Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tim Buckley: L.A.'s Folk/Avante Garde/ Jazz Imprvisational Genius of the 60s

Tim Buckley began his career as a folk rock artist that nobody could have guessed would eventually surpass The Doors into being Elektra Records most experimental recording artist. Buckley was from L.A. like some of the other popular sixties bands at the time like Love and The Doors. His beautiful baroque folk voice was already regarded as a real gift by rock critics when his 1966 debut album was released when Buckley was just nineteen years old. The band Buckley put together was extemely talented with the likes of Lee Underwood playing a fluid lead guitar, that shimmered with every solo. Jack Nitzshe who worked also with Neil Young was the arranger of Buckley 's music. Van Dyke Parks added a gentle harpsicord piano which added more to the simple folk rock Buckley's band was recording. Despite the fact Buckley was considered to be folk rock in his early days, it can't be mistaken that the structure of his music echoed jazz, and classical music as a primary influence. With folk, jazz, and classical combined, the effect was a quasi psychedelic mystery very similar instrumentally to Love's album Forever Changes, also released by Elektra Records around the same time. It was apparent it was not only Buckley's voice which was a huge talent in his band, but also his poetic lyrics that were written about reflections of altered states of mind. The first song on the album "I Can't See You" clearly demonstrates this, speaking of a lover using different months of the seasons to break up the context of each verse. The lyrics were written by Larry Beckett, a chilhood friend of Tim's who knew just how to write the perfect songs to the complex innovative rhythms Tim Buckley and Lee Underwood were creating. "I Can't See You" begins with Buckley singing in a mystical voice,

"Summer princess, midnight maiden when I first saw you I just breathed. Into your smile my past went fadin'. Inside your voice, my mind was sheathed. In lost lagoon, we waited, wadin'
along the streets we went paradin', never looking back to where we'd been. "

The second verse is just as impressive with the sweeping poetic lyrics..."Autumn temptress, sundown angel. Inside your blood you aren't so young. I came to you a loving vandal. And heard your heart and touched your tongue. Day became a lighted candle. Sky fell down beneath your sandal. In your eye I began to spin."

A young 19-year old Tim Buckley's first LP

"She Is" is perhaps the best example of a Buckley showing his incredible ability to hold a tune in a mysterious poetic manner that flowed so beautifully as his voice went deep then high. At the time one couldn't help but notice this nineteen year old genius; and most people thought Tim Buckley was destined for super-stardom as The Byrds and The Doors had been, but they were wrong. As Richie Unterberger writes in his book about 1960s folk rock Eight Miles High, "Elektra's most adventurous singer songwriter of the late 60s, Tim Buckley, had by the end of his tenure with the label trampolined outside the boundaries not just of folk rock, but of anything that could be considered reasonably accessible popular music. At the outset, though, he was Southern California's folk rock's great teenage hope."

Nobody knew at the time after Tim Buckley's debut LP was released that Buckley had his own creative ambitions outside of folk, as he went into a more psychedelic mode on his follow up album 1967s Goodbye and Hello, which peaked at a low #171. Critics were still determining that Buckley was soon destined to be more famous in the years to come. The psychedelic feel on Goodbye and Hello is especially apparent with the title track that ran over eight minutes long and featured several layers of musical transition from folk, to jazz, to an all out operatic feel. It was a bit like The Doors "Soft Parade," also with an ongoing circus feel to it with the lyrics and the trumpets going in the middle of the song. The best parts of the song are when it's orchestration gets quiet and Buckley is reflective about wanting to live under juniper trees, sky upon gray, serenely, and see the day gracefully growing.

Tim Buckley performing live at the Newport Festival 1968

There was one other standout folk rock song that Tim Buckley wrote on Goodbye and Hello that he would have a tough time surpassing in creativeness in his fourthcoming albums. The best song on the album. The song was "Once I Was," a sort of war song but also possibly autobiographical as it deals with the loss in a relationship which was happening to Buckley at the time with his wife Mary Guibert. His son Jeff Buckley (a future rock n' roll legend) who was just an infant when he was separated from Tim, living with his mother and never seeing him again. The song begins quite well in a folky Buckley fashiion but it isn't until the chorus when the song picks up and Buckley almost wails in a high voice, "And sometimes I wonder will you remember me? As writer Richie Unterberger writes about Tim Buckley, " His multi octave voice was capable of not just astonishing power, but great emotional expresiveness, swooping from sorrowful tenderness to anguished wailing." In the last part of "Once I Was," Buckley sings,

"And though you have forgotten all of our rubbish dreams. I find myself searching through the ashes of our ruins. For the days when we smiled and the hours that ran wild. With the magic of our eyes. And the silence of our words. And sometimes I wonder will you remember me." Buckley sings these lines with his two octave-counter tenor voice that sounds so beautiful it sweeps you into another dimension.

An early Tim Buckley photo

Another solid anti war folk ballad on Goodbye and Hello "No Man Can Find The War," which was a great protest of the Vietnam war going on at the time. The song was beautiful but not decorative or an embelishment of any sort, instead it was a serious claim to show that more young poet songwriters other than Dylan could write powerful anti-war songs. Larry Beckett also explains the subtle meanings behind the lines like "Is the war inside your mind?" In Unterberger's Eight Miles High, "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 adresses. 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."

