A Voice Twice Silenced: Tim and Jeff Buckley
Orange Coast, September 2012
The tragic and parallel father-son story of O.C. musicians Tim and Jeff Buckley is about to hit the big screen. Now the world will ask what we’ve wondered all along: ‘What if?’
It sounds like “A Star Is Born” as directed by Oliver Stone.
In 1991, a group of musicians gathered inside St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights to pay tribute to Tim Buckley. The 1960s troubadour, who attended high school in Orange County, took his music on a mind-blowing journey from folk to folk-rock, then jazz, then avant-garde, and finally, to funk-rock before his death by accidental overdose at 28.
The two dozen or so musicians who played that evening, a mashup of diverse artists offering their interpretations of Buckley’s songs, included vocalist Syd Straw, punk pioneer Richard Hell, and Gary Lucas of Captain Beefheart. But everyone agreed the night’s stand-out performance came from 24-year-old Jeff Buckley, the son Tim hardly knew.
Organizers and members of the audience marveled at how much Jeff resembled his darkly handsome, slightly built father. Danny Fields, Tim’s former publicist, recalled how the lights went out and a single spotlight found a figure on the stage: “I saw the cheekbones and the profile and went, ‘Ahhhh!’” A New York Times review underscored another comparison: The younger Buckley had a voice that “echoed his father’s keening timbre.” Guitarist Lucas sensed the inevitable: “I recognized that Jeff was a brilliant light.”
Jeff would go on to emulate his father with his own opus of eclectic music, but there was another, more tragic, parallel to their lives. A star on the rise, Jeff drowned in 1997 at age 30.
It’s not surprising that such a painful, coincidental twist of fate would become fodder for Hollywood movies, especially when it involves easy-on-the-eyes types who embody James Dean recklessness. But with three planned Buckley films—one of which premieres at this month’s Toronto Film Festival—the haunting story of two influential and interrupted musical talents with cult followings is about to go mainstream.
Twenty years after his star turn, Jeff Buckley—played by actor Penn Badgley of “Gossip Girl”—is back on stage, in a concert recreation for the feature film “Greetings From Tim Buckley.”
The scene is the culmination of a plot line that follows Jeff through four days of soul-searching and flashbacks. “It’s about him finding his voice, coming to terms with who his father was … he obviously inherited his talent from him, even though they were estranged,” says Patrick Milling Smith, one of the producers. “It’s a real father-and-son story, with shades of ‘Hamlet.’” Those who have read the script say it has a documentary feel.
Tim Buckley’s first wife, Mary Guibert (Ghee-bear), reached by phone at her ranch in Mendocino County, describes it differently. “It’s an invasion of privacy. This is all about them wanting to make money off my son.” As the fiercely protective caretaker of Jeff’s estate, she is the executive producer of a second feature project, “Mystery White Boy,” which is expected to begin production by December. Starring Reeve Carney of Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” it’s a more traditional biopic. Producer Michelle Sy (“Finding Neverland”) says the story transcends Jeff Buckley. “I think everyone can relate to a young man with a dream in search of himself and his true voice, and that they’ll want to follow him on his journey.”
“A Pure Drop,” the third film, gets its title from Bono’s reaction to Jeff’s death: “… a pure drop in an ocean of noise.” As “Drop” writer-producer Train Houston points out: “It speaks to Jeff’s influence: So many artists cite his work.”
On his brief journey to the edge of widespread fame, Jeff became a darling of musicians as disparate as Robert Plant and Radiohead. Joan Osborne praised his “one-in-a-billion voice and emotionally piercing guitar style.” Elvis Costello noted: “Not everyone can get up and sing something they take a liking to and make it their own … Jeff did that naturally. Only a handful of people are capable of that.”
Since Jeff’s death, his music has been named to assorted critics’ best lists. There have been biographies and articles and numerous documentaries—and, as a result, the posthumous spotlight has found his father, who was previously eclipsed by psychedelic, in-your-face ’60s acts. Tim also is the subject of several biographical books and a slew of print appreciations. His music is being rediscovered.
