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Off the Beaten Tracks: Tim and Jeff, Buckley & Son Part 2

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LAST week we left Tim Buckley having given his first, brilliant, British concert in October 1968. That December he went back into the studio to record his third studio album, Happy Sad. Although the busy Jerry Yester was still on production duties, this is a much jazzier and more relaxed record than its predecessor Goodbye and Hello, with the backing stripped down to guitars, bass, congas and vibraphone, while the lyrics are simpler with Buckley increasingly using his voice as an instrument.

The seven-minutes-plus first track is Strange Feelin’, inspired by the music of Miles Davis. Its motif is borrowed from All Blues, one of the tracks on Davis’s classic album Kind of Blue. The lovely Buzzin’ Fly dates back to Buckley’s high school days and then we have the sprawling, almost 11-minute Love from Room 109 at the Islander (on Pacific Coast Highway). Both of these songs, plus Dream Letter, feature on the live album I wrote about last week although it would not be released until 1990.

On Dream Letter, Buckley returns to the subject of his ex-wife Mary and their infant son Jeff, plaintively enquiring: ‘Does he ever ask about me?’

The next song, Gypsy Woman, weighs in at more than 12 minutes while the final track, Sing a Song For You, is short, sweet and to my ears far more satisfying.

Happy Sad was released in early 1969, a year of furious activity by Buckley during which he made three more LPs – Blue Afternoon, Lorca and StarsailorBlue Afternoon is a companion album to Happy Sad, with a similar laid-back feel. In fact the first two tracks, Happy Time and Chase the Blues Away, had originally been planned for Happy Sad. Next is the lovely I Must Have Been Blind, with its gentle bass and vibes intro, and then comes The River. Side two begins with the lament So Lonely followed by Café and then Blue Melody, on which the Buckley voice is heard to full, magnificent effect.

At the same time as he recorded Blue Afternoon, Tim worked on the far less accessible Lorca, which was released six months later in 1970. Buckley said the title track was ‘my identity as a unique singer, as an original voice’.

Others, including his former songwriting partner Larry Beckett, took it as a deliberate attempt to upset Buckley’s faithful group of fans. It was also seen as a throwaway effort to fulfil contractual obligations. John Balkin, who played bass, admitted: ‘We never had any music to read from. We just noodled through.’

Any tattered remnants of the folk tradition remaining in Buckley’s music were blown away in November 1970 with the release of the avant-garde Starsailor, whose first track Come Here Woman is an indication of the difficult listening in store. Strangely enough, sandwiched between the sonic experiments is the glorious Song to the Siren, which would become Tim’s best-known song, covered by everyone from This Mortal Coil to Bryan Ferry and those Scouse funsters Half Man Half Biscuit. As I pointed out in a previous column about Michael Nesmith, Buckley performed Song to the Siren on the final Monkees TV show. 

There is also the toe-curling Moulin Rouge, on which Buckley’s French accent brings to mind the preposterous Edward Heath. I couldn’t find any clips of Heath mangling the Frog lingo but here’s one of him visiting Paris and grinning like the Cheshire Cat. 

Starsailor was a spectacular commercial failure, plunging Buckley into a deep depression which led him to seek solace in drugs. His next album, 1972’s Greetings From LA, mixed rock and soul in a determined attempt at accessibility typified by the opening track, Move With Me. ‘After Starsailor, I decided the way to come back was to be funkier than everybody,’ he proclaimed. Unfortunately for Tim, the frank sexual content of the lyrics ensured a lack of radio play and record sales.

The next album, 1973’s Sefronia, gets off to a wonderful start with Dolphins, the Fred Neil song sung live by Buckley in 1968, but falls away therefrom. Finally in 1974 came Look at the Fool, whose last track Wanda Lu was described by Mojo magazine’s Martin Aston as ‘one of the most ignominious final songs of any brilliant career’. Melody Maker described the album as ‘the work of a man desperately trying to connect with an audience that has deserted him’ while Buckley’s sister Kathleen said: ‘It just seemed that the more down he became, the more desperate he sounded.’  

