Tim Buckley performing at the Fillmore East on October 18, 1968
|Timothy Charles Buckley III|
February 14, 1947|
Washington, D.C., U.S.
June 29, 1975 (aged 28)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Timothy Charles Buckley III (February 14, 1947 - June 29, 1975) was an American singer-songwriter and guitarist. His music and style changed considerably through the years; he began his career based in folk music, but his subsequent albums experimented with jazz, psychedelia, funk, soul, the avant-garde and an evolving "voice as instrument" sound. Though he did not find commercial success during his lifetime, Buckley is admired by later generations for his innovation as a musician and his vocal ability. He died at the age of 28 from a heroin overdose, leaving behind his sons Taylor and Jeff Buckley, the latter of whom went on to become a musician as well.
Tim Buckley was born in Washington, D.C. on Valentine's Day, to Elaine (née Scalia), an Italian American, and Timothy Charles Buckley Jr., a highly decorated World War II veteran who was the son of Irish immigrants from Cork. He spent his early childhood in Amsterdam, New York, an industrial city approximately 40 miles northwest of Albany; at five years old he began listening to his mother's progressive jazz recordings, particularly Miles Davis.
Buckley's musical life began in earnest after his family moved to Bell Gardens in southern California in 1956. His grandmother introduced him to the work of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, his mother to Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland and his father to the country music of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. When the folk music revolution came around in the early 1960s, Buckley taught himself the banjo at age 13, and with several friends formed a folk group inspired by the Kingston Trio that played local high school events.
During his initial high school years, Buckley was a popular and engaged student; he was elected to numerous offices, played on the baseball team and quarterbacked the football team. During a football game he broke the first two fingers on his left hand, permanently damaging them. He later said that the injury prevented him from playing barre chords. This disability may have led to his use of extended chords, many of which don't require barres.
Buckley attended Loara High School in Anaheim, California. He quit football and cut classes regularly, focusing most of his attention on music instead. He befriended Larry Beckett, his future lyricist, and Jim Fielder, a bass player with whom he formed two separate musical groups, the Bohemians, who initially played popular music, and the Harlequin 3, a folk group which regularly incorporated spoken word and beat poetry into their gigs.
In 1965, during French class, Buckley met Mary Guibert, one grade his junior. Their relationship inspired some of Buckley's music, and provided him time away from his turbulent home life. His father had become unstable, angry and occasionally violent in his later years. He had suffered a serious head injury during the war; that, along with a severe work-related injury, was said to have affected his mental balance. Buckley and Guibert married on October 25, 1965, as Guibert believed she was pregnant. The marriage angered Mary's father and he did not attend the wedding; Buckley's father attended, but joked to the priest, "I give it six months". Shortly after the wedding Mary realized that she was not pregnant after all. The marriage was tumultuous, and Buckley quickly moved out, but Mary soon became pregnant. After several months, Buckley found himself neither willing nor able to cope with marriage and impending fatherhood. From then on, he and Mary saw each other only sporadically. They divorced in October 1966, about a month before their son, Jeff Buckley, was born.
By then, Buckley and lyricist/friend Beckett had written dozens of songs; several were to appear on Tim's debut album, Tim Buckley. "Buzzin' Fly", was also written during this period, and was featured on Happy Sad, his 1969 LP.
Buckley's ill-conceived college career at Fullerton College lasted only two weeks in 1965; Buckley dropped out and dedicated himself fully to his music and to playing L.A. folk clubs. During the summer of 1965 he played regularly at a club co-founded by Dan Gordon. Later in the year he played various Orange County coffeehouses, such as the White Room in Buena Park, and the Monday night hootenannies at the famed Los Angeles Troubadour. That year Cheetah Magazine deemed Buckley an up-and-comer, one of "The Orange County Three", along with Steve Noonan and Jackson Browne.
In February 1966, following a gig at It's Boss, the Mothers of Invention's drummer Jimmy Carl Black recommended Buckley to the Mothers' manager, Herb Cohen. Cohen saw potential in Tim and landed him an extended gig at the Nite Owl Cafe in Greenwich Village. Buckley's new girlfriend, Jainie Goldstein, drove him cross-country to New York in her VW bug. While living in the Bowery with Jainie, Buckley ran into Lee Underwood, and asked him to play guitar for him. From there, they became lifelong friends and collaborators.
