I’ve been lucky enough to be in touch with a lot of my friends this week and I can categorically state that this is not a happy time for anyone. January seemed to last forever and the February weather shows little sign of relenting. Everyone is feeling so lonely. The imminence of a vaccination is good news but there’s no detail of how or when we are going to emerge from lockdown. Dreams of getting out for a lovely walk by the river are accompanied by the soundtrack of a blue melody, accentuating a desperate sadness. I had assumed that a vaccination would be followed by a “return to normal” but I must have been blind. The actuality of catching the train and meeting up with someone in a cafe to chase the blues away is still a long way off.
There is a bit of confusion about the recording and release of this album. Tim Buckley’s preceding three albums had been on Elektra. “Blue Afternoon” is on Frank Zappa’s “Straight” label and was released around the same time as “Lorca” which is on Elektra. I would have expected the experimental album to have been on Straight and the gentle melodic album, a partner to the beautiful, melodic “Happy/Sad” (released the previous year), to have been on Straight but it’s the other way around. This is because Tim Buckley owed Elektra one more album and, moving on from “Happy/Sad”, he recorded “Lorca” which was a big step forward. In the meantime, he signed a new contract with Straight and Herb Cohen, the co-founder of the new label, asked Tim Buckley for a more commercial album. So although “Blue Afternoon” was recorded second, it was released first.
The style of most of the songs on this album is a hybrid of folk and jazz. David Friedman’s vibraphone and Carter C.C. Collins’ vibraphone provide a gentle accompaniment to Tim Buckley’s 12 string guitar. The key elements are Lee Underwood’s magnificent restrained lead electric guitar and Tim Buckley’s voice. Lillian Roxon wrote that it’s impossible to describe Tim Buckley’s music because “there is no name yet for the places he and his voice can go”.
“Happy Time” opens the album and is a mid tempo upbeat song. It’s a good way in to the album, it’s accessible but is not as deep as most of the other songs on the album. The singer is happy to be returning to his lover, not knowing the heartache that is about to ensue.
“Chase The Blues Away” is slow and magnificent. Tim Buckley’s voice is deep and draws out the sounds of every syllable. It’s hard to imagine any song being slower, sadder or more likely to soak up the sadness of the listener, leaving a feeling of utter calm. Having returned home, the singer finds that there are problems with his relationship and he needs time to think, to chase his blues away. My vinyl copy, bought from The Spinning Disc in Tunbridge Wells, had a really horrible and insistent crackling throughout most of this song. I was 17 when I bought it. Most 17 year olds that I taught at BHASVIC had the confidence to take an album back and politely complain. In 1971, it never occurred to me that I had the moral high ground. I just felt unlucky and accepted it, not anticipating that 50 years later, I would still be irritated by it.
I absolutely love track 3, “I Must Have Been Blind” and I never tire of listening to it. It was covered on This Mortal Coil’s “Filigree And Shadow”. The lyrics describe the end of the relationship. The singer had tried to make it work but, having tried to “Chase The Blues Away”, he knows that it was doomed from the start. He must have been blind to think that they could make things work. They both know the difficulties of a relationship. It’s hard to be in love and it’s equally hard to live without love. Tim Buckley’s voice is at its most emotional on this song. Although broken by the breakup, he has the strength to continue and when he sings the title of the song, the feelings are overwhelming.
“The River” completes Side One and is equally affecting. It’s another slow song, oozing sadness and isolation. After the breakup described in “I Must Have Been Blind”, the singer is now living in isolation but he’s ready to start anew, if anyone wants to join him. The crashing percussion either describes the water crashing on the banks of the river or they foretell the impending doom brought on by the end of the relationship. Side Two awaits.
Side Two starts with “So Lonely” which, like “Happy Time” on Side One, is an accessible, mid tempo song. Given the title of the song, it’s unsurprising to find that the entreaties of the previous song have gone unanswered. No one has taken up his offer to join him in isolation by the river. Lee Underwood’s electric guitar on this song is inventive and very pretty.
In Lee Underwood’s amazing book, “Blue Melody”, he describes “Cafe” as “a song that’s best listened to in quiet, intimate surroundings, deeply relaxed, eyes closed”. The singer is, surprisingly, in a cafe but is now not so sad, just ruminating on the failure of his relationship. He remembers how they met but also how their love evaporated. What he is left with is the memory of “her every move, like a fever, burning inside” which does not leave him. The pace of this song is slower than funereal. It’s utterly beautiful and gorgeous. Lee Underwood plays his guitar by rubbing the tip of his right index finger on the treble strings in order to sustain the melodic lines.
Lee Underwood’s book is called “Blue Melody” which is the title of the next song. He was asked by Tim Buckley to play piano on the song which he describes as “a personal favourite. Its sensitive lyrics and melodic grace seem to distill Tim’s yearning heart and quiet power into a singular moment of courageous teardrop intensity”. Lee Underwood is underplaying his wonderful piano playing which is an unusual sound on any Tim Buckley song. He is now reconciled to living alone with his sadness but his muse has left him as he searches for the blue melody. (The video clip is from a year later and is played by his “Starsailor” band with Lee Underwood on guitar.)
Finally, the singer snaps and everything comes crashing down. The horror of his loneliness hits hard and he has to get out, to go away. “The Train” is much more free form and improvised. The sound is completely different to anything else on this calm, beautiful, laid back album. Tim Buckley is frantic and Lee Underwood’s plays a long, manic guitar solo. For the only time on the album, Tim Buckley loses all inhibitions and screams about his loss. Pain, grief and anger finally surface. A howl of anguish is the last sound of the album. Fantastic.
Although it was recorded after “Lorca”, “The Train” points the way to the experimentation of the next phase of Tim Buckley’s remarkable sequence of recordings that would peak with “Starsailor” in 1970. To record three such albums in 18 months is remarkable.
Disgracefully, this album is not available to purchase on its own at the moment but for only £12, Amazon are selling all of Tim Buckley’s first five albums, including “Blue Afternoon” which had to be the best £12 anyone could spend.
As always, immersing myself in beauty, intensity and excellence is a perfect way to escape the peculiarity of the planet’s predicament. That and sport. Today, Joe Root is 150 not out, Brighton are playing Burnley and England are playing Scotland in the best day of TV sport ever. Friends, music and sport. I couldn’t exist without them.