Simon Joyner once said to me I wish I could sing like Tim Buckley, but I do what I can with what I have. I said I felt the same way. This morning I was looking for something irrelevant to listen to while nearing completion of Gnawing on The Bone, an instrumental project I’ve been procrastinating finishing for several years. As one last gasp of delay I dipped back into this version of Driftin’, which is one my favorite vocal performances of all time. It makes someone like Neil Young sound like child’s play.
I love the studio version off the Lorca album, but this version from the Live at The Troubadour album is even better. There’s something you can feel in the air of the club that captures the satisfaction Tim felt as he was jettisoning the confines of his poppier earlier period. Lorca was recorded only a few weeks after this show, and Starsailor was recorded almost exactly a year later. Those two albums came out in the same year (1970), and they define the apex of his marriage of more traditional Troubadour-style acoustic guitar songwriting and the extended structures of the jazz-influenced avant-garde. It seems fitting that Art Tripp from the Magic Band was there on stage that night. Folk Implosion was supposed to play the Troubadour right before we broke up, it makes me wish that show had happened cuz I would have really liked to stand in that same spot where those guys were, even if I can’t sing like this.
Seems strange I never considered before that the Lorca album could have been named after the poet. A quick Wikipedia glance says that it was and that Tim and guitarist Lee Underwood were reading him around that time. Lyrically, I don’t think Tim measures up to Lorca, though the story of what happened to his son Jeff makes clear that wasn’t his biggest shortcoming.
I’d be curious to know what Buckley and Underwood understood of Lorca’s leftist politics, and of the sacrifice he made by standing by them in the face of the fascist government of Franco, who had his soldiers assassinate him. Songs like The Earth Is Broken from 1968 make clear Buckley understood the dynamics of how the Vietnam war was degrading his country and environment, but to my knowledge he didn’t have the formal political analysis and commitments that Lorca did.
Certainly, Buckley’s death wasn’t a political martyrdom like Lorca’s was, but there was a political context to his death from a heroin overdose in 1975. Alfred McCoy’s 1972 book The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade chronicled how the CIA was using heroin trafficking in the Golden Triangle of Burma and Thailand and Laos to finance and prosecute the Vietnam war and its covert spread into Cambodia and Laos. The last line of the book said that the US could not rid its playgrounds and neighborhoods of cheap and readily available heroin without giving up its imperial ambitions in places like Vietnam, because those wars couldn’t be financed without that revenue. We all know what choice was made, and how the same patterns are playing out today with war in Afghanistan and the Opiod crisis in the country today. (Only much worse – world opium production was 1,200 tons in 1971, the year after Lorca and Starsailor came out, but it reached 10,500 tons by 2017. There were 68,000 users in the US in 1970, including Tim, but that’s nothing compared to 886,000 in 2017.) Maybe Tim would have found another way to do himself in if those poisons hadn’t been so readily available due to American imperialism – but maybe not.