Perfect Sound Forever

Larry Beckett

photo by Laura Fletcher

interview by Carson Arnold
(January 2004)

I could die listening to "Wings"-- and that whole first album-- glimmering between the reins of young fantasy and wretched tear-- just who knows what symphonies Tim Buckley has devoured from this world. Bruce Dern in the film Coming Home swam into the palm of the ocean with "Once I Was", and I every day sit stunned and drenched in Buckley's voice of certitude and euphoria. "I'm really certain he's an angel," somebody once said to me after listening to Dream Letter, slightly weeping in the red of the eye. He just could be. Much of this beloved has stemmed from the mystic lyrics and waters of his co-writer, best friend, subconscious, and surviving poet/songwriter, Larry Beckett. It's tough to average how many songs he indeed wrote for him after encountering each other in high school, treading through the collision of the sixties, and later watching Tim just drift, drift, drift, but it's a good portion; a daisy plenty that's cradled a world of love and the music affecting. Tim, the voice, Larry the word, us, the body. GO! Songs like "Morning Glory" are examples of Beckett's bipolar songwriting-- distinct from the affair of any others-- that Tim avidly relied on throughout his entire career, and with the echoes of his lungs, Beckett blossomed an aquarium of verses that were both technically pure as well as emotionally bound. "I called to the Hobo/I smiled at the Hobo." Each lyric gushing from moment to close, an ellipsis, and Christ, if you look at it, Beckett wrote perfect, if not utopian verses! Fragile phrases from "Song to the Siren" off the disarray of the 'ol Starsailor album (that I'm currently recording for a friend right now), softens all pulp like no other song before it, showing that he, kin to the intimacy of Buckley, translated the spell inside, and vice-versa together: the formula of the "angel voice." That's incredible. Incredible poetry, even though Beckett freely admits cringing while looking back.

There ain't a whole lotta duets in my opinion who have done this in music; taken the natural and the incalculable, poured it all into some collective heart singing, still able to deliver the ultimate answer when all was finished. Beckett's songs were always profoundly entrapping bliss and ache, in three or four nude minutes, tying and opening a ribbon right around the world, enthralled by Tim's heavenly voice. Unfortunately, it seems to me this, and Beckett's passages, have been undermined over the years by the blue legacy of Tim's passing, his son Jeff's death, and the overall rapture of a "Buckley voice"-- where is it?-- little realizing its contents have been holed up in Portland, Oregon for the last thirty odd years where Larry and Tim once shared many a stranded conversation over the phone-- perhaps of future projects, perhaps of plain chat-- who knows. Find out.

Larry speaks like an honest guy, recalling writer David Browne (author of Dream Brother) crashing at his place for nearly three days recording every drop that was rolled over about Buckley, and going on to fondly tell me of his various post-Tim literary excursions that include immense scrolls of hundred-page poems performed live in three hours. I'm waiting for one of his books to arrive in the mail right now. I'll tell you more later. Meantime, as Larry recounts Tim and that era, take your darkest corner and let it swim within these old shadows of new. I'll be seeing you on the other side.

PSF: Did I catch you playing your drums?

LB: {Laughs} Don't have drums anymore, just bongos. About the time I went to college I stopped.

PSF: When's the last time you listened to one of your Tim Buckley albums?

LB: Jeez, not too long ago. Just a couple of months ago. There's a European import that puts the first two albums on one CD, listened to that.

PSF: Still holds up?

LB: Well, the first album has always been kind of thin to me, and Goodbye And Hello, people seem to think it's stilted and old, but overall it sounds fresh and exciting to me.

PSF: Why would you say thin?

LB: Just everything about it. The writing, the singing, the production, just don't seem fully realized. There are some interesting pieces on it however. Like "Song Slowly Song" seems to be a predictor of future directions... "Wings," people like that song. That's a strange song. Tim has the lyric credit on it, but actually he wrote the first verse but couldn't go any farther and wanted me to write the rest. So I thought about it, and I was at this SC-UCLA football game. I was going to UCLA but I always rooted for SC because my dad was from SC. So I'm sitting on the UCLA side of the field with the UCLA guys, rooting for SC, and at halftime I wrote the rest of "Wings". {Laughs} So you listen to that song and you just can't quite picture a football game... I wasn't really happy with it so I let him have the lyric credits.

PSF: People would say you're the shadow-- or other wing-- of Tim Buckley. The lyricist. Being one, what have all the books that have written about him missed in his spirit?