The following song on Goodbye On Hello is "Pleasant Street," one of the most psyhedeliclly loud and complex songs Buckley ever wrote. The energy in the song is unbeatable as it starts with Buckley's high soft vocals he used early in his recordings. "Pleasant Street" builds up to Buckley screaming in a falsetto voice, "There are so many people walking round. I can't hessitate and I can't wait on Pleasant Street." Overall it may be the best song on the album as it really captures your heart and soul and can feel the overall unsure emotion in every aspect of Buckley's voice.

"Halucinations," was another powerful song tinkering with elements of jazz and light psychedelia.Turned on young people began realizing Buckley's music was made on drugs and for people who use them, as the experimental fingerpicking by Lee Underwood along with Buckley's evocative and rambling lyrics were a sign that Buckley music was becoming much more oblique in structure and skeletal when it came to writing the deepply poetic lyrics that had been penned by his childhood buddie Larry Beckett. Beckett was still writing some pretty powerful material off Goodbye and Hello though and overall the album was a finer effort than Buckley's debut when you add in the fact the music itself sounded better.

With other songs off Goodbye and Hello like "Morning Glory," that sounded more jazzy and operatic than Buckley's usual folk sound his fans had bought into with the first album. Buckley did puzzle a few listeners but nothing compared to what was to come. After all it was the era of psychedelia and bands were known to be shifting gears by the second so it wasn't a surprise that Buckley wasn't exactly straight folk just like Bob Dylan was now more country than folk himself at that space in time during the late 60s. Buckley though would shift gears into a totally different realm outside the realm of psychedelica with his next album Happy Sad which was very jazzy and heavily influenced by Miles Davis, and Fred Neil especially in the best songs off the record like "Strange Feelin" and "Dream Letter,". The story behind the improvisational feel to "Strange Feelin," goes according to Mojo writer Martin Aston, that "one day Buckley walked into a band rehearsal to hear his bandmates, vibraphonist David Friedman and acoustic bassist Johnny Miller playing Miles Davis's "All Blues," and the resulting jam eventually morphed into "Strange Feelin." Lee Underwood recalls to Aston that one day he and Buckley were tripping on LSD and wrote "Buzzin Fly" together, another standout song off Happy Sad that as Aston writes, "glided as much as "Strange Feelin" oozed with emotion." With lines in "Buzzin Fly" like "Just like a buzzin fly coming into your life. I float away like honey in the sun. But darling now I remember how the sun shone down..You're the one I talk about, you're the one I think about everywhere I go. But sometimes in the morning I miss you so. That's how I know I found the home." This would not be the last time Buckley spoke of finding some sort of home in his songs as he does the same in the more folky upbeat "Happy Time," which was to appear on his following album Blue Afternoon but had actually been intended to be released on Happy Sad but never made the cut.

In the same Mojo issue there is a Buckley quote he made at the end of 1968 where he states, "I can see where I'm heading and it will probably be further and further from what people expect from me." It is funny to think that while most of Buckley's folk rock peers like Dylan and The Byrds were moving from folk to country, while Buckley was being swept away by modern jazz. Buckley had already moved away from what was considered naive folk on his 1966 debut album into convoluted and complex lyrics on the title track of Goodbye and Hello that were written by Larry Beckett. Now with Happy Sad, the anti-war sentiment that had been aparant in several of the songs off Goodbye and Hello was gone, as was Beckett who had ironically departed Buckley's inner fold to join the army.

Tim Buckley's Happy Sad represented the
shift in Buckley's music from romantic folk poet
to experimental jazz artiste

On Happy Sad Buckley embraced the jazz of not only Miles Davis but other greats like Thelonius Monk, Leon Thomas and Charles Mingus to create a improvisational jazz sound that would sometimes go on without a clear rhythms, sounding like slow lost melodies for minutes at a time in such songs as extended opus in the middle of the record "Love From Room 109 At The Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway)." The composition has to be one of the most hauntingly pretty pieces of music that has ever been recorded not by just Buckley but by any musician in genearal...sounding like a man that had found temporary solace somewhere beautiful, but deep down was down and out awaiting his tragic end. As Aston writes, "Love From Room 109 At The Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway) epitomises Happy Sad's paradox- the blissed out mood feels like an endless Californian summer but also like a sad comedown after the drug high that was the 1960s. Buckley writes some of his most beautiful, loving, yet painfuly powerful lyrics in the song,

"Ah, you made the sunshine in the city. Oh, you warmed my heart. You changed an old man filled with pity back to a child again. Ah now, mama, can't you see what you done. So tell me darlin' if the feeling's wrong don't waste another day. Lord, the saddest thing I've ever known
was to watch it die away."

As Aston goes on to write in Mojo, "Buckley still played the wounded hobo minstrel but he never sounded this daringly blue, lonesome, even in love, especially on "Dream Letter," (an apology to ex wife Mary Guibert and his young son Jeff for abandoning them.)" There were only six songs off of Happy Sad but they all ran over five minutes except for the last song on the album "Sing A Song For You." Happy Sad would still peak at Number 81 at the charts becoming Tim Buckley's biggest selling record, and while it didn't bring him lasting success, it does remain one of his true masterpieces. As Mojo writer Martin Aston writes "Happy Sad was all about space, elasticity between notes and calm. The lyrics were equally stripped back, with Larry Beckett out of the picture. Songs remained , but Happy Sad was almost unparraled in its desire to unend the easy listening comfort of the prevailing singer-songwriter trend of James Taylor and Corole King." Buckley was doing creative things with his music that nobody at the time took to notice but years later can be reflected on as innovating when he added on vibraphonist David Friedman to play at a concert at The Fillmore East. Now with Buckley's voive along with his twelve string acoustic guitar, backed by Underwood's guitar, Friedman's vibraphone, and a good bass, Buckley's band now resembled excactly what Friedman dubbed them which was, "The Modern Jazz Quartet of Folk. It was during this period that some of Buckley's live performances were recorded in London QEH in October 1968, and would eventually be released on a live album entitled Dream Letter.

