On a new singles collection, “Wings,” the late honey-throated folksinger/rocker’s evolution and maturation are wonderfully showcased.
BY FRED MILLS
Sequenced exactly midway through a revealing new compilation is arguably—to these ears, at least—Tim Buckley’s greatest song. Originally appearing on 1967’s groundbreaking Goodbye and Hello, the songwriter’s second full length, and subsequently released as a U.K. single, “Pleasant Street” ushers forth on a bold descending chord progression similar to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s ’66 hit “Summer in the City” (a none-too-inconsequential fun fact: the Spoonful’s Jerry Yester produced GaH), the singer spinning a hazy narrative that, on the surface, seems to be about the thrills and perils of love. Buckley, in near-flawless voice, swoops and swoons in his signature high tenor, the subtly orchestral music swelling like a classic Motown arrangement while the lead guitarist emits upper-fretboard peals of delight.
(Hold that thought: The posthumous live album Dream Letter: Live in London 1968, issued by the now-defunct Enigma Retro (and later, on Manifesto) label in 1990, showcased the tune as a spine-tingling medley of “Pleasant Street” and “You Keep Me Hanging On,” fully acknowledging the stylistic similarities between the Buckley original and the Supremes classic, which of course was also a hit in 1966. The chord progressions vary, but they mesh with astonishing symmetry – in multiple ways. Listen to it HERE.)
At twilight your lover comes to your room
He’ll spin you, he’ll weave you ’round his emerald loom
And softly you’ll whisper all around his ear
“Sweet lover, I love Pleasant Street
I wheel, I steal, I feel my way down to kneel… Down – down – down – down…
Cut to 2016: For the liner notes to Omnivore Recordings’ Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974, archivist/journalist/musician Pat Thomas is talking with the late Buckley’s close friend and lyrical collaborator, Larry Beckett, who chronologically discusses each of the set’s 21 songs—their origins, how some of them were written and recorded, their subsequent trajectory, etc. When they get to “Pleasant Street,” Beckett reveals that the song is actually about addiction, something Buckley would eventually come to know on intimate terms. “At twilight your lover comes to your room…” This knowledge may not necessarily be arcane, but it is unsettling, the same feeling you might have gotten when you finally learned that Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” was not about the giddiness of romance, but about the warm, glowing cocoon of heroin. How could a song so melodic, so sonically majestic, so gorgeous, concern a topic so brutal, so destructive, so devastating? (Below: Larry Beckett in recent years)
Part of Buckley’s genius, of course, was his skillful balancing of the sacred and the profane in his songs, both in their musical arrangements and their lyrical agility. These skills are on ample display throughout Wings, which takes you from the title track (a 1966 single and also a key track on his self-titled major label debut for Elektra that same year) all the way through “Who Could Deny You” (from 1974’s Look at the Fool, released about six months before his untimely death, at the age of 28, from an overdose). In between one encounters both evolution and maturation as a songwriter in sufficient quantities to suggest that not only was Buckley an artistic peer to other, more acclaimed West Coast artists such as Love, the Doors, and Brian Wilson, Buckley also was nowhere near his peak yet, making his death at a criminally young age all the more tragic.
There are numerous other Buckley compilations you can pick up in order to explore his oeuvre and his genius, of course. Just recently, Light In the Attic issued Lady, Give Me Your Key: The Unissued 1967 Solo Acoustic Sessions, pure unreleased manna for Buckley fans; that album’s wonderful title track, in fact, is included on the Omnivore record. As Wings omits material from Buckley’s middle period due to his not releasing any singles from some of his albums, it’s more buffet than banquet. But the tunes that are included, along with the Beckett interview, still make this a musical feast, even if you already have all of the albums that were released during his short lifetime.
My previous BLURT coverage of Buckley:
More Buckley on the web:
http://www.alwaysontherun.net/tim.htm (Fan tribute page)
http://www.timbuckley.net/prime_page.shtml (Official estate of Buckley page)
http://www.angelfire.com/ma3/rebopper/timmy1.html (Fan tribute page)
http://www.furious.com/perfect/larrybeckett.html (Perfect Sound Forever Larry Beckett interview)