Tim Buckley

Timothy Charles Buckley III (February 14, 1947 – June 29, 1975) was an experimental vocalist and musician who incorporated jazz, psychedelia, funk, soul, and avant-garde rock in a career spanning the late 1960s and early 1970s. Buckley often regarded his voice as an instrument, a talent principally showcased on his albums Goodbye and Hello, Lorca, and Starsailor. His first marriage was to Mary Guibert, with whom he had a child, musician Jeff Buckley. They divorced in 1968 and after this Buckley would meet with his son only once more. Buckley married second wife Judy Brejot Sutcliffe in 1970 and adopted her son, Taylor.

Buckley's career began with his 1966 debut Tim Buckley, its mix of pop and folk rock drawing on popular influences of the time. His popularity peaked with second album Goodbye and Hello, a more mature record with avant-garde influences and political sentiments. In the three years that followed Buckley was at his most prolific and experimental, producing four albums of varying styles. Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon showed Buckley's Folk roots while Lorca veered to more avant-garde styles. The final album of this period, Starsailor, is a mix of jazz, funk and avant-garde styles, representing his continual evolution in genre. This period, while garnering some critical success, proved disastrous for his record sales as the disparity of his styles caused his fanbase to all but disappear.

Following this Buckley changed genres again, with 1972 release Greetings from L.A., which incorporated the funk, R&B and soul sounds of the early 1970s in to his music. However this release and the following album Sefronia did not match up to the success of his previous work. In 1974, having alienated much of his fanbase and squandered money made at his peak, Buckley released Look at the Fool, which was neither well received by the public nor the majority of critics. By this point Buckley had grown disillusioned with the music industry and his drug abuse of the past seven years had affected him.

In spite of this, in early 1975, desperate for musical recognition and an escape from poverty and obscurity, Buckley dropped his drug dependencies and engaged the musical press regarding a live album comeback. Buckley began performing material drawn from his whole career as a response to the desires of his audience, desires he had always spurned in the past. However, Buckley relapsed and on June 28, 1975, he overdosed on heroin. His wife Judy, having earlier put him in bed, was unable to rouse him and paramedics pronounced him dead on arrival. He was 28 years old and was survived by his wife and adopted son Taylor, and his biological son, Jeff (who also died at a young age).


Early life and career

Born in Washington DC, Buckley,an Irish-American, lived for 10 years in Amsterdam, New York, before moving to southern California, initially to Bell Gardens and later settling in Anaheim in 1965. His experiences with music were through his family, artists such as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland being particular favourites in the household. During his childhood, Buckley was a fan of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Nat King Cole and Miles Davis, although country music was his foremost passion. Reflecting this, at the age of 11 Buckley learnt how to play the banjo, an instrument which his mother had bought to occupy him following a bout of mumps. He attended Loara High School in Anaheim, California, and, amongst others, made friends with Don Gordon, Larry Beckett, Jim Fielder and future wife, Mary Guibert. He was an accomplished high school athlete, becoming a quarterback for the school team in addition to getting a place on the baseball team. During this period playing as quarterback, Buckley broke the first two fingers on his left hand but they never fully returned to normal and made guitar playing more difficult. At the age of 15, Buckley abandoned the banjo and moved on to the guitar, playing with Princess Ramona & The Cherokee Riders, a country and western band. However, the lead singer saw Buckley was uninterested and instead suggested he apply himself to the emerging 1960's folk scene.

Buckley's first efforts into folk music were with high school friend, Don Gordon, drawing inspiration from The Kingston Trio. Buckley's musical tastes began to develop and, at sixteen-years-old, frequented the folk clubs that littered 1960's California and internalised the rhythm and blues and folk-rock sounds he heard. Buckley had initially practiced singing along to more restrained singers, such as Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis, however, inspired by singers like Little Richard, he began to explore his singing voice and pushed his vocal limits in unusual ways: singing along to high trumpet notes and screaming at passing buses. By the age of 17, Larry Beckett and Buckley had collaborated on material, Beckett writing the lyrics and Buckley playing guitar and singing. Jim Fielder, later of The Mothers of Invention and Buffalo Springfield, played bass guitar, and with Beckett on drums and Buckley as guitarist and singer they formed the trio The Bohemians, playing music of an early 1960s folk-pop style. The trio also formed a separate band consisting of the same members, the Harlequin 3, and when performing as this outfit they would incorporate spoken word sections and beat poetry in to their gigs.