Tim Buckley exloring the realms as an experimental jazz
artiste. His albums would only continue to get
stranger as the 1960s wore on into the 1970s.

The begining of 1969 was the most creative period in Tim Buckley's musical career. He began reccording three different albums Blue Afternoon, Lorca, and Starsailor the latter two were so avante garde and experimental that it could even be outside the realm of jazz or anything else that had ever been released in music. Buckley was given free creative control still to record his next album as Elektra assumed his success would only continue to grow as each of his first three albums had out charted the previous one. That was not the way Buckley rolled the dice though as he easily could have been that California folk rock poster boy many critics perceived he would eventually become if he had only been more consistent with the style of music he was releasing with each album. Instead as Unterberger writes on about Tim Buckley, "By the time fans had hooked into his latest album he was into something else entirely both live and in the studio. In this sense he recalled artists such as Miles Davis and David Bowie, who were so eager to look forward and change that they confused and even angered listeners who wanted more stylistic consistency." Unterberger goes on explain, "Buckley had a musical muse that had no boundries. Happy Sad peaked inside the top 100 but Buckley would never chart as high again as he began a string of releases that would lead him away from folk rock and alienate his fan base in popular music."

Blue Afternoon was the first Tim Buckley album to appear in 1969 and it was by far the most acessesible of anything to follow for quite some time. As wikipedia writes, "Buckley 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 mind. He recorded eight classic cuts of solid compositions on the record that sounded a bit similar to Happy Sad with a layed back jazzy feel, including the previously mentioned classic cut, "Blue Melody," which truly showcased Buckley's multi tenor voice more than any song he had previously recorded, which ranged several octaves. Singing "I was born a blue melody, a little song my mama sang to me. It was a blue melody, such a blue you've never seen. There aint no wealth that can buy my pride. There aint no pain that can cleanse my soul, just a blue melody sailing far away from me. One summer morning I was raised but I don't know. One summer morning I was left but I don't know."

Other standout cuts on Blue Afternoon had similar themes of depression and loneliness of a man without a woman in, "The Train," "So Lonely," "Chase The Blues Away," and "The River." "Happy Time," was the one really upbeat song on the album with Buckley sounding optimistic while singing, "It's a happy time inside my mind and now I'm coming home to stay." Despite the fact that Blue Afternoon is clearly a forgotten classic with lots of solid material, it has been stated by Lee Underwood that Buckley was truly unhappy recording Blue Afternoon and only did it for to please his fans and record label. Stil the lyrics and the songs in general off Blue Afternon have an incredible feel to them and all relate to each other as autobiographical lyrics Buckley was feeling at the time such as in the song "Lonely". Oh, I don't get no letters. Nobody calls. Nobody comes 'round here no more. No pretty ladies. Nor pretty boys. Nobody comes 'round my door no more .It's just lonely, yeah, Mama you don't know." It is stunning to think this record could have passed so many people by but when you think about what was going on at the time with Woodstock and the hippie era, Buckley was begining to fit into that category less and less. The best song off Blue Afternon was "Cafe," a slow haunting love song about a mysetrious lady a bit similar to Love From Room 109 At The Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway)". Buckley's vocals are slow with each word emphasised beautifully in a deep baratone voice.

"I was just a curly haired mountain boy on my way passing through. I heard a voice whisper good evening. I turned to a shadow and a saw her there. She had those sad china eyes that sang each time she smiled. But the sun it seemed to linger so long it deepened my love for her until she drew me near. Until she called me near. And then we waltzed to our heart beat. All around
the sea was swaying. The breeze was praying never to leave her alone. Alone.

The music gets very erie with the sounds and the combination with Buckley's deep mournful voice provide the listener with a picture of some dark mysterious place where two lovers encounter one another. The lyrics continue with Buckley describing his burning passion for this woman who at the start of the song is a mere shadow he sees in the dark..."Oh, the time just slipped on by. And with the time so did our love. Ah, her every move
Just like a fever just like a fever. Burnin' inside would not leave me."

