The Existential Soul of Tim Buckley

55 years on from his debut record, the life and music of Tim Buckley still resonate

A phonograph in black and white in front of a curtain in Twin Peaks

2021 marks the 55th anniversary of American singer/songwriter Tim Buckley’s self-titled debut record and the starting pistol of what would become a brief but incredibly creative, esoteric, and eclectic musical career that spanned from 1966 until his untimely death in 1974.

Buckley was something of obscurity during his lifetime. His records never achieved mass appeal, they never dented the charts, no single ever achieved rotation on radio. Unlike his contemporaries,  Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, etc., Buckley’s personal life or minor excesses never made the headlines of the national newspapers. In the rare televised interviews and performances he did conduct, he was always quiet, polite, thoughtful, passive, and fidgety. No ego or showy theatrics. Buckley preferred intimacy and the chance to let the songs speak. His live performances took place in venues that were no bigger than a moderate club or theatre and in bootleg recordings of these events (and surprisingly there are a lot), the beautiful intimacy between singer and audience can be heard—or not heard in this case. The audience sits in silence and rapture. His most famous performance is a gentle acoustic rendition of his song “Song to the Siren” on the final episode of The Monkees television show in 1968.  

Buckley passed away at the age of 28 on June 29, 1975, from a suspected heroin overdose. He was incredibly young. Yet unlike the immaculate corpses left by Morrison, Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix, or later examples like Kurt Cobain, to look at the tired and weary-looking Buckley on the cover of his last record, 1974’s strange soul-funk odyssey Look at the Fool, would be to believe that Buckley had lived a lifetime of anguish and hardship. His downturned smile and greying flecks portrayed a much older and worn-down individual than his 28 years. His short time on earth had not been kind to him. 

Tim Buckley was mostly a forgotten name to the majority of the general record-buying public, until his estranged son, Jeff Buckley, rose to prominence as an early ’90s alt-rock troubadour, and interest was taken in the junior Buckley’s forgotten heritage. There had been small hints that Buckley’s music had lived on past his death. British gothic dream-pop band This Mortal Coil had recorded and released an ethereal version of “Song to the Siren” in September of 1983 to much acclaim. When Jeff Buckley drowned at the age of 30 the parallels that existed in voice and looks between father and son were completed by their tragic early deaths.

This renewed interest in all things Buckley saw reissues of his official albums, as well as introductory compilations and live recordings, suddenly hitting the record stacks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The archives were open and a flood of material emerged from a long-forgotten, but suddenly rediscovered artist. 

I hit upon Tim Buckley in the early part of the new millennium. His music was introduced to me by a friend, and a Jeff Buckley devotee, as “good comedown music” after a night on the lash. There were no drugs in my system other than copious amounts of alcohol. But with a creeping hangover matched with lack of sleep and an emotionally raw state of mind, Buckley’s music seemed like a sweet antidote to clear the head.

So-called acoustic ‘chill out’ music was popular at this time of the century. Turin Brakes and Coldplay had just released their debut records. Badly Drawn Boy and David Gray were leading the charge of sensitive men with bleeding hearts, a programmable drum machine, and an acoustic guitar. This was the drug user’s drug of choice to reconnect with the world after a mind-bending rager. Something must have hit harder with my introduction to Tim Buckley’s music. The following morning, and now with a full hangover, I caught a bus to the city, and with echoes of his songs reverberating around my sore head, I purchased an anthology of Buckley’s music on CD from the little Our Price Records on the high street. I slipped the CD into the Discman (yep, it was the early 2000s) and rode the bus home swimming in the sounds of Buckley’s voice and melodies. 

That particular anthology was a neat introduction to the more accessible side of Buckley’s sound, but it also veered towards the experimental aspects of his later sound and the more ‘funk’ orientated direction of his last few records. It was a diverse mix of songs that when placed together didn’t really make much sense when one considered these songs came from a very short expanse of time, but also it barely scratched the surface.

Buckley’s music seemed to come from somewhere else. Old? yes. His albums dated from the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were already old standards by the early 2000s. The recordings came from another time and indeed another country, but the music was not foreign, it seemed familiar. Had I heard these songs before? Buckley’s music seemed to come from somewhere beyond time, somewhere more ancient and mysterious and deeply entwined in the human soul. 

