disgrace).
The big difference, of course, is that Hendrix was hugely successful, whereas Buckley was never more than a cult figure. Missing the window of opportunity briefly offered by psychedelia, Buckley's most adventurous work coincided with rock culture's retreat to rootsy Americana (the faux-Southern rock'n'roll of The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival,Grateful Dead's American Beauty, Byrds going full-on country, et al). Starsailor came out at a time when ideas of the "cosmic" or "far out" were discredited, when people wanted to get grounded, feel the soil between their toes. Their loss, our gain.
Born on St Valentine's Day, 1947, Buckley grew up in Amsterdam, New York, and then Bell Gardens and Anaheim in Southern California. The sadness and vulnerability that was a big part both of his music and his personal magnetism largely stemmed from his abusive father, who went a bit psycho after injuring his head in an early Sixties accident involving a ladder, and thereafter regularly beat his son up, called him a faggot, and generally made him feel worthless. Musically, Buckley's first love was
country--Johnny Cash, Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams. He learned the banjo aged eleven and later played lead guitar in several country bands. But he was also developing his voice. "I'd ride my bicycle around the neighborhood screaming at the buses until I couldn't go any higher," he said of his determined emulation of a jazz trumpet at the age of 12. Flexing his vocal chords obsessively, he developed a five-and-a-half octave range, from baritone depths to the helium-falsetto ether.
It was the purity of his counter-tenor, though, that got him noticed as a fledgling singer-songwriter in 1966--plus the wordy lyrics written by his poet friend Larry Beckett. Cheetah magazine linked him with two other South California folkies, Jackson Browne and Steve Noonan, as "The Orange County Three," and Elektra, the leading label of the folkadelic era, signed him. By this point Buckley's marriage to high school sweetheart Mary Guibert was breaking up, and he was flitting between Los Angeles and the folk clubs of New York, where his new "old lady" Jainie Goldstein lived. Released in October 1966 (around the same time his son with Guibert, Jeff Buckley, was born) his debut album's 12-string folk-rock sounds naive and dated today. Lee Underwood, who played guitar on the record and became his long time
sideman, described the early Buckley as "a Bambi-eyed littleboy poet prattling about paper hearts and Valentines." Buckley himself was unimpressed with the record, and the world agreed with him.
Playing solo at clubs and colleges on the East Coast through 1967, Buckley gradually became a cult figure. Goodbye and Hello, recorded in LA that June, was perfectly timed for the era of Sgt Pepper's and Forever Changes--a sort of folkadelic easy listening, with the debut's sparse simplicity replaced by heavily embellished and overdubbed arrangements. Sonically, the results ranged from the prismatic haze of "Hallucinations"--a stoned summer meadow dancing with sunspots and phosphenes--to the twee harpsichord-laced courtly love minstrelry of "Knight-Errant". Lyrically,
his wordsmith partner Beckett oscillated between portentous protest songs like "No Man Can Find The War" and "Goodbye And Hello," and haunting parables like "Morning Glory"; Buckley, meanwhile, dug deeper into his own emotions with strong songs like "Once I Was," the drugs-as-honey-trap allegory "Pleasant Street", and "I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain," inspired by the turmoil of guilt and defiance stirred up by his abandoning a pregnant wife. Goodbye and Hello was the biggest record of Buckley's
career. His new fanbase included a high proportion of girls, attracted by what journalists called his "mother-me appearance"-- thin, fragile, an "instant waif with dimples" (Vogue) and a halo of curls, almost illegally good looking. Buckley was an almost-star. He even appeared in an episode of the Monkees's (he'd hung out with Mike Nesmith a few years back) and sang a prototype version of "Song To The Siren".
Although Goodbye and Hello seemed totally bound up with the Summer of Love (and for that reason now largely feels like a period piece) Buckley soon rejected the emerging alternative conformity that was the hippie counterculture. Recoiling from what he called "the mind-wipe music" of the era (San Francisco's acid rock, post-Cream blues bombast) he doused himself in jazz: Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus,Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Milt Jackson. His own music became more supple and improvisational, about process rather than product.