Tim Buckley reaching the outer limits of vocal jazz
in the late 60s

Tim Buckley's released a second album titled Lorca around the same time as Blue Afternoon in 1969 on Frank Zappa's Straight Records. Lorca was by far the most experimental of anything Buckley had ever recorded. As states quite accurately about the album, "Buckley stunned and, to a rare degree, alienated fans with the dissonant, at times wearying, avant-garde exercises in vocal gymnastics that took up the entire first side of this LP. Side two was far more accessible, though Buckley's fusion of folk instrumentation with jazzy improvisation on extended compositions continued to take him further away from his folk-rock roots." "Lorca" the song itself began with Buckley chanting crazily into the microphone oooh-aah-oohh-aahhah, while the keyboards pounded eerily in the background. He began singing finally at nearly the two minute mark,"Let the sun sing in your smile. Let the wind hold your desire. Lend your womans voice run though your veigns. Let her be your blood don't feel ashamed." During this whole segmant the keyboards are pounding back and fourth and Buckley continues his wordless moaning and Underwood's accoustic guitar keeps a solid ryfthm. Buckley sounds more than just haunted in this song, he sounds like he's a true blues man who is possessed by demons when he moans, "You're just a man on death's highways. It's life you owe you're here to praise if. If love flows your way then be a river and when it dries just stand there and shiver." Overall the song Lorca was much more creatively innovating than anything Tim Buckley had ever recorded and as Ron Young points out about the songs flow, "With it's hypnotically descending rhythm pattern, the title track signals a conscious break from the past. Buckley weaves in and out of organ swells and shard-like piano stabs, creating a muscular vocal melody that demands attention. Of the remaining four songs on the album the best was "I Had A Talk With My Woman" a slower love song, with bongos keeping the beat sounding a bit like soft beach music. The song also proves Buckley could still write superb lyrics "Without her by my side she's just this memory that I hold around. She's this dream that I always hold to believe." Other cuts on Lorca like "Driftin" and "Anonymous Proposition" sounded like Buckley was in an all night jazz club with Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassady. The music veeres courses and beats and never really had a smooth flow for a long period. In "Anonymous Proposition" Buckley made a point to make his voice sound louder than the music in the background, as the vocals are the primary instrument as the stand up bass, brass instruments and soft keyboards played softly behind him. When you listen to a louder more sped up jazzy song like "Nobody Walkin," it is clear that Buckley was set on constant movement and experimentation in his music. He never wanted two of his songs to sound the same, and on Lorca they all sound completely different.

"Richie Unterberger writes an even more descriptive passage on describing how Lorca affected Buckley's musical career, "No longer was Buckley a romantic poet, he wa an experimental artiste who seemed bent on punishing himself and his fans with wordless shrieks, and jarringly dissonant music. Wordlossly contorting, screaming, and moaning sometimes quite cacaphonously, in this context Lorca was viewed by fans and critics not just as a shocking departure for Buckley but a downright bummer." It was quite unfortunate that people did not understand the creative boundries Tim Buckley was pushing with his music as he was simply offering a new twist on form with each album he put out.

The commercial failure of Lorca did not stop Tim Buckley from demonstrating his remarkable versatility as he released the album Starsailor in 1970, which he regarded as his true masterpiece. writes about the album, "With former Mother of Invention player Bunk Gardner augmenting Buckley's group on sax and alto flute, Buckley applies vocal gymnastics to a set of material that's as avant-garde in its songwriting as its execution. At his most anguished (which is often on this album), he sounds as if his liver is being torn out — slowly." Still there were a few Buckley songs like "Moulin Rouge," that sounded more like mainstream jazz in comparison to the all out hypnotic Lorca. Starsailor's songs weren't nearly as long as the all out extended jams on Lorca either but that didn't make them similar at all to anything Buckley had done in the past with songs like "Healing Festival," feautring a loud Bunk Gardner saxaphone and Buckley chanting strangely words that are almost indispherable on top of it. Starsailor gets even stranger with the tile track as it opens with something that sounds straight out of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey with sheeps bah-iing and strange galaxy like sounds that sound like they are coming from an outer orbit or another planet entirely. The song almost sounds scary like it belongs in a sci-fi type horror film. Buckley's voice comes in and out in a drowning way fading in and out with the spacey sounds, and it is nearly impossible to pick up what he is muttering about unless you really have good ears. "Jungle Fire," may be the strongest song on the record showcasing his avate garde ability to use his multi-octave. Just the way he sings those opening notes with the light jazz intertwined in the background is highly original, "Somewhere old memories. Echoed from the street in a crying hole. Just a song from long ago." The song increases in speed as do Buckley's vocals, as it goes on and becomes all out jazz madness at the end. As writes about the songs on Starsailor, "Surrealistic lyrics, heavy on landscape imagery like rivers, skies, suns, and jungle fires, top off a record that isn't for everybody, or even for every Buckley fan, but endures as one of the most uncompromising statements ever made by a singer/songwriter."

Tim Buckley Starsailor released in 1970. Buckley's
avante garde musical experimentation reached it's peak
with this album

"I Woke Up," showcases a more ballady side of Buckley's strangeness with horns and light scrathing instruments bringing out an scary eariness. It is as if Buckley has set the tone for a film noir soundtrack or horror movie. Each word in the song is strongly emphasised in deep discription, "Now the sun sits on my hand. O where are you ? Walking the wind I fly above the shore of the town. To the hills where I can hear the harbor bells ring slavery where the fortune teller sighs to me, o I see your woman in the raw. Ride a mare of stone and howl." The song builds and fades in and out with the low tenor sax of Gardner and then Buckley comes back in with more intese lyrics, "I woke up while morning built. The world with light, crossing their hearts, twelve sailor boys all stood in a ring tound our bed. And from the grass a dancer rose,
Shivering, Oh the sailors pointing. Out to sea. And the dancer diving
Up the sky. Til we forgot the day." Those last lines Buckley drones on those last lines so long you can feel the absolute beauty in his voice. The best song on the album is "Song To The Siren," which has influenced many musicians in this current young generation and been covered by lots of artists including John Frusciante. You really feel Buckley is writing this one autobiographically when he says "O my heart, O my heart shies from the sorrow. I am puzzled as the newborn child. I am troubled at the tide. Should I stand amid the breakers? Should I lie with Death my bride? Hear me sing, swim to me, swim to me. Let me enfold you. Here I am, Here I am, Waiting to hold you." With Buckley's impending sense of doom led by the fact he was increasing his drug intake more and more as the years went by, it is clear he was also wanting to hold his woman and feel warm inside as he had in so many other of his songs such as early as "I Can't See You," and as recently as "Love From Room 101 At The Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway) off Happy Sad.

