If you had a time machine and could choose to live in any time, what would you choose? On the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, I’m not sure I’d choose 2022. Can anything redemptive appear from the depths of terror? The front cover of “Greetings From L.A.”, Tim Buckley’s seventh album, has a detachable postcard showing a haze of smog lying over Los Angeles and on the inside of the fold out sleeve, he is pictured holding a gas mask. When I bought this album in 1972, I detached the postcard and it is long since disappeared so my front cover has a rectangular hole in the front. Tim Buckley told “Melody Maker” that the message was that “even in this horrific atmosphere, there can still be a lot of musical activity going on”. My hope is that even with the threat of war in Europe, immersing myself in music can help me love the present and not worry about the future.
“Greetings From L.A.” was released in August 1972, nearly two years after “Starsailor“. These days, such a gap between albums would be unremarkable but his first six albums were released in just over four years. “Starsailor” was a highly experimental jazz/rock album and was not widely appreciated at the time. Sales were disappointing and his record label were insisting that he make more commercial music. In the intervening period between the two albums, Tim Buckley tried his hand at acting, appearing in a film called “Why?” alongside O.J. Simpson. He also tried to develop his music in even more freeform experimental ways but his shows were not well attended and his money started to run out. He moved his family into a cheap apartment, lost contact with the band that he had loved working with on “Starsailor”, telling his drummer that “I gotta feed my family“.
Martin Cohen was Herb Cohen’s brother, who managed both Tim Buckley and Frank Zappa and he introduced Tim Buckley to a producer and songwriter called Jerry Goldstein who went on to produce “Greetings From L.A.” He was currently producing the Latin funk-pop band War who were starting to have Top 20 hits. In turn, he brought Joe Falsia into Tim Buckley’s orbit as lead guitarist and he would go on to be a major influence on Tim Buckley’s last two albums, “Sefronia” and “Look At The Fool“. Many diehard Tim Buckley fans hated his last three albums because of his obvious intention to make more popular music. It’s always better if your cult hero remains largely unnoticed but how is he supposed to feed his family?
“Greetings From L.A. ” is a magnificent album. It’s nothing like the folk-jazz of “Happy/Sad” or “Blue Afternoon“, it’s a long way from the 60’s folk-rock of “Tim Buckley” and “Goodbye And Hello” but it does include some of the most outrageous inventive singing ever recorded to vinyl. Or CD. Or to a streaming service. Whatever. The vocals are truly extraordinary.
The other key feature of this suite of seven songs is that lyrically, they are mainly concerned with sex. At Royal Holloway College, I once loaned “Greetings From L.A.” to someone called Bob – a really great guy whom I sat next to in some Maths lectures. I can clearly remember walking into the squalid Union bar, where draught beer was 12p a pint, and being accosted by a scary guy with very long hair who knew my name and wanted to talk to me about this record. I knew his name, of course because everybody knew Robbie Lifeley. He had been in Bob’s room, listening to the album and Bob told me that it was actually my record. I guess Robbie Lifeley thought I was a really groovy guy, who knew everything about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Bob and Robbie Lifeley were in awe at the explicit sexual lyrical content of the record which of course had completely escaped me. He started the conversation by thinking I was really “with it” but ended it realising I was completely “without it”. I had no idea what “Beat me, spank me, whip me, mama make it right again” meant. I guess I thought that Tim Buckley had not done the washing up and was confessing his misdemeanours to his strict mother. He clearly didn’t live in luxury as a child because he told his mama that he would “keep those bed springs a squeaking all night long“. It must have been very difficult getting to sleep at night in an old bed. His family didn’t seem to be able to afford a bath because he had to “lick between the toes“. I am not exaggerating my naiveté.
The explicit nature of the lyrics is one of the least important aspects to this album. The vocal gymnastics throughout “Devil Eyes” are extraordinary. The fact that it’s set to a pop-funk beat with prominent keyboards and a guitar sound that dates the music to the early 1970’s only makes the song more exciting and memorable.
The album was recorded in a Hollywood studio which had a gym attached to it. One evening, Tim Buckley sat in the gym and played an improvised blues song that lasted for over an hour. Joe Falsia quickly set up a tape recorder and Jerry Goldstein and his girlfriend clapped along. The recording was later edited to a seven minute song called “Hong Kong Bar” which is excellent but not at all typical of the rest of the album.
I love Tim Buckley’s music. He has many fantastic songs – amongst my favourites are “Once I Was”, “Buzzing Fly”, “I Must Have Been Blind”, “Lorca”, “Down By The Borderline” and “Look At The Fool”. I think though, of all his songs, “Sweet Surrender” which closes Side One is my favourite. It starts with a simple guitar and Tim Buckley asking the question “You want to know the reason why I cheated on you?” and the way he sings “cheated” encapsulates all the guilt, anger and lust involved in his infidelity. He explains that he felt the relationship was going stale and wanted to “Make love feel new again”. At this point, strings start highlighting his emotions as he explains that there were aspects to love making that “you just never cared to show me” at which point his pitch changes from a deep baritone to an anguished falsetto. The next section of the song has a two note melody as he explains “So this flimflam lover boy found him a flamingo and his flamingo showed him how to tango and when they tangoed it’d send their hearts a flutter, tease him ’til he stuttered. Young and tender seemed to surrender.” This is just the beginning – the emotional impact of the song is about to increase. As he encourages his current girlfriend to form other relationships, he sings “Well I was just too young at heart” and his voice cracks and then he screams “Aaaaah. Just too cold, honey“. By now the strings are accentuating every scintilla of passion. The song quietens a little as he draws out “surrender” to about ten syllables. The conclusion of the song is astonishing. “So give it up, Mamma, it ain’t gonna be no good going round and around” and the strings descend until he sings “You hurt me and then I hurt you again. You’ll hurt me, then I’ll hurt you again. All that’s left to do is give it up”. Tim Buckley follows this by two dramatic, ear piercing screams that seems to last forever and express apology, regret, love, hurt and a restlessness that is at the core of this incredible record.