Tim Buckley: An Ode To…

Cult folk star Tim Buckley is namechecked as an influence on innumerable songwriters – not least his son Jeff.

Both Buckleys died in tragic circumstances before their time – Tim in 1975 – and have since achieved iconic status.

Here, musicOMH’s Barnaby Smith takes a personal look at Buckley Snr and sets about placing his legacy in context.
Tim Buckley died of a lethal combination of alcohol and a lot of heroin on June 29th 1975. His body couldn’t cope with the onslaught due to the fact his system had been clean for some time, as he concentrated on ‘playing the game’, as he saw it. That is, touring his new soul and funk based music (his fifth of five creative phases) and doing what his record label told him, including not partying too hard.

Thirty years on, the tragedy and waste remains as distressing as ever. For it is only now that we can acknowledge his genius, his wisdom, his capacity to evolve. It is notoriously difficult to get a handle on this artist, as throughout his career he baffled with musical sophistication and unexpected stylistic directions. Consequently, he was often alienated and rejected by the media and public, not to mention his professional colleagues and friends, plunging him into deep depression and erratic behaviour (more than once he deliberately crashed his car). But it never should have been this way.

His career bloomed with 1966’s eponymous debut. This 19-year-old was a dreamy, vulnerable romantic with a collection of charming, beautiful pop songs – very west coast, very folk-based. 1967’s Goodbye and Hello saw him, in partnership with poet Larry Beckett, address social and political issues with songs of melodic loveliness and complex arrangements – his flower power album. His third incarnation came with Happy Sad where his folk leanings fused with jazz, the result being a record of astonishing emotional depth and vocal brilliance. This became his most loved album.

But then things got complicated. Under the influence of 20th Century classical music and out-there jazz, he headed straight into the avant-garde. Out came Lorca and Starsailor, the latter of which in particular met with confused, small minded critical disdain. This is right up there with Trout Mask Replica and Metal Machine Music in its uncompromising challenge to the listener. Unfortunately, the bizarre time signatures and unintelligible vocals (barking and yelping, for example) permanently removed him from the mainstream.

In 2005, Starsailor remains an enigma. Nigh on impossible to get hold of on CD, copies go for around 200 on Ebay. This is surely a travesty, a monstrous oversight on the part of those responsible for Buckley’s catalogue. Tim himself always regarded this album as his masterpiece, and it seems ridiculous this artefact is not available to new generations. The same goes for 1970’s Blue Afternoon. Write to your MP, go on strike, this album must be re-pressed!

His fifth creative stage was sex-drenched funk. Hear Greetings From LA and Sefronia in particular. These albums are very rude indeed, as he set about giving a graphic warts-and-all portrayal of the realities of sexuality.

So thirty years on from his demise, Tim Buckley must be seen as worth just as much as other tragic young wastes like Nick Drake. He allied a quite mesmerising voice (which as we all know, Jeff inherited… and yes Tim was an asshole to him) with vision. This man, I assure you, is one of the greatest talents of the last century. As ex-bandmate Lee Underwood writes in his Buckley biography Blue Melody, Buckley sits on a par with Picasso and Miles Davis as an innovator. Listen hard.

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Tim Buckley: An Ode To…