It’s 1979 And Tim Buckley Is Dead
(Just watched a great new DVD devoted to Tim Buckley called My Fleeting House which I highly recommend. Dug up a piece I’d written about Buckley way-back-when and was amused to discover I still had the cut-out under discussion, unopened and even now bearing its 69-cent price tag. Anyway, not the greatest bit of writing but worth considering in light of the new DVD release. –dd)
I’m not an overly sentimental guy, but something strange happened last week when I found Tim Buckley’s first album in a cut-out bin.
I realized, finally, that Tim Buckley doesn’t exist anymore. He’s dead. And now he’s going for 69 cents at the grocery store, right next to the lettuce.
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Tim Buckley. Boy Wonder. First album released when he was 19, universally acclaimed as a “fresh new voice.” Second LP, Goodbye And Hello, lauded as best “folk” album of its time. Stupid label, but great record. Third album, Happy/Sad, Tim’s voice drops an octave, shifts from “folk” base to jazzy one. Next LP, Blue Afternoon, on Zappa’s new Straight label, jazzy with a.tinge of rock. Then Lorca, some old Elektra tapes. Half avant-garde, half-jazzy stuff. The big one, Starsailor, comes next. Nothing like it before, nothing like it since. A blend of avant-garde jazz and rock that stands as a full-fledged masterpiece.
With Greetings From L.A., Tim drops the jazz approach and keeps the emotion. LP does real well, later becomes big cult item. Its follow-up, Sefronia, doesn’t quite do so well. A little more subdued. His next LP, Look At The Fool, is a letdown. A little less interesting rock, kind of murky. Plenty of time to let it grow in, though. For a follow-up, Tim Buckley dies of a drug overdose.
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In the summer of 1970, I spend a few months in Madison, Wisconsin. I’d left my records down in Florida; for music, I taped about 15 albums on my reel-to-reel, including Tim Buckley’s Happy/Sad, and brought the machine and tapes with me on the plane.
A friend had told me to tape the Buckley LP, I’d never heard it before. I took him at his word and ended up listening to the Buckley tape every night I was in Wisconsin. I went crazy. Bought a promo copy of Lorca for 50 cents, and I couldn’t believe that, either. At a time when I spent all my listening hours plugged into Soft Machine, Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, Zappa’s Uncle Meat and Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, here was this one-time “folksinger” exploring territory far and distant from Tom Paxton and his ilk. Drones, overdubs, actual “space music” ��� Tim Buckley was dealing with complex music forms as if they were no big deal at all. And for him, I guess, they weren’t.
So when I got back home to Miami, I picked up Blue Afternoon and, after that, Goodbye And Hello and his first album. I couldn’t believe that this angelic looking guy with the choirboy voice was the same guy responsible for Lorca. From a protest tune like “No One Can Find the War” to Lorca‘s title track was no small transition; when Starsailor came out, I was floored. My only contact with jazz music at the time had been with Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders ��� and here was this ex-folkie laying down tunes not unlike those artists, with a little Terry Riley thrown in.
Next year I came to MSU. Went back down to Miami during the summer of ’72, had fun, then Greetings From L.A. came out. The day I took my draft physical and was declared 4-F I saw Tim Buckley perform at The Flick, a coffeehouse near the University of Miami. He was great ��� had Lee Underwood with him, sang like a crazy man, joked about his albums being sold in supermarkets for 49 cents. He wasn’t too far from wrong.
A little later, Buckley played in Ann Arbor with Randy Newman at the Power Center. He was great, but not quite as good as he was in Miami. He didn’t have Lee Underwood with him, and Underwood was considerably more sympathetic to Buckley’s experimentalism.
Around this time “Get On Top” from Greetings was becoming extremely popular. Buckley came to East Lansing and played at the Brewery (now the Silver Dollar Saloon), bringing Lee Underwood with him and putting on the best show I’ve just about ever seen. He came back to the Brewery a while later with the same guitarist he’d brought to Ann Arbor, then, finally, he played in the MSU Auditorium with Return To Forever. Must have been the summer of ’74.
I never saw Tim Buckley perform again. When he died of a drug overdose, I must admit I had a hard time believing he was gone. I was expecting a live album or a best-of compilation from one of his record companies, but there were none to be had. His records were quickly deleted from record company catalogs; now, only Goodbye And Hello, his folkie LP, remains in print. He rarely gets written about anymore ��� few people remember him and fewer still listen to his records.
My point: I don’t think Tim Buckley deserves this kind of obscurity, I really don’t. I saw that 69-cent cut-out last week and I actually got
angry. Bad enough that a performer as creative as Tim Buckley ends up an overdose victim, it’s worse still that four years later, when his creative genius should at least begin to be recognized, Buckley’s a loser in the bargain bins.
What’s the point of this little column? A reminder, I guess, that some musicians get a fair shake in life, others don’t. Tim Buckley didn’t. It’s not fair, and it never will be fair. All that remains of the man’s remarkable legacy are a couple of records in the cut-out racks, and a few memories. My own included.
Sometimes things don’t always work out for the best.
(Michigan State News, 1/25/79)