Flash back almost 50 years to Bell Gardens, an industrial working-class suburb of Los Angeles. Tim struggled in a difficult relationship with his father, who suffered a head trauma while serving during World War II that left him unstable and occasionally violent. But the teenager found an outlet in sports, on the junior varsity football team and the baseball team at Buena Vista High School.
During his junior year, Tim transferred to Loara High in Anaheim where he traded sports for music. A member of the class of ’65, the self-taught banjo player and later guitarist was influenced by folk acts of the time: the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Odetta, and Judy Henske (aka “Queen of the Beatniks”).
In his signature black turtleneck, Tim often congregated in the quad with other artsy students, several of whom became lifelong friends. In gym class he met Jim Fielder, who introduced him to budding poet Larry Beckett. The three formed the Bohemians—with Beckett on drums and Fielder on bass—and put together a second group, the Harlequin 3, which fused poetry and music. The Bohemians played covers at sock hops; the Harlequin 3 sought out “hoot nights,” or open-mic nights, at local clubs. Tim’s playfully wicked nature was infectious. “He taught me how to ditch school,” recalls bandmate Beckett, laughing. “We’d go up to L.A. and hang out at art galleries on La Cienega.”
Tim flirted with pretty Mary, who was a grade behind him, in French class. Their relationship blossomed quickly. Attracted to Tim’s rebelliousness and poetry, she was still in school when she discovered she was pregnant. A wedding followed at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Anaheim. Mary, a pianist who also played cello in the school orchestra and acted in community theater, had artistic interests of her own, but put them aside while her husband followed his dreams.
Tim gave in to family pressures and attended Fullerton Junior College, but dropped out after a few weeks to pursue his career. It was a heady time for young musicians.
“You have to understand,” says Beckett, “the ’60s weren’t so much a turning point as a continual torrent of turning.” Speaking from his home in Portland, Ore., where he works in computer programming and writes and publishes poetry, Beckett ticks off the era’s game-changing artists: “You had the Beatles, Dylan, Donovan. … We were constantly listening to the new sounds, absorbing it in our blood, and then writing our own things.” The night he and Tim attended a Dylan show in Long Beach “we both had tears in our eyes.” Then there was Dylan’s Hollywood Bowl performance: “This was the first time we’d heard material from [his ground-breaking album] ‘Highway 61.’ We were listening to ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ and just staring at each other, like, ‘What is going on?’ ”
Composer Buckley and lyricist Beckett were collaborating when the Bohemians started playing original material at local clubs, including the Paradox, a hip little Tustin Avenue joint in Orange. (“I always went with them. I was the groupie,” Mary jokes.) Other novice talent included Jackson Browne and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The Bohemians also played the Troubador in West Hollywood and other clubs in and around L.A.
Through Jimmy Carl Black, an acquaintance of Fielder’s and drummer for the Mothers (later Frank Zappa’s backup band, the Mothers of Invention), they caught the attention of Mothers’ manager Herb Cohen. Cohen sent a demo to Jac Holzman at Elektra, an edgy record label where folkies such as Judy Collins and protest singers such as Phil Ochs were under contract.
Cohen and Holzman thought Tim had some of Dylan’s qualities, so only Tim was signed to Elektra. Holzman simultaneously signed the Doors, whose frontman Jim Morrison—with his striking good looks and propensity for artsy material—seemed cut from the same cloth as Tim. Both fit the zeitgeist’s template of the sexy, sensitive singer-songwriter.
Beckett says there were no hard feelings about Tim going solo: “The music industry was in this mood … it wanted solo acts, not groups. That’s the way it was.” Beckett and Fielder continued working with Tim, including on his 1966 debut album, “Tim Buckley.”