By the time Buckley finished his studies at 18 he had already written over twenty songs with lyricist Beckett; and many of these songs made up a large portion of his debut album. "Buzzin' Fly", also written during this period, later featured his 1969 LP Happy Sad. After playing gigs in the L.A. area, under the moniker of either "The Bohemians" or "Tim Buckley", the band started to generate much interest, being labelled in Cheetah magazine in 1965 as one part of the up-and-coming "The Orange County Three", with Steve Noonan and Jackson Browne. In September 1965 Buckley started attending Fullerton college but dropped out only two weeks later, unable to cope with the pressure of combining this with his fledgling music career. Buckley married his long time girlfriend, Mary Guibert, in November of that year. After dropping out of college, Buckley fully dedicated himself to music, playing L.A. cafes and folk clubs, such as Nite Owl Café and The Troubadour.

Buckley and his wife largely lived separately and after an unexpected pregnancy their marriage faltered and Buckley began dating Jainie Goldstein, to whom debut album track "Song for Jainie" is dedicated. Following a gig at the venue It's Boss, impressed by the group, Mothers of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black introduced Buckley to his manager, Herb Cohen. Seeing the potential of the young group, Cohen decided to manage their affairs. Cohen landed Buckley a gig at the Nite Owl Café, where Buckley met guitarist and keyboardist, Lee Underwood, and they collaborated on material and began doing gigs together with Fielder as bassist. After seeing the group develop, Cohen sent an acetate disc of the band's demo to, Elektra records owner, Jac Holzman. In August, Holzman saw Buckley play live and offered him a recording contract and an opportunity to record his first album.

Debut album

Before the release of the album, the band stopped playing under the "Bohemians" name and settled on "Tim Buckley", emphasising the importance of the singer. Their bassist, Jim Fielder, noted that this was not a controversial move: "it was always understood that, ultimately, it was about Tim. He was the one, and there were no hard feelings whatsoever when it turned into a solo situation". At the request of Elektra's Jac Holzman, Buckley and the group recorded their debut album, Tim Buckley, over three days in Los Angeles in August 1966. Buckley later remarked that recording was "Like Disneyland. I'd doing anything anybody said". The album's folk-rock style was largely typical of the time but Buckley's distinctive voice and melodic compositions garnered positive reviews upon its release in late 1966. The tracks featured were mostly older songs he had made with his collaborator Beckett and the album is driven by the mix of Buckley's music and Beckett's poetry. The record featured Buckley, Fielder and Underwood and, in addition to the regular trio, Billy Mundi from The Mothers of Invention on drums and, later Brian Wilson collaborator, Van Dyke Parks on piano, celesta and harpsichord. Jac Holzman and Paul Rothchild's production style and Jack Nitzsche's string arrangements ensured the record's mid-sixties sound.

On later reflection, those involved with the album saw it as demonstrative of the potential of the group but not the finished product. Guitarist Lee 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 in 1991 in the periodical Musician that Buckley "wasn't really comfortable in his own musical skin". Larry Beckett ventured that it was the band's desire to please their prospective audience which held them back.

Buckley's personal life became more complex during this period. His divorce was finalised; the relationship with Guibert suffering from his infidelity and difficulties arising from the pressures of his music career. Their son, Jeff Buckley, was born shortly afterwards on November 17, 1966. Subsequently, Buckley largely stayed out of contact with his child and ex-wife and Jeff Buckley would later comment he met his father only once. Buckley's child, Jeff, would also later become a noted musician in his own right.

Elektra released two singles promoting the debut album, "Wings" with "Grief in My Soul" as a b-side was released in December and "Aren't You the Girl" with "Strange Street Affair Under Blue" in January the following year. Buckley's manager Herb Cohen suggested that Buckley should work with producer Jerry Yester and Elektra's demand for a new single represented their first challenge. Buckley and Beckett planned a songwriting session and listened to the radio relentlessly in search of making a hit record. The results were "Once Upon a Time" and "Lady Give Me Your Key". The former was not well regarded by the pair but they felt the latter had much potential. Despite this, Elektra decided not to release it as a single and the songs are assumed to remain in Elektra's record vaults. Rhino Records searched for the songs in the hope of including "Lady Give Me Your Key" on Morning Glory: The Tim Buckley Anthology, but the songs were not found in time for its release.

