I suppose any reasonable review of Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 should begin with this. By the time Tim Buckley played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Lee Underwood, Dave Friedman and a hired-for-the-occasion Danny Thompson, he’d made two albums already, he was just weeks away from recording his first masterpiece, Happy Sad, and he was only 21 years old.
Of course, prodigies occur in all forms of music. But within pop music, even those who show great songwriting talent at an early age tend to be writing to a formula, whether it’s Chuck Berry-influenced surf songs or Brill Building girl-group pop. Tim Buckley’s songs could scarcely be further from formula. From Goodbye and Hello‘s pseudo-medieval prog-folk-epic title track or Happy Sad‘s brooding multi-part Love from Room 109 at the Islander (On the Pacific Coast Highway), Buckley’s music usually eschewed simple ABAB verses and choruses, and they had been more or less expunged by the time of Happy Sad.
He stood on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, then, a young man in a hurry: ambitious both professionally and artistically, with a voice that had never failed to carry him anywhere his imagination wanted to go. He was in the midst of throwing off the rather wet medievalisms of his first two records, had divested himself of lyricist Larry Beckett’s services, and was in a state of grace most musicians will never know.
The gig begins with Buzzin’ Fly, which was yet to be released and the majority of his audience would never have heard. The ringing suspended fourths and sixths of the intro, played by Buckley on his Guild 12-string acoustic, sound like the sun coming out. This is music of uncommon joy and wonder, as the lovestruck Buckley pleads to know everything about his new lover. Guitarist Lee Underwood, so crucial to Buckley’s fusion of folk and exploratory jazz, extemporises off melodic ideas that will reappear in the finished recording, while Danny Thompson, hired to stand in for Buckley’s regular bassist John Miller, sounds immediately at home playing this music.
Buzzin’ Fly would likely have been the first time that this audience had heard Buckley’s new folk-jazz music, on which he used his voice to explore and improvise within melodies, frequently over extended, loose structures. As if to reassure his fans, then, Buckley’s next song is from Goodbye and Hello. This reading of Phantasmagoria in Two for me crushes the more rock-influenced studio recording. Not simply because Buckley’s voice sounds richer, more adult and more wracked, but simply because the slower tempo allows greater nuance of phrasing. Underwood really burrows under the skin of this one; his needling outburst of tremolo picking after the first bridge is spine-tingling.
Buckley sticks with Goodbye and Hello material for the next song. Morning Glory was probably the best-known song from the album thanks to covers by Blood, Sweat & Tears (a bit of a horror show), Fairport Convention (wet, as you’d expect from first-album Fairport, but Richard Thompson’s on good form) and the Stone Poneys (wholly creditable, though Linda Ronstadt’s psuedo-British accent is odd), and the audience applaud in recognition after the first line. Again, this live version seems superior to the studio recording to me. Larry Beckett’s lyrics have never been my cup of tea, but Buckley wrings real poignancy out of them here, and the sparser arrangement suits the song and drains it of its preciousness. Danny Thompson wisely lays back, but Friedman’s vibes are particularly crucial.
In December 1966, Capitol released Fred Neil’s magnificent self-titled album, his second solo record. Its first song, The Dolphins, is one of the absolute pinnacles of 1960s folk rock. Tim Buckley covered it on stage in London, and would record it (as simply “Dolphins”) five years later for Sefronia. I don’t like that version much at all: the rhythm section stomps all over it, especially the bass player, and the backing vocals were a very bad idea. But Buckley could sure sing this song, so Dream Letter is much the best place to hear him do it. Underwood’s mid-song solo is particularly fine, and at other times in the song he seems to pick up on some of the ideas Pete Childs played on Neil’s recording, while Thompson underpins things with some inventive triplet patterns.
I’ve Been Out Walking begins by quoting Jackson Browne’s These Days (“Well I’ve been out walking; I don’t do too much talkinn these days”), which first surfaced the year before Dream Letter was recorded, on Nico’s 1967 debut solo album Chelsea Girl. I think we can assume Buckley was familiar with Nico’s recording and the quote is intentional, and was just a means of getting him started with his own song, as the rest of it bears little resemblance to Browne’s work. It’s loose and semi-improvised sounding, in the vein of his Happy Sad material. Buckley pushes his voice hard, at times sounding like Robert Plant, and the mid-song scat workout sees him reach up to the highest extremes of his incredibly wide vocal range*.