Things may have been groovy with the guys, but it wasn’t all peace and love for Tim and Mary. Soon after their wedding, she learned that she’d had a false pregnancy. By the time she was carrying Jeff, the couple were on shaky ground. “He was already gone when I was 5½ months along,” recalls Mary. When their son was born in Anaheim, Tim was pursuing his career in New York and living with another woman.
With untamed curly hair and soulful eyes, Tim was a compelling photo subject—and a contender to play Woody Guthrie in the 1976 film “Bound for Glory.” The role went to David Carradine. But it was Tim’s exceptional voice, not acting, that brought him success. A natural tenor, he could easily drop to the bass register or climb to falsetto. He drew fans, performing on bills with trippy acts of the day: the Mothers of Invention, Nico, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Byrds, Janis Joplin, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. But he became increasingly tough to peg.
“As a serious artist—which he was—he did not cling to ideas and concepts he had already fulfilled. As a result, he continually let go of the outworn past and embraced new directions,” explains guitarist Lee Underwood, who worked extensively with Tim after his move to New York.
“Over the course of nine years, he explored five different [genres],” says Underwood, who authored the biography-memoir Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered. “Artistically, he was right-on. Commercially, his evolutionary developmental process proved unprofitable.”
Tim knew what he was up against. Of his third LP, the 1969 progressive folk jazz “Happy Sad,” he told The New York Times: “I can see where I’m really headed, and it will probably get further from what people expect of me.” As predicted, his music grew more challenging and audiences fell away.
Tim had remarried and adopted his second wife’s young son when Mary showed up at his April 1975 concert at the legendary Golden Bear in Huntington Beach—with 8-year-old Jeff. “I thought, ‘Jeff will always be Tim Buckley’s son. The boy needs to know who his father is,’” she recalled. Father and son had met only once before, according to Jeff, when the boy was 2.
“Jeffrey took it all in,” Underwood later wrote. “His eyes big, his concentration intense, appreciation visible on his face.” Jeff, who by then was trying to play a six-string guitar that had belonged to his maternal grandmother, spent the next four days with Tim and his family. “Jeff returned with a matchbox with his father’s phone number written in it,” Mary said, “and a new outfit.”
Three months later, Tim overdosed on heroin. There was no mention of Jeff in The Orange County Register obituary. And neither he nor his mother was invited to the funeral in Santa Monica.
Jeff Buckley often told journalists that his performance at the 1991 tribute concert was his way of paying his last respects. His decision to sing “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain,” Tim’s autobiographical ode to his former wife and son, wasn’t easy. “It’s a beautiful song. I both admired it and hated it,” Jeff said. He later added: “There are all these expectations that come with this ’60s offspring bullshit, but I can’t tell you how little he had to do with my music.”
Occasionally he revealed another side of their complicated relationship. In the 2001 biography Dream Brother: The Lives & Music of Jeff & Tim Buckley, David Browne writes of the teenage Jeff casually showing his father’s vinyl albums to his friends. “He didn’t diss his father with me. He loved him,” says Lucas, who worked closely with Jeff after the tribute concert. In Lucas’ opinion, “Tim was probably his biggest influence.”
He also may have been Jeff’s biggest competition. Brooklyn-based photographer Merri Cyr, who befriended Jeff after shooting pictures for two of his album covers, as well as on tour, says Tim’s ghost was apparent in Jeff’s life. “Sadly, I think Jeff constantly compared himself to him. I’m paraphrasing here, as it was a long time ago, but I remember Jeff once saying something like, ‘By the time Tim was my age he had seven albums out and had slept with more beautiful women than I ever will. I can never catch up.’ ”
Cyr compiled 360 photographs of Jeff, together with interviews by people who knew him, and published her book, A Wished-For Song: Portrait of Jeff Buckley, in 2002.
But Beckett says there were more differences between the two than there were similarities. Jeff, he says, was “shrewd about the business.”
