A Choir of Two Angels
At 9:42 PM on June 29, 1975, 28 year old singer Tim Buckley, blue and unresponsive, was rushed to the Santa Monica hospital in Los Angeles. He died later that night, a dark turn from celebrating the end of a tour with a successful show in Dallas. He left behind not only a string of folk and jazzy-experimental albums, but an estranged son named Scottie Moorehead, later to go by the name of Jeff Buckley.
Tim gained access to the music world through a man named Herb Cohen, who represented the likes of Frank Zappa and Tom Waits. The drummer for the Mothers of Invention recommended Cohen see his live show, and Cohen saw massive potential in 19 year old Tim’s unequivocal vocal talent. Tim’s relationship with his high school sweetheart turned young wife strained to the point of him moving out and leaving her along with his unborn son, Scottie. Looking chronologically at Tim’s records resembles a clear picture slowly distorting into abstract expressionism. His first album Tim Buckley was standard, albeit well-crafted late 60s folk, which he followed up with a psychedelic-tinged Hello and Goodbye, arguably the best starting point to see the possibilities of his career while still maintaining accessibility. His third album, Happy Sad, shows the first dive into heavy experimentation, featuring long and drawn out movements of vocal inflections, shimmering vibraphones, and pulsing congas. He released this at the same time as his more commercial folk album Blue Afternoon to maintain his previous fanbase, which proved unsuccessful. This lack of commercial attention caused him to abandon compromise along with hope for a lucrative career, diving into avant-garde with Lorca, intensifying his long vocal passages while introducing opaque improvisations.
Unfortunately, this daring turn alienated his remaining folk fan, so he resorted to taking up odd jobs like taxi driving to make ends meet as he worked on his next album. Hiring a group of jazz musicians, including the saxophonist for the Mothers of Invention, he released the most daring LP of his career and what he intended as his magnum opus. Starsailor abandoned folk while completely embracing the jazzy, experimental, psychedelic, and avant-garde ideas he played with on his previous albums. It featured free-form jazz with unhinged instrumentation, creating a maelstrom of sound raging around his vocal acrobats.
Voice thinning, he delved into his last string of unsuccessful albums he termed “sex-funk”. After finishing a final show of his tour with a sold out performance in Dallas, he celebrated all weekend on the way home with his band. Upon arriving to LA, he went to his old friend Richard Keeling’s house, wasted, to score some heroin (he had apparently been clean from drugs for a while). After Richard argued with Tim for a while in an attempt to prevent him from doing something Tim would regret, he gave up in frustration and placed a large amount of the brown horse on a mirror, shoving it his way and joking, “Go ahead, take the whole lot.” A drunken Tim took the challenge and snorted the entire offering. He soon began stumbling around Richard’s house heaving, so they took him home to his wife, who laid him down to sleep it off. She found a still body when she came back to check on him.
While Tim’s music delved into the cerebral, some of his lyrics explored internal struggles, especially those of his lost son. I Never Asked to be Your Mountain features the first lyrics showing his heartache for Scottie, such as ‘The Flying Pisces sails for time/ And tells me of my child/ Wrapped in bitter tales and heartache/ He begs just for a smile’. After splitting with his previous lyricist Larry Beckett, Happy Sad exuded more personal thoughts of Scottie in the song Dream Letter, ‘Oh, is he a soldier or is he a dreamer?/ Is he mama’s little man?/ Does he help when he can?/ Or does he ask about me?’
The musician famous as Jeff Buckley grew up Scottie Moorehead, a name his family still called him even after he took up his stage name. With music in his blood not just from his dad but also his mother, a classically trained pianist and cellist, his mom encouraged his singing, which he took interest in while listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin while growing up. Tim died when Jeff was 8 years old, and Jeff decided to change his last name from Moorhead to Buckley in his honor, even though he was unable able to attend the funeral. Jeff only met his father once. When he got older, he began playing guitar and did backing vocals for a few bands before his heritage gave him an opportunity through the contact of his father’s old manager, Herb Cohen, who offered his services after finding out the late Tim’s son was attempting to make a music career for himself. Listening to Jeff’s demos, he was convinced the young singer had a future.
Jeff gave his first solo singing performance at a tribute concert for his father, Greetings from Tim Buckley. He didn’t intend to draw media attention through the performance, only hoping to say the things he wished he could say to his father when he was alive. That plan didn’t pan out. His performance at his father’s tribute drew immediate comparisons to his dad from the audience as well as critics. He had his old man’s pipes. He soon began playing in cafés and clubs around East Village in New York City before settling in Sin-e, garnering an enthusiastic following from both listeners and studio execs.
His first and only album was the masterpiece Grace, showing arguably the greatest equal talent package of singer-guitarist-songwriter of all time. Critics and musicians alike fell in love with the album, and he toured the world to support it. With fame quickly overwhelming him, he eventually began performing under pseudonyms at cafes and bars again to revisit his old intimate settings, a voluntary embrace of anonymity his father was mostly forsaken to before his own death.
Following his stint of café shows, Jeff began writing his next album My Sweetheart the Drunk and recording it with his band. They had re-recordings scheduled in Memphis, TN, and while Jeff was waiting for his band to arrive later that night, he went to Wolf River Harbor on the Mississippi River with one of his roadies, Keith Foti. Jeff told Keith he was going out for a swim, and waded into the water fully clothed, singing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”. Keith turned around to move some items out of the way from a wake of a passing boat, then looked at the river where Jeff was nowhere to be found. Jeff’s body was found about a week later in the water, showing no traces of alcohol or drugs. He was 30 years old.
Father and son, while nearly strangers to each other, carried eerily similar lives of both breathtaking beauty and unexpected tragedy. Unabashedly and uncompromisingly loyal to their own daring artistic visions, stifled before they could experience veneration. Somehow a chorus from heaven briefly found an outlet to Earth, shut off soon after the universe knew it had a leak.