I recently perused the official site of Tim Buckley and read the account of his tumultuous career and life as told by his long-time sideman Lee Underwood. It was Underwood who had seen Buckley through his various career phases over nine years and seven of his nine albums from 1966 to 1975. Apart from Buckely’s raw talent, and his incredible vocal range which he had developed from childhood, the thing I was struck by was his final hours, and his final words.
Buckley had struggled for many years to try and make music that he could feel good about, off the beaten track from the singer-songwriter fare of the time. A key album for him personally was Starsailor, which explored the possibilities of jazz and avant-garde forms. This was a departure from his earlier folky albums, and caused some friction between Buckley and his record company who saw no commercial benefit to his output at the time. Partially in reaction to this, Buckley’s final albums were more R&B based so that he could keep making his way as a professional musician.
Partially as a result of this very rocky artistic vs. commercial path he chose to take, Buckley’s intake of alcohol and drugs had become prodigious. However, by the mid-70s he had chosen to get clean, and even took on an excercise and vitamin regimen in order to take control of his health. However, his old habits and tendencies still lurked beneath the surface, a fact that would cause his downfall. Underwood tells the story:
On the weekend of June 28, 1975, he returned from a road-gig in Dallas. As was his custom after final performances, he got drunk, this time starting in the afternoon. Instead of returning home immediately, he went to the house of a close, long-time friend, where he sniffed some heroin.
Buckley’s system had been clean. The combined dosage of alcohol and heroin proved to be too much for him. Thinking that he was only drunk and obnoxious–on many previous occasions Buckley had ingested considerably more alcohol and drugs than this–the friend took him home. As his friend discussed the situation with Judy, Tim lay on the living room floor, his head resting on a pillow.
When his friend knelt down to ask him if he were all right, Tim almost inaudibly whispered his last words, “Bye, bye, baby,” he said.
Tim died, in debt, owning only his guitar and his amp, and he was cremated.
(read the full story about Tim Buckley’s life and career here) .
It was the last words that really jarred me; he knew that he was about to die, and with the knowledge that he’d almost made it out of the path of that oncoming train, only to fall under its wheels. Still, he left behind a legacy of music which people are still discovering today. And he left an example of artistic fearlessness too which serves as an example of how singers and songwriters of real merit operate – that forms and genres aren’t little cells from which to work, but are rather vehicles for expression to be used on the journey to being a greater artist.
His 9-year old son Jeff Buckley who he also left behind would make a name and etch out a tragic story himself some twenty plus years later.
Here is Tim Buckley performing his ‘Song to the Siren’, a song from the aforementioned Starsailor album. This is a folkier take on the tune as it appears on the record, yet just as powerful.