Interviewed April 3, 1999
Larry Beckett co-wrote much of Tim Buckley's material with the singer-songwriter, particularly on his earliest albums. He was also a close lifelong friend of Buckley, and played in a band with Buckley before the vocalist got signed to Elektra Records as a solo artist. He talked at length about his association with Buckley in the following interview.
Actually, if we can back up a little bit, when I met Tim singing hootenannies in high school. He wasn't writing any songs, and I wasn't playing the drums. Nor was I writing any songs--I was writing poetry. So it was like everything was in seed, not yet to happen. And we became friends, and I would be hanging out with him listening to him run through his repertoire of stuff that he'd learned out of "Sing Out!" or off some old Johnny Cash album. And this was the time when the Beatles and Dylan were showing that you could write your own material instead of just relying on songwriters. It was kind of like a sea change, really. Because always in the old days, like Elvis would always sing--you'd have a specialist a songwriter and a specialist singer and a specialist musician. Then in the sixties, everything --they found that they could fuse everything somehow. It gained some authenticity and maybe lose a little bit of skill by writing their own songs and then singing them. Because that was in the air, and I had the idea of writing lyrics, I suggested to him that he start writing his own material. And he said okay. This would be late '64.
Then we formed a band after we'd written a number of songs, and started playing little crazy gigs that usually Fielder would line up. Parties and high schools, proms, crazy things like that.
The whole thing was centered around Tim' s voice. He had an amazing, brilliant, soaring, powerful, captivating tenor voice. He was an absolute natural as a singer and a musician. It wouldn't have mattered what context you had landed him in, what time in the history of the world, or what space. The same thing would have happened. They would have said, god, that guy can sing! We would be writing our sort of like weak pop songs, and he would stand up and start singing them, and then everybody would go "oh my God!" The same thing they said when he was singing folk songs by himself, solo acoustic. So it really didn't make any difference. It was the sound of his voice. It certainly, at that stage, certainly wasn't my lyrics at all. Or--he would be writing--I have a tape, actually, of that band, the Bohemians, of twelve songs. A few hard rockers, and I never knew where he came up with that kind of sound. And then some actually original, pretty, melodic pop ballads. But then when he would start to sing them, the sound was so gorgeous that you really didn't--it transcended all of the other limitations.
[I make] a tape for various people like you of things he used to sing. And that would include "The Water Is Wide" in Pete Seeger's version, "Big River" in Johnny Cash's version, "One for My Baby" in Frank Sinatra's version. And "Quit Your Lowdown Ways," which I think he learned out of "Sing Out," since Dylan's bootleg version hadn't surfaced yet. Or "To Sing For You" by Donovan, or "The Dolphins" by Fred Neil, or "Green Rocky Road" by Tim Hardin. All those songs--or "Geordie" by Joan Baez. He was totally eclectic, totally accepting of every kind of music. He had no absolutely aesthetic devotion or fixation on rock'n'roll or folk music or folk-rock or anything like that. And as a matter of fact, in the early gigs, he would often stop after like a 15-minute extended raunchy blues and then sing "One for My Baby," to everyone's total astonishment. And his voice, once again, was so beautiful, so convincing, that it didn't really matter.
Tim claimed sometimes that he played Roger McGuinn's parts on early Byrds records, which was obviously untrue. What motivated him to say that?
It never happened, and he kind of played pretty fast and loose with the truth. All through those early years, claimed to have slept with lots of women where it never happened. Claimed to have done things in music that never existed. And he had some kind of deep-down inadequacy that he was making up for with language. I can see at this distance--at that point in time, it was hard to tell what was true and what was false. But after a while, it became sorted out.
You had to look at the context, too. He might have not respected the interviewer and then told them a tale just to demean them, things like that.
What did that six-song demo for Elektra sound like?
I thought there were four. I can only remember four, but it could be six. It's a shame, you know, the circumstances of that were really strange in that we had never really played in an actual recording studio in downtown Hollywood studio or anything. They put up all these baffles and things so that they could not have leakage from the different mikes. So we couldn't see each other. And we protested, but it was to no avail. So everybody missed their cues, the tempos were all totally screwed up, and the band sounded absolutely dismal. Of course, Tim sounded great, as always. And they hired him, not the group. To my recollection, it wasn't a demo for Elektra, it was just a demo that Herbie [Cohen, manager] was going to shop around. And Elektra was like the second person he took it to.
[Jac Holzman] understood immediately where Tim was coming from. His true worth. I only remember one--I think "She Is" was one of the ones we did that session, now that I think about it. Another one--none of the others that I know of wound up on the first album.