Goodbye and Hello

Goodbye and Hello, released in 1967, featured late 1960s-style poetry and songs in different timings and has been described as 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 topic 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. Underwood also judged that 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. The album reflected the feeling in the US at the time, Holzman stating: "the combined effect of his words, his music, his passion, his persona struck a particular resonance." Despite having some aspects in common with Bob Dylan, in terms of musical style and fashion sense, Buckley distanced himself from comparisons, expressing a general apathy towards the artist and his work. Whilst 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; the album was used as a soundtrack to Hall Bartlett's 1969 movie Changes and Micky Dolenz landed Buckley a spot to perform "Song to the Siren" on the final episode of The Monkees TV show. However, Buckley was wary of the press and media, often avoiding interviews or being unresponsive when they were necessary. After scoring a slot on the Tonight Show, Buckley was standoffish and insulting towards the host and on another TV appearance he outright rejected a plan to lip-synch to "Pleasant Street" and refused to play. Buckley did not see the album's sales as a path to commercial success, but rather an opportunity to express his musical creativity.

Departure of Beckett

After Beckett left for the Army, Buckley was free to develop his own individual style, without the literary restraints of before. Uneducated both vocally and instrumentally in the finer aspects of melody and lyric structure, the quality of the tracks he produced demonstrate the natural talent he possessed.

He described the jazz/blues-rock that he was associated with at the time as "White thievery and an emotional sham." With this opinion strongly set, he rebelled against what was commercial, and persevered on a course of development that alienated many of his fans. 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.

All That Jazz

In 1968, Buckley recorded the jazzy Happy Sad, which was released the following year, and alienated a large portion of his prior audience. Dissatisfied with playing the same old material continuously, and disenchanted with the music business that he felt was restraining him from producing new material, he began to weave in new songs into his performances, featuring an increasingly minimalist sound from his heavily orchestrated first two albums, and introducing a vibraphone player into his band. However, this attempted rejuvenation was a failure; becoming largely based on improvisation, his performances were less accessible to the audiences who saw him as a folk-rock poster boy. However, despite the relative criticisms that his performances were to receive, Happy Sad became Tim's highest charting album ever, peaking at #81.


During 1969, Buckley began to write and record material for three different albums: Lorca, Blue Afternoon, and Starsailor. Inspired after hearing 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 utilize his voice's impressive range. According to guitarist Lee Underwood, Buckley knew that Lorca had little to no chance in the commercial market, and due to his old friend Herb Cohen starting up a new label venture with Frank Zappa, Straight Records, he wanted to provide an album of older material that was a step back from his current direction, but one that would have a better shot at making a dent in the public's minds. Selecting eight songs that had yet to be recorded, these tracks evolved into the sessions for the forgotten classic Blue Afternoon, an album that was quite similar to Happy Sad in style. Underwood himself contradicts this with a 1977 article he wrote for Down Beat Magazine chronicling Buckley's career - he states that Buckley's heart was not into the Blue Afternoon performances and that the album was a perfunctory response to please his business people.

Neither album sold well, with the near-simultaneous release of each seemingly "cancelling out" the other. Lorca was viewed as a failure by many fans who, shocked by its completely different style, found the vocal gymnastics too abstract and far removed from his previous folk-rock rooted albums; while Blue Afternoon was seen by some as uninteresting and tepid - one critic went as far as to say that the album "wasn't even good sulking music." Blue Afternoon was the last Tim Buckley 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.


Vocally and instrumentally haunting, the album was unlike much else at the time. The textures were done in a free jazz style, but over that, Tim's most extreme grunting and wailing vocals to date. At times his voice sounds disturbed and depressed. Different from his first three albums, this personal album shared the same response as Lorca. Impervious to Buckley's avant-garde style, few of his fan base were aroused, with the majority disliking it. It included the more accessible "Song to the Siren", later covered on record by both This Mortal Coil and Robert Plant.

After the failure of Starsailor, Buckley's live performances degraded to insincere chores and he eventually ended up unsellable. Unable to produce his own music and almost completely broke, he turned to alcohol and drug binges. He also looked to become an actor, with the unreleased low-budget group therapy drama Why? from 1971 being the only film completed (it was actually shot on the new technology of videotape), after several abortive meetings with Hollywood producers. The film is a 3 minute short and also features the first recorded performance of O.J. Simpson.

