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Off the Beaten Tracks: Tim & Jeff, Buckley & Son

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ONE of the most powerful movie passages I can remember is at the end of Coming Home, directed by Hal Ashby in 1978. It tells the story (spoiler alert, in case you wish to see it) of Sally Hyde, played by Jane Fonda, whose husband Bob (the brilliant Bruce Dern) is a gung-ho Marine Corps officer who can’t wait to be sent to Vietnam. While he is away she volunteers to help at a veterans’ hospital where she meets former classmate Luke Martin (Jon Voight) who is now a paraplegic following injuries suffered in the war. They fall in love. Bob returns to California from ’Nam to find the couple are having an affair.

The final moments show Luke delivering an impassioned anti-war message to a group of young men while on a deserted beach a few miles away a suicidal Bob removes his uniform and wedding ring before swimming naked into the waves. The soundtrack to this is the beautiful song Once I Was, which for many viewers was an introduction to the music of Tim Buckley. By then, however, Tim’s short life was already over.

Born in Washington DC on Valentine’s Day 1947, Timothy Charles Buckley III was the son of a decorated war veteran of Irish descent. His mother Elaine was an Italian American.

In 1956 the family moved to Anaheim in California where Tim taught himself the banjo and befriended fellow high school pupils Jim Fielder and Larry Beckett. In the folk music boom of the early Sixties Tim played traditional songs in coffee houses and began to develop his extraordinary voice which eventually would span four octaves. Beckett said: ‘We’d sit there and go, “Oh my God, I’ve never heard anything as beautiful as this voice.” He was always stretching his limits, always working on extending his voice.’

Folk was giving way to psychedelia when the school pals formed a group named The Bohemians, with Tim on guitar, Jim on bass and Larry on percussion. They played a mixture of cover versions interspersed with songs by Buckley and Beckett.

Tim’s voice soon attracted attention and in 1965 a Los Angeles magazine named him as one of a trio of emerging singer-songwriters it called the Orange County Three. The other two were Steve Noonan, who made one album before disappearing into obscurity, and a bloke called Jackson Browne. We all know what happened to him.

Several Buckley/Beckett collaborations would appear on 19-year-old Tim’s eponymous debut album in 1966 after he was signed by Elektra Records. The lyrics of one, Song Slowly Song, were allegedly adapted by Beckett from ancient Greek poetry. Other highlights include Aren’t You The GirlShe Is, and Wings, with strings arranged by Jack Nitzsche. Larry did not play on the LP but Jim Fielder did. Lead guitar was handled by Lee Underwood, who became a close friend and for most of Tim’s career stayed by his side. Lee was frank in his appraisal of the album, describing it as ‘naive, stiff, quaky and innocent but a ticket into the marketplace’.

By this time Buckley had been married, at the age of 18, to his high school sweetheart Mary Guibert in the false belief that she was expecting. Theirs was a rocky relationship and although she did become pregnant they divorced in 1966, shortly before the birth of their son Jeff.

Buckley and Beckett teamed up again to write most of the tracks on 1967’s Goodbye and Hello, described by critics as a ‘quantum leap’ from its predecessor although to many listeners it sounds pretentious and Jerry Yester’s production is far too busy. It begins with the pacifist No Man Can Find The War and that theme is developed in the histrionic eight-minute-plus title track.  

The aforementioned Once I Was is my favourite song on the LP, along with Morning Glory. I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain is addressed to his ex-wife: ‘You didn’t understand my love; you don’t know why I try’. To publicise the album Buckley reluctantly went on TV but declined to play the fame game. During one appearance he walked off set after refusing to mime to a recording of Pleasant Street. On the Tonight programme he told guest host Alan King: ‘You know, it’s really surprising. I always thought you were a piece of cardboard.’

After Beckett was drafted into the army, Buckley went it alone and began to develop his own jazz/blues style. He was heavily influenced by fellow Elektra artist Fred Neil, who inspired him to develop the lower end of his vocal range. Tim formed a touring band with Underwood, John Miller on double bass, Carter Collins on congas and David Friedman on vibraphone.

On October 7, 1968, Tim made his British debut in London at Queen Elizabeth Hall. While Underwood and Friedman had made the trip with him, he could not afford the cost of travel and hotels to bring Collins and Miller as well so he did without percussion; on bass Danny Thompson, of the British folk group Pentangle, was hired for one night only.

That two-hour concert was recorded but it was not until 1990 that it was released as the double CD Dream Letter, which would come to be acknowledged as one of the greatest-ever live albums. It begins with an introduction from DJ Pete Drummond, who confesses to being a little ‘perturbed’ having walked in with his ticket to watch the show and been press-ganged into acting as MC. First song is Buzzin’ Fly, from the forthcoming album Happy Sad, and the musicianship is sublime. The brilliant Thompson had not played Buckley’s music before but you’d never have guessed it.

This is followed by Phantasmagoria in Two, a dramatic improvement on the song from Hello and Goodbye. Tim introduces Morning Glory as ‘a song about a hobo beating up on a collegian kid outside of Dallas, Texas’. Next comes the magical Fred Neil song Dolphins.  

Then we have I’ve Been Out Walking, which strangely has the same opening lines as Jackson Browne’s These Days although it is a totally different song. The dream-like spell is broken by Who Do You Love?  – which anticipates Tim’s unfortunate forays into funk during the Seventies – but the first disc ends well with a medley of Pleasant Street and a spine-tingling version of the Supremes’ chart topper You Keep Me Hangin’ On. Remember, at this point the prodigious Tim is still only 21.

Disc two begins with a jazzy, sprawling rendition of Love From Room 109 coupled with Strange Feelin’ – both of which would feature on Happy Sad. I think it’s fair to say that the rest of the album struggles to match the brilliance of disc one although the final track, Once I Was, of course hits the spot. I have read that Hal Ashby had visualised ending Coming Home with this song before the film was even written and he played it to Bruce Dern to motivate him before that epic final scene.

In liner notes for Dream Letter, Lee Underwood writes: ‘One of the reasons this music sounds so fresh and hits home so directly is because Buckley was insisting on improvisation, not just from himself, but from all of us. He wanted his music to be born spontaneously out of the intensity of the moment. He wanted it to be supremely human, flaws and all.’

Tim Buckley had just begun the most creative period of his life. We’ll come back to his story, and that of son Jeff, next week.

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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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