Like I’ve Been Out Walking, the delicate The Earth is Broken, which Buckley sings with just his own guitar as accompaniment, never appeared on a studio record. It’s said that the song is Buckley’s response to Larry Beckett being drafted, and he does seem genuinely bereft. Buckley’s vibrato, always extravagant but usually so assured, sounds vulnerable and halting, as if he’s not fully in control. It’s just a handful of chords over seven minutes, and almost uncomfortably naked, but it’s riveting, one of the best things in the whole set, and my favourite among the tracks played here that Buckley never released on a studio album.
He begins the improvised-sounding, mono-chordal Who Do You Love as if anxious to break the spell he’d spent the last seven minutes casting. He’s exuberant, but his voice has an edge to it. It’s jumpy, rather than joyful. Mostly, Buckley is playing with blues- and folk-song cliches. The playing by Friedman, Underwood and Thompson is fine, but it’s one of the gig’s less essential moments, and at nine and a half minutes it’s one of the few songs that outstay their welcome.
Returning to the Goodbye and Hello songbook, Buckley strikes up the dour, descending chord sequence of Pleasant Street. He takes it at a much slower tempo than the album cut, and in a lower key too, turning a dark fantasia into something much more obviously foreboding. It’s goosebump stuff, especially when nearly six minutes in he picks up the tempo and springs a surprise by launching into a verse and chorus of the Supremes’ You Keep Me Hangin’ On. Vanilla Fudge’s heavy-metal-bummer cover of the song had appeared the previous year, and while I can’t imagine Buckley having all that much time its melodrama, it’s impossible not to hear the two readings as at least somewhat spiritually akin, even if Buckley’s reading of the lyrics (“set me free why don’t you, babe” etc.) may have more to do with his relationship with drugs than romantic entrapment, when we consider the song from which he segued into it.
Love from Room 109 (at the Islander) is Happy Sad‘s 11-minute centrepiece, a stark, achingly atmospheric medley composed of three distinct but musically sympathetic songs, stitched together so naturally that you hardly notice the joins. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Buckley plays the first two thirds of the piece – songs originally demoed as Ashbury Park and Danang (available on the compilation Works in Progress**). The album recording of these songs is astonishing, but this reading is just as good. In the opening section, Thompson shows just what he can do with a nice chewy chord sequence to work with, and Underwood and Friedman play as if possessed of a shared mind.
Five minutes or so in, Buckley switches to the opening chords of Strange Feelin’. Now, the intro of this song on Happy Sad, as Buckley’s 12-string strums gradually emerge from the Miles Davis-quoting vibes, is one of the most magical passages of music I know, and Strange Feelin’ without its intro is a fundamentally different piece of music, even putting to one side the fact that Buckley is at this point still working the song out, trying on lyrics and melodies to see how they fit. It’s probably only 50% of the song it would become, but that’s still quite a song, and hearing it as part of a medley with the first two thirds of Love from Room 109 recasts it entirely. Buckley’s half-finished lyrics are much goofier than the finished piece would be (“Ah darlin’, don’t you marry, don’t you marry the milkman/’Cos he’s always making the rounds”), much more unguarded, and after the darkness of Ashbury Park and Danang, the goofing around is a joy.
After a jokey introduction about New York’s lack of carnivals, Buckley and Friedman begins a mash-up of Carnival Song from Goodbye and Hello and Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo, from the 1953 film Lili. Pauline Kael despised the film’s “sickly whimsy”, and something of that quality exists in Bronisław Kaper’s and Helen Deutsch’s quasi title song. The material is, at any rate, stretched rather thin over its seven minutes, and with Buckley’s guitar out of tune and his voice straining a little, this is the concert’s twee-est (and for me its weakest) moment.
