And God Bless Tim Buckley Too
The searing Santa Ana winds are blowing in Los Angeles, and southern California is simmering in mid-summer heat. The thing to do is maintain, make life as comfortable as you can for yourself, and let someone else take care of you.
Tim Buckley is doing this in Sandy Koufax's Tropicana Motor Hotel, a sprawling complex of asphalt parking slots and characterless eleven-dollar-a-day cubicles frequented by musicians with hair. His home in Topanga Canyon is more comfortable, but he had to get his car to the garage, and it's a drag to drive twenty-five miles from that country hideaway into a smoggy city at 8 A.M. after singing at the Whiskey a Go-Go until two. So Buckley moved his grin and his girl friend and his 12-string Gibson into the motel for a day.
A few miles to the north and east, in another section of Hollywood, a telephone rings. "Hi," says Jainie Goldstein, "this is Tim Buckley's old lady. We're at the Tropicana now." I say I'll be there in half an hour.
Jainie is the tough little lady Buckley wrote most of those songs about in his first album, the one that carried his name as a title. He is free, white and twenty-one and he has been roaming the country for five of those years, but Jainie makes the calls and takes care of him. She is small, wiry, and looks more mature than her twenty-one years.
With Jainie and only three or four close friends, Buckley is in a strange limbo-land, that peculiar level of identity inhabited by the "almost-star." He is a star, of course, first-billed wherever he plays and earning a star's salary (between $2,500 and $5,000 a week--when he works). But he is not, as they say in The Biz, ready for his own television special yet. He hasn't had a smash record and although such divergent groups as Hedge and Donna, and Blood, Sweat and Tears have recorded some of his songs, no one has gone zipping up the Billboard and Cash Box charts with one of the to give Buckley even a secondhand hit (like Tim Hardin with "If I Were a Carpenter"). And there is an unfortunate tendency to lump Buckley with other personalities in today's "hip" musical limelight, with the Tim Hardins and the David Blues and the Joni Mitchells and the Leonard Cohens.
No--Tim Buckley is on a different trip. Like Alice in Wonderland, he has stumbled into a special rabbit hole of his own that no one else has found. And forget the thing about success. "It's even weird talking about it," he once said.
"Timmie really is like a symbol of that generation he is in," says David Anderle, director of the West Coast office of Elektra records. "Timmie is not a teacher or a prophet or a spokesman like Dylan. Timmie is a mirror of the times. He is very close to being a painter. People like Timmie should be supported without any conscious concern of making a return on the investment. He's chronicling a generation of kids and their hangups." The Troubadour's Doug Weston, one of the first club owners to hire him, adds: "He speaks of the confusion of a young person trying to love. He says that love is what makes life worthwhile."
His songs have been called poems, dreams, stories, hallucinations. His
imagery is scattered and sad and fresh, like the rain he so often sings about.
The words above are from "I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain." From a
song called "Hallucinations," here is more Buckley rain:
I found a letter
He sings this song-cycle of love and life in a haunted, and haunting, voice, a countertenor that rises and slides. A year ago his voice was one of the factors slowing his career. Critics called it shrill, or walked out in the middle of a performance. "He had a tendency to be a little mealy-mouthed," said Doug Weston. "His diction wasn't what it should have been initially. He's changed now, but the quality and texture remain -- the plea, the cry, the pain." His voice is a blade of grass that bends in many ways, however variant, full of purity.
The way this purity shows itself in performance can be unnerving. Buckley is
sensitive, totally aware of his environment at all times. Noises, the
"wrong" temperature or a restless audience can destroy him and the set
will be extremely brief. But if everything is right, he will stand in those worn
wide-wale corduroys and loose tan shirt, a wire-thin frame seeming barely able
to support the huge guitar, and sing for at least twice as long as expected. His
dark eyes will narrow, and he will weave and writhe sensually, as if possessed
by his intricate melodies. He is, in these intimate moments, precisely where he
wants to be, as he says in "Good-bye and Hello:"
I am young
Sitting in that small motel room on that searing California afternoon, he talked of his early life. I wanted stories and facts and Buckley happily provided them.