LB: There's a problem in books about pop musicians in that they talk about almost everything except the music. And when they do, they talk about it in a pretty vague way, they pile up adjectives. But if you read a book about Beethoven's last quartets, they'll actually write out some of the music on the page and show some of the melodic structures. I've found one book about The Beatles that actually talks about them as composers. So all the books about Tim and articles about him, they don't really talk about him in what I think was one of his greatest abilities and that is: composing melodies. Some of his melodies are still, and will always be, evocative and beautiful. Among his generation of folk/rock singer/songwriters, I think they stand out.

PSF: He was a normal kid, we would think. Where did these things come from?

LB: You know, he was just a natural born musician. He had a lot of music in his house from his mother who had great taste in music-- she would have Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Frank Sinatra albums lying around; growing up on that diverse music, besides the wonderful pop music coming out of L.A. radio. How he got his ability to compose, I have no idea. He was just singing folk songs when I met him, at hootenannies at school and stuff. Concerts. It was because of The Beatles and Dylan that I thought, hey, you know what? I'm starting to write some lyric poetry, why don't you write melodies to them and we'll be like The Beatles and Dylan. And he thought, OK, I'll do that. There's some unreleased tapes that I have of our very first stuff with me playing drums, too. And the melodies there, especially the ballads, they're incredibly charming and beautiful. He just had it, you know.

PSF: You have tapes of a lot of unreleased stuff?

LB: I have some. The demo tape, with our first band The Bohemians, was made to promote ourselves. All originals. One song by Jim Fielder, and the rest by Tim and myself... It's kinda cool. There's a couple of songs that got picked up on the first album, like an early version of "She Is." There's some hard-rockers-- you never hear it until much later in his career like "Honey Man," but when we first started out he would do a song like "Please Be My Woman" and was rocking like Elvis, and I don't know where got that from either.

PSF: No one ever wanted to test that? He was always changing and always growing and sorta out-grew that high-school rock-band mentality and started to get into these more ambitious musical adventures. Even though it was only a few months later, time was moving so fast, that by the time we came to do the first album we had already shed all those old songs and didn't wanna do them. Wanted to do more arty stuff... He had an angel voice and had to become an artist in order to make it really sing.

PSF: Outside of the songs, who was he?

LB: ...And how many words do I have to complete this answer? I would have to write a book. You'd have to know him. He was the opposite of me, so it was very strange that we became such good friends-- we became best friends immediately upon meeting one another. I was very intellectual and disciplined and he was very loose and passionate. I think actually that was part of the secret, that obscurely we sensed we each had what the other person needed-- the whole human being, the whole artist. If he would try to write a song it would just drift aimlessly. But if I had these overly-rigorous lyrics in place, then it would give a structure for him to work with. He would infuse my too-tight songwriting with his passion, and loosen it up. It was a kind of magical formula. And it worked in life and it worked in art. We sensed that, I don't think we really understood it at the time, though.

PSF: Did you feel with the later albums like Lorca and Starsailor he had lost that focus?

LB: Yes, when he started to write on his own, really with Happy Sad. The albums without me on them tend to be fairly amorphous. They have interesting pieces on them though. But when we get back together the old magic was still there. And we were friends the whole time anyway. Very close, although, geography, it divided us after I got out of the Army-- I moved to Portland and he was down in Venice (California). We didn't see each other that often for the last half of our relationship. Still wrote and talked on the phone all the time. I would go down there for sessions and he would come up here for gigs.

PSF: Your concept of putting words to music. Seeing the lyrics you would write for Tim on paper, but then Tim singing them would be a whole different story.

LB: The thing is, and it's kind of a sad story, at that point I thought of poetry and song as two different things. Song, as some lightweight genre. Even though I had the magnificent example of Dylan turning songs into literature in front of me, and I was aware of that, but I still didn't understand what he was doing either, and couldn't do it myself. So what I did, was work real hard in the background on poetry that you never heard, and then when I went to write songs I would just kind of knock them out and not really work very hard at them. So it had the vice of being not worked on hard enough, or cared for, and then on the other hand, I would bring this sort of literary sensibility to it which is fairly obtuse in its understanding of what a song actually is. So between those two, in my view, I wrote a lot of clunky songs that are just plain clumsy and don't deserve to live on!...Then Tim would sing them. He could sing anything, and they would come alive, that's true.

PSF: In other words, these songs were written on the spur of the moment...

LB: It's hard to imagine "Goodbye And Hello" as being spur of the moment, but I tell you, I didn't work very hard on it. There are exceptions to this like "Song to the Siren" and "Starsailor"-- those are much better. The problem with Tim was that he was ten times better a singer than I was a songwriter at that point. I did later catch up but he was already dead.