Born and intermittently raised in Orange County, Jeff grew up as Scotty Moorhead. Scott was his middle name; Moorhead, the surname of Mary’s second husband, who introduced Jeff to the music of Pink Floyd, the Who, and Jimi Hendrix before exiting the marriage when Jeff was about 6.
By the time he got to Loara High, where his parents had met, he was Jeff Buckley. A member of the class of ’84, he played electric guitar in the school jazz band and garage bands, joined the debate team, and competed in an academic decathlon, winning an award for an Ernest Hemingway parody essay. Later, from the stage and in interviews, he would ridicule his background. “Jeff always referred to Orange County as a cultural wasteland,” Cyr says. “I think perhaps that had more to do with how he grew up and what he was exposed to than anything. He told me that when he lived in O.C., he had always lived out of a paper bag and never really had a home.”
Jeff attended Los Angeles’ Musicians Institute and was working as a session musician when he was invited to participate in the 1991 tribute to his father.
That night at St. Ann’s, Jeff gave an encore, “Once I Was,” the first Tim Buckley song that his mother ever played for him. He fought back tears and during the final notes broke a guitar string—so he ended with an a cappella cry.
With or without that poignant punctuation, the die was cast. As Tim’s former publicist Danny Fields would put it: “He had a heart-stopping thing. … Only a handful of times have I been in a room and thought, ‘Wow—rocket to stardom.’ ”
Things did move quickly. Jeff joined and later left Lucas’ innovative Gods & Monsters rock band. In between, he and Lucas talked about their shared passion for the Doors, the Smiths, Led Zeppelin—and movies. Jeff especially enjoyed Val Kilmer’s 1991 performance as Jim Morrison in “The Doors.” Together, he and Lucas wrote the songs “Grace” and “Mojo Pin”—Jeff penned the lyrics to music by Lucas. “We fit like a glove,” says Lucas, who has written a book about Jeff for an Italian publisher. “I probably never met a more talented young performer.”
Going solo, just as his father had done, Jeff was playing coffeehouses and late-night clubs, notably the Sin-é (Shin-ay) in the East Village and often to SRO audiences of awestruck young women, when he signed a Columbia record deal.
The four-song 1993 EP “Live at Sin-é” was followed by his only studio album, “Grace,” released in 1994. (Extended versions of both since have been issued.) Then came two years of touring. He was on the road in Europe when People named him one of the magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People.” A music critic for Britain’s Guardian told People: “You can see a bit of Jim Morrison in there. And of Byron, Shelley, and Keats as well. He’s a rocker with soul, but also quite juicy.” On a more serious note, Britain’s much-admired Mojo magazine named “Grace” the album of the year in 1994. The publication has carried a torch for Jeff ever since, in 2006 naming his song “Grace” the top modern rock classic of all time. In 1995, Jeff was nominated for best new artist both by Rolling Stone and the MTV Video Music Awards for “Last Goodbye.” No wonder his fans were clamoring for his second studio album.
In May 1997, Jeff was in Memphis, Tenn., at work on the album “Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk,” when he decided to go for a nighttime swim in the Wolf River, a tributary of the Mississippi. Fully clothed and wearing Doc Martens boots, he was singing the chorus of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” just before he drowned in the wake of a passing boat. To quash persistent rumors, his estate later issued a statement: “Jeff Buckley’s death was not ‘mysterious,’ related to drugs, alcohol, or suicide. We have a police report, a medical examiner’s report, and an eyewitness to prove that it was an accidental drowning, and that Mr. Buckley was in a good frame of mind prior to the accident.”
The music world was distraught. “Second-generation pop stars hardly ever live up to their illustrious parents,” wrote one U.K. music journalist. “Jeff Buckley was the exception to that rule.”
For listeners familiar only with Jeff’s work, discovering his father’s music is a revelation. “The size of Tim’s voice will floor those coming to it new,” predicted New York Daily News music critic Jim Farber. “Jeff inherited his dad’s range, as well as his sense of rapture.”