We were just amateur musicians, really. [Bassist] Fielder was wanting to be a professional, and had a bunch of experience. Tim had his own charisma and his own qualities. And then [guitarist] Brian and I were just kind of like doing our best to be creative, which I believe we were. So we were pretty idiosyncratic-sounding. I would do things on drumming, I would intentionally lose the beat and then regain it later in the song as just a little something different in pop music, you know. But everybody resented it (laughs). The sound on the first album is much more polished, finished, than our amateurish efforts. Actually, the songwriting quality is a lot higher.
We were growing really, really fast together as songwriters and went from these kind of cheapish pop ballads to rather poetic expression, and about that time that was when the first album hit. I think that the first album weighs over the early demo stuff. I've got the demo tape of the Bohemians, and I've got acetates of demos for Goodbye and Hello and stuff.
How did the backup musicians change between the demo and the first album?
He [Herbie Cohen] put it to us as that, bands were, in that year, that bands were not the coming thing, but that single artists were. But I think this was just something he said to let us off easy, somehow. Tim was clearly about ten times more talented at what he did than what any of us at were at what we did, so it wasn't unfair. But it came as a shock to the system, for the band to suddenly not exist anymore. But then Brian Hartzler did play on "Song Slowly Sung," so you have three of the four original members. And of course, I was in the studio every minute of every session. There wasn't really a lot of production. They had Paul Rothchild. Jac Holzman would only come in for a piece of cake at the end. And Paul Rothchild would just sit there and say, well, what do you guys wanna do? And Tim would say, well, I want a cellist to play one note for the entire song, you know.
Rothchild was very receptive to anything that I had to say about, was that a good take? Does that sound like Tim's best shot, or what all? Besides listening to Tim, of course. So I was there in spirit, if not on drums. [Don] Randi's the pianist. Van Dyke Parks was playing harpsichord. I had, quite frankly, written some brilliant liner notes for the first album. Some of my best prose poetry, which they looked at and thought about, and then put in the "incredibly thin wire" junk. And never told us about it till it came out (laughs). It was kind of disappointing.
What were the differences between the songs Tim recorded that you co-wrote with him, and the ones you wrote on your own, on those early albums?
Well, mine are more literary, and use more literary devices. His are and even after that persisted in being personal sort of surrealistic statements of his own love life. It forms a nice balance, actually, when we have albums with both of our things on it.
Never mind the stupid-ass six-song demo. What happened after Tim signed with Elektra is that Herbie took us into Valentine Studios in the Woodland Hills with an engineer and Jim Fielder on acoustic bass and Tim on acoustic guitar, and Herb's instructions were, sing every single song you guys have written. It took us two hours. I was there making sure that he had the lyrics right to everything. He did magnificent performances. If this tape is ever found, and Herb had it, and probably still has it in his vast archive, but it still has not been discovered yet. Anyway, much of that material is as good as anything that he or I ever did since. And is easily as good as anything on the first two albums. And also, it has a more timeless quality in that it's just acoustic guitar and bass, so it's not like, it doesn't have that sort of antiquated arrangement sound that things get. Anyway, that's a digression.
One of those songs on the first album, "Understand Your Man," has a much more routine mid-1960s rock sound than the other songs on the LP.
We had come up with eleven songs that we thought were the best for the album, but they wanted one more. And so Tim, basically in the studio and totally off the cuff, took the title of a Johnny Cash song, "Understand Your Man." And improvised this kind of cheesy blues, and that was the album finisher. My jaw was dropping...I never have liked it. So if it sounds a little undernourished, it is.
You were very prolific songwriters at that point.
Very prolific. When we first started to hit it, we just were writing up a storm. Every single song that we ever wrote together, I wrote the words first, except for "Hallucinations." The somewhat mystical ideas behind "Song of the Magician" were sort of in the air in the sixties. It's about all I can tell you about it's [that song's] genesis. It doesn't have any special reference to anything in real life. But Buckley instantly liked it when he saw the lyrics, and instantly wrote the beautiful melody that he did.
Jerry Yester said there was an unreleased single around 1967.
The A-side was "Once Upon a Time," the B-side was "Lady, Give Me Your Key." "Key" was slang for a certain amount of marijuana in those days. That actually was recorded after Goodbye and Hello, to my memory, separate from the sessions. Rhino is trying to dig up the tapes from Elektra. They wanted a single, and they didn't think that anything on the album was a single. So they said, can you guys write a single? Of course, as always, we said yeah. So then Tim and I went to my apartment in Venice, and listened to rock'n'roll FM radio for like 24 hours straight. And then, at the end, we said okay, what have we heard here? We finally decided that most pop songs were like little fairytales, really. So if we wanted to write a good single, it should be a fairytale. This is our deductive reasoning (laughs).