Tim Buckley playing live

Due to the commercial failures of both Lorca and Starsailor and the state of how avante garde they were, Elektra had lost hope in Tim Buckley and dropped him from his record contract. Distraught by what had happened Buckley decided to disband the Starsailor musicians and start afresh. He later was able to release three R&B, or what Buckley described as "sex funk" albums. These final three albums were not comparable to Tim Buckley's earlier efforts largely due to the fact he wasn't recordin music in the genre he was most masterful at creating which was avante garde jazz, and folk. Tim had also used a lot of drugs over the years but now with heroin as his drug of choice his disintegration as a musician began to increase rapidly. The final three "sex funk" albums titled Greetings From L.A., Sefronia and Look At The Fool, the latter of which featured a superb cover of Fred Neil song "Dolphins." The song was almost autobiographical to what Buckley was going through at the time even though it wasn't written by him. When Buckley sings in a much gruffer voice then what we have been used to "I've been searching for where the dolphins sing." It is just like the lines in "Once I Was" where Tim had asked the question to his wife "Sometimes I wonder for awhile will you ever remember me?" Buckley's lyrics meant so much even when they were written by others like Larry Beckett. Just the way Buckley sang them with so much emotion and touching feeling you can almost go to those places he is describing and feel those same ineer emotions he describes. Only a few artists have that talent to do that with their music and they are musical poets like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Jim Morrison, but amazingly enough Tim Buckley falls into their category.

Buckley's life did not last long during his "sex funk" period. In 1975 after the culmination of a tour in Dallas, Texas Buckley celebrated by partying all weekend in Texas, as was the custom with his band at the end of every tour. He returned to Santa Monica, California continueing his run of drunken and drug debauchery until the night of June 29, 1975. That night Buckley accompanied his longtime friend and heroin addict Richard Keeling to a party in an attempt to buy heroin. Keeling aparently bought the heroin at the party without notifying Buckley who was already drinking heavily. When Buckley found Keeling in the bathroom practically passed out with a needle, he began to argue with Keeling. Keeling told him to take all the remaining stash, not realizing that Buckley, (who had a contrary and rebellious nature) would actually snort the whole thing. After taking the heroin Buckley was so inebriated that his friends at the party drove him home immediately. Buckley's wife Judy was very concerned when she saw Buckley and questioned the friends on what had happeneed to Tim before they left. For awhile Buckley lay on a pillow but eventually Judy moved him to bed where he could sleep more comfortably. She left the room for a moment and when she returned Buckley had turned blue and was no longer breathing. Buckley was rushed to a hospital but attempts to revive him were unsuccesful and he was prounonced dead on arrival.

Tim Buckley

In the time Tim Buckley made his best music in the mid through late 1960s it is easy to forget his contributions as there were so many other great muscians at that time who were actually lucky enough to completely break through to to stardom. While Buckley may have never achieved stardom or lasting fame he will always be remembered by music lovers who share incredible taste of his diverse style that is highly innovative and original to the core. Anybody who hears an album like Lorca or Starsailor for the first time who loves music can't help but be blown away. Any listener who grew up in the 1960s can't not listen to a song like "Blue Melody" and not be swept away by the incredible folk and jazz intertwined with Buckley's multi-octave voice. As time moves on we have already seen flashes of what Buckley left behind with his son Jeff Buckley. Jeff Buckley was one of the most talented musicians of the 1990s before tragedy struck him as well in an untimely death by drowning in the Mississippi River. It is amazing that Jeff was able to have so much of his father's talent considering the fact he never really knew Tim nor was taught by him in any means. Tim Buckley's biggest regret may have been leaving his wife and infant son but in the end his music is a great way to hear how he dealt with that pain especially with the extreme power of the lyrics in "Dream Letter." May Tim and Jeff both rest in peace and may there music live on forever in the hearts of us all who will always love to listen.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Gram Parsons & The Flying Burrito Brothers: Paving the Way for Country Rock in the Sixties and Beyond

If there was one band that paved the way for country music to be blended with rock n' roll in the 1960s and beyond it was The Flying Burrito Brothers. The band formed in 1969 with guitarist and vocalist Gram Parsons and electic guitarist/bass guitarist Chris Hillman both of whom had quit their previously highly successful band The Byrds, who were actually declining in popularity as the 1960s progressed. The Flying Burrito Brothers other members included pedal steel guitarist "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow, and bassist Chris Etheridge. Chris Hillman switched to guitar from his usual bass which he played with The Byrds. The Flying Burrito Brothers debut album The Gilded Palace Of Sin released in April 1969. The songs on The Gilded Palace Of Sin were all incredible southern-sounding country songs with a tinge of rock in them, all being recorded by an L.A. band, which made it all the more amazing. Parsons and Hillman harmonised perfectly together on soulful tunes like "Dark End of The Street," and "Do Right Woman," showcasing their talent together. Still, despite great original songs like these, The Flying Burrito Brothers never took off as a band as The Gilded Palace Of Sin debuted at a woeful Number 164 in America. Still many popular musicians at the time, such as Bob Dylan along with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones praised the album highly. Richards and Jagger would end up forging a friendship with Parsons and even offer to have him along on tour with them and on their recordings of albums like Exile On Main Street. Dylan who had also recorded his best country rock album that year titled Nashville Skyline said "Their record knocked me out!"

