Tim Buckley began his professional recording career in 1966 at nineteen with a self-titled album of original songs released on Elektra Records. His debut was comfortably within the "Sensitive Aesthete" folk style of the Hootenanny era. Before he died (in 1975 of an accidental heroin overdose) Buckley released four albums on Elektra, three on Frank Zappa's Straight Records and two on Warner/DiscReet. His music moved from the delicate folk material of Tim Buckley and Goodbye and Hello, through the jazz-tinged Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon, on to the vocal explorations of Lorca and his incandescent masterpiece Starsailor, ending with a bid to regain commercial viability on three albums where he explored a funky, rocking, white soul sound: Greetings From L.A., Sefronia and Look at the Fool. Tim Buckley continues to inspire and influence songwriters and especially vocalists.
Lee Underwood was Buckley's lead guitarist from the beginning through 1972's final "Starsailor" band. He and Buckley lived near one another in Venice Beach and other places along the coast near L.A. They remained friends and were in contact until Buckley's death. Blue Melody offers an insider's view of Buckley's musical evolution and of his life on and off the road.
Much of it is depressing. Underwood shows us Buckley's tragically self-destructive drive to get wasted on reds or booze or 'ludes, his decidedly pre-feminist attitudes and somewhat dysfunctional relationships with the women in his life, and a touch of latent homophobia. Underwood also reinforces the perception that Buckley never quite got a handle on how to create his unique art without hitting painful resistance within the structures of the corporate music industry and from his audience.
Underwood shows us Buckley's growth as well, not only musically but in his personal life and in balancing business with art. He also delves enough into Buckley's own early life and parental influences to show the reader the roots of his faults. He reminds us of Tim Buckley's youth and of the temper of the times. "If you remember the Sixties, you weren't really there." Imagine being promoted as a "troubadour of the new generation" while the Viet Nam war and protests against it raged, the sexual revolution was in full, free love flower and drugs were an intrinsic part of the counter culture. It is little wonder Tim Buckley, as a musician hungry to explore and expand his art, being only in his twenties, was struggling to balance his life, art and business.
I had some problems with the book. Being written by an insider can be both blessing and curse in a biography. Underwood reveals enough of his own demons, personality flaws and vested interests to make him a somewhat unreliable narrator. How, for example, is one to take the random, non sequitur paragraphs that recount the great sex Underwood had with some nubile lass or another? Or the specific details of substance abuse moments that are rarely pertinent to the bigger picture? In the end, however, despite flaws, Underwood's Blue Melody is well worth reading by anyone interested in Tim Buckley, his music and life.
Many younger listeners first came to Tim Buckley, if at all, through his similarly brilliant and troubled son, Jeff Buckley. Jeff died at thirty, drowned in the river outside Memphis. He had never really known his father, who left Jeff's mother before his birth. Tim saw his son only rarely in the few years between Jeff's birth and Tim's death. Jeff's voice and looks; however, left no doubt that the two were unmistakably related. This was part of Jeff Buckley's mixed blessing in navigating his own way through the music industry. A handful of doors may have opened because someone remembered and admired the work of his father, but their connection to the elder Buckley also could interfere with them hearing Jeff Buckley as himself. The younger man had also absorbed a very wary distrust of "The Industry" and how it can sacrifice the art of music for the business of selling product.
Dream Brother by David Browne is a compelling and insightful double biography of the two Buckleys. Browne deftly weaves back and forth between Tim and Jeff, allowing the reader to gain not only an understanding of each man's life and their too early deaths, but also the ways in which their troubled relationship separated them in life and binds them together in death.
While Browne's book does not shy away from the negative impact dysfunctional family relations, drugs, misogyny and other character flaws may have played in either of the Buckleys' lives, his relatively impartial viewpoint allows him, curiously enough, to remain more sympathetic to both men.
Despite his vehement rejection of ever connecting himself and especially his music to Tim, Jeff's performance of four of his father's signature songs at a commemorative performance held at St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn in 1991 only added to the buzz his coffeehouse appearances were already producing. His 1993 debut release on Columbia was Live at Sine, a five-song CD that documented his vocal talent and songwriting capabilities. His well acclaimed studio recording, Grace, was released a couple of years later. Work on a follow-up proved difficult. In May of 1997 he was in Memphis to try another approach in a different studio. Jeff Buckley went down to the river and went for a swim wearing his street clothes. He drowned at thirty years old.
As a long time admirer of Tim Buckley I enjoyed reading both books. Of the two, I felt David Browne's Dream Brother was better written and more insightful. It awakened an interest in Jeff Buckley's work while offering better understanding of the tragedy of Tim Buckley's life and unfortunate death. Blue Melody was somewhat less satisfying, although its "warts and all" exploration into the arc of Tim Buckley's career was compelling. Lee Underwood has solid credentials as a music writer, having written for Down Beat and many other music journals over the past two decades, but his position as a participant with vested interests and a style that occasionally veered off track proved problematic at times.