‘PHANTASMAGORIA IN TWO CD’s’
Album Review of:
‘STARSAILOR: THE ANTHOLOGY’
by TIM BUCKLEY
(Rhino Music Club, 2011)
Tim was the wild card in the singer-songwriter pack. On album sleeves he’s the angel-headed hipster, with clouds of matted curls protectively tousled around his head. The pay-off line to “Song Of The Magician” from his debut LP invites ‘listen to my magic voice’, and it’s a voice that rises plaintively pure with a vocal range spanning all the way from aching baritone to strident tenor. It’s a waltz-time track, and perfect sixties pastoral psych-Folk rhyming ‘as I walk across the sky’ with ‘the clockwork of your eye’ before offering ‘you will be love and your love will live’. Ideally adapted to the wandering Folk-Poet role, Tim is caught soft-focus in a photo-still rainbow haze, the sweet pretty-boy, sensitive, vulnerable and androgynous. A ‘loving vandal’ both precious and precocious. But, as friend and biographer Lee Underwood insists, he was also a fighter. And before he’d properly allowed time to work himself into the troubadour thing, too impatient and creatively restless to allow audiences to catch up, he was the ‘velocity addict’ too, slanting off into other continuums, bending his sound into alternate dimensions of jazz and avant-garde, hunting purer distillations of musical expression. Dylan was allowed periodic reinvention and career-phases. Soon, Bowie would too. While the other Tim – Tim Hardin, had Gary Burton in to embellish his jazzier excursions. But Tim travelled a long way in a short time. Too far and too fast for many.
Born in Washington DC on Valentine’s Day 1947, he and school-friend poet Larry Beckett formed Rock group The Bohemians and played with acoustic folkniks The Harlequins Three while they were still pupils at Anaheim Loara High. By his late teens Tim had moved on to the fringes of the LA Folk circuit. It was there he hooked up with manager Herb Cohen, and found a record company, Jac Holzman’s ultra-cred Elektra. It was Holzman, with Paul A Rothchild (fresh from working with the Doors) who produced Tim’s first album ‘Tim Buckley’ (October 1966) which – like the three that followed, is firmly Folk-rooted in ways that seem supernaturally suspended above the often harsh world beneath him. No-one would want it any other way. “Song Slowly Sung” is virtually moveless, lustrous slivers of electric guitar, a shimmering wash of cymbals, with bare breaths of motion, as skinny and threadbare as his cover-photo. An impossibly romantic declaration in whisper-quiet intimacy aimed at a vision of fleeting loveliness, of beautiful hair and sixteen years. Of the twelve songs, seven were written to Beckett’s poem-lyrics. Although not the failed single, “Wings”, which defines Tim as ‘flying on wings of chance’. The regular Byrdsian jangle-template is only partially offset by Jack Nitzsch’s irritating strings which Elektra insist on, yet the track is elevated by his distinctive voice.
By the time of second-album ‘Goodbye & Hello’ (August 1967, co-produced by Holzman with Jerry Yester) it’s as though something of life’s protective shrink-wrap is coming adrift, he wears a Pepsi bottle-lid like a prosthetic eye for the gatefold cover-shot. Life is getting at him. He was young, but maturing fast, with something of the beautifully pure choirboy of its predecessor eroding in the process. With ten new songs, five written with Larry, it’s his breakthrough LP – peaking no higher than no.171 on the ‘Billboard’ album chart. Larry’s inner liner-notes form an artful acrostic poem to ‘Tracy’. And his lyrics frame the baroque “Goodbye & Hello” itself, one of Tim’s best early songs – a manifesto of sorts, as much innocence as it is experience, its orchestrated segments forming an ambitiously complex structure of switches from mood to mood. You say Goodbye and I say Hello? Not exactly. It was a goodbye to everything false, outmoded, impure, corrupt, the ‘antique people’, the ‘sexless directionless loons’, and a hello to all the coming age has to offer, the ‘new children’ with the new-generation explanation. A goodbye to speed, to Mammon, to murder and to ashes. A hello to the rose, the stream, the rain, and to a girl. And finally a goodbye to America itself, in favour of embracing the world. It’s a major song.
