In a 1974 Sounds interview quoted by his friend and collaborator Lee Underwood in Down Beat, Tim Buckley mused, “Sometimes you’re writing, and you know you’re just not going to fit in. But you do it because it’s your heart and your soul, and you gotta say it. It’s the foremost thing in your mind…. It’s hard to play the kind of music that musicians like to play and that the audiences like to hear, too.” Such was the central dilemma of Buckley’s professional life, for his audience’s admiration of his earlier, more straightforward work limited the commercial possibilities of the experimental and deeply heartfelt creations he fashioned later on.
Signed as a “folk” artist in the mid-1960s, Buckley was an uncompromising, eternally restless songwriter who melded jazz, pop, and avant-garde musics into a signature sound that showcased his virtuosic, unearthly voice. A five-star 1971 Down Beat review of Starsailor— arguably Buckley’s most powerful personal statement—proclaimed that “far too few (if any) pop artists exhibit such expressive control of the resonance and general tone of the voice as does Buckley.” Sadly, he suffered a string of commercial setbacks and died of a drug overdose at age 28; only in the late 1980s and early 1990s were his works re-released and his prodigious talents reassessed.
Born in Washington, D.C., Tim Buckley moved with his family to Southern California when he was 12. He spent much of his adolescence experimenting with his voice, struggling to reach the highest and lowest imaginable notes. “So I practiced, and I screamed and I practiced some more,” he recalled in an interview cited by Underwood, “until I finally ended up with a five- to five-and-a-half-octave range.”
Enamored of folk and country music, he studied banjo and played in a band with friends like Dan Gordon. “I would love to say our roots were [country pioneer] Hank Williams,” Gordon said in a conversation with Scott Isler of Musician, “but it’s just not true. It’s all [1950s-1960s folk band] the Kingston Trio.” Nonetheless, even as Buckley played in Top 40 bands like the Bohemians, he also explored the anti-establishment beatnik fringes with Harlequins 3 and found himself powerfully drawn to modern jazz luminaries like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus.
After being introduced to Herb Cohen, who managed Frank Zappa’s anarchistic rock experimentalists the Mothers of Invention, among other acts, Buckley began to perform more intensively. He eloped with high school
For the Record…
Born Timothy Charles Buckley III, February 14, 1947, in Washington, DC; died of a drug overdose, June 28, 1975, in Los Angeles, CA; married Mary Guibert, c. 1965 (divorced 1968); married Judy Henske, 1970; children: (first marriage) Jeffrey Scott; (second marriage) Taylor. Education: Attended college briefly.
Performing and recording artist, mid-1960s-1975. Signed to Elektra Records and released debut album Tim Buckley, 1966; produced 1970 album Blue Afternoon for Straight Records; signed to Warner Bros, and released Starsailor, 1971; recorded Sefronia for DiscReet, 1973.
sweetheart Mary Guibert and enrolled in college. Buckley was forced to grow up quickly, attempting to juggle his education with his marriage while building a music career—all before the age of 20. The marriage was rocky, and he and Guibert lived together only sporadically. He dropped out of college before completing his first year and played in L.A. nightspots like the Troubadour as well as far-flung coffee houses and other venues amenable to folk music. Cohen introduced Buckley’s distinctive sound to Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman, who told Isler in Musician: “I loved the writing, I loved the approach, and I loved the fact that he had both folk roots and rock ’n’ roll aspirations.”
Thanks to Cohen’s involvement, Buckley landed gigs at a Greenwich Village club, the Night Owl, and there he met and began collaborating with guitarist-keyboardist Lee Underwood. The musician became one of Buckley’s most devoted sidemen and a virtual disciple of his artistic fervor. Playing songs he wrote with poet friend Larry Beckett, Buckley formed a band consisting of Underwood on lead guitar and Jim Fielder on bass.
Elektra released his debut album, Tim Buckley, in 1966; Holzman told Isler that the record “had an air of stridency about it. [Buckley] wasn’t really comfortable in his own musical skin.” Even so, it introduced the young singer’s powerful voice and won some critical praise. That year also saw Guibert give birth to the couple’s son, Jeffrey, but she and Tim had already agreed to divorce. Jeff Buckley would himself later emerge as a rock singer-songwriter and struggle to distinguish his work—and his powerfully familiar voice—from the work of the father he met only once.
The year between Buckley’s first and second albums proved to be a transitional period for pop music. With the Beatles’ landmark Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—the beginning of the rock album as “art”—and influential recordings by singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, and an array of psychedelic bands from San Francisco, the creative ante had been upped markedly.
Buckley, undaunted, became more adventuresome; his Goodbye and Hello, Isler wrote in Musician, “sounds as if all concerned were inspired by Sgt. Pepper to create their own overarching statement on pop culture.” With its anti-war sentiments and romantic ballads, it presented Buckley as just the sort of sensitive young troubadour the hippie culture was beginning to demand. “Once I Was,” his most enduring “folk” performance, helped make the album his most successful. In addition to developing his striking vocals, Buckley had begun to write lyrics; Beckett, who had contributed to Goodbye and Hello, was fading from the scene.