To truly understand the The Flying Burrito Brothers and their music one must understand the life of Gram Parsons, who was the genius behind the band. Parsons wasn't actually from L.A. but from a wealthy southern family in Waycross, Georgia, where he was raised.His family's wealth did not keep them from disintegrating when Gram was a child, as his father abruptly committed suicide two days before Christmas in 1958, which led to his Mother's rapid decline into alcoholism and death. Gram found his solace in music after attending an Elvis Presley concert in 1957 he picked up a guitar, and soon was in a southern rock n' roll cover band that played songs by The Kingston Trio and The Journeymen. Gram attended Harvard University studying Theology, but departed after just one semester. Ironically Gram was never really exposed to country music despite being from the South, and it wasn't until his time spent in Boston, Mass. at Harvard that he began to delve into country after attending a Merle Haggard concert. Soon after, Parsons formed The International Submarine Band and relocated the band to Los Angeles. The International Submarine Band released just one album Safe At Home which featured the song "Do You Know How It Feels," which Parsons would eventually re-record and release with The Flying Burrito Brothers on The Gilded Palace Of Sin.

By the time Safe At Home had been released though Parsons had already moved on to bigger and better things with The Byrds, who recruited him to replace David Crosby on the bands sixth record Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Parsons was such a talent to have in the studio playing keyboards and recording vocals that he had a huge influence on bassist Chris Hillman, who sided with Parsons over guitarist/vocalist Roger McGuinn on how the album should sound. Parsons virtually took over the highly succesful band he had just joined writing the best song off the album "Hickory Wind". McGuinn was furious as he had always been band leader which had been proven when he fired Crosby. Still Roger McGuinn did somewhat get his way in the end when most of Parsons vocals on the album were erased off the album due to the fact he was not under contract with Comumbia but another label. This makes Sweetheart Of The Rodeo a much weaker record than it would have been and on it's release it was shunned by rock purists and country rock listeners alike who couldn't relate to what Parsons was trying to do in combining the two elements of country and rock. As time goes on though Sweetheart Of The Rodeo has only gained reputation as a classic Byrds album, it was only at the time that Byrds fans were expecting something more psychedelic and were in shock at the result of Parsons taking over The Byrds and changing their sound.

Gram Parsons with an acoustic guitar onstage

Eventually Parsons was fired from The Byrds because he didn't show up for a concert in South Africa in 1968. During this time Parsons was partying and jamming a lot with guitarist Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones near Richards house in Stonehenge. The two would listen to obscure country records and play guitar together for days. Parsons later claimed that he actually wrote "Honky Tonk Women" one of The Rolling Stones hits off their Let It Bleed album. Parsons was truly captivated by the glamor of meeting The Rolling Stones during The Byrds European tour, and his unique rock star personality began to emerge. Eventually Chris Hillman followed Parsons out of The Byrds joining him in forming The Flying Burrito Brothers. The band began recording some truly great songs such as "Sin City," "Wheels," and "Christine's Tune," which was about a well known L.A. groupie named Christine Frka whose company Parsons enjoyed.

The Burritos exuded a decadence that
was memorialized by Barry Feinstein's
cover photo. But that decadence
condemned the line-up to an early grave,
followed three years later by Parsons himself.

As writes about The Gilded Palace Of Sin, "As a songwriter, Parsons delivered some of his finest work on this set; "Hot Burrito # 1" and "Hot Burrito # 2" both blend the hurt of classic country weepers with a contemporary sense of anger, jealousy, and confusion, and "Sin City" can either be seen as a parody or a sincere meditation on a city gone mad, and it hits home in both contexts." The lines Parsons wrote go,

"This old towns made of sin, it will swallow you in if you've got some money to burn. Take it home ride away. You've got three years to pay. And Satan is waiting his turn. This old earthquakes gonna leave me in the poor house. It seems like this whole towns insane. On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door won't keep out the lords burning rain."

"Hot Burrito # 1" was undoubtedly a killer ballad written by Parsons, possibly his best ever. With Parsons writing incredible lyrics and singing in the voice of a hurt country rocking weeper.

"I'm the one who showed you how to do the things you are doing now. He may feel all your charms, he may hold you in his arms, but I'm the one who let you in. I was right beside you then. Once upon a time you let me feel you deep inside. And nobody knew, and nobody saw. Do you remember the way you cried. I'm your toy, I'm your own, boy, but I don't want nobody but you to love me. No I wouldn't lie. You know I'm not that type of guy."