"I don't want it to be a thing," he said. " A thing is dead. I want it alive, I want it present, I want it always growing and changing..... The trick of writing is to make it sound like it's all happening for the first time. So you feel it's everybody's idea." " With his stripped down band of vibes man David Friedman, acoustic bassist John Miller, congas player Carter C.C. Collins, and the everpresent Underwood on guitar, he recorded Happy/Sad in 1968. Having conquered his fear that Goodbye and Hello's success was due to Beckett's poesy, Buckley was writing songs on his own now--his words were pared down, like the music, Beckett's literary
flourishes replaced by a simplicity and directness that nonetheless contained hidden depths.
With its softly chiming acoustic bass pulses and vibes glimmering like coral, its mood of dazed drift and heat-hazy languor, Happy/Sad resembles Astral Weeks, another classic from 1968 to open up a virgin continent of folky-jazzy-bluesy indefinability. Structurally, songs like "Strange Feelin'" and "Dream Letter" are tidal in their ebb and undulation. "We were writing 9/8 things," he said years later. "Cycles in 11/4, 12/4 and 13/4. I was writing with Carter and that was different. We had all those different rhythms going. African Bahama type sing-song music." . Critic Scott Isler called it "chamber music from a Magritte painting"; Buckley just called it "heart music." As the album title suggests, the record's moods are threshold states, indeterminate and cloudy--bitter bliss, sweet sorrow, a
melancholy sensuality. "It's good if you can daydream with music or even fall asleep," he said a few years later. "If music takes you away and creates a new world. Like Dr. John opens for you a jungle and you enter a magic forest with weird birds and mysterious sounds."
Happy/Sad was well-received, but live, as the band got more into protracted and totally unrehearsed improvisatory jams and Buckley mad-scatted jazz-inspired solos, his US following grew disenchanted. Undeterred, Buckley pushed further out still. Acting as his mindfood-provider and would-be guru, Lee Underwood pointed Buckley in the direction of European avant-garde classical. An "intellectual vacuum-cleaner" who (according to Underwood) "inhaled personalities, inhaled ideas, inhaled knowledge," Buckley immersed himself in the alien electronic languages being forged by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Morton Subotnik, in Penderecki's cacophanous
threnodies for 20th Century atrocities, in Oliver Messaiean's birdsong transcriptions and gamelan-influenced percussive clamor. He was particularly blown away by "Thema (Omaggio A Joyce)" and "Visage", works for solo voice composed by Luciano Berio and performed by uber-diva Cathy Berberian. Her onomatopeaic panoply of "clucks, gurgles, sighs, yowls, sputters, screams, cries, wails "(Underwood's description) chimed with Buckley's growing dissatisfaction with language and lyrics, and hardened his instinctual conviction that "my business is sound... If you use it
right, it's all music."
1969 witnessed the supernova of Buckley's creativity. "I recorded Blue Afternoon, Lorca, and parts of Starsailor in the same month," he recalled later, adding wistfully. "I was hot." A concession to pressure from business folk like manager Herb Cohen, Blue Afternoon was a slight return to the Goodbye and Hello era, drawing on older unrecorded beauties like "Blue Melody" and "Cafe," albeit marinated in the jazzed fluency of Happy/Sad.
Named in homage to Federico Garcia Lorca, the Andalusian avant-garde poet murdered by Franco's fascist death squads, Lorca was the record that Buckley's heart was really in--the first foray of his new post-Berberian direction. "We were getting real tired of writing songs that adhered to the verse/verse/chorus thing," he said in 1975. "The real advance comes in "Anonymous Proposition"-- 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 to hold you there and make you aware that someone is telling you something about himself in the dark."