Buckley’s voice, tender and innocent in places, manly and assured in others, channeled many forgotten, but gallant men of history—the whimsy of the medieval minstrel singer, the troubled troubadour, the salty sea captain, the poet soldier, the Irish Sean-nós singer, the boxcar riding folkie, the gun touting outlaw, the union singer, the bellowing drunkard, the ragged bluesman, and the starving and disheveled, yet still sexy, artist. All these personas and more seemed encompassed in one short musical lifespan, yet there is no ‘character’ that is being portrayed in Buckley’s music. They are all him and he is all of them. It is an authenticity that plays out regardless of what current musical endeavor Buckley was pursuing. The hippie folkie, the scatting jazzman, the horny bluesman. There’s never a doubt in the listener’s mind he isn’t living it as well. 

It is hard to talk about Buckley’s music in the traditional, or even critical, sense. Not being a musician myself, I have no idea how his songs are constructed, what chord patterns they follow, or what timing they are in. I once tried to learn one of his songs on guitar and abruptly quit after realizing Buckley preferred a 12 string acoustic and the time, rhythm, and structures were simply too hard and shifting to study. Everything about Buckley’s music was out of range. The guitar work, the voice, everything was beyond comprehension.

I can really only speak to the emotions that Buckley’s songs evoke and the images they convey. And Buckley’s music operates on a highly emotional and visual plane. Mostly his music is of solitude. There are many, many songs about being alone and finding solace in one’s own company, attaining personal peace, songs about escaping with a lover or mending a broken heart and mind with love. His song “I Never Asked to be Your Mountain” perfectly encapsulates this need for solitude. It is a song about the end of a relationship and the author’s need to escape. Rarely do Buckley’s songs and lyrics address societal injustice or the peace movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. “No Man Can Find the War,” the opening track from his second record Goodbye and Hello is an awkward exception that opens the record on a protest that is never returned to again.   

It’s also strange that Buckley’s music and lyricism often refer to water, rain, rivers, oceans, and seas, and related water imagery. Song titles alone reflect this: “The River” from Blue Afternoon; “Love from Room 109 at the Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway)” from Happy Sad, which also features an overture of lapping waves to cover up a pretty annoying recording of microphone hiss. “Song to the Siren” from Starsailor is made up of lines that refer to “breakers”, “shipless oceans” and ”oysters”.

The cover of Look at the Fool features a headshot of Buckley whilst a moonlit ocean shimmers behind him. He also performed a cover of Fred Neil’s “Dolphins” live throughout his career and a recorded version appears on Sefronia. Although unrecorded, live renditions of songs titled “Big River” and “I Don’t Need it to Rain” appear on bootleg recordings.

Seas, rivers, and rain had an inexplicable pull for Buckley. I’ve always found it macabre that Jeff Buckley died by drowning in the Wolf River in Mississippi. The line “I’m drowning back to you” from “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain,” a song that Jeff had covered a few times, takes on a tragic foreboding in this context.

It has been pointed out somewhere before, that by simply looking at the cover art of Tim Buckley’s official discography in chronological order there appears the gradual rise and fall of his short musical career and life. His debut record shows a young curly-haired serious 19-year-old troubadour, smartly dressed in a turtle-neck sweater and patterned trousers, a jacket casually swung over his shoulder. The follow-up, Goodbye and Hello from 1967, shows Buckley grinning widely with a bottle-cap in his right eye, the background a stunning bright sunny yellow and his shirt unbuttoned at the neck and some hippie beads hanging over the collar.

There is certainly a sense that Buckley ‘loosened up’ or ‘got hip’ in the short space of a year. Happy Sad, released in 1969 is perhaps the outlier and shows a forlorn and introspective-looking Buckley. The music of Happy Sad certainly reflects this more mellow mood with its use of hazy guitars and vibraphone add to the ‘chill’ vibe. 1969’s Blue Afternoon shows him mid-croon and lost and happy within his own music. The avant-garde recordings of Lorca and Starsailor both released in 1970 show Buckley relaxed and carefree, smiling in content at the direction his music and life are taking at this moment in time.

