On June 29, 1975, forty years ago today, singer-songwriter Tim Buckley died at the age of 28. He died in a manner typical of a rock ’n’ roll troubadour — a drug overdose. However, the music he pursued over nine albums recorded in the span of eight years was anything but typical.
What set Buckley apart was his multi-octave ranged voice that often served as its own instrument. Depending on who you talk to, Buckley’s voice had a range of four or five octaves. Whatever his vocal range, he could sing both low like a baritone and high enough to shatter glass. It was this voice that grabbed the attention of Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman, who signed him to his label when Buckley was only 19. He was signed to Elektra at almost the same time as another noted ’60s band — The Doors.
During the last decade of his life, Buckley’s music spanned from folk to psychedelia to West Coast jazz to avant-garde jazz to funk. While this range said a great deal of Buckley’s creativity it would garner him little commercial success. When Buckley died, he was in debt and left behind only a guitar and an amplifier. Well, that’s not entirely true. He also left behind a long lost son with whom he had never spent any meaningful time with until two months before his death. That son was Jeff Buckley who would launch his own musical career with a soaring voice of his own only to have his own life snuffed out by way of an accident drowning at the age of 30. Last year, I wrote these thoughts about the younger Buckley on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the release of Grace, the only album he completed during his lifetime.
But on to to the father. Tim Buckley’s music was ahead of its time and remains ahead of his time four decades after his death. Here are the 20 songs that prove this to be so. Some of these appear on Buckley’s studio albums, some were performed live, while others were released decades after his death.
1. Song for Jainie
This song is off his eponymous debut album in 1966. It was written for Buckley’s then girlfriend Jainie Goldstein (no relation). What stands out is the combination of Buckley’s Irish tenor and Van Dyke Parks on the celesta.
2. The Father Song
Recorded during the sessions for Buckley’s third album Happy Sad, it would not see the light of day until the 1999 release of the CD Works in Progress. Featuring Buckley on his 12-string guitar, in less than three minutes it documents the difficult relationship he had with his father who was afflicted with mental illness after being wounded in WWII and aggravated by a workplace accident. To give you an idea of just how heartbreaking this song is, at its conclusion Buckley asks his father why he curses the day he was born.
3. I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain
Appearing on Buckley’s second LP, Goodbye & Hello, he wrote it about his ex-wife Mary Guibert and young son whom he left behind. Buckley and Guibert married young shortly after learning she was pregnant. However, the marriage would end when it turned out she wasn’t pregnant after all. It is unclear whether Guibert lied about the pregnancy or if it was a case of pseudocyesis. But Buckley and Guibert would conceive Jeff Buckley. In 1991, the younger Buckley would sing this song at “Greetings from Tim Buckley,” a tribute concert at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn and added some of his own lyrics. This performance would launch his own musical career.
4. Morning Glory
Buckley co-wrote this song with his high school classmate Larry Beckett. Also off Goodbye & Hello, for a time this was Buckley’s most famous song as it was covered by the likes of Linda Ronstadt during her days with the Stone Poneys, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chrissie Hynde and Fairport Convention. In his book, Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered,Buckley’s longtime guitarist Lee Underwood recalls that when Buckley learned that BS & T would be covering the song he told Al Kooper to “try not to f*#k it up too bad.” There have been good covers of this song, but nothing matches the original.
5. Once I Was
This song is also off Goodbye & Hello. You may remember it as part of the powerful climatic scene from the Academy Award winning movie Coming Home, featuring Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, and Bruce Dern.
6. Pleasant Street/You Keep Me Hangin’ On (live)
Buckley’s live renditions of his songs were often better than the studio versions. Don’t get me wrong. “Pleasant Street” is one of the highlights of Goodbye & Hello. But the live solo acoustic version from his 1968 concert in London is far more powerful. What it more interesting is how it segues into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” While best associated with The Supremes, Buckley was more likely inspired by the psychedelic outfit Vanilla Fudge, which had a hit with the song in 1967. This song would not see the light of day until 1990 when it was released on the CD Dream Letter — Live in London.