He was born in Washington, D.C., lived in upstate New York, he said, and moved when he was nine to Bell Gardens, California, settling into a time and place that was flanked by hot rods and conservative politics and sticky with processed pompadours. At fifteen he was a varsity quarterback, weighing in at a less-than-impressive one hundred ten pounds. He went out for baseball (and made the team), taught himself how to play the banjo and guitar, and baby-sat for people who worked at nearby Disneyland. Buckley was, in Arlo Guthrie's words, "the all-American kid."
"But I also played at car club dances with all those early "Louie, Louie" bands," he said. "You know -- carburetor soul. And getting arrested. Oh, there was a lot of that. I hung out with the Downey Gents and the Mondo Car Club in El Monte. I didn't have a car, so I'd go with the other guys, who were always getting busted for rumbles and maybe stealing things."
The end of his sophomore year he decided not to play football anymore. At the same time, he found himself becoming a troubadour. He'd been gigging occasionally with country and western bands when they came to town, groups like Princess Ramona and the Cherokee Riders (he says), and they'd told him stories about where they'd played. That started him jockeying for top position on the truant officer's most-wanted list.
"They traveled the beer-bar circuit," he said of his friends. "Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Arizona... and it sounded good, so I started traveling, too. I got busted once or twice in Arizona and sent back home. The school got hip to me and I couldn't even stay home when I was sick. They figured I was out with my guitar again. So I got inventive and told them my grandmother died in New York or something. My grandmother died several times that year.
"I really dug the people in those small towns. In Georgia they'd put you up and feed you if you played. These people never see anybody, they never meet any performers. I wasn't sensational. I was just doing a thing. Blues. Country. But they appreciated it. Some day I'm gonna cut my hair and go back."
(It was during these early ramblings that he found and shed a wife. "They're divorced now," says Herb Cohen, his manager. "It's no bad scene, but why bring up those things -- ex-old ladies and so on. It was a long, long time ago." Buckley still sees his ex-wife and their small son when he visits friends in Orange County.)
During one of his periodic visits home to Bell Gardens he ran into a drummer named Jimmy Carl Black. They had taught music after school in the same Santa Ana music shop and now Black was drumming with the Mothers of Invention. He suggested Buckley meet their manager, Herb Cohen. They met, Cohen got Buckley's hastily formed group an audition at a local club, and Buckley agreed to sign with him.
At first, Cohen seemed a strange sort to be Buckley's manager. Cohen had managed, or is managing, some of the finest talent -- besides the Mothers, Judy Henske, Fred Neil (one of Buckley's few close friends) and the Stone Poneys -- but he is not one of the most loved men in the industry. Yet, he seemed the perfect match for Buckley.
David Anderle explains the relationship on simple, psychological terms, at the same time clarifying Buckley's relationship with Jainie and Barry Schultz, who travels with Buckley almost constantly. "Timmie is a man who is totally devoted to his art, and he is incapable of doing anything else," he said. "Which is a natural for an earth woman like Jainie. He has to be mothered. A lot. Herbie and Barry are in the same position. Herb knows the business thing and Timmie doesn't want to know the business thing. And Barry has a good ear and he tells Timmie when he's good and when he is shucking. They yell at him... he needs that. So Barry and Jainie and Herbie, by virtue of their positions, are responsible for Timmie. He places complete faith and trust in them. They take care of him. It's that simple."
Which is not to say Buckley is coddled as a helpless child. "He's a loner, man," Anderle added. "He was placed on this earth to suffer because he can't mingle. He's not here to turn on bunches of people, but as a chronicler." (Buckley almost echoes this appraisal: "Being a human being is suffering. There's pain in getting things out. Communicating can be as hard as death.")
As a mirror reflecting the exhilaration and pain of living, Buckley gained an audience slowly. The first important gig Cohen got for him was in summer 1966 at the now legendary Night Owl in Greenwich Village, where stars like the Lovin' Spoonful built their reputations.
"It was my first time in New York City and there I was in the Night Owl, singing all my weird songs. I wasn't doing much of the old blues and country stuff anymore and I had a lot of trouble. I couldn't teach my chords to the musicians playing with me. It was so tough the bass player quit music after that gig and became a critic. People liked me, I think, and the owner kept me on for a month, trying to make up his mind."
