Starsailor by Tim Buckley

1970

This is the second best record of all time. That’s a fact. Ignore this post at your peril.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were both vying to be the Democratic nominee for the office of President of the USA. Bernie Sanders had a clear message: “Every public college and University in America will be tuition free.” When Hillary Clinton was asked to respond, she gave a very nuanced answer. Here it is.

There’s no doubt that her answer is more thoughtful, is a product of deep thought and is very pragmatic. It’s also pretty difficult to understand. Bernie Sanders message is simpler and more likely to be remembered. It has been calculated that, once Hillary Clinton got the nomination and ran against Donald Trump, he had one message (“Make America Great Again”) and she had more than one hundred. Actually, he had another, didn’t he: “Lock Her Up”. As much as Hillary Clinton tried to explain why using your own email address was within the rules and something that was common, her convoluted explanations only served to confuse people. A simple message was beyond her – she was too intelligent to distill deep thought into a simple three or four word phrase.

Not that we in the U.K. are any less gullible. Whatever “Get Brexit Done” meant, it seemed to work when put against Jeremy Corbyn’s more thoughtful, intelligent and meaningful explanations. It appears that simple is better.

I decided to experiment with this myself when teaching over the last couple of years. Instead of trying to find different ways of saying the same thing when asking my students to learn from their mistakes, I used the phrase “Honest Self-Assessment followed by Remedial Action” all the time. I put that at the top of students’ record cards, on my website, on the whiteboard and kept saying it over and over in class. When I left, I got an email from one of the students which ended with these words: “I have enjoyed your lessons (and wisdom) and I doubt I will forget them any time soon. I will be honestly self-assessing and following that up with remedial action for years to come.” That was very gratifying to read.

So simple is better. I heard an interesting discussion on “Word In Your Ear” about the effect that Spotify has had on the way people make albums these days. The first track on an album has to be the catchiest and the easiest to appreciate. The first thirty seconds are crucial to grab the attention of the listener. When streaming is so prevalent and people’s attention spans are so limited, if the listener is not immediately interested, they will move onto something else. A very good friend of mine, who likes lots of unlistenable jazz, also has a fifteen second rule: if it’s not interesting by fifteen seconds, move on. I think he only applies this to music I suggest because I once got him to listen to the full introduction of a song which contained lovely acoustic guitar before he realised he was listening to “Romeo And Juliet” by Dire Straits.

I’m not snooty about people’s attention spans. I am terrible now. I used to be much more prepared to listen to difficult music than I am now. If I came across “Starsailor” now, there’s no way I’d give it more than a cursory listen, dismissing it as unlistenable. In which case, I’d miss out on the second best record of all time (“Astral Weeks” being the best record of all time).

It was on Alan Black’s Sunday evening radio programme that I first heard Tim Buckley. I recorded “Down By The Borderline” onto my tiny reel-to-reel tape recorder and straight after that I recorded “Tupelo Honey” by Van Morrison. Because I loved the latter, I wouldn’t erase Tim Buckley’s song and after many listens I came to realise what a masterpiece it was. Without Van Morrison’s lovely, gentle, tuneful and beautifully arranged song I wouldn’t have come to appreciate Tim Buckley.

“Starsailor” is a very strange album. It was the sixth album of his nine album career (not counting live albums or compilations). Tim Buckley said that on his first, eponymous, album “most of the songs are high school songs.” This is an interesting album, but the genre is quite specific. Singer songwriter sings mystical songs of love. The follow up was called “Goodbye And Hello”. He said “It was very adolescent. I took sides. I said the establishment was wrong. O.K. it’s wrong, but I didn’t have an answer.” The music is more elaborate than previously, and on songs like “I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain”, “Once I Was” and “Morning Glory”, the arrangements and voice combine to give a unique sound. Good stuff, rooted in “folk-rock-protest.” For many people, “Happy/Sad” is the classic Tim Buckley album. Fluid sounds, apparent improvisation, folk music in a jazz style and a voice that’s guaranteed to generate an emotional response from the careful listener. He said that “the trick of writing is to make it sound like it’s all happening for the first time. It took a long time to write that album, and then to teach the people in the band, so it really was a labour of love, the way it should be. I really loved doing that album.”  Each of the six tracks is great; “Gypsy Woman” is frenetic, the others are quieter and very nearly perfect. The next album, “Blue Afternoon” was described by Dick Lawson in “Friends” like this: “Albums of such gentleness, beauty and profound sadness are impossible to write about. Each cut is a hymn to a number of different shades and depths of mood.” This is similar in mood to “Happy/Sad” and very nearly as good. “Chase The Blues Away” and “I Must Have Been Blind” are particularly evocative. As with “Happy/Sad”, there is one song (“The Train”) which is in a different style; there is less structure, more manic singing and unusual guitar work from Lee Underwood. The follow up, “Lorca” was released very soon after “Blue Afternoon”. Tim Buckley said “I recorded “Blue Afternoon”, “Lorca” and parts of “Starsailor” in the same month. I was hot” There is one standout track, “Drifting”, which is so lovely it always transports me to a simpler world. Side one is more experimental and free form; the title track, in particular, is excellent. These were the records that Tim Buckley had released before he released “Starsailor”.

