“…for those who care about what a genius can do with lyrics, a 12-string guitar and a windmilling voice, Tim Buckley is to be investigated.” (“Creem,” December, 1970.)
By the end of the ’70s, just a few years after his death in 1975 at the age of 27, Tim Buckley was like a ghost.
As noted in the first edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979), most of his nine studio albums were out of print and his critical reputation was such that they awarded a mere three stars to his second album after calling it “his masterpiece.”
His son Jeff had yet to begin his meteoric and star-crossed rise and fall, which renewed some interest in his father a decade later. But I caught a glimpse of this spectral figure in an old issue of Creem I found in my older brother’s room. (Side note: His castoffs became my Google in those pre-internet days.) The article spoke of an uncompromising artist with a multi-octave voice who in the ’60s had stretched the limits of what it meant to be a folk singer by incorporating jazz and even modern classical idioms into his music. Then, in the ’70s when the singer-songwriter boom was at its height, he took an abrupt turn into salaciously funky blue-eyed soul. I was instantly hooked – on the myth, if not the music, which I had no way of hearing. Not once did I spot a used Tim Buckley album in Saint Mark’s Sounds, Bleecker Bob’s, Venus, or any other of the stores I regularly trawled.
VIDEO: This Mortal Coil “Song To The Siren”
There was another glimpse of Buckley in the late ’80s when This Mortal Coil covered his “Song To The Siren,” but it was hard to discern the bones of the song underneath the cloudy, ambient production and highly ornamented singing. So it wasn’t until we hit the peak of the CD era in the ’90s that I encountered Buckley in the wild. I found myself in the Time Warner employee store, where CDs were only $6, and there, among the more familiar catalog items from Van Morrison, The Doors and others, I spotted Happy Sad, Buckley’s third album, released 50 years ago this month.
Happy Sad turned out to be the ideal point of entry, a richly emotional and exploratory immersion into a jazz-folk fusion that more than holds its own with adjacent albums like Astral Weeks. Not coincidentally, it’s also the first album where Buckley wasn’t trying to please anyone but himself.
Born in Washington, DC in 1947, Buckley lived in Amsterdam, New York as a young child and when he was nine his family moved to southern California, where he taught himself the banjo and started discovering his voice. By 1965, he was playing folk clubs and getting recognition alongside up-and-comers Steve Noonan and Jackson Browne. He gained champions, like Zappa drummer Jimmy Carl Black, signed with a manager, and had a record deal with Elektra before he was 20. Tim Buckley and Goodbye And Hello, his first two albums, established Buckley as a rising folk star, even if the first is often as stiff as Buckley’s J.C. Penney pose on the cover. Those records do have their moments, however, most notably “Song Of The Magician” and “Once I Was,” a gorgeous song covered by Gregg Allman on his last album, but they are also full of much that is brittle and overwrought.
AUDIO: “Once I Was” by Gregg Allman
Part of that was due to the production and part of it was due to the lyrics of Larry Beckett, which were often self-consciously poetic. Buckley had already begun to move away from Beckett on Goodbye And Hello, and when the latter was drafted the collaboration was severed for good. But the nearly two-year journey from that second album to Happy Sad was also informed by a deep dive into jazz, with Buckley finding musical fascination in the work of music’s greatest improvisers. “When you stand Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy or Roland Kirk up against rock,” he said in an interview with Sam Bradley, “rock comes out sounding like a complete pre-fabrication.” He continued: “The reason I like Miles and those others is because their music comes out of the communication between the men playing it. Everything is so over-rehearsed in rock, that when somebody hits a wrong note, they don’t know what to do with it.”
Even a look at the track listings is a clue to the leap Buckley took here, from ten or more songs on the earlier albums to just six on Happy Sad, two of which are over ten minutes. I had nothing to compare it to that first time I dropped the disc into the tray of my CD player. Yet from those first notes of “Strange Feelin’,” with their clever echo of Davis’s “All Blues,” I knew my quest had not been in vain. As the ghost took shape in my living room I knew I was in the presence of a great and unique talent.
AUDIO: “Strange Feelin'”
The opening lines of that first track were immediately striking as well: “I got this strange, strange feelin’/Deep down in my heart/I can’t tell what it is/But it won’t let go/It happens every time/I give you more than what I have…” This is a conversation with a lover, startling in its intimacy, and free of any literary conceit. The singing on Happy Sad is often much lower-pitched than on the first two albums, with an elastic approach to phrasing that might have come from listening to jazz solos. The deep, emotional core of the album didn’t just sound authentic, either. Consider the fact that although he was just 21 or 22 when making Happy Sad, he was already divorced and father to a child that he barely knew. That’s a lot of freight to carry.