Elsewhere, for the dream-tale of an elusive phantom-girl on the edge of reality, the unusual extended phrasings of “Hallucinations” mirror the shimmering clattering instrumentation. While the instantly attractive troubadour-image of “Carnival Song” is enhanced by the intelligent use of fairground effect. It portrays ‘the singer’ who ‘cries for people’s lies… and for a while you won’t know my name at all’. A harpsichord intro and Carter Collins’ Yardbirds’ pattering congas lead into “Pleasant Street” with Tim’s high almost female voice becoming increasingly strident, rising into falsetto, then deepening into the suggestive descent ‘down, down, down’ in descending chord progression. Here, the Icarus image ‘you thought you were flying, but you opened your eyes and you found yourself falling’, inhabits a kind of symbolist location of twilight lovers and concrete skies. An eerily unreal ‘Desolation Row’, or a similar alternate-zone to label-mates The Doors’ “Love Street”, a place half-mythic escapism, half geographical reality. His most famous song of this period is also from the album. “Morning Glory” – what’s the story? This was also the first Buckley track I ever owned, as part of the ‘Select Elektra’ sampler-compilation – sleeve-notes by an effusive John Peel, on a raft alongside other esoteric out-there artists, Love, Doors, Clear Light, the Incredible String Band. And yes, I was captivated by its big-choir choruses and repeated beseeching pleas to the ‘hobo’. Although the ‘choir’ actually consists of just Tim & Yester’s multi-tracked harmonies. Tim shared manager Herb Cohen with Linda Ronstadt, and her first group, the Stone Poneys, featured some of his songs (on their ‘Vol III’ LP (1968), “Aren’t You The One”, “Wings” – & “Hobo (Morning Glory)” which also features on her 1974 ‘Different Drum’ compilation). She told ‘Zig-Zag no.65’ that ‘that song was about our house, you know… the first house I lived in when I moved to LA was in Ocean Park – this groovy little beach house, which I really loved. Anyway, after I moved out, Tim moved in… and he wrote “Morning Glory” about it’. Well, maybe. On his live ‘Dream Letters’ album Tim himself introduces the song as being about ‘a hobo beaten up outside of Dallas, Texas’.
Again, “Morning Glory” was written with Beckett, but it was a partnership that continued more sporadically from now on. Tim intended his voice to be more than just a vehicle to carry lyrics. Instead, his head should serve his heart, the better to feed his more Dionysian side. In total, the more cerebral Beckett – ‘The Word’, would remain a presence on all but three Buckley albums. Of course, lyrics are vital. I’ve always related to songs through their lyric content. Does the exact ratio of input matter? After all, Brian Wilson didn’t remotely understand what his lyricist Van Dyke Parks was getting at with all that ‘sunny-down snuff it’s alright’ stuff, but that doesn’t stop “Heroes & Villains” being a great single. Buckley wrote lyrics too, but maybe it was the fact that initially it was Beckett who was responsible for the words that freed Tim up to concentrate on the more musical aspects of the sound. And at last, it was time for Tim to go with what his senses were telling him. After all, it was the richness and variety of his vocal delivery that did much to establish his reputation. Not so much a voice, more an instrument in its own right, an instrument of incredible range and sweetness. To Robert Shelton of the ‘New York Times’ he was ‘not quite a counter-tenor but a tenor to counter with’. Where Tim did write, he wrote with considerable personal power. With the fierce, urgent Stephen Stills-style strummed-intensity of “I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain” (on ‘Goodbye & Hello’) he portrays himself as the ‘scoundrel father’ vehemently disclaiming responsibility for the wife and child he’d left to pursue his muse. Even though it shares melodic changes with Chet Powers’ “Let’s Get Together”, his drive is assertive and free, combining pathos and transcendent emotion, his voice soaring with new strength, power and grace. So why the marital parting? because, after all, he was young, talented, bursting with music. But, more eloquently and concise, because ‘I can’t swim your waters, and you can’t walk my lands’. She was Pisces, the water-sign.
And if the next LP (‘Happy Sad’, July 1969, produced by Yester with his Lovin’ Spoonful partner Zal Yanovsky) is the product of experience, it’s as if, not much liking the world outside, Tim was opting to retract into the various warmths the Californian life-style had to offer. Commercially, it went further, all the way up to no.81. And there are new influences. A Miles Davis ‘Kind Of Blue’ track directly inspired “Strange Feelin’” with its resonant stand-up bass and sweetly chiming vibraphones. With space for a follow-on to his earlier theme too. The terminally-slow “Dream Letter” is a more apologetic ode to wife Mary Guibert, and infant son Jeff, the lyrics lamenting ‘is he a soldier, or is he a dreamer?’ and ‘does he ever ask about me?’ In fact it would be over five years before Buckley spent time with his son again. While the song-name would be used to sub-title the posthumously issued album recorded ‘Live In London 1968’ (May 1990, Enigma), using much the same personnel, including David Friedman’s chiming vibraphone. Segueing into “Happy Time” the live “Dream Letter” is one of the set’s most moving tracks. Meanwhile, a further album – ‘Blue Afternoon’ (November 1969) took Tim onto Straight, a label set up by Cohen with Frank Zappa, with Tim’s own production, and (like ‘Happy Sad’) all his own songs, untempered by Larry Beckett’s creative input. “Chase The Blues Away” is a meandering Blues with moody bass interplay which dissolves into shade-textured sound beyond lyric or melody, while “Café” is all smoky languid slurred voice offset by Tim’s twelve-string guitar, and a lyric portraying himself as ‘just a curly-haired mountain-boy on my way passing through’. Then a couplet from “Happy Time” encapsulates one of his finest expressions of the carefree creative process, ‘it’s a happy time inside my mind, when a melody does find a rhyme’.