The first track on “Starsailor” is “Come Here Woman”. It starts with a menacing guitar and seemingly free-form melody and gives an indication of the treats in store for the careful listener. As always with a Tim Buckley album his voice drips with raw and naked emotion and intensity. Most people hated the record when it came out. If you make three albums of such stunning beauty as “Happy/Sad”, “Blue Afternoon” and (to some extent) “Lorca”, your audience has to be pretty open minded to accept such a dramatic turnaround as “Starsailor”.

“I Woke Up” is very free form and unstructured and Tim’s voice is more mellow. This is a weird track and doesn’t really do it for me I’m afraid.

However, “Monterey”, the next track is absolutely riveting. More structured musically with an exciting guitar riff by Lee Underwood and dramatic drum fills by Maury Baker, Tim’s voice soars, glides, swoops and delivers. The words “I have run with the damned my darlin’; they have taught me to lie” are followed by a series of exciting vocal tricks which defy description.

“Monterey”

Then it’s “Moulin Rouge” which I hate because it’s straight and predictable with a very annoying harmonica.

The last track on side one is “Song To The Siren” and everybody must know this. Various other acts have done this including This Mortal Coil and Half Man Half Biscuit. There are two fantastic Tim Buckley versions – the one on this record and one that he performed on the last ever “Monkees” programme (see below). The intensity of the vocal performance is just stunning. As always, it’s not just the range of his voice; it’s not just the emotional intensity; it’s the combination. My record had a horrible scratch at the end of this track which always spoilt the silence. Now I’ve got the CD and there’s no time to reflect when the track ends – it’s straight into “Jungle Fire”.

“Song To The Siren”

Whereas side one of the record was a mixture of different styles, side two is like one continuous piece. “Jungle Fire” starts with the free form vocal style of “Come Here Woman” and “I Woke Up” but after “You were an island behind the sun/Yes an island where my love could live and life breathes/From deep inside” an insurgent guitar riff pushes the track into another dimension. As he sings “I love you like a jungle fire” what appears to be a peculiar string instrument, or maybe a synthesizer provides more tension in the background. Repeated listening to this instrument indicates that this is really a foretaste of the next track, the title track, because this peculiar instrument is in fact Tim Buckley’s voice.

“Starsailor”, the track, is definitely unlike any track you will ever have heard in your life. It’s only Tim Buckley singing, but singing in sixteen different voices all assaulting you at once with a piece of intense beauty. There are no musical instruments – the mood is dark, mysterious, swirling and dangerous. To me this is a dangerous trip through dark, dank caverns with a surprise around every corner. Tim Buckley describes it best…”Oblivion carries me on his shoulder. Beyond the suns I speak and circuits shiver.” In an interview he said “I was as close to Coltrane as anyone has come.” Well, I tried listening to some Coltrane after that and although I appreciate that Coltrane was able to make a musical instrument sing, I never responded as emotionally as I do to this album.

“Starsailor”

“The Healing Festival” is next and is rhythmic yet free form for ninety seconds before Bunk Gardner plays the most outrageous sax solo you will ever hear; he plays like Tim Buckley sings – an immense range of notes and emotion. And listen carefully to that backing instrument again.

Lastly, the best thing Tim ever did: “Down By The Borderline”. This song has everything. It opens with a trumpet solo from Buzz Gardner then moves into another free form riff with the best vocals Tim Buckley ever gave. The timbre, inflection, resonance and intonation of Tim’s voice make this the most exciting piece of music I’ve ever heard.

“Down By The Borderline”

In 1987, Paul Gambaccini produced a book called “The Top 100 Rock’n’Roll albums of all time” and he placed “Starsailor” at Number 50.

In 2004, “Pitchfork” produced a list of the best albums of the ’70s and “Starsailor” was placed at Number 47. To back this up, the reviewer Dominique Leone wrote “Starsailor is a masterpiece in every sense. It captured its maker at his freest and most willing to throw caution and sales to the wind, while simultaneously at his most creative and most capable of pulling off songs and moods that, from practically anyone else, would sound cartoonish, clumsy and confused.”

Sadly, these days my attention span is so limited that I would never give it the time of day but listening to it over the last hour and a half, I wonder if it needs to be elevated one place in my list of the best records of all time.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

2 thoughts on “Starsailor by Tim Buckley

  1. Considering some of the quality covers of ‘Siren’ don’t Cocteau Twins possibly deserve a mention? Only saying!

    Like

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