Larry Beckett said: ‘For a couple of years he drank a lot and took downers to the point where it nearly killed him, but he’d always escape. Then he got into this heroin-taking thing. Then his luck ran out.’

Tim Buckley died on June 29, 1975, from ‘acute heroin/morphine and ethanol intoxication’, according to the coroner’s report. He was deep in debt and his only possessions were a guitar and an amplifier. His son Jeff, then aged eight, had met him only once and was not invited to the funeral.

Jeffrey Scott Buckley, born in November 1966 weeks after his parents were divorced, was brought up in southern California by his mother Mary and her second husband Ron Moorhead. He was known as Scottie Moorhead as the family moved around Orange County in a lifestyle he would later describe as ‘trailer trash’. After his father’s death he decided he wanted to be addressed as Jeff Buckley, having found his real name on his birth certificate.

At the age of 12 he decided he too wanted to be a rock star. He received his first guitar at 13 and idolised Led Zeppelin, whose album Physical Graffiti was the first he ever owned. At 18 he spent a year studying music theory at the Musicians’ Institute in Los Angeles.

For the next six years, Jeff performed in struggling bands and acted as a session musician but, despite having inherited the amazing four-octave Buckley voice, limited himself to backing vocals. He was persuaded to make his solo singing debut in 1991 at a New York tribute concert to his father called Greetings from Tim Buckley. Spookily Jeff performed I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain, which Tim had written about him and his mother, and closed his set with Once I Was. He was backed by guitarist Gary Lucas, a former member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band.

Explaining his appearance at the Tim tribute, Jeff told Rolling Stone magazine: ‘It bothered me that I hadn’t been to his funeral, that I’d never been able to tell him anything. I used that show to pay my last respects.’

Jeff later began co-writing songs with Lucas and joined his group Gods and Monsters but left in 1992 after their debut gig. Performing an eclectic solo set, he was given a Monday night residency at Sin-é, a club in New York’s East Village. Building up a loyal following, he drew the attention of record company executives and was signed by Columbia Records.

His first release, in November 1993, was Live at Sin-é, a four-track EP including the songs Mojo Pin and Eternal Life, co-written with Lucas, plus a challenging ten-minute version of Van Morrison’s The Way Young Lovers Do from Astral Weeks.

Mojo Pin and Eternal Life both feature on Buckley’s debut album Grace, released in August 1994. The title track was another collaboration with Lucas and was the first of six singles which would eventually be taken from the record. The terrific Last Goodbye is followed by Lilac Wine, modelled on the Nina Simone version and one of three non-original songs on Grace. The second is Corpus Christi Carol, from Benjamin Britten’s A Boy Was Born. Buckley’s falsetto performance is based on that of Janet Baker on her 1967 LP A Pageant of English Song. The third and most celebrated is Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.  

More than 300 versions of this song have been recorded but Jeff’s, the official video for which has been seen an astonishing 172million times, is generally seen as the best. So Real is another highlight.

Sales of Grace were initially disappointing but over the years it came to be accepted as a masterpiece. Led Zep’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant both raved about it, David Bowie said it was the greatest album ever made and Bob Dylan described Buckley as ‘one of the great songwriters of this decade’.

Jeff toured the world promoting Grace, with his performances forming the content of several live albums, and in mid-1996 he went back into the studio to work on a record to be called My Sweetheart the Drunk, produced by Tom Verlaine of Television. Buckley was not satisfied with the results and it was never finished.

On May 29, 1997, Jeff was in Memphis, Tennessee, waiting to be joined by his band and record further material. For some reason he decided to take a swim in Wolf River Harbor while fully clothed, and drowned after being caught in the wake of a passing boat. An autopsy found no traces of drink or drugs in his system and the death was ruled an accident. He was just 30 years old. As in the case of the British singer songwriter Nick Drake, he would find far greater success in death than in life with a plethora of post-mortem releases and with Grace going on to sell in millions.

So that in brief is the story of Buckley & Son, two amazing voices and two lives cut short. RIP, Tim and Jeff.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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