Yet the next phase of his career charts him moving towards John Coltrane-style jazz on ‘Lorca’ (May 1970) and ‘Starsailor’ (November 1970), two albums recorded during the same months and issued within six months of each other. “Lorca” is strange, not easily accessible, downright unlistenable in places – even while you admire his high-wire juggling bravery in performing it. The obvious literary title-reference to Andalusian ‘gipsy-poet’ Federico Garcia Lorca signposts the impressionistic free-form fades into abstraction. Although the shifting chromatics of “I Had A Talk With My Woman” retains an attractive informality, from the ‘alright?’ intro to the conversational fade. He croons ‘I wanna sing it high, and sing it down low’ his voice contouring it accordingly, with his flattened and elongated vocals stretched across his two-octave range. Another long-term associate, guitarist and later Rock journalist and Buckley biographer Lee Underwood, plays on nine of his albums. Older than Tim, it was he who mentored his taste towards Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus and Olivier Messiaen, as well as Lorca. Moving into what Underwood terms ‘sonic textures above and beyond conventional words and melodies’. With former Mothers of Invention woodwind-player Bunk Gardner on board, and the return of Larry Beckett – absent for the last few albums, ‘Starsailor’ takes it further.
The title-track itself opens with dissonant voices recalling Berio or Gyorgy Ligeti, then shoves conventional song-structure out through the airlock, so the atonal clusters and arrhythmic counterpoints of its flexible tempo are deformed by quantum effects. Here, whirling within its subatomic particle-spins, you glimpse the music of the spheres, a continuum where ‘circuits shiver’ and ‘oblivion carries me on his shoulder’. Yet it’s here, on the same album, that Tim’s best-known piece – the haunting “Song To The Siren” is located, its poignant displaced atmospherics charting spectral Odyssian imagery as his lower-register vocals push bizarre voice-tricks to extremes. Oddly, it appeared in the final episode of ‘The Monkees’ TV show screened on March 25, 1968, but it’s likely through the ethereal This Mortal Coil version etched by Elizabeth Fraser’s remarkable voice-interpretation that it achieved its greatest cross-generational recognition, laying renewed veneers to the Tim Buckley legend. On “Jungle Fire” his voice is deeper, more grittily resonant, interspersed by unexpected vocal swoops. “Come Here Woman” is another exercise in the manipulation of sound and voice-acrobatics. Then listen to “I Woke Up” with its muted Miles Davis-style horn, and “Healing Festival” with a roaring Free-Jazz horn blowing and dissonant backing voices, to appreciate what journalist Lillian Roxon means. She says that ‘nothing in Rock, Folk-Rock, or anything else prepares you for a Tim Buckley album, and it’s funny to hear his work described as Blues, modified Rock & Roll, and Raga-Rock when, in fact, there is no name yet for the places he and his voice go’. In a live context too, his shows were becoming increasingly unstructured, more intuitive. Dropping rehearsals so as to become less pre-conceived, less mind-music.
These free-form scat diversions provoked mixed reactions, and ‘Greetings From L.A.’ (October 1972) saw further metamorphosis, turning Tim towards more accessible urban R&B styles, singing of lust rather than romance. “Move With Me” shifts dubiously into the more fleshy concerns of dirty-sex Funk and infidelity. Adopting this new, less cherubic identity he ambles down to the ‘meat-rack tavern’ with sensual intent in mind. A black woman is drinking alone, ‘what a waste of sin’. Girl back-up vocalists soulfully croon around honking sax as he offers to be her ‘back-door man’. Until her real man arrives, he ‘filled up the doorway’ and bounces poor Tim all the way down the stairs, breaking every bone in his body, but – hey, it was worth every second because ‘I loved me a black woman’. Whether the comic-absurdity of this Bukowski-like low-life tale is what you expect from the romantic promise of earlier Tim Buckley albums is something else entirely. But he extends it into “Make It Right” by pleading ‘beat me, whip me, spank me’. Beyond the scope of this 2CD anthology, ‘Sefronia’ (1973, on another Cohen-Zappa label, DiscReet) is a synthesis of this later hard-edged style with the earlier more lyrical singing, including his well-liked covers of Fred Neil’s “Dolphins” and a maudlin “Martha” from the pen of Tom Waits, another Herb Cohen client. Then ‘Look At The Fool’ (November 1974, DiscReet Records).