His seventh record, Greeting from L.A, released in 1972, is another outlier and features not an image of Buckley, but a postcard of a smog-layered Los Angeles. Yet by Buckley’s eighth record Sefronia, released in 1973, his look has changed drastically from Starsailor. The eyes are tired and cynical, the wild curls are now laced with flecks of grey, a five o’clock shadow ages his face, and though there is a smile it seems to be one of compromise, even slight embarrassment at the collection of ballads and cover versions that Sefronia is. By the time of 1974’s Look at the Fool, Buckley appears utterly defeated and fed-up and looking more like a rad dude in his 40s or 50s.

Yet, the music of these last three ‘sexy funk’ records doesn’t quite gel with the dour covers or the often proposed compromise that Buckley was pushed into by his managers and record label in order to recoup lost finances from the experimental jazz freakouts of Lorca and Starsailor. Whilst many of his 1960s hippie brethren would have been shocked to discover Buckley as a prowling sex-fiend on songs like “Get On Top”, “Move With Me”, “Sally Go Around Roses”, “Honey Man”, “Sweet Surrender”, and “Who Could Deny You”, it’s obvious from the lusty yelps, orgasmic shrieks, deep throaty groans and horny grunts that he utilized in his vocal performance that Buckley never doubted the direction he and his band took, and from the live recordings taken from this era it was clear he was immersed and having the time of his life. 

Buckley’s success as an artist lies in his voice, his delivery, and his compositions. As his career progressed into the improvisational jazz period of 1970, there was far less reliance on lyrics and more use of vocal gymnastics to convey emotion. Buckley, in this sense, used his voice as a part of the instrumentation of the musicians he played with.

It is deeply important to acknowledge that he surrounded himself with other creative people who contributed to the whole project of Buckley’s musical and artistic evolution. Poet Larry Beckett provided the majority of lyrics that Buckley would transfer to song standard. Beckett’s poetic triumphs fall to “Song to the Siren”, “Monterey”, “Sefronia: After Asklepiades, After Kafka”, and “Sefronia: The King’s Chain”. These among many others offer a very different approach to lyrical structure and performance. Guitarist Lee Underwood’s delicate, echoing lines always appeared to flutter and skim over the compositions, never overpowering with insane riffs or intense power chords, but always standing back and filling in the gaps where it was needed. Underwood’s only real moment of what one might call shredding at the strings can be heard in the chorus of 1967’s “Pleasant Street” and its power becomes more apparent within the discography of mellow flits and vibey shudders that Underwood often contributed to Buckley’s compositions.

Underwood and Buckley’s professional partnership dissolved in the final years and guitarist Joe Falsia stepped in, providing the strut and swagger that was required to accompany the more funk-oriented songs. Conga player Carter Collins should also be credited with providing the playful rhythm that drove the erratic heart of Buckley’s best music. Collins’ beats often veered off into other directions and were improvisational in nature, but the core musical group hung it all together. Buckley and his comrades traveled together on a musical adventure that was sturdy and unshakable yet always in motion towards somewhere else. 

And where was that ‘somewhere’? It was perhaps a destination that was never reached in his lifetime, nor ever could be. The mind of Buckley seems to skit around endlessly into new directions. Nonetheless, the music and creative life of Tim Buckley offers a leap of creativity and diversity that would have taken most artists of the 1960s and 1970s a lifetime to achieve. Buckley did it within the space of barely nine years, and the artist and man evolved together. On his debut record, Buckley is a virgin prince, an overly sensitive boy who sings about how “our paper hearts are blind”. This posture is extended to Goodbye and Hello, yet on his last three records, he’s become a raging sex God, a rake, a dirty old man looking for a “big ol’ healthy girl” to make “talk in tongues” and get the “bed springs squeakin’ all day long”. It’s hard to reconcile the boy in 1966 with the lusty man of ’72. 

Here’s a thing though, a contemporary of Buckley’s like Bob Dylan went electric just once. A one-step evolution in sound, one might argue, that pissed a lot of purists off at the time, yet no doubt contributed to the longevity that Dylan has enjoyed. Buckley evolved on almost every record. Incorporating elements of jazz, psychedelic, funk, soul, rock, and avant-garde. His voice shifted gears from a lyrical communication tool to a vibrant onomatopoeic instrument of its own. He reinvented himself on almost every song and reinvented whole compositions from his back catalog to suit the style of music he was playing at the time. He ‘went electric’ countless times. Maybe the act of constant change is one of the reasons why he was so misunderstood during his own time. No listener could keep up with the erratic change in styles. 

