The song is over
In rock, there are thousands of singers and dozens of early deaths but never were there singers sweeter than the Buckleys and never was there a sadder ending.
Friday 06 June 1997
Though one doesn't wish to be accused of myth-making, the myths are already there. Tim Buckley, Jeff's father (though he left Jeff's mother when the son was only six months old), was the best singer of his generation too, before he died from a heroin overdose in 1975, aged 28. You don't even have to search for parallels, for they are inescapable. Folded into the sleeve of my copy of Buckley pere's best record, Blue Afternoon, is the cutting of a 1979 NME biography by Max Bell that begins with these lines from Tim's "Song to the Siren": "I'm as puzzled as the newborn child/ I'm as riddled as the tide/ Should I stand amid the breakers/ Or should I die with death my bride?/ Swim to me, swim to me, let me enfold you/ Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you."
Listening to Jeff's mini-album Live from the Bataclan while I write, it's nearly tears on the keyboard-time as he sings his medley of French chansons against the screams of the girls in the Paris audience - for Jeff was a serious love-god - in his angelic cracked alto voice. Singing in French, he pauses for a moment ("Hope I get this right"), then switches to the English translation: "When at last our life on earth is through, I will spend eternity with you, if you love me, really love me, let it happen darling, I won't care." The voice dies to a whisper, accompanied by the gentle rhythmic waves of his plucked guitar, before rising in a final, heart-stopping "ooh", to be met by heartfelt applause. Then he does Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah".
The noisy club grew eerily silent as the tiny figure on the stage sobbed out each word. As he left the stage, Buckley took off his shirt and threw it to the crowd. Later that year he came to the Royal Festival Hall to take part in Elvis Costello's Meltdown season, participating in an evening dedicated to "The Song", and breaking everyone's heart with the beauty of his singing. If you missed him, Live at the Bataclan, which is an import on French Columbia, is the next best thing. "Bonne nuit," he says, as "Hallelujah" finishes. "I love you!" and the crowd goes delirious, as only a French crowd flattered by their own language can. Or try the versions of Nina Simone's "Lilac Wine", Benjamin Britten's "Corpus Christi Carol", his own "So Real", and, of course, "Hallelujah", on the debut album Grace. While some of the other tracks attempt a not entirely convincing hard-rock mode, the real songs display Buckley's talent at its spine-tingling best.
The parallels with the career of his father are hardly accidental. Jeff Buckley took on the mantle of Tim with a frighteningly intense fidelity, echoing his multi-octave vocal range, his folk-jazz repertoire, even his angelic curls and self-consciously melancholy-poet persona. In performance, as the gathering sweat began to turn his hair into a backlit corona of haloed curls, Jeff became the dead spit of the dead Tim's photo on the cover of Blue Afternoon, ecstatic grimace and all. In an article posted on the Internet this week, Jeff was quoted as saying: "All this stuff about my dad. I never knew him really. It's so hard to live with, I'm Jeff not Tim. Do you think what they say is true?"
Nowadays, Tim Buckley is even less well known than his son. But in the years between his debut album in 1966, and his last, really great album, Greetings from LA in 1972, he was the most thrilling of all the post-Dylan singer-songwriters. Indeed, his fans would happily swap the last 30 years of Dylan albums for one more mediocre Buckley set. Though his albums sold in negligible numbers, Tim Buckley was a hugely influential figure for his time, and particularly well-respected in England. The posthumously released Dream Letter double-CD of a London concert from 1969 still sounds almost impossibly good, with Pentangle's Danny Thompson thumping out the bass-lines.
With a deliciously creamy voice that spanned baritone, tenor and alto, and a repertoire of dreamy songs calling on the blues and the late-night jazz of Miles Davis, Bill Evans and even the most extreme experiments of saxophonist John Coltrane, Buckley created a sound-world entirely consonant with his own smacked-up troubadour image. The classic, mid-period albums, Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon; Lorca; and the astonishingly experimental Starsailor have no parallels among any other works of the time or since. They're simply out-there: rhythmic poems for voice, double bass, vibraphone, guitar and conga drums, full of oblique chordings and meditative vocal grace-notes. At their best, as on the track "Buzzin' Fly" on Happy Sad, or "Blue Melody" on Blue Afternoon, they are just about the most satisfying music I know, though they do tend to favour a melancholy mood.
Tim Buckley grew up in California (he would have been 50 this year), in Anaheim and Orange County, learning from his mother to appreciate the voice of Nat "King" Cole, and imitating jazz trumpet players heard on the radio. He learned to play guitar imperfectly, due to a broken hand, and he was never able to make a barre-chord. He formed a band and played folk clubs in LA until he was spotted by Jim Black, the drummer of the Mothers of Invention, who introduced him to Herb Cohen of Straight Records, who in turn introduced him to Elektra's Jack Holzman, for whom he recorded his eponymous debut for Elektra at the age of 18, in 1966.
The following year he made Goodbye and Hello, a marvellously overblown Vietman-era set, whose track "Morning Glory" established his reputation as a latter-day troubadour, and in Britain became one of the folk-club anthems of the time. The great mid-period albums followed shortly afterwards, as Buckley - who was a friend of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin - got further into heroin. He had an affair with Linda Eastman (later Mrs McCartney), spent time out of music driving a taxi-cab, acting in Edward Albee's Zoo Story in LA, writing screenplays, and listening to Coltrane, Oliver Messiaen, and Eric Satie on Santa Monica beach. By 1972 he had changed his style to a kind of pre-"Let's Get It On" urban soul with Greetings to LA, his great white-boy sex album, which is full of weird, only partly ironic celebrations of masochism and the far side of sexual experience.
By June 1975, he was dead from a heroin overdose, the powder evidently sniffed in mistake for cocaine. His guitarist Lee Underwood insisted that it was only because Buckley had recently got clean that the dosage was sufficient to cause his death, and an LA graduate student was subsequently charged with first degree murder for giving him the drug. At the funeral at Wiltshire Funeral Homes, Santa Monica, the mourners were mainly his old flames, who were numerous.
Since Tim Buckley's death, no one else has emerged to offer that rare, Romantic charm and courtly, Anglophile mix of poetry and passion, folk and jazz. Until, at least, his son Jeff. It's enough to make you weep, which, of course, is what both Buckleys did, par excellencen
'Grace' by Jeff Buckley is available on Columbia; the live mini-album 'Live from the Bataclan' is on Columbia France; another live mini-album, 'Live at Sin-E' is on Big Cat. Tim Buckley's albums are available on Elektra, Demon and Manifesto
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