But for Buckley his adventuring style-shifts had served only to confound and confuse fans and press alike. In his own words, he’d ‘been out fighting wars that the world never knew about’ (“Dream Letter”), serving only to blur his identity, leading to declining sales and ultimately the heroin o/d snowball that killed him. He died on 19 June 1975 in Los Angeles. It sounds trite to say he never sold out. That he followed his muse relentlessly with scant regard to hits or radio-plays. If chart success had been an option, he’d probably have taken it. On his own terms. There was no shortage of pretenders to the Wandering Folk-Poet role he epitomised so well on his first album-trilogy, yet it was the later extreme-detours that makes Tim Buckley stand out from that crowd. He’d come a long way in a short time. Too far and too fast for many. In “Strange Feelin’” he portrays himself as ‘a lonely guitar-picker with a wicked wandering eye’, one who will ‘make you happy, then he’ll leave’, but once he’s gone ‘there’s a song in your heart, and I don’t think it’s gonna leave’. Well, he’s gone, and the songs are still here. Now, with the advantage of perspective and within the context of this fine anthology, his restless changes make more sense.
HELLO… & GOODBYE
“Aren’t You The Girl” c/w “Strange Street Affair Under Blue” (Elektra EKSN45008)
“Morning Glory” c/w “Knight Errant” (Elektra EKSN45018)
“Once I Was” c/w Phantasmagoria In Two” (Elektra EKSN45023)
“Pleasant Street” (Elektra EKSN 45041)
“Wings” c/w “I Can’t See You” (Elektra EKSN 45031)
individual tracks on:
“Morning Glory” on ‘Select Elektra’ (Elektra EUK261) 1967
“Phantasmagoria In Two” on ‘Begin Here’ (Elektra EUKS 7262) May 1969
‘Tim Buckley’ (Elektra EKS74004) review in ‘Record Mirror’ says ‘this curly-headed avant-garde young singer must soon be a rival to both Dylan and Donovan’
‘Goodbye & Hello’ (Elektra EKS74028) review in ‘Record Mirror’ says ‘backing sounds fit well into the comfortable yet slightly disturbing pattern of music. His voice changes from the soothing to the near-falsetto’
‘Happy Sad’ (Elektra EKS74045)
‘Lorca’ (Elektra EKS74074)
‘Blue Afternoon’ (Straight STS1060) review in ‘Zig-Zag’ says ‘he’s been wallowing in a well of self-pity for so long that he seems unable to crawl out even for one song’ Mike Simmons
‘Starsailor’ (Straight STS1064)
‘Greetings From LA’ (Warner Bros K46176)
‘Sefronia’ (DiscReet K49201, reissued on Demon CD-EDCD277) ‘Q’ review ‘squeezing that anarchic voice into straightforward funkrock stylings, sounding like Tom Jones against a Philadelphia soul backing’ Lucy O’Brien
‘Look At The Fool’ (DiscReet K59204, reissued on Demon CD-EDCD294) ‘NME’ review ‘riffs as opposed to songs, constant displays of verbal overkill and a kind of overall obnoxiousness of purpose and attitude. I find parts of this album too offensive to be listened to more than once. Buckley even does a ‘Louie Louie’ spin-off called ‘Wanda Lu’ which is too moronic even for its prototype’
‘Dream Letters: Live In London 1968’ (Demon Fiend 200, Manifesto PT3 40703C) recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Pentangle’s Danny Thompson standing in on double-bass, features seven unrecorded songs including “Hi Lily Hi Lo” which ‘Q’ says ‘is sung like a wayward choirboy testing the limits of a new-found toy’, issued August 1990
‘The Peel Sessions’ (Strange Fruit CD-SFPCD82) recorded 1968, with “Morning Glory”, “Coming Home To You”, “Sing A Song For You”, “Hallucinations/Troubadour” & “Once I Was”, issued September 1991
‘Live At The Troubadour 1969’ (Manifesto PT3 40705) with “Gypsy Woman” & “Driftin’”
‘Honeyman’ (Edsel EDCD 450, 1995) live New York radio sessions recorded in November 1973 of songs largely from ‘Sefronia’ & ‘Greetings From L.A.’, with “Dolphins’, “Get On Top” plus “Buzzin Fly” and “Pleasant Street”. ‘Mojo’ says ‘Tim Buckley was blessed. He had a voice that could burn ice and freeze flames. Put him in a ring with Janis and Otis and he’d’ve whupped them both with one octave tied behind his back’ – Rob Steen
A much-expanded version of a review published in:
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL Vol.2 No.31 Jan/Feb’ (UK – January 2012)