"Bye Bye Baby"

Two years later, with his finances depleting and craving for recognition ripe, he released three albums which combined rock with a soul/funk direction - Greetings from L.A., Sefronia and Look at the Fool. These albums failed to become a commercial success. Fundamentally Tim was unhappy with the systematic and shallow R&B structure of the lyrics and music, despite being a fan of the genre. His distaste with bowing to commercial pressures from his manager Herb Cohen's DiscReet Records soon left him without a recording contract.


On June 28, 1975, Buckley completed the last show of a tour in Dallas, Texas, playing to a sold-out venue with 1,800 people in attendance. Buckley celebrated the culmination of the tour with a weekend of drinking with his band and friends, as was his normal routine. On June 29, 1975, after a spirited evening, in both the metaphorical and alcoholic sense, Buckley decided to accompany long-time friend Richard Keeling back to his house in the hope of obtaining some heroin. After spending an hour or so at the house, Buckley, in his inebriated state, walked in on Keeling in flagrante delicto, causing an argument between the two. Keeling, with the aim of placating him, handed Buckley a large dose of heroin and challenged him to "Go ahead, take it all". Given Buckley's contrary and rebellious nature, he duly snorted all the drug laid out for him.

Following this, Buckley was in such a bad condition that friends chose to take him home rather than leave him to his own devices. Upon his return home, his wife Judy, seeing his inebriated state, laid him down on a pillow on their living room floor and proceeded to question his friends as to what had happened. A while later, Judy decided to move Buckley into bed, hoping he would recuperate by the morning. However, when she later returned to check on him, 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.

Having diligently controlled his drug habit while on the road, his tolerance was lowered, and the combination of the drugs he took mixed with the amount of alcohol he had consumed throughout the day was too much. The coroner's report by Dr. Joseph H. Choi stated that he died at 9:42pm, June 29, 1975, from "acute heroin/morphine and ethanol intoxication due to inhalation and ingestion of overdose". Ironically, it was the fact that Buckley had tempered his drug habit that meant his tolerance was reduced, thus causing him to misjudge the dose. Long time friend and lead guitarist, Lee Underwood, has stated that "on many previous occasions Buckley had ingested considerably more alcohol and drugs than this".


Buckley's untimely death came as a shock to many of his friends and relatives. The drug-related death was in stark contrast to how people had seen him at the time. The sound recorder at Buckley's last show noted "someone offered him a drag off of a joint and he refused. He didn't appear strung out in anyway. He was very together both physically and psychologically". Some friends were left dazed by the irreality of the situation, Buckley's old tour manager Bob Duffy stated: "It wasn't expected but it was like watching a movie, and that was its natural ending." Lee Underwood went on to write a biography about him, Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered, reflecting on his life and death and how he had been influenced by Buckley. However, some 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 situation of his death, police charged Richard Keeling with murder and distribution of heroin. However, evidence was insufficient and, at the hearing on August 14, 1975, at Santa Monica Municipal Court, Keeling pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Keeling was given the chance to avoid time in jail by doing voluntary work but he failed to keep to the bargain and was sentenced to 120 days in jail and 4 years probation.

Buckley died with little to his name other than the musical legacy of the nine albums he made. Buckley's only personal possessions were his guitar and amplifier and he died in debt. Friends and family, 200 in number, attended the funeral at the Wilshire Funeral Home in Santa Monica. Those in attendance included; manager Herb Cohen, guitarist Lee Underwood, lyricist Larry Beckett, Tim's mother Elaine and sister Katey, and Buckley's widow Judy and her son, Taylor. Buckley's son Jeff was notably not informed of the date of the funeral and instead sang at a Tim Buckley tribute show, held in New York in 1991, to pay his last respects. Reportedly, on the evening of June 29, 1975, a friend heard Buckley's last words: "Bye, bye, baby", perhaps alluding to a the line in Ray Charles' "Driftin' Blues".

Posthumous success

Buckley's premature death has not stinted his influence on musicians and neither reduced his critical appreciation nor popularity. There have been a number of posthumous releases, ranging from live albums and retrospectives to tributes and covers of his material. Jeff Buckley's success, and later demise, also stoked interest in Tim Buckley's catalogue. Much of his catalogue has been re-released since the mid-1990s onwards.


Studio albums

Live albums


Other releases


Tribute albums

References and notes

External links

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