Helpless Dancer

The Endless Note

Tim Buckley

Tim Buckley was seen by many as the last of Elektra’s great “folk” signings in the connecting line from Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Fred Neil and Phil Ochs. He appears to bridge the era of acoustic folk and the influence of rock from Los Angeles, but really he never belonged in either camp.

Born in Washington, DC, on Valentine’s Day 1947, Buckley was raised in New York. His family moved to Orange County, California, when he was ten years old and at 17 he joined a Country & Western outfit, Princess Ramona & The Cherokee Riders. But his musical spirit would never be so easily channelled and two groups he formed with friends from Buena Vista High School – the pop-flavoured Bohemians and the more esoteric Harlequin 3 – pointed the way forward. Buckley, drummer Larry Beckett and bass player Jim Fielder played the LA clubs, where the Mothers Of Invention’s Jimmy Carl Black brought them to the attention of Herb Cohen, who arranged an audition at the Crescendo, on the Strip.

“The band did a set of five or six songs,” said Cohen who died in March this year. “Tim was phenomenal. He looked great, and the voice was special even then. But Larry was not really a drummer, and Jim Fielder was nowhere near as good a musician as he would become. I brought Tim to Elektra.”

Elektra boss Jac Holzman was smitten by Buckley’s otherworldly voice after hearing a six-song demo. “There was a mysterious, almost ephemeral quality about Tim,” he says today. Holzman signed him during the summer of 1966, and the debut album, Tim Buckley – recorded in LA by Paul Rothchild – was released in December that year, beating out the first Doors album by a month.

Holzman felt the album, as interesting as it was, served merely as an introduction to Buckley’s talent. “It was an exercise in learning the studio and introducing Tim to its possibilities. The first album was training wheels for what followed. Some songs are really good – Wings, Song Of The Magician, perhaps Grief In My Soul – and there were moments of daring.”

I’ve got ten thousand troubles, a million woes
Got grief in my soul nobody knows
I’ve got heartaches, I got stingin’ water fallin’ out of the sky
I’ve got heartbreaks, I got a long lost lover, got a reason to die

I got ten thousand troubles, a million woes
I got grief in my soul nobody knows
I got sorrow, I’m in a storm that’ll spare no travelin’ man
I fear tomorrow, got a love that died long before it began

I got ten thousand troubles, a million woes
Got grief in my soul nobody knows

I got ten thousand troubles, a million woes
Got grief in my soul nobody knows
I’ve got a cold chain, I got rain fallin’ on my head from above
I’ve got a bad pain, I got a gal don’t know the meaning of love

I got ten thousand troubles, a million woes
I got grief in my soul nobody knows
I’ve got heartaches, I got stingin’ water fallin’ out of the sky
I’ve got heartbreaks, I got a long lost lover, got a reason to die

I got ten thousand troubles, a million woes
I got grief in my soul nobody knows

Buckley worked hard to promote his album, playing festivals, concerts, clubs, and campuses. Holzman: “Live, he was cotton candy for the girls. His songs reveal a sensitivity that women pick up on earlier than men, but they were the first [fans] he would lose later with his more ambiguous work.”

Buckley’s most obvious USP was that voice, which New York Times critic Robert Shelton described as “not quite a counter-tenor, but a tenor to counter with”. However, within a year of his tantalising debut, Buckley was preparing something more challenging and sophisticated. He and Larry Beckett, now writing poetic lyrics, had a solid notion of how they wanted to shape Buckley’s second album, Goodbye And Hello. Folk maven Jerry Yester – soon to join The Lovin’ Spoonful – was assigned as producer.

“The first time I met Tim,” recalls Yester, “was at Herbie Cohen’s house. He played for Judy Henske, Fred Neil, and me. He sang with Jim Fielder on bass. Right out of high school, Tim was wearing a suit, a maroon tie, and his hair was slicked back. He was painfully shy. Fred Neil was his god, and I’m sure he dreamed his voice could have dropped an octave to sing like Fred. He emulated Fred’s tragic side, too.”

Yester fondly recalls a simpatico relationship with Buckley and Beckett.

“They just tickled me. They weren’t about to let anyone screw them over. Firm in their ideals, they had that album all worked out, even down to the track sequencing. I would make suggestions – some they would take, others they wouldn’t, but they were open-minded. My role was to bring Tim out, his uniqueness and the clarity of his vision.”

At its best, such as the dramatic, impassioned Pleasant Street or the mood-shifting Hallucinations, Goodbye And Hello scores high, justifying Holzman’s belief that the album was “a fully realised gem, a miracle.” Buckley appears most at ease on the two mellower, more laidback songs: Morning Glory, with its wonderful understated arrangement,

and the simple, dreamy Once I Was,

inspired by Fred Neil after Buckley visited the sessions for Neil’s recording of The Dolphins.

The album marked a turning point for its author. “It was very hard for me to write songs after Goodbye And Hello because most of the bases were touched,” Buckley said in 1974. “That was the end of my apprenticeship for writing songs. Whatever I wrote after that wasn’t adolescent, which means it wasn’t easy to write after that, because you can’t repeat yourself. The way Jac had it set up, you were supposed to move on artistically, but the way the business is, you’re not. You’re supposed to repeat what you do, so there’s a dichotomy there.”