So where would have Buckley taken his music post-1975? It’s a hard question to answer. There is a whole treasure trove of so-called ‘works in progress’ that remain just that, yet are exquisite compositions. These recordings never made it to an official recording, or they were reworked to become parts of other songs or were only ever played in a live setting. Improvisation was a key way for Buckley to explore further musical forays and expand his direction and there are live recordings that show him indulging in this method. Heavy rock was already a staple of ’70s radio, the late 1970s would become dominated by disco music and punk rock, and although the strings Buckley used in songs like “Sweet Surrender” certainly flirted with disco, and the abrasive and repetitive guitar refrain of “Monterey” has elements of post-punk, there really didn’t seem any place further for an artist like Buckley to go in the changing landscape. His evolution was too quick, but he seemed to have played himself into a corner with those last three funk-rock records. 

An argument could be made that Buckley may have followed a similar trajectory to Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young, who had established himself as a folk-rock musician in the 1970s but would expand his sound towards electronic and rockabilly in the early 1980s, before being rightly crowned as the godfather of the ’90s Grunge explosion. Young also dabbled with long ramshackle compositions and albums of drunken one-take jam sessions with his band Crazy Horse. 

Buckley seems so stuck in the time and place of which he inhabited that to even imagine him continuing beyond 1974 is difficult. It might be easy to align him with the lost stars of the 1960s and 1970s—the aforementioned Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix, Jones, as well as Nick Drake, Mama Cass Elliott, and even Elvis Presley. But due to Buckley’s relative obscurity at the time his music was originally released and his cultish popularity from the 1990s onwards, the music instead has reached across the decades and, to these ears, has become timeless. Past, present, and future are one.  

Not many artists can achieve this. Sometimes it can only happen posthumously or long after a band or artist has ceased recording. Buckley, in some respects, reminds me of Sixto Rodriguez, the American singer and songwriter who released two records in the early 1970s and then disappeared and was presumed dead, only to re-emerge in 2012 when fans Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom began an investigation into the myth surrounding Rodriguez and his unbeknownst fame in South Africa. The results of this can be seen in the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man.

Like Buckley, Rodriguez occupied a similar time and space as a male solo musician who wrote lyrics that contained personal anguish, though Rodriguez had a smattering of social commentary that Buckley’s music lacked. Both didn’t find fame or appreciation until long after their careers had ended. Rodriguez gave up after his second album and got a job in his native Detroit. He was, at least, still alive to reap the rewards of his newly found admiration. 

There are also comparisons to be made between Buckley’s eclectic career trajectory and the also eclectic career of David Bowie. Both artists released their debuts within a space of a year of each other and continued to progress in strange and new musical directions. Bowie’s self-titled debut had elements of theatrical and music hall, before his sound and aesthetics shifted quite abruptly to the persona of Ziggy Stardust and glam rock, and then progressing to the blue-eyed soul by the mid-1970s. Bowie would go on to become one of the most experimental and daring popular artists of all time, embracing punk, krautrock, soul, electronica, drum n’ bass, and straight-up pop music. Bowie’s later career, including the records Heathen, The Next Day, and his last album, Blackstar, was an extraordinarily creative time in Bowie’s life that didn’t simply rely on past glories but continued pushing the envelope further. 

Looking at these artists above and knowing what we know about their creative drive and how they reacted in and against new musical scenes and movements, it’s sad to acknowledge the Buckley-shaped hole that music suffered post-1975. What could have been?

Buckley’s music exists outside of the past and current trends. It remains singular in that it was never part of a music scene or a movement as such. Sure, there were plenty of young and lush male troubadours in the time frame that Buckley operated in, but none so wonderfully strange. He was an artist who strove for musical adventure and the expansion of the craft of songwriting not for himself, but for all.

Written by Stephen Lee Naish

Stephen Lee Naish is a writer, independent researcher, and cultural critic. Originally from Leicester, UK, he now resides in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

He is the author of several books, the essay collection 'U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zero Books, 2014), Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press, 2016), Deconstructing Dirty Dancing (Zero Books, 2017), Riffs and Meaning (Headpress, 2018), and recently contributed to the music series Modern Music Masters.

His next book is titled Screen Captures: Film in the Age of Emergency (Newstar Books, 2021)

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