A similar seismic moment in my life as a lover of music came fifteen or so years later, the first time I heard Spanish Key by Miles Davis. And in between these milestones was the purchase of Greetings From L.A., the first Tim Buckley album I was to own, the high watermark of his “sex-funk” period.
As with most folk of my generation who became fans of Tim Buckley, I made that first buy on the basis that he was father of Jeff, that angelic-voiced purveyor of sincerity we had all ran to in new opposition to the aforementioned Manchester-centric ‘ladness’. Time, patience, and perseverance would show that Tim was not only a superior vocalist, but a radically more subtle and skilful musical artist than his famous son.
Much like Screamadelica was for the 13-year-old me, Greetings From L.A. was not of immediate appeal to the university fresher version. Although the instrumentation was of obvious quality, the lyrics baffled and embarrassed (the memory of hoping my mam wouldn’t decipher that Buckley was shouting ‘That big old girl, doin' the monkey rub / down between the sheets’ while she was innocently dusting in my bedroom), and above all, I could make no sense of those sections where the vocals spiralled off into what, to me, sounded like the noises made by a baboon falling from a tree. Who sanctioned and recorded this? This guy just wasn’t taking music seriously at all. I was offended. Simon Fowler of Ocean Colour Scene would never treat his fans like that, blabbering a load of nonsensical gibberish in the studio. Bizarre.
But … it did sound good, if you kept on listening. There was something there, in amongst his verbal madness and the daft overblown ‘sexy’ front. I listened. It was the sound of a singer having fun. Not being fully focused on conveying sincerity, not feigning emotion like so many contemporary pop/rock artists, and not at all giving the impression of someone dutifully grinding out a number or two to fulfill record company obligations, and safeguard the popstar lifestyle for another album or three. Buckley evidently did not care for any of this, he wanted the recording to capture the sense that for him, music was playful, fun, that it was pure expression, as far from pumping-out-some-chords-to-get-to-the-anthemic-chorus style of music as I could grasp. An appreciation of this was my way in.
Voice as instrument is a powerful quality throughout all of Buckley’s music, to a greater or lesser degree depending on period and style – sometimes his commitment to what he called “vocal gymnastics” overpowers the song (‘Star Sailor’ from the album of the same time), whereas sometimes the voice becomes integrated into the instrumentation and contributes as a saxophone interlude or additional guitar would (‘Devil Eyes’ from Greetings), and often the song is simply a musical vehicle to showcase the incredible range, power, and expressiveness of a truly gifted singer (‘Nobody Walkin’ from Lorca). Getting further acquainted with his back catalogue and gaining a greater appreciation for the concept of ‘voice as instrument’, I came to see that so much of the best music was purely about the sound(s), while what I had always thought was the true value, the lyrics, was largely unimportant.
As somewhat of a Beatles fan, inevitably I was drawn to explore the musicians that they (especially John) had acknowledged as influences, and I soon found that if ever someone embodied the ‘voice as instrument’ concept, unquestionably it was one of John’s great heroes, Little Richard. Of course the lyrical content of Long Tall Sally, Keep A Knockin, or Lucille doesn’t really matter a jot. The value of this music, its thrill and its joy, over and above the beautiful, rhythmic instrumentation of the backing band, is the stunning, transcendent, incredible energy-source of a voice and personality that explodes from the speakers and surrounds you, till the piece chimes its last beat and releases you from its grip.
I later read that Little Richard featured prominently in a list of those artists that Buckley saw as his own major influences, so you wonder if this was a factor in his transition too, in terms of coming to think of the voice primarily as a sound, rather than as a means of transmitting pre-conceived, intelligible lyrics.
However, it was musicians from entirely different genres that Buckley cited when discussing his move toward a different mode of expression. For him, the ‘voice as instrument’ concept was intertwined with his rapidly eroding belief in the value of what was/is considered to be conventionally ‘good songwriting’, as explained in this selected excerpt from an interview conducted in 1972 by Steve Turner and published with the title, ‘Talking In Tongues’:
It’s clear that Tim Buckley thought deeply about the aesthetic value of music, vocals, and lyrical content, although as I’ll discuss shortly, he did return to a quite different form of lyricism in the latter-half of his career.
