Perfect Sound Forever

Larry Beckett

photo from Tim Buckley archive

interview by Carson Arnold, Part 2

PSF: Would Tim have survived in this day and age?

LB: Well, like I say, he would have had to address the problems in his mind. If you knew him, you'd just go up to him and talk, and look into his eyes, and say, 'you know, this guy's hurt.' His heart is broken. If you were talking to him over coffee today instead of me, that's the feeling you would have come away with. And you wouldn't know how to fix it. It was always this way from the beginning. It was just that the neurotic behavior coming out if it got worse, and then gradually started to involve drugs at some point.

PSF: And this would be why he'd be screaming a mile high in the later albums.

LB: {Laughing} No, that's artistic! That's stretching his voice, stretching the expressiveness of singing in the first place. No, I suppose the "demons", if that's what you want to call them, could drive the intensity of his performance, but no, the screaming... to me, it was a natural extension of his searching for new ways to sing.

PSF: I've always thought the album Lorca would've been your idea because of the poet Garcia Lorca. LB. Hmm, right. No. We weren't very much in contact and he stumbled onto Lorca by himself and was very enthralled by his poetry, and his concepts about poetry, too, duende, and concepts like that, and tried to at least create an homage to them in that piece.

PSF: And your part in Starsailor?

LB: I went to many of the sessions.

PSF: Tim was notorious for the "one-take," wasn't he?

LB: He was famous for one take; of course "Starsailor" itself, he had to build up a layer of voices and that was fascinating. It sounds like cacophony of voices that somebody's just throwing out, but actually it was very carefully worked on by him. He's a very great artist. He would lay down these tracks, and then after he'd got thirteen tracks, he had got three to go. He would go back out to the studio and they'd play the thirteen tracks through his phones and he would add track fourteen. And he would figure out where he wanted his voice to go-- come back in-- listen to it, pick out the fourteenth track and say, 'OK, that wasn't good enough, now I see what I need to do.' They'd erase the fourteenth track, he'd go back out and do track fourteen again. Then he'd do fifteen and sixteen. It was really rather remarkable, not a cacophony at all; it's very truthfully composed piece of avant-garde classical music.

PSF: You were most impressed with the words in this one, poetically?

LB: Yeah, very much so, I love the lyrics to that song anyway. And we finally got "Song to the Siren", which was a couple of years old, onto an album. {"Song to the Siren"} written back in '67. {I ask if it was always the same version}. I wasn't happy with the words. The slight lyric changes. The one on The Monkees is the good version.

PSF: What is a good song to you in terms of poetry and composition? What makes a good song?

LB: {Pause} Well, an important part is that both the music and the words be as though they were inspired. In other words, be a perfectly whole radiant piece. And they need to work together, and be married, so much so that you can't think of one without the other.

PSF: And how many songs that you did with Tim went this way?

LB: I would say "Siren," "Monterey," "Starsailor," "Tijuana Moon" and there's a song called "Venice" that was never released and that was one of our best. Those are the ones I would keep; the rest of them... my part in them, I'm not particularly proud of.

PSF: But everyone else has fallen in love with those others.

LB: I understand this and I salute their love! I'm capable of much better things and I think I've written much better stuff since then.

PSF: You've written other songs for people?

LB: Uh-huh. For a number of years I wrote for the producer of Goodbye And Hello, which was Jerry Yester. As a matter of fact, we wrote a song cycle called Music, which was released on a CD in Japan by the Modern Folk Quintet/Quartet (they just call themselves MFQ depending on many members they have). And now I try to write one song a year but I try to make it as good as "Song to the Siren." Sometimes I write my own music, sometimes I use an existing melody. {I ask if that's his mirror} Yeah, if I can do that, I figure I've done my work for the year. But the years go by and I have a number of these songs. I make no attempt to promote or give them to anybody.

PSF: Who would you give them to?

LB: Well, the funny thing is that I wanted to write with Jeff {Buckley}. I thought about it, but you know, he's all freaked out from comparisons to his dad; that would've been the last straw.

PSF: You communicated?

LB: Yeah sure, we wrote letters back and forth. He came to town for a gig and we finally met and that was a real great experience. He did actually sing some of my lyrics. He sang a few Buckley songs at a Buckley memorial. And that was taped-- that I have a bootleg of. I think maybe had he gone on two albums after Grace he and I might have actually done something.

PSF: Close to his dad in character?

LB: No. He seemed to me-- that's the strange thing, his death was very shocking and inexplicable to me. When I met him we talked a lot. He seemed to me really sane about the music business-- really able to make his own way, not take any shit off businessmen. Really understood and had a strong sense of values, and lived by them, and worked by them. Really independent, really artistic. And his death seemed just plain stupid. But almost asking for it. I don't know. As soon as I found out, I took my eleven year-old daughter aside, or however old she was, and had a discussion about water safety. I mean, aren't you supposed to swim with a buddy, and aren't you supposed to swim where you know? Aren't you're supposed to take your clothes off instead of wearing these giant boots and jackets and crap? And float out into the middle and hope for the best? I mean... I don't think that will ever happen to you, will it, Carson?