Buckley recorded his eponymous debut album in three days in Los Angeles, in August 1966. He was generally unhappy with his albums after the fact; he described this one as "like Disneyland". The record featured Buckley and a backing band of Orange County friends, including Underwood, whose mix of jazz and country improvisation on a twangy Telecaster guitar became a distinctive part of Buckley's early sound. Jac Holzman and Paul Rothchild's production style and Jack Nitzsche's string arrangements cemented in the record's mid-sixties sound.
The album's folk-rock style was largely typical of the time, although many people, including Lee Underwood, felt that the string additions by Jack Nitzsche "did not enhance its musical quality." Critics, however, took note of Buckley's distinctive voice and tuneful compositions.
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On later reflection, those involved with the album saw it as demonstrative of the potential of the group. Underwood summed it up as "a first effort, naive, stiff, quaky and innocent [but] a ticket into the marketplace". Producer Jac Holzman expressed similar sentiments, stating that Buckley "wasn't really comfortable in his own musical skin". Larry Beckett suggested that the band's desire to please audiences held them back.
Elektra released two singles promoting the debut album: "Wings" appeared in December with "Grief in My Soul" as the B-side, and "Aren't You the Girl"/"Strange Street Affair Under Blue" the next month. Buckley followed up with the recordings "Once Upon a Time" and "Lady Give Me Your Key", which were not well regarded but showed much potential. Elektra, however, decided not to release these as a single, and the songs remained in Elektra's record vaults. (Rhino Records was unable to find "Lady Give Me Your Key" to include on its Morning Glory: The Tim Buckley Anthology, but the song was the title track on Light in the Attic Records' 2017 collection of the previously unissued 1967 acoustic sessions. "Once Upon A Time" surfaced on Rhino's Where The Action Is 1965-68 Los Angeles anthology in 2009.)
Goodbye and Hello, released in 1967, featured late 1960s-style poetry and songs in different timings and was an ambitious release for the then-20-year-old Buckley. Reflecting the confidence Elektra had in Buckley and group, they were given free rein on the music and content of the album. Beckett continued as lyricist and the album consisted of half Buckley originals and half Beckett-Buckley collaborations. Critics noted the improved lyrical and melodic qualities of Buckley's music. Buckley's voice had also developed since the last release and the press appreciated both his lower register and higher falsetto in equal measure.
The subject matter of the album also distinguished it from its predecessor. Beckett addressed the psychological nature of war in "No Man Can Find the War", and Underwood welcomed Buckley's entry into darker territory with "Pleasant Street". "I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain" represented a confessional lyric to his estranged wife and child, while the mix of introspective folk songs and political-themed content attracted folk fans and anti-war audiences alike. Elektra owner Jac Holzman had much faith in the young up-and-comer, renting advertising space for the musician on the Sunset Strip which was virtually unheard of for an unestablished solo act. Holzman stated, "the combined effect of his words, his music, his passion, his persona struck a particular resonance." Buckley distanced himself from comparisons to Bob Dylan, expressing a general apathy towards Dylan and his work. While Goodbye and Hello did not make Buckley a star, it performed better in the charts than his previous effort, peaking at #171.
His higher profile also led to more opportunities, such as the album The Best of Tim Buckley being used as a soundtrack to the 1969 film Changes. Buckley performed "Song to the Siren" on the final episode of The Monkees TV show, despite being generally wary of press and media, often avoiding interviews or being unresponsive. After a slot on The Tonight Show, Buckley was standoffish and insulting towards Carson, and on another television appearance refused to lip-synch to "Pleasant Street".
After Beckett was drafted into the Army, Buckley was free to develop his own individual style. He described the jazz/blues-rock that he was associated with at the time as "white thievery and an emotional sham." Drawing inspiration from jazz greats such as Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk, and vocalist Leon Thomas, his subsequent independently-recorded music was vastly different from previous recordings.
In 1968, Buckley recorded Happy Sad, which reflected folk and jazz influences. This would be his best charting album, peaking at #81. Dissatisfied with playing the same material continuously, and with the music business that he felt was restraining him from producing new material, he began to weave new songs into his performances, featuring an increasingly minimalist sound, and introducing a vibraphone player into his band. However, this attempted rejuvenation was a commercial failure, and alienated audiences who saw him as a folk-rock poster boy.