Buckley was idolized by many young fans, but Underwood claimed that the singer “resented being set up as a rock ’n’ roll savior, insisting that people should learn how to do their own living instead of propping musicians up as ’easy gods’ who did the living for them.” Buckley was similarly disgusted by the music business, never understanding the market-based concerns of the labels for which he recorded.
At a time when blues-rock guitar was all the rage, Buckley championed jazz; the influence of bop and post-bop styles would appear on his next album, 1968’s Happy/Sad. With only Buckley’s voice and guitar accompanied by vibes, string bass, and congas—Underwood was ousted temporarily due to his excessive drinking—the album eschewed the sonic overkill of mainstream pop for a meditative, nuanced quality. Happy/Sac featured a number of Buckley’s most highly regarded compositions, notably “Buzzin’ Fly” and “Gypsy Woman,” and the album marked a quantum leap for him as composer, singer, and lyricist.
All the words to each cut on Happy/Sadwere Buckley’s, and the jazzy textures complemented them ideally. Isler called Happy/Sad “a fully realized work” and reminded readers that its creator was amere 21 years of age atthe time of its completion. Buckley subsequently toured the United Kingdom, and his debut concert there was recorded, but it was not released for 22 years.
By the late 1960s, Buckley had reached his commercial peak. Ever trying new avenues, he served as producer on his next album, Blue Afternoon, which is generally considered to have been made too quickly and without adequate care. The singer-songwriter next embarked on a more obscure path; the first result was Lorca, named after a Spanish poet and sporting irregular time signatures and some of his most avant-garde singing. The album, Isler commented in Musician, “exploded with musical daring.”
Dropped by Elektra, Buckley moved to Warner Bros., which in 1971 released Starsailor. The album—in part a collaborative effort that reunited him with Beckett—is regarded as the ultimate expression of Buckley’s passionate experimentation. In addition to lavishing praise on Buckley as a “consummate vocal technician,” Down Beat deemed him “a sincerely eclectic and compassionate artist who, as the adage speaks, must be heard to be believed.” The album’s track “Song to the Siren”—written with Beckett years before—was later covered by the British act This Mortal Coil and then used in a television ad in the United Kingdom.
But critical adoration didn’t equal album sales. Fans were often bemused by Buckley’s refusal to perform old favorites live; an often-cited anecdote has an audience member calling out, “How about ’Buzzin’ Fly?,” to which the singer responded, “How about horseshit.” His in-cantatory, often dissonant vocal excursions tended to leave crowds—like the one observed by Michael Cus-cuna of Rolling Stone —“baffled and dismayed.” Persuaded to do an album in the blues-rock idiom, Buckley recorded 1972’s Greetings from L.A., which consisted of songs too raunchy for the radio and most record buyers of the time; though it flopped commercially, the album seems truer to the spirit of blues music to many listeners than does most of the work by Buckley’s rock contemporaries.
Buckley had gone through periods of intense depression and drug and alcohol abuse—particularly after the commercial failure of Starsailor —but he soldiered on, playing gigs, recording a few more rather anticlimactic albums, and writing a semi-autobiographical screenplay. In 1975, at the home of his friend Richard Keeling, he snorted what he thought was cocaine but was in reality a heroin-morphine mix; this, combined with alcohol already in his system, did him in. Ironically, Buckley is said to have kicked his heroin habit prior to the incident; his system was therefore rendered particularly vulnerable to the effects of the drugs.
Buckley died on June 28, 1975, “in debt, owning only his guitar and his amp,” Underwood noted. Years later Melody Maker lamented that: “his death was premature, pathetic, a terrible waste. But those who have heard him will never forget him.” Keeling was charged with murder for supplying the illegal substances and ended up serving four months in prison for involuntary manslaughter.
The ensuing years have seen a continuing reassessment of Buckley’s music, a process that has been aided by the release of his work on CD. Along with the studio albums, Buckley enthusiasts can now enjoy a number of seminal live recordings—notably a 1968 London performance issued in 1990 as Dream Letter, which Folk Roots magazine declared the “timeless art of a genuine genius. “Rolling Stone hailed the re-release of Buckley’s albums and pronounced his catalog “a poignant example of how far one songwriter was willing to go in search of a greater, purer form of musical expression.”
Tim Buckley, Elektra, 1966.
Goodbye and Hello (includes “Once I Was”), Elektra, 1967.
Happy/Sad (includes “Buzzin’ Fly” and “Gypsy Woman”), Elektra, 1968.
Blue Afternoon, Straight, 1970.
Lorca, Elektra, 1970.
Starsailor (includes “Song to the Siren”), Warner Bros., 1971.
Greetings from LA., Warner Bros., 1972.
Sefronia, DiscReet, 1973.
Look at the Fool, DiscReet, 1974.
Dream Letter: Live in London, 1968, Bizarre/Straight, 1990.
Live at the Troubadour, Bizarre/Straight, 1994.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard, 1991.
Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1994.
Down Beat, March 4, 1971; June 16, 1977.
Folk Roots, May 1990; October 1990.
Melody Maker, January 31, 1987; October 24, 1987.
Musician, July 1991.
Rolling Stone, April 2, 1970; August 14, 1975; December 14, 1989; December 13, 1990.