PSF: Do you think none of this would have happened-- Tim dying, Jeff dying-- if you two hadn't met or collaborated?

LB: No, I don't think that's true at all. I think what happened would've happened in any event.

PSF: You stayed the same behind the scenes, though. Survived.

LB: I still continued to be devoted to writing poetry and songs. Their shape has changed through the years.

PSF: Did you feel the innocence the two of you had on the debut was almost... imposed by fame on all that was to come?

LB: His fame was pretty limited compared to other people in the sixties. I think the only deleterious effect it had was that he had extreme neurosis, and being carefully taken care of by his manager and adored by his fans, I think he got the impression he didn't have to work on himself at all-- that he was being approved of. People were clapping, people were loving, he could go to bed with anybody he wanted, just about. And so what happened, his neurosis, instead of getting better or helped, got worse. I mean, between the teenager that I met, and the guy that was running around L.A. by Goodbye And Hello, it was dramatic how worse it was mentally. He never did get any help... from anybody his whole short life. And I think that would've extended his life. And maybe if he hadn't been famous-- hadn't had all this approval-- he would've thought, you know, hey, I really need to get better in my head... We were always close, and always talked. I would actually try to be a force for good in his mind, but you know... I'm almost too close to the situation to say anything. There really wasn't any fame; the only critical part came after Starsailor where the record company was concerned about him not selling any records. But really, neither did Tim or I ever think for a minute about selling records or charts or popularity or anything, except pure art. That's what we thought about all the time.

PSF: The L.A. scene-- it seemed like Tim didn't like the term "folk" or "rock", and wanted to shy away from that.

LB: Well, that's the journalistic scene. The L.A. scene was very exciting; so was Greenwich Village, in terms of music. We hung out with lots of musicians, ran up and down Sunset Strip. We were definitely part of the scene.

PSF: Ever perform on stage?

LB: Yeah. Actually in 1970, I opened the show for Tim doing some of my poetry with a cellist backing me up. Also, when we were first starting out our band performed at the Troubadour one time.

PSF: How close was your poetry to what you would write for Tim?

LB: It was very far apart. The poetry was much more ambitious and worked much harder on.

PSF: The Zappa connection? Obviously I know Jim Carl Black discovered him performing. Was there ever talk about joining?

LB: No, though both were managed by Herb Cohen. The only Zappa connection I know is that Tim opened for him in New York in the late '60's, and actually performed Goodbye And Hello onstage-- I think it would be the one and only time, and Zappa {laughing} was most impressed. We of course really admired Zappa.

PSF: Jesus, I heard you were in the Army during Happy Sad.

LB: I was drafted. I did try to get out and worked really hard on that, and got out a year later. I was only in the U.S. Mostly in jail. That's a strange story because we missed a golden opportunity to become famous.{John} Schlesinger was making the movie Midnight Cowboy and wanted a theme song. First they went to Dylan and said, can you do me a theme song? He said sure and went and wrote "Lay Lady Lay"-- a really beautiful song. Perfect. And Schlesinger heard it and said, Nah, nah, it's no good. Somehow he ran into Cohen and he said, 'Oh yeah, my guys will write it.' He was talking about Tim and I. We would've done a good job, too. But, I was in the Army, and absolutely out of communication with everybody. Tim said, 'I don't wanna do it by myself!' So Herb went and dug out this song already recorded by Fred Neil and gave that to Schlesinger and he said that's perfect. So there's the Dylan, Neil, Buckley connection to Midnight Cowboy! {Laughs} I only heard about it until after it was all over. We would've done some gritty song that would have been great.

PSF: What did you think of Happy Sad? A big transition.

LB: A lot of people enjoy that one... I'm one of them. The looser jazzier feel than the folk-rock that proceeded it. To me, the lyrics, in most cases, are actually silly. You kind of have to ignore them. For that, Blue Afternoon, and Lorca for a matter of fact. Some of the music is really memorable, especially a song like "Sing a Song for You" is very beautiful and one of his greatest melodies.

PSF: I would think for some of the stuff that was out at the time they are some of the more beautiful lyrics.

LB: Really? I find them to be deeply confused. It depends on what you're talking about lyrics. I mean, if you're gonna talk about lyrics that are going to be seriously looked at; like if you're gonna look at a song like "Buzzin' Fly", it's just ridiculous. If you start to try to figure out what is his relationship with this person-- has he just met them? Had they had a long relationship? Did they just break up?-- you can't figure it out from line to line! It's completely meaningless. And at the end he's saying "sometimes I think about you", after this real passionate song. Well, thanks a lot, sometimes I give you a passing thought too! It's ridiculous... But it's a very charming song, he opened almost every set this way.