PSF: Not likely. And now that he and Tim are dead there's almost this whole romance.

LB: I know, of course, there's a death cult about them. It's very strange. If you read {David} Browne's biography he seems to have been acting somewhat erratically in his last days. But in each case it's a little hard to interpret without actually being there. I can't explain it.

PSF: Some might say he was disowned by Tim.

LB: Yeah, Tim was one of these guys that never in his life would do things the whole way. Like if he was in love with somebody and then decided he was in love with somebody else, he would still sort of be around the first person-- kind of-- there would never be a clean break. It wouldn't be like, 'No, I don't love you, I'm over with this person now.' It's the same with his son. He didn't hang around with his wife; I don't think he liked her. And he didn't make much of an effort to support his son or be with him... ever. But on the other hand, he wrote that song on Happy Sad, "Dream Letter". So he thought about him, he cared about him, but he just couldn't do anything about him.

PSF: Christ, you know, people would hear this normally and think, 'man, what an asshole.'

LB: Yeah, that's right, it's pretty irresponsible to have a son and just drift around. I mean, he did see him a couple of times when he was little but that just doesn't count. It's not enough. Then you look at Tim-- his inability to be a father. That's just one more thing, one more strain of guilt in his broken heart. What can I say? He could have done otherwise, he should have done otherwise. And Jeff sort of created his own mental relationship with Tim, but it wasn't based on actually meeting him. He did see him sing live once, and they did hang out in the later years I guess.

PSF: There was talk about you and Tim adapting Joseph Conrad's book An Outcast of the Islands into an album.

LB: That was an interesting phase because he had all that fake-soul music he was doing with Greetings From L.A. and so on, right up to Look at the Fool-- the real name for Look At The Fool was actually Tijuana Moon but the record company changed it. Which means that every album I had a part with Tim on, he named after one of my songs. I didn't notice that. And after that, we thought, well, what are we going to do next? And actually we were having long phone conversations planning out the next two projects, which were to be a live two-album set taped at the Troubadour-- his best songs-- but performed live. Sort of a Greatest Hits for somebody who had no hits. We picked "Song to the Siren," "Sing a Song for You" and "The River" and a few others. Stuff like that. Had a short list and he was going to do these cool versions of them. Then, the other project was a song cycle based on Joseph Conrad's book An Outcast Of The Islands. I wrote a complete set of lyrics called "The Outcast Of The Islands." Sent it to him, and he started to work on them. {Larry goes to look for an album} If you listen to "Sefronia: The King's Chain" off the Sefronia album, that's the sound that he was getting. He already composed some things, my understanding was he even taped them but no tape has emerged from his widow. Maybe he didn't tape them. The concept was that the song cycle tells the whole story of the novel in a set of like eight songs. It was really one of the best things I'd ever written. Yeah. What I did, was each character had a lyric and if you put the whole thing together in your mind you saw how it was probably going to play out. So that the narrative was implied by these lyric songs. So that's how I managed to tell a novel in eight songs. But his thought was: you know, that's not going to be totally obvious for everybody, so why don't you make some extracts from Conrad's magnificent prose and then read them. So actually, it was going to be a Beckett/Buckley album where we'd have a song by him and me reciting parts of Conrad's novel in between songs. But the interesting thing is, people think of the end of his career as being this kind of, yeah look-at-the-fool, and maybe get the wrong impression. He was actually in the process of turning himself again into a new person and a new artist and going into a new direction with this song cycle. We always dreamed about doing a song cycle and now we had one in hand, and were actively working on this very creative piece. I don't know if the record company would've put it out or not, but he was working on it as though they would... That's how I remember him at the end; as being on a creative up-swing.

PSF: Then there was the film he was working on, Why?

LB: Right. I think that was finished... Remember how I said there was his "artistic" life and then there was his "mental" life? And though they're happening in the same person, there not always connected. And a lot of times I think they're disconnected. Like Mozart, he adored his mother and she died one day. He found out about it and was grief-stricken, but he was a prolific composer and went on continuing to work on this symphony he had been working on. In the midst of his grief. And did he pour out his sorrow about his mother? No. It's one of his most sunniest, most up-beat symphonies. Because that was the logic of the music he was working on. Maybe later on he wrote a eulogy to his mother secretly.

PSF: Tim would do albums like Look At The Fool and Greetings From L.A.; why? They're rock albums.

LB: There's a whole controversy to what all this is, but my sense of it is that you can sort of trace a line of experimentation from the very first song, "I Can't See You" right on to the last song "Down by the Border Line" on Starsailor. And then, you look at the next one, Greetings From L.A., and it's like, that line has been broken. And you can explain it any way you want, but it is true the record company was extremely dismayed by the total lack of sales of Starsailor. It's easy to think that they would've said, 'look, you're gonna have to do something more in the popular vein or we don't even want to have you make records...'

PSF: You were still writing with him at this point?

