“Oblivion carries me on his shoulder: Beyond the suns I speak and circuits shiver” (‘Starsailor’)
It might sound like baloney to claim that Starsailor killed Tim Buckley, but in his resoluteness to go as far with the voice as ‘Trane went with the horn, he came undone. The culmination of this intrepid expedition to the outer limits was a rejection by his audience and a subsequent descent into psychological chaos, exacerbated by spiralling alcohol and (ultimately fatal) drug abuse.
Starsailor has to be understood in the context of Tim’s recording a career. If you are unfamiliar with his work it would be imprudent to begin here. Having said that, much has been written about Tim’s music, some of which is amongst the best rock literature (for example Max Bell’s NME retrospective (http://timbuckley.net/articles/nme-1979.shtml) and there are even more insightful accounts, such as Chronicle Of A Starsailor by Lee Underwood, Tim’s friend, lead guitarist and along with Larry Beckett, closest musical confidante. (http://www.timbuckley.com/tim-buckley-chronicle-of-a-starsailor/)
I suggest you read both of these if you get the opportunity. Underwood captures with particularly incisive brevity Buckley’s remarkable musical odyssey:
“I watched him grow from a Bambi-eyed littleboy poet prattling about paper hearts and Valentines, into a hurricane-haired rock and roller, into a madman/genius improvisational vocalist who blew all the pups away, and finally into a lowdown, roadhouse, sex-thumping stomper who injected steam and blood and juice into an r&b music nobody cared about.”
And that really just about sums up Tim’s development as an artist. Starsailor sits as the pivotal moment in a riveting musical journey which has few parallels in the history of rock. Chronologically, it comes exactly half way through Tim’s recording career (1970) – despite being album number six of nine – and marks the peak of an assurgent creative curve from his self-titled 1966 debut onwards. After Starsailor, musical compromise set in and the artistic merit of his recordings gradually deteriorated along with his mental well-being.
The album’s most famous track ‘Song To The Siren’ was successfully resurrected by This Mortal Coil in 1983, sung by Elizabeth Fraser. [Elizabeth of course later had an intense personal relationship with Tim’s son Jeff whose short life bore an eerily tragic resemblance to his father’s] Buckley’s original is pitch perfect: in the context of the album itself you might say delicate, restrained, and along with the charming Parisian caress of ‘Moulin Rouge’, certainly unrepresentative of the bulk of its content.
Many of Tim’s performances on Starsailor beggar belief, understandably inviting those ‘operatic vocal gymnastics / acrobatics’ descriptions which characterise reviews of the album. But this is over-simplistic journalism. After all, acrobats and gymnasts spend years perfecting rigidly complex routines. The reality for Tim was somewhat different. That’s not to say the musical performances here lack discipline. Far from it, but, liberated from the constraints of the rock idiom, head swollen with Stockhausen, Monk, Mingus, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, he felt compelled to reach further with his voice than anyone had ever gone, and did so with an unbridled and ecstatic inventiveness.
It is clear from the outset that there are no rigid routines here. No, this is going to be a challenging listen. ‘Come Here Woman’ is a staggeringly ambitious calling card. It begins an ends with an avant-jazz skulk, redolent of the territory explored on his previous proper album Lorca. After the intro, suddenly the song leaps to life with Lee’s dissonantly funky guitar and Tim’s off key bawling. Moments later the skittish electric piano suggests we could be listening to Bitches Brew. It’s complex. It’s all over the place. It’s a fantastic start…
On the brilliant ‘Monterey’ Tim sounds like a lustily crazed chimpanzee who has broken into a Magic Band recording session and wrestled the mic from the good Captain, his yelps,warbles and shrieks providing a bountiful exhibition of his vocal dexterity.
Side Two takes us to rock’s outer limits. ‘Jungle Fire’s moody improvisational beginning is abruptly brought to a close by Buckley’s ludicrously unhinged “deep insi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-de” Tarzan yodel. What follows next is magnificent: an accelerating riff of earthy funk guitar amidst a blizzard of deranged wails and howls.I picture those kids shaking their hair to the Stones at Hyde Park in ’69 and imagine how much further they would have gone to a soundtrack like this.
The title track is extraordinary, an abstract assemblage of 16 vocal tracks laid over one another to create something that seems to take us into the realm of metaphysics…even as it’s last few notes fade, nothing can prepare us for the headlong rush of the introduction to ‘The Healing Festival’ which is genuinely shocking – goosebumps not only stand to attention but fly off my back in fright, seeking refuge from Buckley’s hair-raising vocal assault, the aural equivalent of the mass slaughter of 10,000 dolphins. The horns, courtesy Bunk and Buzz Gardner from The Mothers Of Invention are wild and free yet still struggle to keep pace with Tim’s five and a half octave vocal range.
The curtain comes down with ‘Down By The Borderline’ where flugelhorn gives way to the relatively more stoic rhythms that would anticipate the earthy soul of his next album Greetings From LA. A good album that, but by then Buckley had descended from the mountain, reclothed himself in flesh and bone and shifted his energies to the lower half of his body. A brief confused and sweaty future would follow, but he had already taken rock music as far as it could go.
PostScript: A Personal Footnote
[Misleading album sleeve #429] As a teenager, I had heard of Tim Buckley – his album Goodbye & Hello was referenced as the only one worthy of note in most rock music encyclopaedias, although I had recently spotted an entry for Starsailor in a Critics’ Top 100 Albums book (edited by Paul Gambaccini). I flicked past Starsailor onto the album featured on the next page, which if I recall correctly may have been Private Dancer by Tina Turner!
Instead, my introduction to Tim’s music came while browsing the A-Z in Glasgow’s Virgin Records in February 1987. I had a £10 note in my pocket and back then this was enough to buy two, three, maybe even if one was canny enough, four albums. I was keen to make that £10 go as far as possible before inadvertently stumbling upon a US import of Tim’s Happy Sad. It was priced at a prohibitive £8.99, but the picture on the back of the sleeve was of the coolest man I had ever seen. There were only six tracks, which varied in duration from 2 to 12 minutes. Those Bowie and Byrds albums would have to wait a bit longer. I simply had to have this. As a devotee of Astral Weeks I was naturally captivated by the music – a bewitching spell of jazz-folk reverie – which matched perfectly the image on the reverse of the sleeve with its hazy forest sunlight bursting through Tim’s Dionysian locks.
I returned to the book store once again to gaze at the picture of ‘Starsailor’. Nah, I thought, he looks too happy here – this must have been the contractual obligation album. Its juxtaposition, next to ‘Private Dancer’ did little to allay those concerns. Little did I know at the time that the album would go down in history as one of rock music’s great acts of commercial suicide. (JJ)