Fortunately, the next track is Hallucinations, a setting for Thompson’s, Underwood’s and Friedman’s most adventurous playing. Thompson, who had gone toe to toe with John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and John Martyn, was in his element playing this music, mixing jazz and folk so completely that they become a whole new thing, a true alloy of both. Underwood’s long mid-song solo, which mixes dextrous legato passages with a descending melody lines harmonised in thirds, is maybe his best passage of playing in the whole gig.
Troubadour is another one of the songs that never appeared on a studio album. Marred slightly by Buckley’s out-of-tune 12 string, it nevertheless takes off in its wordless la-la-la middle section, particularly when Buckley starts scat-singing, three and half minutes in. Underwood, Friedman are again crucial, creating a sympathetic tapestry behind Buckley’s guitar and vocal.
The despondent heart of Happy Sad, Dream Letter sees Buckley sifting through his wrecked marriage to Mary Guibert and wondering about his son (“Is he mama’s little man/Does he help you when he can? Does he ask about me? […] oh, what I’d give to hold him”). It’s heartbreakingly raw and tender, and on both Happy Sad and on stage in London it inspired wonderful playing from his collaborators. Thompson’s bowed bass is more often felt than heard, but provides a mournful foundation for Underwood’s needling Telecaster and Friedman’s vibes.
As the song finishes, Buckley goes straight into Happy Time from Blue Afternoon, though taken a lot faster and in a higher key than the studio version, once again seeking to shake off the darkness as quickly as possible. Friedman’s vibes bubble over, but Buckley’s own vocal improvisations are as notable in their invention as anything his instrumentalists play.
The heavily rhythmic, raga-like strumming that begins Wayfaring Stranger suggests an interest in Indian music (an interest he was far from alone in holding in 1968. You Got Me Runnin’, the apparently improvised piece Buckley segues into, is, like Who Do You Love, a little drawn out for me, despite his impressive vocal pyrotechnics. In the opening and closing versions of Wayfaring Stranger, though, his explorations are more successful and breathe new life into a text that even fifty years ago was probably a little too familiar to many.
Once I Was is a gorgeous closer. The Dream Letter version, shorn of its Goodbye and Hello arrangement of brushed drums and cowboy harmonica, sounds even closer to Fred Neil’s style than it does on the album. It has one of Buckley’s simplest and loveliest melodies, and brings the concert to a wistful end. At its conclusion, Buckley says simply “Thank you very much”, and the the applause fades.
Dream Letter is an astonishing record. It’s axiomatic that Buckley’s studio albums contain snapshots of songs that found their truest expressions in live performance. In this respect, Buckley was more akin to a jazz instrumentalist – or a jam-oriented band like the Grateful Dead – than he was to most singer-songwriters. It’s the songs from Goodbye and Hello that benefit most from being reinterpreted on the stage. In the couple of years since that album’s release, Buckley’s voice and matured and deepened, and was more elastic, but more fundamentally than that, he brought greater emotion and maturity to his performances. There’s also the matter of Underwood, Friedman and Thompson, whose collective ability to follow Buckley wherever he went is astonishing; it’s worth reiterating that Thompson was a stand-in who’d had minimal rehearsal time. The way he integrates with the other players is incredibly impressive.
Serious Tim Buckley fans won’t need telling that Dream Letter (and Live at the Troubadour 1969) are as crucial to Buckley’s discography as the run of studio albums from Goodbye and Hello to Starsailor. But if you’re a casual Buckley fan, or a fan of jazz-inflected folk generally, this is must-listen, a marvel.
*He claimed he had five and a half octaves, but that seems a tall story that’s been accepted and passed down among fans. The lowest note I can think of in on one of his songs is the low B he sings in the first line of Happy Sad‘s Strange Feelin’. It’s quiet and quite thin sounding, so I don’t think he could go much lower than that and hit a strong note. The highest comes in that extraordinary outburst at the end of Gypsy Woman from Live at the Troubadour, recorded in 1969 (“Gypsy woman, ca-a-a-a-a-ast a spell on Timmy”), which is four octaves above his low B from Strange Feelin’. It’s possible he could hit higher than that, but I can’t imagine he could go an octave and a half above it.
**Thanks to James McKean for pointing me in the direction of the demo versions.