So then I wrote the words. I think he actually helped a little bit with the lyrics [with] "Once Upon a Time." And then, we thought, okay, now that's your Top 40 stuff. But what about the stuff that everybody actually listens to, the hip people? Well, what they really like are songs that refer to, that use images that could refer to sex, or could refer to drugs, but actually can't be banned because they're all metaphorical. So couldn't we write a song that was along those lines? As the B-side, sort of the FM side of the single? And that resulted in "Lady Give Me Your Key." So both of 'em are sort of like parodies, almost, of mid-sixties procedures in songwriting. What happened was that "Once Upon a Time," including a sort of Beatlesque freakout section in the instrumental part with all kinds of weird overdubs--it was just stupid. It sounded stupid when it was all done.
On the other hand, "Lady Give Me Your Key," although it started out as this exercise in mimicking sixties songwriting maneuvers, it turned both in my writing and in Tim's writing and singing, into this really beautiful, incredibly haunting poetic piece. One of the best things we ever did, as a matter of fact. It had this sort of damned beginning, but a glorious end. And, of course, Elektra listened to both of them and said, "nah! Never mind. Not going to put out a single."
So they sit in the vaults. Jerry [Yester] said they never throw anything out. So they are probably still there, and we're hoping that Rhino can dig 'em out. At least "Lady Give Me Your Key."
How did you approach "Goodbye and Hello" differently than the first album?
We were really completely new. The fact that it was actually happening, that Tim's voice was being recorded and then put out on records that were sold around the country...this was a whole completely new experience to us. We didn't really think about it so much. We didn't really care about fame or fortune or hitting #1 anything or anything like that that you're supposed to care about. But the fact that it was there, the fact that he had this contract there, sort of emboldened us to proceed along the lines that we were already growing in. And Elektra was really good about that. All aesthetic control was handed over to the artist, which was kind of rare in those days. They would have little farms up in Northern California, where you could go and just be for three months. Not that we ever did that...sort of [let] people grow and blossom and all this stuff, and not care too much about the bottom line. We took heart from the fact that we actually had an album under our belt to be even more adventurous in our songwriting and production.
On "Goodbye and Hello," what was behind the song "No Man Can Find the War"?
The whole country was obsessed, and especially our idealistic generation that was really honestly against war, and then having it thrust on us. The sound at the beginning of the track is an atomic blast played backwards. I think that the imagery has a kind of quick-cut quality, like you would see on network TV portrayals of the war. But my idea behind it was that everybody always thinks when they're in a war...like, even now! Are we going to beat Belgrade down or not? But that's not the real war. The real war is, where does this stuff come from? Where do these people come from that can treat other people so? That's the real war, inside, that nobody even addresses. They never talk about it on the network news. All they talk about is how many people were killed on each side, and those numbers are usually falsified anyway. So it was part of my frustration that now, and back then, that people are "end the war and cure the symptom," and the disease flourishes.
What about "Hallucinations"?
And that one, what happened was, he had like the world's weirdest, shittiest record collection. He would pick things up and then listen to them and then just give them to somebody else. It was always astonishing to me that somebody that was in music could be so little an archivist of anything. One record I saw him with at some party was like this Moroccan street music. He was saying, "oh yeah, it's really fantastic." He went away, listened to this album, and then came back like three days later and played me the melody of "Hallucinations." I could not believe my ears! So sophisticated was the time changes and the phrasing of the whole thing. So then I wrote words to that about a real-life love affair that I had had for the last two years. So I think that song actually...and as a matter of fact, there's a funny thing...that song is, for me, a triumph for us. It really retains its freshness.
One interesting thing about it is, if you listen to "Political World" on Dylan's "Oh Mercy," listen to the first 30 seconds of that, and then listen to the first 30 seconds of "Hallucinations." And tell me if Bob doesn't listen to Tim. It's the same thing! (laughs)
Jerry Yester told me the poem on the inside cover is an acrostic, where if you take the first letter of each line, it spells "I Love Tracy."
Tracy is the lost girl in "Hallucinations."
Do you know anything about the unreleased stuff between the second and third albums?
That was the exact time that I went into the Army under the draft. So I had no knowledge of these sessions until last month. The latest song that we did before we stopped collaborating was what both he and I independently concluded many years later was the best thing he or I had ever done, and that was "Song to a Siren," and he had did two versions of that on this tape. So it's like a trial run for Happy Sad, but it certainly isn't Jerry Yester. Nobody's been able to ID the producer yet, although his voice is on the tape.
It has a few unreleased songs. It has "Sing a Song for You," but it also studio versions of "Hi-Lily Hi-Lily Hi-Lo" and "Wayfaring Stranger," and it has three versions of "Love From Room 109." And it has the original version of "Buzzin' Fly," which would be great. Some new song called "Dinang," which I have no knowledge of. And then "Happy Time," "Tastier Blues"(?), and like that.
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