Lorca is Buckley's most difficult record, not quite achieving the sensory on-rush and riot of colors that makes even Starsailor's most deranged tracks so ravishing and resistance-vanquishing. " I was as close to Coltrane as anyone has ever come," Buckley boasted years later about that album. "I even started singing in different languages--Swahili, for instance--just because it sounded better. An instrumentalist can be understood doing just about anything, but people are really geared for hearing only words come out of the mouth... The most shocking thing I've ever seen people come up against--besides a performer taking off his clothes--is dealing with someone who doesn't sing words.... If I had my way, words wouldn't mean a thing."
Despite its strange time-signatures ("The Healing Festival" was in 10/4) and
unusual instrumentation (flugelhorn, pipe organ, alto-flute), Starsailor still rocks, in its own singular and unorthodox way, thanks to the internal combustion engine stoked by Lee Underwood's scalding rhythm guitar, John Balkin's lunging and twisting bass, and the elegant frenzy of Maury Baker's drumming. Riding the group's implacable drive, Buckley's abstract expressionist ballet-for-voice is at its most untethered and gaseous. On the solo voice "Starsailor", the singer multiplied himself into an astral choir. Sixteen strands of Buckley's eeriest vocal goo--overdubbed, but amazingly not treated with effects in any way--ooze and extrude, striate and shiver, forming a multi-octave meshwork of rippling filaments and quivering tentacles. It's like you're somehow inside Buckley's
body--exploring its labyrinthine architecture of erotic energies and pre-verbal intensities, an inner-spatial honeycomb of bliss and dread,attraction and repulsion. The only parallels for what he was doing on "Starsailor"--and the most gravity-defying and ectoplasmic vocal manoevures on "Jungle Fire" and "Healing Festival"--are Gyorgi Ligeti's hair-raising choral music on the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Diamanda Galas's Litanies of Satan. The Ligeti comparison is all the more astounding given that Buckley had no formal knowledge of music theory, harmony, et al,and had never even taken a voice lesson.
In rock, only Iggy Pop (the un-human snarls and expectorations on "TV Eye") and Robert Wyatt (the muezzin-wail-meets-scat falsetto altitudes scaled in the final minutes of "Sea Song") have taken the human voice as far as Buckley did on Starsailor. Weirdly, given that the album seemed to represent Buckley's final push to break free of being "a slave to the lyrics," the words were among his best ever--a sort of erotic-mystic Fauvist beat poetry, all "baited moans" and "I love you like a jungle fire". Larry Beckett, back on board, also came up with some triptastic imagery, like the title track's "Though I memorized the slope of water/Oblivion carries me on his shoulder/Beyond the suns I speak and circuits shiver." (The song,Buckley explained later, was "a view of the universe through the eye of a bee. It's a great cartoon"-- possibly a wind-up, given his reported penchant
for embroidering the truth and sometimes straight-up fibbing).
Starsailor was critically hailed, receiving a five-star review from jazz mag
Downbeat and inspiring purple praise galore (Idris Walters described Buckley as a "vagrant in the void" and a "multioctave drifter in the oblivionosphere.") But the record bombed commercially, and the efforts at live translation went down like a cup of cold sick with audiences baffled by Buckley's forays into Dada-style bruitisme or sound-poetry--snoring,yodelling, barking. Devastated, Buckley sank into depression, drowning his sorrows with barbiturates, booze, and, when it came his way, heroin. For a couple of years, he retired from the business, legendarily chauffeuring for
Sly Stone and working in the ethnomusicology department of UCLA on the notation of Japanese and Balinese music. (Both these activities may actually be more of Buckley's tall tales.) He did a bit of acting, co-starring with OJ Simpson in a never-released movie called Why?, and writing equally unsuccessful screenplays like Fully Air-Conditioned Inside, the story of a struggling musician.