Was it nature or nurture? During a 1995 multi-cigarette interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn, Jeff declared: “Genetics be damned. … I have completely different musical choices [than Tim].” But when Lee Underwood listened to Jeff’s music, he heard Tim’s influence throughout. “Much to his credit, Jeff had learned from a master, even though he was unable to acknowledge that debt in public.”
Father and son shared other similarities—including signature songs. Jeff’s mournful rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” distinguished the “Grace” album. The young musician first heard it in 1991 covered by John Cale, a founder of the experimental rock group Velvet Underground. Jeff transformed Cohen’s breathy, bluesy ballad by adding a complex intro that foreshadows the chorus, lifting the song an octave to add dramatic tension to the melody. Ranked among “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” by Rolling Stone, Jeff’s version became a TV soundtrack favorite: “ER,” “The O.C.,” “House.” Now it’s a go-to song for “The X Factor” and “American Idol” contestants.
Meanwhile, Tim’s unsettling “Song to the Siren,” with lyrics by Larry Beckett, has become a modern classic. A wild-haired Tim first performed it on the 1968 series-ending episode of “The Monkees.” Its lyrics are unmistakably of the ’60s: “I am puzzled as the oyster / I am troubled as the tide / Should I stand amid your breakers / Or should I lie with death, my bride?” Two years later, Tim recorded it on “Starsailor,” his 1970 album that fused avant-garde musical ideas, jazz, and rock.
This Mortal Coil, with singer Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, brought “Siren” to light in 1983. In the years since, the Mortal Coil version has been heard on film soundtracks including David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” and Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones.” There’s also a roster of about two dozen “Siren” cover artists, including Bryan Ferry, Robert Plant, Sinead O’Connor, and George Michael.
The upcoming “Greetings From Tim Buckley,” which premieres at the Toronto festival running Sept. 6 through 16, focuses on Jeff, examining him through the prism of Tim, whose music takes center stage. That allowed director-co-writer Dan Algrant—who saw Jeff perform at New York clubs—to sidestep the issue of licensing Jeff’s songs. Furious that her son’s story is part of a film she did not authorize, Mary jumped into the fray with “Mystery White Boy,” also the name of Jeff’s final tour. “He deserves a movie made honestly, clearly, and with as little sentimentality and bullshit as possible.” Over the years, several filmmakers have been involved with that project. In July, Amy Berg, known for her work on documentaries including “West of Memphis” and “Deliver Us From Evil,” came aboard as director. Source materials for Ryan Jaffe’s script include David Browne’s book about the Buckleys, Dream Brother, and the soundtrack will feature Jeff’s music. Reeve Carney will star as Jeff, and Patricia Arquette as his mother.
The third feature in the works is the brainchild of producer Train Houston, who was the first to option Dream Brother in 2005, developing it with Tobey Maguire’s company. When Maguire Entertainment dropped the project about a year later, Houston let that option expire—the “Mystery White Boy” team picked it up—and instead Houston chose Underwood’s book and the Jeff Buckley biography A Pure Drop, by Rolling Stone Australia editor Jeff Apter, as sources.
It’s curious that Jeff and, to a lesser extent, Tim, are finally garnering media attention, considering both men behaved as if they weren’t long for this world. Prolific Tim recorded nine studio albums in less than 10 years: “His mother fed him the line about how so many beautiful poets, writers, singers, and songwriters die early,” says Underwood. “As a result, Tim felt pressured to get as much done as he could before death snatched him away.”
To Cyr, who saw Jeff through the revealing lens of her camera, her subject also seemed to “view himself as a person whose fate was predetermined by history. I think the life he created for himself was based on an archetypal image.”
That image has been increasingly blurred, because the genesis of Jeff’s story lies in Tim’s. As in Hamlet, the son was both tormented by, and in awe of, a revered father’s ghost. Today, music, film, and fame have embraced both Buckleys. Estranged in life, father and son have been united in death.