Lyrics are of course a fascinating subject for someone with a keen interest in prose fiction. Going back again to when I was a much younger person at school, wearing blue-tinted specs, whistling Instant Karma and hoping somebody recognized it, worshipping Lennon, I couldn’t see that the heavy ‘literalness’ of John’s Imagine and Working-Class Hero is quite obviously song-writing at one of its lowest possible levels…
His mid-late career never lapses into that over-earnest, reductive political, and brutally obvious type of lyricism, and he also manages to avoid that other horror of modern songwriting – those songs that are a procession of modal verbs and prepositions, which communicate vaguely some very hackneyed message about love, but actually say nothing whatsoever of any narrative direction, clarity, originality, truth, or substance (see the vast majority of the most popular bands active in the 21st century – Coldplay, the Arcade Fire, and so on).
In the main, Buckley’s post-Blue Afternoon (1969) albums often feature lyrics that are either deliberately absurd (Buckley in surreal mode in ‘Peanut Man’ (1973): “You know everybody wants to get a peanut butter heart”), scornful, or that are merely raunchy vehicles for vocal exercises and meandering instrumentation.
There are also junctures when, freed of Larry Beckett’s commitment to the political causes of the day (Lee Underwood contrasted Beckett’s “socio-political” style of lyrics with Buckley’s, which he termed “emotional, human, and personal”), he manages to write some genuinely beautiful poetry, creating a vivid scene and casting a painful insight into the nature of love and human emotion. These are some lines from the song ‘Driftin’, which was included on the 1970 album, Lorca:
Late last night, as I dreamed in dizzy sunlight,
I thought I heard your bare feet up the stairs,
Just like a fool, just like a fool,
I've been drifting,
Like a dream out on the sea,
I've been drifting in between what used to be.
The album is named after the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and was a strident move into different territory – Beckett stating that the new songs were a conscious attempt to alienate fans, while Buckley explained the function of another song on the album as: “It has to hold you there and make you aware that someone is telling you something about himself in the dark” – something far more intimate and emotive than the earlier songs of protest could hope to be.
Buckley explained this approach further in a conversation with the journalist Michael Davis:
So I do songs on one-to-one relationships, and how you deal with your lifestyle, or how I deal with mine. That’s the thing that is truly a movable force, because you’re talkin’ about rudimentary things, the things we all live on.
The songs of this period often possess a clear narrative trajectory, but do so while crucially still managing to avoid the pitfalls earlier above (ie: heavy contrived literalism or vague bland insubstantiality). An example of this would be Greetings From L.A.’s glorious opener, ‘Move With Me’, which resembles a Bukowski poem set to beautiful funky backing music. With no introduction or set-up, the narrator throws himself into a situation with abandon:
I went down to the meat rack tavern,
And I found myself a big ol' healthy girl,
Now she was drinkin' alone,
Aw, what a waste of sin,
So I went on over to sweet talk that girl,
Lord I moved on in.
The listener can certainly imagine what a “big ol’ healthy girl” who spends her time in the “meat rack tavern” is like, and the song’s characterized narrator reveals more of himself as the piece progresses:
Well, I don't care if you tell me you're married,
‘Cause I can be your man when your husband ain't home,
Now if he should walk in, you just tell him I'm your houseboy,
And that you just can't stand to sleep here alone ... no more …
He will gladly accept the role of concubine, and the subservient position of houseboy, as evidently to this speaker, the pleasure of female company is worth any indignity. It is a brief tale of sex, humour, the ego – all the feeling and flow of Bukowski at his lightest and most honest.
Buckley showcases his ability to set a story in music in a way not many other artists can; at least, not without first sacrificing the form of the song and its musical flow for the need to impart the story (as in the longer, original, and otherwise wondrous ‘Livin in the City’ by Stevie Wonder, which stops to effectively explain what has happened). He also avoids having this as a song that trundles along without much regard for musicality, like a reading performed to a minimalist backing-track (Johnny Cash’s admittedly great but sparse ‘A Boy Named Sue’). A piece like ‘Move With Me’ is simultaneously both a short-story and a song, more in tune with the Geto Boys’ hip-hop epic from 1991, ‘Mind Playin Tricks On Me’, or the urgent repetitious beat of ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ (both the Dylan original and Simone cover are incredible), where the lyrics and the music complement each other so perfectly.