7. Strange Feelin’
The lead song off Happy Sad, it takes its riff from Miles Davis’ “All Blues” from his landmark 1959 album Kind of Blue. This marks the beginning of Buckley’s foray into fusing folk music with jazz.
8. Love from Room 109 of the Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway)
Also from Happy Sad, this ethereal song which runs over 10 minutes is divided into five movements. It came together from fragments of two other songs — “Danang” and “Asbury Park.” There is an ocean background that was recorded onto the song at the suggestion of the album’s co-producer Jerry Yester due to a hiss on the tape. It is a perfect song to be lulled into a peaceful sleep.
9. Gypsy Woman (live)
Buckley and the rest of his band were not satisfied with the recording of “Gypsy Woman” on Happy Sad. This song comes to life on stage as it did when he performed at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in 1969. It climaxes when Buckley’s voice soars higher than the summit of Mount Everest.
10. Blue Melody
The centerpiece of Buckley’s fourth album Blue Afternoon, this ought to be a jazz standard.
11. The River
What sets the mood on this song is the contribution of veteran jazz musician David Friedman’s vibraphone. Friedman has played with the likes of Chet Baker, Horace Silver, and Wayne Shorter. The other is the lyric, “Then just like the river, I can change my ways.” Where it concerns music, no line more accurately describes Buckley’s musical ethos.
12. The Train
The closing song on Blue Afternoon,it provides a hint of the more experimental, avant-garde jazz that was explored on subsequent albums Lorca and Starsailor.
Written in honor of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, this marks Buckley’s experimentation with time signatures. Of course, Dave Brubeck had experimented with time signatures on his landmark Time Out album. But Buckley takes it a step further by including his agile voice.
14. Anonymous Proposition
This is the other song on the first side of Lorca. Its opening lyrics, “Love me as if someday you’d hate me,” are among Buckley’s most evocative.
15. Come Here Woman (live)
This is the lead song off Buckley’s Starsailor album. But when he performed it on The Show (which aired on the PBS affiliate WITF in central Pennsylvania), the arrangement had been radically reworked. During this appearance on The Show, Buckley would participate in a discussion with Catch-22 author Joseph Heller.
When Larry Beckett wrote the lyrics, he had no idea what Buckley had in mind for its arrangement. Listening to “Starsailor” is the musical equivalent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” When I play this song for people they never fail to freak out even 45 years after it was recorded.
Here is another example of Buckley’s vocal gymnastics from the Starsailor album.
18. Song to the Siren (both versions)
Buckley would debut this gentle song on the final episode of The Monkees in 1967. However, it would not be released until Starsailor three years later. Co-written with Larry Beckett, it would be criticized by singer Judy Henske for its lyric, “I am puzzled as the oyster.” On Starsailor, its arrangement would be completely different, including the maligned lyric which is now, “I am puzzled as the newborn child.” “Song to the Siren” would gain Buckley a posthumous audience when it was recorded by the U.K. group This Mortal Coil in 1984. Over the past three decades it has been recorded by the likes of Robert Plant, Sinead O’Connor, and George Michael.
19. Sweet Surrender (live)
When Greetings from L.A. was released in 1972, it would mark an attempt toward more commercial appeal and thus another change in musical direction for Buckley. Greetings from L.A. was funkier in tone than its predecessors. But Buckley remained ever the jazz player. His live version of “Sweet Surrender” (which can be heard on the CD Honeyman: Live 1973) bears little resemblance to the studio version.
The title track of his penultimate album. Although still trying for commercial success, it would prove to a largely lackluster effort. However, “Sefronia” would be an exception. It was divided into parts “After Asklopiades, After Kafka” and “The King’s Chain” and more closely resembled the material on his more experimental albums.
This but scratches the surface of Tim Buckley’s music. Although he left a considerable body of music behind, it must nevertheless be lamented that Buckley was ready to embark upon more experimentation and exploration. Had he lived a longer life, one can only imagine what he could have discovered and shared with the world. Then again, it has been 40 years since Tim Buckley died and we are only beginning to appreciate his musical legacy.