Listening to….Tim Buckley

It’s interesting to reflect on whether Tim Buckley’s posthumous profile and reputation would be as prominent as it is were it not for the subsequent career of his son Jeff.  Having rarely been together in life, they seem to be almost joined at the hip in death and in critical terms are sometimes viewed as two peas from the same pod.  Not actually sure that this is valid myself, but it’s a convenient piece of mythology that record companies and journalists alike seem happy enough to buy into.

 Whatever the case, I’ve had a few ‘posthumous’ Tim Buckley albums stacked up on the hard drive for a while now and decided it was about time I caught up with them.  Who knows if they would have been released at all had the transgressions of the son not been umbilically linked to those of the father?

 My first encounter with Tim Buckley was via the 1967 ‘Goodbye & Hello’ album.  I found it fascinating, almost in spite of some of the cod-baroque arrangements that rather engulfed Buckley’s first two Elektra albums.  What was quite clear was that here was a guy with an extraordinary vocal range and a singular talent.  What hadn’t quite gelled yet was the most appropriate setting for these deeply passionate songs. 

 Of course, Elektra was a folk label up to about 1966 and it would have been the most natural thing in the world to position Buckley squarely alongside folkies like Tom Paxton and Judy Collins with a minimalist acoustic setting for those early songs. Buckley had already hooked up with some sympathetic collaborators, notably lyricist Larry Beckett and guitarist Lee Underwood, whose jazz-inflected phrasings were to provide a distinctive signature to most of  Buckley’s records up to about 1970.

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 Despite this, the first (chronologically) of these albums, ‘Live at the Folklore Centre, NYC’ (Rhino) sees Tim operating completely alone with an acoustic guitar and performing impressively for a small but enthusiastic audience in what was essentially a bookshop.  He performs many of the songs from his first album and stripped of their over-ornate arrangements, they come across as considerably more powerful and less fey than the original recordings.

 Buckley’s pipes are in terrific shape as well and he sings strongly throughout.  Of particular interest are the 4 songs with which he ends this 55 –minute set, all of which are previously unheard and otherwise unrecorded – ‘If the rain comes’ and ‘Country Boy’ are particularly impressive.

 ‘Live at the Folklore Centre, NYC’ is a worthy addition to the collection of any Tim Buckley fan.  The songs are too early to qualify as his best work (though Fred Neil’s ‘Dolphins’ makes an appearance, even at this stage) but the performance and the lack of instrumental clutter more than makes up for this.

Copenhagen Tapes

 Next up is ‘The Copenhagen Tapes’ released back in 2000 apparently, but one I’m only just catching up with.  I think maybe I was too wedded to the double-cd set of the London gigs recorded on the same 1968 European tour and released by Demon, so made the erroneous assumption that this Copenhagen recording would be in a similar vein. 

 What makes this recording different is, firstly, that it was recorded in a studio for a subsequent radio broadcast and secondly in the musicians joining Underwood & Buckley on stage – instead of Danny Thompson, we get Danish jazz legend Niels- Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass and David Friedman on vibes.  Pedersen might well have been at the start of his lengthy association with Oscar Peterson about this time, whilst Friedman would just have been starting out on a lengthy career that saw him working with the likes of Wayne Shorter and recording for ECM as part of the Double Image band.  In addition, the style of this recording is rather different to that recorded in London – the 50 or so minutes of the record are dominated by another song that Buckley never seemingly committed to vinyl whilst he was alive – ‘I don’t need it to rain’, which may also appear on the 1969 Troubadour recordings but nowhere else that I am aware of.  This song meanders gently on, incorporating snatches of other songs, for over 21 minutes and offers Underwood, Friedman and Pedersen plenty of scope for expressing themselves.  The mood among the musicians is clearly relaxed and this cd is all the better for it.  The balance of the tracks are more familiar items from Buckley’s set at the time – ‘Buzzin’ Fly’ and ‘Strange Feelin’’ and a 12-minute version of ‘Gypsy Woman’.