After almost three years in the 'where-are-they-now?' file, and amazingly still in his early twenties, Buckley returned with what he personally regarded as a hopelessly compromised soul-and-funk influenced sound---"ball and chain on the brain", is how he described it. Actually, 1972's Greetings From L.A. was his second masterpiece. With War producer Jerry Goldstein at the helm, the cosmonaut of inner space fell to earth with a lubricious squelch. If he was going to have to play his despised rock music, Buckley was going to make sure it was down-and-dirty. "Rock'n'roll was meant to be body music," he told Downbeat. "It was odd to me that of all the sex symbols that had ever been in rock 'n' roll, from Elvis to Jagger, none had ever said anything dirty or constructive about making love," he told another
magazine. "So I figured, talk about stretch marks, which really lays it out
to people in Iowa. I decided to make it human and not so mysterious, and to deal with the problems as they really are." As part of his new raunchy 'n'randy shtick, he made great show of ogling porn mags during some of his interviews for Greetings.
If your previous exposure to Buckley has been the singer-as-fiery-tailed-comet of Starsailor, Greetings From L.A. can be somewhat disconcerting initially--the horn-squawking, barrelhouse-piano'd stodge-fonk and "Honky Tonk Woman"/"Brown Sugar" scenario of the side openers "Move With Me" and "Nighthawkin'" especially. Apart from his knackered last two albums, Buckley never did anything by half, though, and
when he decided to go "earthy" he went all the fucking way. Literally: Greetings From L.A. is one of the most humanely graphic slices of sexmusic ever recorded. With "Get On Top" and "Devil Eyes," you're right there between the sheets; the sweat, the breath, the saltiness, are palpable. "Get On Top" really takes off in its second half, Buckley leaving behind fixed libretto for freeform libido and mad-scatting a zoo-music of gasps and grunts and Mexican whoops, as lust battles with exhaustion (that's why he's suggesting a change of position). In "Devil Eyes"--the song with the line about licking between his older lover's stretch marks--Buckley beseeches his partner to do the "monkey rub". And in the song's final feverish minutes, he gibbers like a funky gibbon, at one point emitting this vocal wobble like the "ooo-er!" of an orang-utang slipping on a banana peel--a polyrhythmically perverse
pratfall that's simultaneously slapstick funny and teasingly erotic.
Of Greetings's horny-as-hell bubbling babble and orgiastic onomotopeia, Buckley said " I brought in the technique of talking in tongues, which is very religious, out of the Holy 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." Cueing off contemporaneous music by Marvin Gaye and Al Green, Buckley had his sights set on their merger of spirituality and sexuality (a resolution of contraries unique to the Black American Christian tradition, where worship is always a bodily expression, and voluptuousness is no sin). "Sweet
Surrender", a gorgeous ballad about infidelity and forgiveness, cast romantic reconcilation in terms the Medieval mystic Saint Theresa of Avila would understand. "Make It Right" went further still into the eroticism of losing control, with a wounded-by-life Buckley seeking sexual/spiritual healing from a street corner girl who's "gonna beat me, whip me, spank me,oh make it right again."
Greetings garnered Buckley minor radio play, but despite its compromises (as he perceived them), the comeback album didn't make him an almost-star again. His next album, Sefronia, was a toned down, tame version of its predecessor, with throwbacks to his early folk-rock phase, like a version of his long-time favorite "Dolphins," written by his friend Fred Neill. 1975's Look At The Fool was enervated and unmotivated, its title seemingly expressing Buckley's feelings of humiliation---he was hurt by accusations of sell-out; even worse, his attempts to sell-out weren't working. In an interview a few months before his death, Buckley stoutly insisted: "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.... 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".Indeed he was working on this kind of material with Larry Beckett, like their concept album based around Joseph Conrad's Outcast of the Islands.
In 1975, Buckley was trying to pull himself together, to cut out the drugs and the booze. On the weekend of June 28th, he returned to California after a highly successful mini-tour of Texas. Drunk, he went round to see his friend Richard Keeling and snorted some white powder. Some believe he thought it was cocaine; it was actually smack. On his partially cleaned-up system, and in combination with the alcohol in his body, the effect was fatal. After being taken home in a stupor by Keeling. Buckley died at 9:42pm, June 29th 1975.