LB: Yes. At that point, I would send him songs and he'd cut them up in different ways. Sort of collage my lyrics together for the most part. So it seems like somebody selling out but of course he does it in a weird-ass way which is like a parody of soul music-- doesn't know what this stuff is, or whether he enjoyed it, or whether he was mocking the world, or what.

PSF: Did you feel like he was burning up by it at the same time?

LB: Yeah, you know, I can't help but think that. I can't help but think that that didn't help matters mentally for him; to be in this situation where he felt that he had to make music he didn't want to make.

PSF: Did you feel his death was an accident?

LB: Accidentally on purpose is how I describe it. I've known two people in my life who really didn't feel comfortable in their skin. They didn't feel ok about being alive, and both of them died by their own hands. It's just too big of a coincidence. If you read the biographies and so on, you'll see he took a lot of chances. Just riding around in a car with him in those days it was like, okay, we're gonna crash {laughs}. Finally his luck ran out, which was probably what he wanted to have happen anyway. I don't think he liked being alive.

PSF: That's disappointing to hear. But sadly, that's where the voice can from, I guess.

LB: I don't agree. Like I said, there's the life of the mind and the life of the art. You can have person like Franz Kafka-- he's deeply neurotic, messed up about his father and women, and can't get out of it; even though he's a genius, he can't figure out a way to get healthy. And he makes a slow amount of progress as his life goes on. But meanwhile, he's creating art that fully understands the problem and rises above it. So he becomes a different person when he's creating that is healthy and clear-sighted, and when he stops creating, he slides back into his life and he's neurotic and messed up. So where the art came from, he {Tim} was just a true singer. He had a magnificent voice and he was able to compose constantly and always be pushing the envelope until he got to that phase where he was just playing around.

PSF: Where's Richard Keeling today (old friend of Tim's who was charged with supplying Tim with the drugs that killed him)? Did he ever get in trouble?

LB: I don't know {where he is}. If you look at the end of {David} Browne's book you'll see he got some sort of suspended sentence.

PSF: After Tim's death in '75, where did you do?

LB: I was still in Portland-- I've been here ever since-- and I continue to write poetry. I have a book out called Songs And Sonnets (published by Rainy Day Women Press) that has a few songs, no Tim songs, but some of my later songs and lyric poetry. And I've written about fifteen other books of poetry that are unpublished.

PSF: Do you almost feel you're a medium to Tim for people?

LB: Yeah, people talk to me because he's not responsible enough to be here. It's true. The problem with Tim, and myself, is that he was my best friend, so when he died it was a terrible day. I'm not the type of person who grieves and gets over things-- I carry it with me... forever.

PSF: You never hold yourself responsible to him, do you?

LB: Well, no, but had I had a chance to go back, I'd probably say something. I did say something to {Jerry} Yester about drinking, and that did help. So for seven years I didn't listen to any Tim Buckley music... because it was too painful. But then, I had this girlfriend I wanted to impress, I pulled out Goodbye And Hello. And then since then, I listen to him a lot. I still see him in dreams. I'm not really a medium for him, but I have these strange dreams that are not like my regular dream-like dreams, they're very realistic. And he's sitting there and I'm like, 'well whaddya' doing?' And he's like, 'well, I'm trying to work on this new album, wondering if you could help.' And I'm like, 'you can't put out an album, you're dead!' But actually he has albums coming out all the time. {Laughs}

PSF: So why am I interviewing you? What is it about the songs of Tim Buckley, that time, that we love and need to this day?

LB: Yeah, that's a question you could best answer. I think the first thing is the beauty-- the beauty of his voice, the beauty of his singing, is something that will never be forgotten. And really, what the songs themselves convey: you can hear in them the devotion to art and the purity of ethics out of which the songs came. Nowadays, and then they did back then too, people are just trying to make a buck off songs, videos, and things-- you really don't hear those qualities. It's like you're wandering a desert and you've come to an oasis of beauty.

PSF: Yeah, how come we don't hear a Tim Buckley (today), or maybe we do?

LB: The whole scene's changed. It's hard to even put out a second album out. Really they are trying to sell single songs and not albums, and if the song makes it big, maybe you'll make a second one. If your second single doesn't go anywhere, a lot of times they cancel the contract in their desperate effort to make money. The strange thing is, the two great flowerings of American pop music were in the fifties and sixties. In the fifties, any ratty little studio could put out some crazy single like "That's All Right Mama." It transforms the musical landscape. They would play black songs by black people and white songs by white people. Everybody got to have a voice. The DJs would play whatever the hell they wanted. They'd get something in the mail and say, 'hey, I dig this,' and it'd be Ritchie Valens. There was no corporate boss owner of the station or owner of the network of stations saying, 'no, that's not professional grade quality sound.' There is a lot of unheard music now. Right now, the situation is so bad between the record companies and the radio companies, America is so full of unheard music. People are playing in their houses. And independent records, that's a really good thing, it's some kind of outlet.

PSF: So there still could be singers like Tim Buckley out there?

LB: Yes.

Also see Carson Arnold's (H)ear music writing website

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