 1968 must have been a busy year for Tim Buckley because the next item on this rapid sweep through his posthumous releases is ‘Works in Progress’ a set of studio recordings (with Underwood,  percussionist Carter Collins & various bassists & pianists) that would ultimately lead to his third album ‘Happy Sad’.  This is a terrific set of songs and is somehow more open than ‘Happy Sad’ turned out to be – I have always found that a slightly claustrophobic record and these early versions  are far more ‘open’ and in the ‘folk’ tradition of Buckley’s earlier years.  Two pieces – ‘Danang’ and ‘Asbury Park’-  ended up as part of the improbably-titled ‘Love from Room 109 at the Islander’ etc etc on the final version of ‘Happy Sad’. There are also excellent early versions of ‘Song to the Siren’ and ‘Chase the blues away’ .

 Tim Buckley - The Dream Belongs to Me: Rarities & Unreleased 1968-1973

   There’s a degree of overlap with the final item in this retrospective trawl.  The Dream Belongs To Me (Rarities & Unreleased 1968-1973) covers much of the same ground as ‘Works in Progress’, offering only an alternative version of ‘Buzzin’ Fly’ from the 1960’s era.  What is new here are a series of demos recorded for Tim’s 1973 ‘Sefronia’ album.  These include the title track from both ‘Sefronia’ and from this collection, as well as funky numbers like ‘Honey Man’ and ‘Falling Timber’, both of which seem to be pandering to Buckley’s 1970’s incarnation as a sex machine.  What is perhaps most extraordinary is the stylistic journey that Tim Buckley had made in just 5 years, from hippie troubadour to full-on love god….. Frankly, the ‘Sefronia’ demos are a disappointment, even though there are a couple of (forgettable) unreleased songs here.  The sound is muddy and the performance tentative – these are very much early sketches.

Something has always baffled me about the song  ‘Sefronia’ itself – it was always one of the best songs on the original release of this album; a steamy affair telling of lustful goings-on down on the Plantation, but it seems to me that there must be at least 2 versions of this song in circulation.  On the original vinyl release, although ‘Sefronia’ was listed as being composed of two sections, the song flowed continuously for around 6 minutes.  However, when I bought the cd re-release in the late 80’s, the two halves had been split into ‘Sefronia: After Asklepiades, After Kafka”  and “Sefronia: The King’s Chain”   What’s more, these two sections sounded like different recordings and the overall effect was to spoil one of the better tracks on an album that needed all the help it could get.

 A lot of Tim Buckley fans got very hot under the collar about his post- 1970 output.  Many found the experimental/jazz phase of ‘Lorca’ and ‘Starsailor’ too much to take and many more found the later ‘funk’ period even harder to cope with.  Personally, whilst  1969’s ‘Blue Afternoon’ was, is and will likely remain my favourite Tim Buckley album, I can find something to like in all of his albums, although ‘Look at the fool’ from 1974 is a real struggle and quite a low point on which to conclude his career.

 However, history has been kind to Tim Buckley; he’s acquired a whole new generation of fans thanks to Jeff’s success and rather like Nick Drake, is probably more popular now than he was when he was alive.  Of these 4 albums, two at least – ‘Works in Progress’ and ‘Live at the Folklore Centre’ are tremendous additions to a fairly thin back catalogue.  ‘The Copenhagen Tapes’ probably tells us nothing new, but is a worthy addition to his repertoire of live recordings.  ‘The Dream belongs to me’ is forgettable, particularly if you acquire ‘Works in Progress’, around 50% of which it duplicates.

 Works in Progress’ (Rhino 1999)

The Copenhagen Tapes’ (Import, 2000)

The Dream belongs to me’ (Manifesto, 2001)

Live at the Folklore Centre, NYC, March 6, 1967’ (Tompkins Square, 2009)

 

 

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