Tim Buckley released nine incredibly diverse records in an eight-year span (1966-1974) before succumbing to a drug overdose potentially related to his ongoing commercial and financial struggles. Paradoxically, the very source of his commercial failures contributes to his current favored status among cult artists: his stylistic restlessness.
Where his first album was fairly standard late-’60s singer/songwriter fair, he quickly delved into elements of acid folk and chamber pop for his follow-up, Goodbye and Hello (1968). Had he continued on this course, he’d have probably mined plenty of chart gold into the early ‘70s (and he might have even saved us all from the rise of James Taylor). But his next release, HappySad (1969), introduced extended jazz-influenced jams that pointed into the uncharted territories he’d explore on his next three records. Blue Afternoon (1969), Lorca (1970) and Starsailor (1970) infused elements of free jazz and avant-garde rock that alienated the delicate sensibilities of most folk-rock fans of the time. Buckley’s even more unexpected shift into sexually explicit funk over the course of his final three records shook off most of the fans still clinging to the express train that was his musical career.
Buckley’s resurrection began in the early 1980s with a few anthologies demonstrating that if he wasn’t a direct influence upon the growing underground American music scene that was at the time dominating college radio, he was certainly an earlier, spiritual cousin. Dream Letter: Live in London 1968, in 1990, then presented the artist at a performance peak, spotlighting highlights from his first three records and jamming with a crack, jazz-inflected band including Pentangle’s Danny Thompson. Then, of course, Buckley’s estranged son, Jeff, released Grace (1994) only to himself succumb to a too-early death before completing a follow-up. The cult of mourning and the myths of what-could-have-been that built up around the son soon drew in the father, prompting another era of rediscovery and reappraisal of his work.
Most of the material locked in Buckley’s vaults, if the past few decades are accurate, has been live material. The mercurial singer/songwriter was an inexhaustible live performer, nearly continuously on tour during his recording years. Much more rare has been studio or home recordings revealing alternate takes of well-known tracks or, most cherished, unreleased songs. Lady, Give Me Your Key from Light in the Attic accomplishes the rare feat of giving listeners both: six previously unheard solo, acoustic versions of songs that would appear on Goodby and Hello along with seven songs that did not appear on any of Buckley’s albums, with five among those never heard in any form until now.
The Buckley we hear in these recordings is still finding his voice, both as a singer and songwriter, and still working with lyricist Larry Beckett. There is, then, throughout these cuts, a mix of rawness and naivety that can be alternately ingratiating or grating. He was barely 20 years old at the time of these home recordings, after all. On the opening track, “Sixface”, for example, Buckley sounds as if he’s still trying to find his voice; the keening howl and octave-dropping range that he would later perfect hasn’t yet gelled on this track. Similarly, listening to the fits and starts of “Contact”, it is easy to understand why the song was never developed for inclusion on an album. “Once Upon a Time” is a stronger song, but it still pales when compared with “Knight Errant”, a similar but more fully realized work.
Buckley had recorded a rock-oriented version of “Lady, Give Me Your Key” in 1967 as a potential single (along with planned B-side “Once Upon a Time”) but it was never released by Elektra. It would finally appear on the 2009 CD box set Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968). The version that appears here is among the strongest tracks in the collection, though its mock bravado sounds dated, an impression that is compounded by the borderline misogyny of “Sixface” and, of course, Buckley’s mean-spirited kiss-off to Mary Guibert, Jeff’s young mother, “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain”. Buckley’s attitude in these songs reveals an often under-examined underside of the so-called sexual revolution, one that while supposedly freeing women from the constraints of Puritanized sexuality nonetheless continued to impose expectations of subservience to men upon them. A still-immature 20-year-old performer frozen in time 50 years ago can hardly be held to task for not ascribing to our contemporary perspectives on gender roles, of course, but the reminders of old attitudes can still strike sour notes.
Hearing the familiar songs in an unfamiliar setting does, though, enhance listener appreciation for Buckley’s growing artistry. The version of still-gelling “Once I Was” heard here can stand with any that was previously released. So, too, for “Pleasant Street” and “No Man Can Find the War”. The intimacy of the recordings draws the listener in and amplifies long-established connections. It must be noted that the sound quality of these recordings is crisp and resonates with depth; John Baldwin’s mastering and Pat Thomas’s production work is exemplary. The same can be said for Thomas’s interviews with Beckett and Jerry Yester, as they add a personal level of understanding of both Buckley and the recordings that will be appreciated by longtime fans. The recordings had been made for Yester, one of Goodbye and Hello’s producers, and the first seven songs collected here come from a one-of-a-kind home recording tape that Yester preserved in his archives. The remaining six songs were recorded in Manhattan on acetate, of which only one of the two copies is known to survive.
It’s a minor miracle that we have these recordings to enjoy. And while not containing any exceptionally groundbreaking revelations, Lady, Give Me Your Key should nonetheless be embraced by Buckley’s ever-growing fan base, particularly those who appreciate his folk troubadour persona. Not unlike the artist they present, these early recordings are striving and imperfect, occasionally frustrating, but ultimately endearing, even rewarding. Light in the Attic has performed a valuable service in curating this collection with such care.