Of course it should be acknowledged that those aforementioned early-mid career Buckley albums, as has been indicated, do contain many very conventional rock/pop/folk songs, where his voice was not being used primarily as an instrument, and where the lyrics were indeed expressed in one of the two more ham-fisted styles I have highlighted. In spite of these objections, Buckley’s very natural talents as a vocalist allied to the melodic structures of many of the less politically-oriented songs still ensure the albums soar and pulsate with beauty at points – ‘I Can’t See You’, the opening track on the 1966 debut Tim Buckley, ‘Buzzin Fly’ from Happy Sad (1969), and one of my personal favourite songs (especially when played LOUD): ‘I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain’ from Goodbye and Hello (1967).
There is a last method of Buckley’s reaction against pre-conceived, overly structured music that I’d like to mention; his very conscious and determined shift away from the usual approach to both recording tracks and to playing live.
This is described by Lee Underwood, Buckley’s guitarist, in the biogrpahy, Blue Melody:
He didn’t want preconceived mind-music, rehearsed art, static museum pieces. He wanted expression-music, living emotion in sound. That meant a complete shift of creative gestalt for us musicians. On the one hand it made playing incredibly thrilling, challenging, exciting; on the other, it made things more difficult. For Tim it was easier – it was his music. But it placed additional weight on our shoulders: where were we going? We didn’t memorize anything, and there were no charts. What was next? Every time was the first time. How to react and respond? Sometimes the music worked in performance or on record, and sometimes it did not – but at least it was radiantly alive. It did not merely give the appearance of spontaneity. It truly was.
It's such a courageous, innovatory artistic position for a musician to take, and stands as the antithesis of the band who learn their hits by numbers and can churn out an identical performance on demand; music that has the feel of being manufactured, learned, and regurgitated, without flair or emotion, bereft of excitement or life.
Buckley himself said:
You gain a distinct sense of the freedom on songs such as ‘Driftin’ from Lorca or the extended live versions of ‘Hallucinations’ (Dream Letter, 1968) and ‘Nobody Walkin’ (Live at the Troubador, 1969) where the piece flows on longer than a faithful rock track should, disregarding conventional structure, the song wandering from its initial base and going off in another direction until gradually it comes to a close.
For many people, the mere mention of improvization in music brings to mind the aforementioned Miles Davis, and he was one of the artists referenced by Buckley while expounding on this subject:
But in rock, everything is rehearsed that nobody knows what to do. They say, ‘That’s a wrong note,’ when in fact you’re playing a kind of music that is spiritual… It’s spiritual, because when a man plays something, and you hear it, and you know him so well that you can follow it and take it someplace else, whether you’re singing – I regard myself as a horn – or playing on your axe, then it’s spiritual…
It has to come out of your heart. You can’t be just like the professional English musician, who comes over here, buys all the old blues records he can, learns all the licks, and makes a lot of money. You can hear the difference. I mean, they’re never gonna be B.B. King, so why try?
Improvisation, communication, intuition, heart – this is so closely in alignment with the sentiments expressed by many great literary and visual artists in interviews and essays that I’m aware of. Indeed, in the interview conducted with James Kelman on his novel How Late It Was, How Late for this very website, Kelman underlined the importance of this mindset for the prose artist:
It’s a fascinating thing to consider for those who love both literature and music – the parallels between the modes of creation in spite of the inherent differences in the mediums. Whereas Buckley identifies the importance of ‘communication’, Kelman stresses this communion between the writer and the character – of ‘allowing the character to enter properly, within his own situation’. The principles here are the same, in both art-forms it is critical to not think too far ahead, not plan too rigorously, to believe in following your intuition, to not impose or dominate within the work, while listening to and leaving space for the expression of others, and having the necessary trust in your own sensibility to lead you in that artistic moment.
When music, or literature, is produced via other, more calculated means, I agree with Buckley that you can undouubtedly ‘hear the difference’. It is what separates the great artists from the many, many triers and mediocrities.