“Long afloat on shipless oceans I did all my best to smile ‘Til your singing eyes and fingers Drew me loving to your isle”
So begin the lyrics to one of the best Tim Buckley songs. And as in the legend of the sirens, the lure of the siren can be so beautiful and enticing and yet, at the same time, can have deadly consequences. For Buckley, it was both.
As was the case with his son Jeff, Tim Buckley had both an incredible songwriting talent and an even more incredible, multi-octave voice. But as was again, the case with his son, Tim met an unfortunate and untimely death in 1975 at the age of 28 years.
And like his son, who had a much smaller musical output, but still gained an extensive base that remains firm to this day, Tim Buckley has through time become a cult icon in his own right. Quite a few other artists have attempted to tackle his widely varying and genre-defying catalog. Again, that lure of the siren leading the way.
At the Top of the Folk Wave
As Richie Unterberger, one of the prominent rock critics notes, “though he was only 19-years-old when it was released in October 1966, Tim Buckley’s self-titled debut album was an astonishingly mature maiden effort for a singer-songwriter yet to leave his teens.” But there was firm ground in Buckley’s musical abilities. He started balancing the love of the music of all genres with a potential football career until the love for music and a hand injury prevailed (the latter actually influencing his guitar-playing style).
After dropping out of college after only two weeks, Tim started playing gigs and was spotted by Jimmy Carl Black of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, and through a chain of musical connections, Buckley ended up with a contract with Elektra, one of the hippest folk (and rock) labels of the ’60s.
His debut (1966), which Utenberger was talking about, was actually recorded in three days. Even with the help of the label boss Jac Holzman and star-arranger/producer Jack Nitzsche, Buckley wasn’t too happy with the results himself.
Goodbye and Hello (1967), was a more stylistically diverse affair with some critics hailing it as the epitome of psychedelic folk
His sophomore album, Goodbye and Hello (1967), was a more stylistically diverse affair with some critics hailing it as the epitome of psychedelic folk. Producing some of the more iconic Buckley songs like “Once I Was” and “Morning Glory.”
But Buckley was not staying in one place, as his musical interests were much wider than any genre or style. At the same time, his talent as a songwriter and singer was immense, a fact that became even more evident on Blue Afternoon, the album that followed in 1969. There, Buckley focused on his love of jazz, weaned on his parents’ record collection. This time around, it was that late-night kind of jazz vibe, coupled with his always present incredible vocal capabilities.
Happy Sad (also 1969) is held by many of Buckley’s fans as his ‘folk phase’ classic, even though it never became a critic’s fave. Actually, the elongated “Love From Room 109” was an early precursor to changes to come.
Things Get Weirder, the Audience Divides
Actually, Blue Afternoon came out as Tim’s first release for Frank Zappa and Herb Cohen’s experimental label Bizarre Records. But it was Buckley’s follow-up Lorca (named after the famous Spanish poet) that came out a year later (1970) as the last album under his Elektra contract that really divided the audience, including his staunchest fans.
Buckley used the album as a through and through free jazz experiment, turning it into something that would suit avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. If he was a vocalist, that is. Many compare its experimentalism with that of Captain Beefheart’s avant-garde rock classic Trout Mask Replica.
Starsailor (1970) was a sort of peak to his experimental phase, Buckley used his vocals to the utmost of their range and capabilities. As with Lorca, the album caused divisive reactions, particularly since the album also included “Song of the Siren,” possibly his most signature composition. With such daunting material released in the span of only 16 months (from Blue Afternoon to Starsailor), and such divisive opinions surrounding all of them, Buckley turned from a folk darling to an avant-garde ‘ugly duckling.’
And then Came the Problems
As Utenberger (again) put it, “no longer was Buckley a romantic, melodic poet; he was an experimental artist who sometimes seemed bent on punishing both himself and his listeners with his wordless shrieks and jarringly dissonant music.”
Actually, this is a somewhat good description of what went on with Buckley’s music, which seemed to be a bit too much even for a label that was named Bizarre Records. As could have been expected, the record sales were practically non-existent. Eventually, Tim was out of a recording contract and as the story goes, Buckley temporarily became a taxi driver. And it was not just to make ends meet. Buckley became an excessive drug and alcohol abuser, something that actually marred the rest of his brief career and eventually brought his premature end.
Trying to regain his footing both in his life and music, Buckley picked up a contract with Warner Brothers, making yet another musical switch. Greetings from L.A., released in 1972 was his take on funk and R&B with Buckley’s signature vocals still fully intact. It was probably the last fully cohesive Tim Buckley album to surface.
In many ways, Greetings was Buckley’s most commercial album and with the follow-up, Sefronia(1973), trying to repeat the approach. Unfortunately, the results were not as good, with the best stuff on the album being the title track and his version of Fred Neil’s classic “Dolphins” ― which both harked back to his folkier days.
Look at the Fool
Whether he did it consciously or not, Tim Buckley aptly named his last studio album Look at the Fool(1974). Musically, and in every other sense, it was his weakest album. On it, he tried to combine his R&B/funk leanings with his more eccentric material. Even his ever-present vocal capabilities were not able to be the saving grace.
Trying once again to get things back on track, Buckley went on a tour, during which his earlier material turned out to be the crowd favorite. He decided to return to that phase from there on, but upon return to Los Angeles, his drinking and drug use relapsed and he died of an overdose combination at the end of June 1975.
His songs were recorded by everybody from Robert Plant to This Mortal Coil
Another part of the story was Buckley’s strained relationship with his son Jeff and his mother. So much so, that late Buckley Jr. never publicly interpreted or recorded any of his father’s songs.
Tim was always a critics’ and other artists’ favorite. His songs were recorded by everybody from Robert Plant to This Mortal Coil, and artists like Radiohead have cited him as one of the main influences. On the other hand, it was only after Jeff’s success that there was a rekindled interest in his work, resulting in series of anthologies and excellent live recordings that only proved that Tim Buckley deserved more credit than he got while he was still around.