PSF: Did you express your thoughts to Tim about this?

LB: {Laughs} No! I didn't wanna bum him out. He's trying to write lyrics; that's OK.

PSF: Did you feel this was his equinox? Where everything that came after, went down?

LB: No... He just had a steady Miles Davis-like progression of styles. He was very restless and would always be on the growing edge. Here's something that I just thought of last week, and it's kind of an insight into Tim that no one's quite noticed. And that is, he's always going to the next level, the next phase of music. Always pushing to the edge of himself as a composer, and a singer. For example, he got invited to do that little spot on The Monkees TV show at the end, where they'd have some musician they liked come in and do a piece-- sort of pad out the show. On the very last episode they had Buckley come in, and I was there. Now here he is-- he's going to be on "TV," it's like the first time, national TV, millions and millions of people are going to hear him sing, and he'll have a much wider audience than any of his albums had ever sold. They say, 'You can sing whatever you want.' So what does he do? Does he do anything from his bestselling albums? Does he do one of the singles that were released through the years? Anything that could promote his product? No. He does "Song to the Siren," a song we had written a couple of weeks earlier which was the growing edge, the latest and most experimental piece we had. That's what he sat down and sang because... that's who he was. Nobody quite heard songs that beautiful.

PSF: People would recall seeing him into two different intervals. When he first started out singing very melodious, and later when he would be wailing onstage. A big transition. Was he changing like this as a person as well?

LB: {Pause} I don't think the two things are connected. He had his own mental life, which proceeded to get slowly worse and worse, and he had his own creative life, which had all kinds of ups and downs, but was always trying for the next big thing. One of the things about Lorca that I've often thought, is that I think it's pretty much a failure as an album. But... that's actually a really good thing. Strictly speaking, you don't want to have failures, but a lot of people, they never fail. They get some sort of style down pat, and they just redo it their whole career. And they never fail, they always do something that's competent in their style to their limits. But they never fail! That's because they're not really artists. Sure, they might have been an artist on the first one, but every subsequent one is just cashing in. Where as Tim would actually try something and fail, and that was a sign that he was really experimenting. You're not experimenting if you never fail. Right after that, you know, comes Starsailor, which is a magnificent success. {I say ask about clarifying success} It was an artistic success. To this day, I don't really know the "numbers" of the sales.

PSF: Of course there's always the theory of Elektra sort of dying at this time. What about the sixties?

LB: Well, Jac Holzman did give him a huge amount of artistic freedom...{About after the sixties} There was a lot of money between Dylan and The Beatles. Tim... they'd take somebody like him and say, 'go in the studio, do your thing, we're not going to tell you what to do, here's all this money by the way-- you can produce your own album.' That was nice, because a whole lot of good people emerged out of that. But when sales dropped off and things tightened up, then a lot of artists never got a chance to emerge.

PSF: Tim's drug use during this time. Meeting of Fred Neil.

LB: Well, he glamorized Neil and {Tim} Hardin, who were major heroin users, but I don't think Tim was doing heroin until the very end, as far as I know.

PSF: And your relationship at this time?

LB: Well, I was up here. In the '60's, the general attitude towards drugs was one of permissiveness. You would just say, 'hey that's cool, you're doing this, you're doing that.' Nowadays, I would intervene if I found somebody going off the track. {I ask if these are the same days as then in terms of substance abuse} It's the same substance, we're human beings. There was a lot of pretension in the '60's about "mind-expanding" drugs, which is ridiculous. I never really saw anybody's mind expand. They were the same size when they came down. {Laughs} It did actually make people aware of things a little bit.

PSF: Were a lot of your lyrics coming out of that?

LB: Nah. Not at all. There's a song "Pleasant Street" which seems drug-related, but it's actually about any sort of craving. It could have been romantic.

PSF: And the war-protesting songs on Goodbye And Hello.

LB: Yeah, that was just in the air. You know, along with artistic purity, which is a kind of devotion to making a good work of art out of a song, there was an ethical purity that you see in people in the '60's which I don't see a lot of anymore. And that is, people did believe in equality and did believe in peace. Now days, it seems like if it's not practical, they just throw peace out the window, and feel that it's just fine to go to war. But I never thought that and never will. And actually, I'm really happy to be from the generation in which a whole lot of people had that belief. {I ask about some people "selling out" from this time.} Some of 'em have subsequently seemed to. Compromised. It's true. But some of them not.

See Part 2 of the Larry Beckett interview

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