The Drama You've Been Craving
Monday May 21, 2001
Tim Buckley's 'Song To The Siren'
Twenty-five years after his death, his voice still calls to us
By Michael Goldberg
When I was 13 I would stare at the covers of record albums. Stare and stare. The record store was about a half-mile walk from my house, and I was there at least twice a week, looking at those covers. I remember looking at the cover of Tim Buckley's debut, Tim Buckley, for perhaps a year.
I tried to decode the cover photograph on that first album. Yeah, he looked a bit like Dylan with his long curly hair, but gentler, with less edge. He was duded up in a black mod turtleneck sweater and that black-and-white houndstooth sport coat was hanging off one shoulder. Who was this guy? The album was filed in the "folk" section. Should I spend my $3 (that's what a vinyl album cost then) on his album? There was no way to know what it would sound like without buying it. What if it wasn't any good?
Tim Buckley looked so vulnerable a little sad, uncertain. Later I'd find those qualities, again and again, in his music. Eventually, of course, I bought his second album, the stunning Goodbye and Hello, which became one of those albums I listened to again and again. I still listen to it.
I saw Tim Buckley perform once, and it was a disconcerting experience. The Buckley of 1967's Goodbye and Hello was a folk-rocker beginning to head somewhere really new. But by the time I saw him at Pepperland, a concert hall in San Rafael, Calif. (in 1970 I believe it was), he had moved on. Buckley played a 12-string guitar, but he was performing with a large band that included a second guitarist, drums, congas, bass, probably organ, and I believe someone on vibes and/or marimba. There may have been more musicians. The music they played was a kind of jazz/funk/folk/rock, the music you can hear Buckley creating on a number of his later albums.
At the time it didn't gel for me. I was one of those fans who wanted my artist to sound like he sounded on the album I loved; I wasn't prepared for Buckley's radical musical experiments, both live and on record. My memory of that show is that most of the audience didn't get it either, which only says that we were all experiencing something of a mass hallucination.
I recall checking out Starsailor and Blue Afternoon, but initially not giving them a chance. For years I had the mistaken impression that Buckley had only made one really good album: Goodbye and Hello. Only many years later did I come to appreciate his need as an artist to keep moving, even if the direction he took was far from the beaten path and meant that during his lifetime he would never achieve the success he deserved.
Tim Buckley died of a heroin overdose at 28; he's been dead for over 25 years. And yet, just this year, two collections of his songs have been released. One is a fine two-CD overview, Morning Glory: The Tim Buckley Anthology. If you've never listened to Tim Buckley, you could do worse then give this a try, although if I were you, I'd still start with Goodbye and Hello.
If you're like me and already have 12 Tim Buckley albums, not counting the new ones, the other one is far more interesting. The Dream Belongs to Me includes songs from 1968 and 1973 sessions (you really have to hear the previously unreleased "The Dream Belongs to Me" it's spectacular), including a most amazing version of "Song to the Siren." Some people think "Song to the Siren" is Buckley's best song. I wouldn't go that far, and besides, to say that would devalue the many other amazing songs he wrote or co-wrote.
"Song to the Siren"'s words were written by Buckley's frequent lyricist, Larry Beckett. "The imagery comes from Homer's Odyssey," Beckett says in the liner notes to Morning Glory. "I brought him my copy of the lyrics and put them in front of him while he was eating breakfast. There was a pause, he looked at them, picked up his 12-string guitar, and more or less played the song you hear. There were three or four of us around the table in complete amazement that something so beautiful could be born as we sat there."
Should I Lie With Death?
I have three versions of Buckley singing "Song to the Siren" now. The first time Buckley performed it live was on "The Monkees" TV show in 1967. That version, finally available, is included on the anthology. It's beautiful. Buckley sings the song in a much less mannered way more as a traditional folk song than he does on the second version, which originally appeared on Starsailor and is also included on the anthology.
On Starsailor, the song is surreal. Buckley is playing a 12-string guitar, but it's treated in ways that make it sound like an electric guitar going through a Leslie speaker. His voice is deeper; there is more drama in the performance. And there's something in the mix, a haunting sound that drifts in and out, as if you're hearing the siren herself. "I'm as puzzled as the newborn child/ I'm as troubled as the tide," he sings, having changed the far more interesting line "I'm as puzzled as the oyster."
On The Dream Belongs to Me Buckley is backed by a bassist who, the liner notes say, is "assumed to be Jimmy Bond," as well as guitarist Lee Underwood and his own acoustic 12-string. This version is stately. His voice is lighter, his singing more subtle, the way he gets quieter, more low-key as he sings the line "Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you."
This is a song that calls to you. Over and over, through the years. Of course it was covered on one of This Mortal Coil's albums in the mid-'80s, a beautiful interpretation that introduced many then-young music fans to Buckley. (That was the first time I paid attention to "Song for the Siren.") But to hear Buckley himself sing it oh my god!
Buckley plays the most heartbreaking instrumental break during the The Dream Belongs To Me version it's so understated, so touching. The song ends like this: "Should I stand amid the breakers/ Or should I lie with death my bride... / Swim to me, swim to me let me enfold you/ Oh my heart, oh my heart, is waiting to hold you."
Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.
© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.