For years, Buckley was a largely forgotten figure, bar the odd fulsome review of reissues. His ascent to hipster favedome coincided with the late Eighties emergence of a sort of alternative canon of mavericks and misfits--Nick Drake, Gram Parsons, Tim Rose, Alex Chilton, Robert Wyatt,Chris Bell, John Martyn, Tom Rapp, etc etc. Many of these soon-to-be-usual suspects had songs covered on the This Mortal Coil albums assembled by 4AD supremo Ivo Watts-Russell. The first album's lead single was Liz Frazer's gorgeous cover of Starsailor's "Song to The Siren," which ended up in a TV commercial thanks to Saatchi employee and Coctaus fan Alex Ayuli of A.R. Kane. The second This Mortal Coil album featured two more Buckley tunes, "Morning Glory" and "I Must Have Been Blind". A micro-industry of live albums, catalyzed in 1990 by Dream Letter: Live In London 1968 (a fabulous recording of Buckley's first major British gig, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall) helped to burnish the myth. Buckley was also becoming a major reference point as a palpable influence on Primal Scream's epochal single "Higher Than The Sun" and an ancestor for artists like Red House Painters, Talk Talk, and Dead Can Dance's Brendan Perry. The rise to near-fame of his
son Jeff Buckley (who not only sounded uncannily like his neglectful father but was by far the most talented of the child-of-a-star artists that have plagued the last two decades---Julian Lennon, Ziggy Marley, Wilson Philips, Sean Lennon, Jakob Dylan, ad nauseam) also kept the legend alive. His namedrop cachet may have dimmed slightly in recent years (although Dot Allison did sample a curl of eerie and plangent Underwood guitar from Happy/Sad's "Dream Letter" on her debut album's "I Wanna Feel The Chill"). But Tim Buckley--the Milky Way kid--will always have a corner of the
out-rock firmament to call his own.
TIM BUCKLEY IN HIS OWN WORDS
on Goodbye and Hello's title track protest songs
"I just hate the motherfucker. It's like, 'OK motherfuckers, you want a protest song, here it is'. They were bugging the hell out of me so I figured, just this once, and then I wouldn't have to do it again. "Talking about the war is futile. What can you say about it? You want it to end but you know it won't. Fear is a limited subject but love isn't. I ain't talking about sunsets 'n' trees, I'm involved with America...but the people in America, not the politics. All I can see is the injustice."
on not belonging with the late Sixties heavy rock scene
"It was getting pretty ridiculous to go on after the people that plugged in the Grand Coulee Dam... It was like a fart after a hail storm to go on after Pink Floyd or Blue Cheer. "
on not belonging in the 'rock' category altogether
"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"
on aspiring to be like an animal
"That's why animals are so great, because they're just pure instinct. And when you really get into them, you see that birds are even better than animals, because they have nothing. They're not even like a cat or a dog--they just fly."
on rock versus jazz
"When you stand Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy or Roland Kirk up against rock, rock comes out sounding like a complete pre-fabrication. Everything is so over-rehearsed in rock, that when somebody hits a wrong note, they don't know what to do with it. I'll never forget listening to Roland Kirk play a wrong note, hear it, and within a split second integrate that note into the total sound and take it someplace else. Then it's not a mistake, really... it's life."
on feeling suicidal in 1974 as his career and muse peter out
"You are what you are, you know what you know, and there are no words for loneliness, black, bitter, aching loneliness, that gnaws the roots of silence in the night... There has been life enough, and power, grandeur, joy enough, and there has also been beauty enough, and, God knows, there has been squalor and filth and misery and madness and despair enough, and loneliness enough to fill your bowels with the substance of gray horror, and to crust your lips with its hard and acrid taste of desolation... ... and we are lying there, blind atoms in our cellar-depths, gray voiceless atoms in the manswarm desolation of the earth, and our fame is lost, our
names forgotten, our powers are wasting from us like mined earth, while we lie here at evening and the river flows... and dark time is feeding like a vulture on our entrails, and we know that we are lost, and cannot stir..."