Buckley guitarist Lee Underwood observed the dichotomy that the singer had identified. “Tim’s approach was very much at odds with the laidback troubadour image. That image fit him during the early days, when he was a teenage folkie, but quickly became irrelevant and inappropriate as he matured.”

Bruce Botnick, who was the engineer on the first three Buckley albums for Elektra, saw him change before his eyes. “You couldn’t contain Tim Buckley’s talent – a reflection of all the different sides of his personality. There were quantum leaps between his albums and an intellectual growth that’s the mark of a great artist. It’s never really conscious with someone like Tim Buckley or Bob Dylan – these people don’t slice themselves up into pieces, it’s all very instinctive, they have a vision.”

Buckley toured Goodbye And Hello with a pool of musicians who were now exploring jazz roots rather than folk. It was this intimate group of players – featuring Buckley’s own 12-string, Lee Underwood on lead guitar, and Carter C.C. Collins on congas, plus acoustic bass and vibes – who entered the studios to record what became Happy Sad.

Simply letting the tape roll, the musicians improvised minimalist tapestries around six of Buckley’s new songs, of which two stretched beyond ten minutes. Elaborate poetic metaphors and intricate arrangements were out, and experimentation replaced the blithe romanticism of Goodbye And Hello. It would prove to be Buckley’s defining album and his highest-charting, even if it only made 81, and it remained in the charts for three months after its release in April 1969.

Yet Jerry Yester has less than fond memories. He was in the middle of an album with Pat Boone when Buckley asked him to produce Happy Sad. Yester was now working in a production team with Zal Yanovsky, who had left the Lovin’ Spoonful (and whom Yester would replace). Buckley’s musicians ridiculed them for working with the straight-laced Boone but there was one bizarre consequence. The Pat Boone album Yester was producing – Departure – includes the first ever released version of one of Tim Buckley’s most renowned compositions: Song To The Siren, unrecorded by Buckley till Starsailor two years later.

“After the rewarding and enjoyable experience with Goodbye And Hello, this was oil and water,” says Yester. “Not so much with Tim, but with the band. He really didn’t need any input from me on arrangements. The band was leading him at times, and I was there to help make it sound as good as possible.”

Buckley had a different recollection. “I really loved doing that album. It was really a break-out time for me musically, and we had a ball doing that. The trick of writing is to make it sound like it’s all happening for the first time. It took a long time for me to write that album, and then to teach the people in the band, but they were all great people so it was really a labour of love – the way it should be.”

The music always came first for Buckley, as Holzman knew from the start. “He never felt any desire to be famous. He was purely musical and he wanted people around him who could facilitate his music. He was motivated only by a need for self-expression. When Happy Sad made the shift from Goodbye And Hello, the audience he had acquired began to drift away. You go to Lorca and Starsailor, and that process escalates – and he wasn’t adding any new audience to compensate for the loss. Tim never cared about the numbers. Just the music.

Happy Sad disappointed me at first,” continues Holzman, “because I expect things to take off and go up, not to take off and go nowhere. In retrospect, that was tough for me to understand. Tim was drifting into a looser style, much jazzier, but there are fine, fine songs: Buzzin’ Fly,

and Love From Room 109 At The Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway) are compelling. It was something I didn’t expect, and I realise more now that it was also very, very good. I did not see the perspective then; I do now.”

Herb Cohen, who would continue to manage Buckley into the ’70s, is just as rueful: “Tim committed artistic suicide in a way – certainly commercial suicide. Of course he did some stuff that was really good, strange as it was, but he wanted to develop something, and I don’t know that he really knew what that was or whether he felt he had ever got there. There was no way that people could relate to albums like Lorca and Starsailor. People do now, and they try and figure out what that music was and where it was going, but the world at the time wasn’t prepared for that. People would come to see him because of what they heard from the first two albums and they couldn’t understand what he was doing any more. And they would stop coming.”

During the autumn of 1969, Buckley recorded the near-instrumental Lorca – his final record for Elektra – and what became Blue Afternoon, plus part of his sixth album, Starsailor. Holzman gave Buckley his release, knowing he already had a potential new home with Herb Cohen’s Discreet label. Holzman hadn’t heard Lorca in 40 years, but returned to it recently and realized “I totally blew it with Lorca. Even for me, so into evolution in music, I was not ready to accept Tim’s streams of self-expression and the lack of modality on Lorca. Nobody Walkin’ astonishes me in the way Tim uses his voice. If that’s the last song he recorded for Elektra, he went out in flaming glory. How he got those voices on that album I can’t imagine. Hearing it in 2010, I’m proud it is on Elektra. And it is on Elektra through no credit to me.”

Mick Houghton

Mick Houghton’s Becoming Elektra: The True Story of Jac Holzman’s Visionary Record Label is out now


October 5, 2010 - Posted by | Blast from The Past, Books, Video |

1 Comment »

  1. […] To view an earlier post on Tim Buckley click HERE […]

    Pingback by 2010 Top 30 New and Old #4 « Helpless Dancer | December 27, 2010 | Reply

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