As Peter Dodgett wrote about The Gilded Palace Of Sin in Mojo magazine a few months back in a forty-year tribute issue to the music of 1969 , "Three decades later the album stands as arguably the finest country rock album of all time and the apotheosis of the willful, wasted but unique talent of Gram Parsons." At times it does seem that Parsons gets most of the accolades for forming the Burritos and composing their music though which is really not accurate as fellow ex-Byrd Chris Hillman was just as much a part of the creation of The Gilded Palace Of Sin as Parsons. Parsons moving voice singing isn't the only reason he gets most of the credit for being the genius in the band: but also the fate that he died at such a young age and left behind a body of work that was so incredible it has left many of his fans and rock historians to ponder how much more incredible country rock music he might have composed in a longer lifetime. Hillman commented in the Mojo article, stating, "I think Gram had some talent but no discipline. What made us all angry was he was seduced by all the trappings he hadn't earned. You know I'm gonna get a limousine. Why? We're playing five shows in a bar! And then he was romancing Mick and Keith. It was embarrassing." Parsons dedicated friendship with The Rolling Stones did pay off a bit though when The Stones booked The Flying Burrito Brothers to open for them at the historic free Altamont concert. This was supposed to be a Woodstock type concert in California featuring other great bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead.) It ended up being quite the opposite of peace and love as a young black man was stabbed by a member of The Hells Angels Motorcylcle gang who were acting as security guards at the event. At this point Parson's use of drugs and alcohol had increased to the point where he wasn't writing too many new songs and he was spending most of his time partying with The Rolling Stones, who were temporarily relocated in America to record Let It Bleed.

The Flying Burrito Brothers: Top left to clockwise:
Gram Parsons, Chris Etheridge,
"Sneaky" Pete Kleinklow, and Chris Hillman

A second album with The Flying Burrito Brothers album followed The Gilded Palace Of Sin and was titled Burrito Deluxe. It featured another member of The Byrds, Micheal Clarke, on drums and Bernie Leadon on guitar, which led to Hillman returning to his usual bass guitar. Burrito Deluxe had only one memorable song on it, a cover of The Rolling Stones "Wild Horses," which actually hadn't been released by The Stones yet. It eventually would appear off their Sticky Fingers album but The Flying Burrito Brothers version was the first to be released although not a lot of people had heard it since almost nobody bought the album and it failed to make the U.S. charts. Parsons was so disappointed with the sales of the first two Flying Burrito Brothers albums that he abruptly quit the band and tried to record a solo album. Because Parsons had began using heroin the sessions proved to be fruitless, with Parsons unable to record at all without sounding terrible.Parsons realized the sessions were amounting to nothing, so checked out the tapes, packed his bags and left America, moving in with The Rolling Stones. He stayed at the mansion Villa Nellcote, The Stones had bought in France to record Exile On Main Street. and avoid being taxed by the English government. During the sessions The Rolling Stones may have intended to use Parsons, but unfortunately he was constantly indulging in massive quantities of marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms, cocaine, heroin, and alcohol, so he was of little use. However, Parsons did claim he sang in as part of the back-up choir in one of the best songs off Excile On Main Street, "Sweet Virginia." Eventually Anita Pallengerg, Keith Richards longtime girlfriend did kick Gram out Villa Nellcote because of his constant drug use, and the fact Gram was always arguing with his girlfriend Gretchen Burrell.

Gram Parsons with his infamous "Nudie Suit"
with a marijuana leaf on it

Gram Parsons returned to the U.S. playing one final show with The Flying Burrito Brothers in Washington D.C. in 1972. After this show Chris Hillman recommended that Gram go see the country folk singer Emylou Harris perform in a small club in Washington D.C. Gram was so impressed that he invited Emylou back to L.A. with him to help him with another attempt at recording a debut solo album. It came as surprise when Reprise records immediately signed on Gram Parsons, once they learned he was planning to write a solo album. After all, his first attempt had been a complete failure. Parsons had also gained over thirty pounds in just the two years since his Flying Burrito Brothers days, as excessive alcohol consumption and eating too much fried southern food had taken its toll. Overall though, Parsons was in much better health now having kicked heroin with the help from his friend, former Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech.

A clean and revitalized Gram Parsons recorded GP with Emylou Harris, and Elvis Presley's backing band. They sounded terrific: this was by far his best work composed since The Gilded Palace Of Sin. As writes about GP, "Parsons also discovered that rare artist with whom he can be said to have genuinely collaborated (rather than played beside), Emylou Harris; Gram and Harris' spot-on harmonies and exchanged verses on "We'll Sweep out the Ashes in the Morning" and "That's All It Took" are achingly beautiful and instantly established her as one country music's most gifted vocalists." Parsons "A Song For You" and "A New Soft Shoe" were also beautiful songs and are masterful examples of passion-filled love ballads, finding balance with understatement. Allmusic also points out that, "On GP, Parsons' ambitious vision encompassed hard-country weepers, wistful ballads, up-tempo dance tunes, and even horn-driven rhythm and blues. He managed to make them all work, both as individual tunes and as a unified whole. This album remains one that is hauntingly beautiful and has only gotten better with the passing years."

