My Fleeting House
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2007, Volume 14, #6
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Spanning a brief nine years from 1966 to 1975, Tim Buckley’s musical career was far too short. Before his tragic death from an accidental heroin overdose, Buckley created some of the most challenging and underappreciated compositions of his era, and the new DVD, the aptly titled My Fleeting House, should go a long way toward putting his work into perspective.
Today, Jeff Buckley, Tim’s son, is arguably the more famous of the two artists, but fans of the younger Buckley would do well to watch My Fleeting House. The physical resemblance between the pair is uncanny, to be sure, but what is more startling is the three-and-one-half octave vocal range that they both shared. Despite the differences in their approaches as well as the aesthetics of their song choices, they seemed to have sung with one perfect and unearthly voice.
Because the elder Buckley was never exactly a household name during his lifetime, video records of his performances are scant and hard to find. The concept of having them all collected in one place, as they are on My Fleeting House, is, itself, an admirable venture. Yet, as many music fans know, there are lots of examples of video collections that, despite the excellence of the material contained within them, are boring and repetitive to watch. Thankfully, My Fleeting House is very well conceived and beautifully executed. Not only are there plenty of high quality performances from sources as varied as Buckley’s appearances on The Monkees and The Steve Allen Show, but also the linking narratives are intelligent, informative, and relevant to the songs and the images that accompany them.
Each of the 14 musical selections on My Fleeting House is set up and described by three of the people most familiar with Buckley’s work. Lee Underwood, his lead guitarist for seven of the nine years of his working life, provides insight into the musical directions that they pursued together on their restless journey to capture the perfect accompaniment for his powerful and emotive voice. In addition, Larry Beckett, who was Buckley’s writing partner until he was drafted and sent to Vietnam, and David Browne, the author of Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley, provide much needed personal and historical context to the array of performances that have been compiled.
What emerges, as one progresses through My Fleeting House, is a portrait of an uncompromising artist who loved music, but who also was unable to embrace or maneuver within the industry. Like the Grateful Dead in its early days, Buckley seemed to miscalculate or purposely sabotage opportunities that could have increased his fame and exposure. When he performed on The Monkees, for example, he sang Song to a Siren, an intricate composition that he had just written, rather than one of his singles or a cut from his then-recent album Happy Sad. Despite the excellence of the performance, it was clearly not material that was suitable for a show that was geared toward teenyboppers.
It is uncanny, when watching some of the videos on My Fleeting House, to realize that Buckley was still a teenager himself when some of his early masterpieces were recorded. As a young man, it was evident that he had a depth in his voice, reach, and approach that belied his years. Beginning as a folk troubadour, he soon morphed into a hippie balladeer before embracing R&B and evolving through edgy rock and outside jazz. Indeed, Buckley was a restless musical seeker. Gifted and mature well beyond his years, he raced through genres, eating them up as he reached for a kind of musical Holy Grail that he could sense but could not, as yet, see or hear.
Essentially, My Fleeting House is about Tim Buckley, the artist, and not Tim Buckley, the man. His personal life, relationships, and estrangement from his wife and his son are not explored here — nor is the addiction that killed him. Those wanting the dirt can read Dream Brother. For those who care to look, the visuals do tell a story as the camera records Buckley’s transformation from the unspeakably handsome hippie boy of 1967 to the wan, thin addict in later clips.
Fortunately, that is not the emphasis of My Fleeting House. It is merely an observational aside. Buckley’s music survived and overcame any personal predilection for self-destruction that he had, and the artist who may have been unhappy, despite all of his gifts, is finally shown in a clear light in this video compilation. The performances are wonderful — full of the swirling smoke and distorted camera angles that reflect the aesthetics of the psychedelic era in the early clips and stuffed with the starkness of ’70s television programming during the later selections.
The music itself, as seen and heard in My Fleeting House, is wonderful. Primarily working within the context of a trio — with Buckley on 12-string guitar, Lee Underwood on lead, and Carter Collins on congas — the fluidity and exploratory nature of the songs has been equaled by only a few artists. Rarely, has it been accomplished by musicians so young and unschooled. The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream — two power trios that were his contemporaries — may have come closest to the ethos that was explored by Buckley and his band. Underappreciated by most people until now — perhaps, even now — the compositions that emerged from the interplay among Buckley’s 12- string-pumping rhythms, Collins’ insistent but unconventional conga beats, and Underwood’s fluid lines — which snake and slither between the melodies — are in many ways the musical equals of the more celebrated work created by Hendrix and Clapton in their primes.
In the end, watching My Fleeting House can be a bit of a depressing experience. Seeing the impossibly young and handsome Buckley at the top of his game, it is hard not to wonder where he would be today and what kind of music he would be exploring. Because the cruelty of life and fate has determined that the world will never know the answers to these speculations, the performances and possibilities indicated by the material on My Fleeting House thankfully offer some solace.
My Fleeting House is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box