During 1969, Buckley began to write and record material for three different albums: Lorca, Blue Afternoon, and Starsailor. Inspired by the singing of avant-garde musician Cathy Berberian, he decided to integrate the ideas of composers such as Luciano Berio and Iannis Xenakis in an avant-garde rock genre. He started to fully use his vocal range. According to Underwood, Buckley knew that Lorca had little to no chance in the commercial market. Selecting eight songs that had yet to be recorded, these tracks evolved into the sessions for Blue Afternoon, an album that was quite similar to Happy Sad in style. In a 1977 article for Down Beat magazine, Underwood wrote that Buckley's heart was not into the Blue Afternoon performances and that the album was a perfunctory response to please his business partners.
Neither album sold well: Lorca alienated his folk base, while Blue Afternoon was widely criticized as boring and tepid - "[not] even good sulking music", as one critic wrote. Blue Afternoon was Buckley's last album to hit the Billboard charts, reaching #192. After the lack of success for both records, Buckley began to focus more on what he felt to be his true masterpiece, Starsailor.
Starsailor contained free jazz textures under his most extreme vocal performance, ranging from high shrieks to deep, soulful baritone. This personal album included the more accessible "Song to the Siren", a song which has since been covered by This Mortal Coil, Robert Plant, John Frusciante, Bryan Ferry, and Brendan Perry. The album, however, was a critical and commercial failure. Following its release, Buckley's sales declined rapidly, and the quality of his live shows plummeted.
Unable to produce his own music and almost completely broke, he turned to alcohol and drug binges. He also considered acting, completing an unreleased low-budget film entitled Why? (1971) after several abortive meetings with Hollywood producers.[clarification needed] The film was an experimental use of the new medium videotape, commissioned by Technicolor.
In April 1970, Buckley married Judy Brejot Sutcliffe in Santa Monica, and adopted her son, Taylor Keith Sutcliffe.
Buckley abruptly disbanded his Starsailor ensemble near the end of 1970, and assembled a new funk band. He cut three albums of what has been described as "sex funk": Greetings from L.A., Sefronia and Look at the Fool. Buckley had alienated much of his hippie fan base with his previous two albums, and his often sexually frank lyrics ("whip me, spank me") prevented the songs from receiving airplay; but he retained a cult following.
In 1975, Buckley engaged the musical press regarding a live album comeback. Buckley began performing revamped versions of material drawn from his entire career (except Starsailor and Lorca) as a response to the desires of his audience, which he had spurned in the past.
On June 28, 1975, Buckley completed the last show of a tour in Dallas, playing to a soldout crowd of 1,800 people. He celebrated the culmination of the tour with a weekend of drinking with his band and friends, as was his normal routine. On the evening of June 29, 1975, Buckley accompanied longtime friend Richard Keeling back to his house. What happened next is unclear, but at some point Keeling produced a bag of heroin, which Buckley ingested.
Buckley's reaction to the heroin put him in such a bad condition that friends took him home. Upon his return, his wife Judy, seeing his inebriated state, laid him on the living-room floor and questioned his friends as to what had happened. Judy then moved Buckley into bed. Checking on him later, she found he had turned blue and was no longer breathing. Attempts by friends and paramedics to revive him were unsuccessful, and he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Buckley's death shocked many of his friends and relatives. The drug-related death was in stark contrast to how people had seen him; the sound recorder at Buckley's last show noted that "someone offered him a drag off of a joint and he refused. He didn't appear strung out in any way. He was very together both physically and psychologically."
Underwood wrote a biography, Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered, reflecting on his life and death and how he had been influenced by Buckley. Other friends saw his fate as more predictable if not inevitable: his lyricist, Larry Beckett, later said of Buckley:
He continually took chances with his life. He'd drive like a maniac, risking accidents. 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 romantic heroin-taking thing. Then his luck ran out.
Given the circumstances of his death, police charged Richard Keeling with murder and distribution of heroin. At his hearing on August 14, 1975, Keeling pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and, after failing to complete community service, was sentenced to 120 days in jail and four years probation.
Buckley died in debt, owning only a guitar and an amplifier. Some 200 friends and family attended his funeral at the Wilshire Funeral Home in Santa Monica, including manager Herb Cohen, guitarist Lee Underwood, Buckley's mother, sister, widow, and adopted son, Taylor. His biological son Jeff, who was eight years old at the time, and had met his father only once, was not invited to the funeral. This, he later said, "gnawed" at him, and prompted him to "pay [his] respects" by performing "I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain" at a memorial tribute to Buckley in Brooklyn, in 1991, six years before his own accidental death.