It’s a testament to his strength as an artist that rather than pushing you away with his pain in “Strange Feelin’,” he draws you in with a slowly building intensity, closely shadowed by his expert band of Lee Underwood (lead guitar), Carter C. C. Collins (congas), John Miller (acoustic bass), and David Friedman (vibes & Bass marimba). By the end of the song, you really believe it’s possible that things will get better and he’ll lose that strange feeling.
AUDIO: “Buzzin’ Fly”
“Buzzin’ Fly” is another masterpiece, with a shimmering intro that sounds like the sun emerging from clouds, lavishing us with light and warmth. Buckley finds yet more contours in his voice as he serenades a lost love: “You’re the one I talk about/You’re the one I think about/Everywhere I go/Sometimes, honey, in the morning, lord I miss you so/That’s how I know I’ve found home.” Again: direct and plainspoken, the words conveying feeling while also acting as a scaffold for Buckley’s beautiful tower of vocal magnificence.
AUDIO: “Love From Room 109…”
“Love From Room 109 at the Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway)” may be the most remarkable of all, a multipart fantasia of memory and longing that does not give up its mysteries easily, if at all. After an intro of crashing surf sound (added to cover up a buzzing noise that marred the track), wayward vibes and Buckley’s 12-string guitar, he enters with “I was lost without a song, without a melody/You came into my hotel life/You made my room a home.” It’s almost as if he’s opening a window into the creation of the song as he’s singing it. The song grows slower and almost seems to disperse before your ears as he moves through the sections, sometimes singing so quietly as to be nearly inaudible. It’s cinematic journey is greatly enhanced by the extraordinarily delicate and sensitive filigree created by the players in the background. By the end, we know something happened at The Islander, maybe a one-night stand that meant more to one party than the other, but we can’t be sure. The place is still there, by the way, with a one-star rating on Trip Advisor. My guess is they don’t have a plaque for Buckley on Room 109!
AUDIO: “Dream Letter”
“Dream Letter,” perhaps the most naked song here, emerges from the haze as a direct plea to his ex-wife, Mary Guibert, for news about their son, Jeff, a plea that ends with the devastating question: “Oh, does he ask about me?” It also includes the revealing line, “I fight in wars the world never knows about,” a brief reference to Buckley’s tortured soul. But all is not confession. The opening stanza frames the song as perhaps a medieval troubadour would – or a Weimar cabaret singer: “Lady time, fly away/I’ve been thinking/‘Bout my yesterdays.” It’s a brilliant bit of craftsmanship.
Although Underwood later wrote that the next track, “Gypsy Woman,” “failed on the record,” I’ve always felt that it was a sincere – and diverting attempt – at transcendence, to truly get out of his own head and find what Irish tenor John McCormack called the “yarrrrragh” in his voice, via repetition and wild vocal dynamics. It’s also the most fun you’re going to have on Happy Sad, with the bass marimba and conga burbling away underneath while Buckley spouts various (now culturally insensitive?) tropes about gypsies. It’s the one hint of both his raw sexuality and his wicked sense of humor, which were most definitely parts of his personality. The latter was often on display during his stage remarks and the former was the backbone of later songs like “Get On Top” and “Nighthawkin’.” After that flight of fancy, the album has a perfect ending in “Sing A Song For You,” a short song whose mood lingers long after it ends. In it he sings, “Until I find peace in this world/I’ll sing a song everywhere I can,” a sort of personal mission statement he did his best to fulfill throughout his short life.
Happy Sad received much acclaim upon release, with Pete Frame in ZigZag calling it, “A treasure of incredible, rare aesthetic excellence.” It sold better than the prior two albums, too, peaking at 81 on the Billboard charts, seeming to validate the freedom Elektra had given him in the studio. It ended up being his best selling record and remained a high watermark in his career for the rest of his life. In 1974, Buckley himself remembered it fondly, telling an interviewer: “I really loved doing that album, I’ll tell ya. It was really a break-out period of time for me musically.” But as Buckley faded from view, time began to be unkind to it, with that same entry in the Rolling Stone Record Guide characterizing Buckley’s pursuit of a jazz-folk fusion as “futile.”
Fortunately that tide began to turn with Hal Willner’s Greetings From Tim Buckley tribute show at St. Ann’s Church in 1991, where Jeff Buckley made his New York debut. Shortly after that, in a new Album Guide, RS gave Happy Sad four stars, calling it “abstract expressionism of a rare bravery.” Now, Happy Sad seems to be universally beloved, with four- and five-star reviews nearly everywhere you look—and rightly so, as it is an act of artistic generosity with few equals. Unfortunately, giving “more that what he had” as a recording artist and performer may have become a bit of a trap for Buckley, leading him to seek solace in the drugs that eventually killed him. Perhaps if he had lived long enough to hear some of his recent spiritual descendants, such as Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, he would have felt that it was all worthwhile. No longer a ghost, Tim Buckley is now seen as one of the most influential artists to come out of the 60’s and Happy Sad is his crowning achievement from that decade.
AUDIO: Happy/Sad (full album)