Gram Parsons during the GP era

Parsons soon hit the road with Emylou Harris although he was too poor to afford to take Elvis's bakcing band along. Parsons and Harris toured as The Fallen Angels with several successful performances including one in Houston, which was recorded and had guest apperances by Neil Young and Linda Ronstandt. Around this time Parsons hired a sketchy road manager named Phil Kaufman who had spent time in jail with Charles Manson on Terminal Island. Parsons had met Kaufman through The Rolling Stones and asingned him the job of keeping him clean while tourning. Kaufman did a good job of this disposing of any drugs he found Parsons had smuggled into his hotel rooms and also only letting him drink small amounts of alcohol before he went onstage so inebreation wouldn't affect his performance as it had in past tours with bands like The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Despite a fairly succesful tour thanks to Emylou Harris who had forced Parsons to practice and had also helped organize the setlists with him, the record sales for GP remained low. It was unfortunate that audiences perceived Parsons music as being "too authentic" and prefered other country rock bands like The Eagles. This comparison was a particular thorn in Parsons' side, as The Eagles featured Bernie Leadon, his former bandmate in The Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons also commented that he couldn't stand The Eagles sound and didn't understand why it was so big.

Gram Parsons next album was also recorded with Emylou Harris, was titled Grievous Angel. Unfortunately Parsons fondness for drugs and fast living were catching up with him again during the recording of this album, and he would never live to see it released. The album has attained classic status through the years, (even more than GP), although it is arguably not a better album than Parsons previous effort. Parsons may have been slowing down a bit as a songwriter, but he made that up for that by re-recording some of his older gems like "Hickory Wind," which he had written all the way back in 1968 and recorded on The Byrds Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Parsons cover of "Love Hurts," sounded so incredible vocallly that you might forget Roy Orbisson sang it. Parsons also wrote three of his best songs ever off Greivous Angel, "Return of The Greivous Angel," "1,000 Wedding," and "Brass Buttons," where he showcased his still achingly, beautiful country-weeping voice, which along with the powerful lyrics can almost bring tears to the eyes they are so beautiful,

"Brass buttons green silks and silver shoes. Warm evenings, pale mornings, bottle blues. And the tiny golden pins that she wore up in her hair. Brass buttons green silks and silver shoes. My mind was young until she grew. My secret thoughts only known by a few. It was a dream much too real to believe again too soon. And all the time I think she knew. Her words still dance inside my head. Her comb still lies beside my bed. And the sun comes up without her now. It just doesn't know she's gone. And I remember everything she said." writes about Gram Parsons beautiful song, "In My Hour Of Darkness," off of Greivous Angel, "And while he didn't plan on it, Parsons could hardly have picked a better closing gesture than "In My Hour of Darkness." Grievous Angel may not have been the finest work of his career, but one would be hard pressed to name an artist who made an album this strong only a few weeks before their death — or at any time of their life, for that matter.

Gram Parsons on his mororcycle in Joshua Tree National Park,
California the site where he died on September 9, 1973 from a
lethal mix of heroin and Tequila.

At this time in his life, Parsons had separated from Gretchen Burrell, with whom he had had a tumultuous short lived marriage, after moving back to America from France. He spent most of his weekend time in Joshua Tree National Park in southeastern California, a place he had been infatuated with since the late 1960s. Parsons enjoyed going out there with friends and dissapearing with them in the desert for days, while wandering around on psychedelic mushrooms or LSD. Just before his 1973 tour was about to begin, Parsons decided to take one more trip to Joshua Tree but this time he would not return. Less then two days after arriving in Joshua Tree Parsons died from a lethal drug and alcohol overdose, a combination of heroin with tequila. Gram was just twenty six years old. Aparently before his death, Parsons had made a pact with his road manager Phil Kaufman that if he died he did not want to be buried in the ground. He wanted to be cremated in Joshua Tree and have his ashes spred over the famous Cap Rock. Parsons southern family planned to have his body flown back to Louisiana for a private funeral and burial but Phil Kaufman had other ideas. Kaufman was ready to stick to his pact he had made with Parsons.Probably he was also angry that he and many of his friends Parsons was closest to hadn't even been invited to the private funeral. Somehow Kaufman, with the help of a friend, managed to get hold of a hearse and steal Parsons' body from Los Angeles International Airport. They took Parsons back to Joshua Tree, where they poured gasoline over his body, and attempted to cremate him. Once the match was lit however it set off a huge explosion and was not a cremating process. The Police were on the scene in a matter of minutes and chased the black hearse, but somehow Kaufman managed to out run them on the highway. Days later Kaufman was arrested, but since there was no law at that time against stealing a dead body, he wasn't prosecuted for a crime and only fined $750 for stealing the coffin. There is a memorial site in Joshua Tree National Park for Gram Parsons at the exact rock where his body was set ablaze; it is known as The Gram Parsons Memorial Hand Traverse. Fans of Parsons still visit the site and write personal messages to him on the rock which the park service occasionally sand blasts clean.

One thing is clear: despite the tumultuous short lived life of Gram Parsons he belongs in the country music Hall Of Fame. Emylou Harris was inducted into The Hall Of Fame in February of 2008, sparking Parsons' fans to form The Gram Parsons Petition Project; an attempt to get him inducted but to no avail thus far. With all the music he wrote in such a short time with the International Submarine Band, The Byrds, and his best work with The Flying Burrito Brothers and later on with Emylou Harris as a solo artist. Gram Parsons is the definition of a cult country rock legend. It is surprising to hear that so few people have heard of him, and yet it makes sense when you consider that he never achieved mainstream commercial success with any of the albums he made in his lifetime. Death may have made him more of the legendary fallen greivous angel he is perceived to be by those who admire him, but in life is where he truly shined.

Gram Parsons with pink hat and tie-die ontage with Chris Hillman
with The Flying Burrito Brothers