For three months he and Jainie lived on the Bowery, absorbing the flavor and hunger of New York, and then they returned to Los Angeles to record his first album. ("I was so happy, just to get into a studio!") The album was released in October, 1966, and Elektra was honest in its appraisal, part of Buckley's "official" biography: "It was a lovely album -- albeit not a great album -- with several cuts of surpassing beauty, and it has sold nicely... expanding its modest momentum each week of its life."
By 1967, he was working almost constantly, although until his second album, Goodbye and Hello, was released in September, he always was second- or third-billed. Elektra helped promote that album by buying billboard space on the Sunset Strip, not an unusual practice then, but unexpected for a single artist with a modest following and sales.
It was worth the notice, for Buckley had improved his "product" enormously. His lyrics, several written with poet Larry Beckett (who helped Buckley write many songs in the first album), progressed from sophomoric half-verses to better-than-acceptable poetry.
In "I Can't See You," they wrote "Winter harlot, moontime
lover/Don't keep your feelings under cover" and in "It Happens Every
Time," Buckley wrote the trite "Your lovin' makes me feel so
fine." The songs weren't awful, merely lopsided; the melodies were
exceptional. The imbalance was corrected in time and the lyric quality came up
to the melody, as shown in Buckley's "Phantasmagoria in Two":
If a fiddler played you a song, my loveIn this second album Buckley also added a fine group of musicians, among them Jim Fielder, an old high school chum who had been with the Buffalo Springfield and now is playing bass with Blood, Sweat and Tears; Lee Underwood on guitar and Carter (C.C.) Collins on conga drum, both of whom had played with him in clubs. It made for a tighter, fuller sound, what Buckley wanted (and needed) then. The week the album was released Buckley went into New York's Café Au Go-Go with star billing for the first time; and then into the Troubadour in Los Angeles, also as a headliner. Then he was off to Europe to play in Copenhagen, London and Amsterdam.
Buckley continued to experiment. One week he'd appear with a band, the next as a single again. "We were writing 9/8 things," he said. "Cycles in 11/4, 12/4 and 13/4. I was writing with Carter and that was different. We had all those different rhythms going. African Bahama type sing-song music. The San Francisco sound was getting louder and louder and it didn't get rhythmic; it was still in 4/4 time. Hendrix has done some beautiful things; Clapton, too. But why do it over again? It's been done to the loudest, fullest, most intricate extent. It's time for something else.
"It was total all-out war the first three songs of each set when we played together," he said of his sometimes-band, "and then we got it together and we were so strong. It's different when you play alone. It's cool. Then when you play with somebody else it opens something up, and that's cool too. It ain't necessary to have a band, though -- not if you've enough together to make the right sound.
"I believe a lot of things I've done, I did it too soon. Personally I didn't understand the songs. They were all right as songs, but my voice wasn't right or I wasn't playing guitar right. It really used to bother me. My ideas were ahead of my skill. They still are, but now I know it comes in time."
Buckley had been talking almost nonstop for four hours, when, for no reason, conversation stopped. It made me nervous until I recalled what David Anderle once told me. "I remember when I'd had a bad day at the office," Anderle had said, "and Timmie called. He wanted to know what I was doing and I said I was just going through a bad day. Timmie said come down to the beach and watch the sun go down. I left the office immediately. We sat on the beach for a long time, next to the water. We didn't say anything much: He eliminated all the trivia, all the things that get you down, just being there. It was just Timmie and me and the universe."
He's like "therapy," Anderle told me, and all you have to do to cut yourself in on it is listen to Buckley sing or spend time with him. And I also recalled Jac Holzman, Elektra's president, talking about his first hearing of a demonstration-record Buckley made: "I didn't have to play the demo more than once, but I think I must have listened to it at least twice a day for a week. Whenever anything was bringing me down, I'd run for Buckley. It was a restorative." As Anderle says: "Timmie's so incredibly important now. He'll help people relax. He gives people a chance to be themselves. He doesn't take them into his thing. He allows them to go into their thing."
We sat in the motel room for another hour or so. Just sitting around. It was like getting high. Totally relaxed. Barry Schultz and Jainie were there, and occasionally we talked of dreams.