THE SIREN SINGS
As lyricist for many of Tim Buckley’s best-loved songs, including ‘Song To The Siren’, poet LARRY BECKETT successfully collaborated with his best friend from high school until the singer’s untimely death.
Ahead of UK appearances with both a new musical collaboration and a new volume of poetry, Shindig! finds out about Buckley, beat poetry, Fred Neil and that line about the oyster
Shindig!: When you first became friends with Tim Buckley, were you just teenagers hanging out, or did your interests immediately revolve around music and poetry? Was Tim into poetry, other than yours?
Larry Beckett: He was completely a musician; I was completely a poet. We hung around songs and prose poems. When I suggested we write songs together, he liked the edge of having a poet for a lyricist. He loved poetry; listen to his song ‘Lorca’.
SD!: How did The Harlequin Three form, and how and why did this morph into The Bohemians? What distinguished one from the other?
LB: We formed The Bohemians to play our electric rock ’n’ roll songs in between radio hits, at dances and bars. The Harlequin Three was a break from too many Top 40 covers, to play acoustic experiments, comedy, and poetry out loud, in folk music clubs.
SD!: The Bohemians have often been compared to Buffalo Springfield (with whom Jim Fielder later played when Bruce Palmer wasn’t available). Was there any direct influence at all or do you think that similar influences converged?
LB: We saw the Springfield onstage at The Troubadour on hootenanny night, before they ever recorded, singing ‘Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing’. We all influenced each other.
SD!: Listening to Fred Neil, it’s clear that he was an early influence on Tim’s vocal style in particular and music in general. Was he an influence on you at all, lyrically or otherwise?
LB: Songs like Neil’s ‘I’ve Got A Secret’ and Dylan’s ‘Boots Of Spanish Leather’ showed me that you could write songs that were in the vein of folk songs, and just as strong. We listened to the album Fred Neil over and over, and it was always fresh. I’ve called it the Kind Of Blue of folk-rock.
SD!: What other kinds of music did you talk about and get excited by? Were there any particular epiphanies that changed your approach?
LB: Besides the glories of ’60s folk, rock and folk-rock, we listened to blues: Blues, Rags And Hollers by Koerner, Ray & Glover, Completely Well by BB King; old-time: See Reverse Side For Title by Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band; world: Music Of Bulgaria; jazz: Is That All There Is by Peggy Lee; spoken word: 912 Greens by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot; classical: The Well-Tempered Clavier by JS Bach, Duets With The Spanish Guitar, Piano Music Of Erik Satie. Tim could sing many more kinds of music than he recorded, like ‘Hi Lily, Hi Lo’ on Dream Letter. Miles Davis turning from Kind Of Blue to Sketches Of Spain to ESP was an inspiration in his boldness to change.
SD!: ‘Song Slowly Song’ is pretty far-out amongst some of the more of-their-time folk-rock tracks on Tim Buckley, and seems almost like the seed for some of Tim’s later adventures. How did it feel at the time?
LB: You’re right on it. Tim was always moving into a new music; ‘Song Slowly Song’ was the farthest out on that first album, and it felt like it when we wrote and played it.
SD!: ‘Strange Street Affair Under Blue’ on Tim Buckley is highly effective by its unusual shifts in tempo with the words somehow fitting perfectly. Which came first, lyrics or music? Were there Klezmer or Greek musical influences? How did it all come about?
LB: Tim’s wife wrote a verse, then he gave up trying to finish it, and gave it to me, and I reworked it completely. Then he set it in Greek syrtaki dance style. He listened to all kinds; ‘Hallucinations’ was inspired by Arab street music.
SD!: There are baroque influences on Goodbye And Hello; how much is this an expression of the guest musicians like Don Randi; what was the thinking behind it?
LB: It was a time when pop-art was verging on fine art. Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ was one of the finest lyric poems of the decade; ‘Eleanor Rigby’ by The Beatles was a classical art song. I was obsessed with this, and we were given artistic control over the album. So, with Tim working with me, I dreamed ideas for arrangements, down to the instrumentation. And I loved the music of Bach.
SD!: What was your experience of Jack Nitzsche, Van Dyke Parks, Paul Rothchild and Jac Holzman?
LB: Jack sent in his beautiful string parts; Van Dyke was an inspired session man; Paul and Jac gave us complete freedom in the sessions.
SD!: On Dream Letter: Live in London 1968, ‘Morning Glory’ is introduced by Tim as being “about a Hobo beating up on a collegian kid… outside of Dallas, Texas”. Any truth in it? And how does the title relate to the lyrics?
LB: Tim had a dark sense of humour; he’s just kidding around. ‘Morning Glory’ is in part about time. The morning-glory is a flower that opens in the morning, and dies later that afternoon; its life is surprisingly brief, like a house that vanishes. The characters in the song could be said to represent Innocence, who is singing, and Experience, who is the Hobo. Innocence has had little time, and Experience much: “No more tales of time,” says the Hobo.
SD!: Goodbye And Hello is one of the most ambitious albums of that era. The title track is an epic which supposedly was originally intended to be sung by two people? Please could you describe the creation of this song?
LB: There was “Revolution in the air”, as Dylan phrases it. The song ‘Goodbye And Hello’ gathered up failures we were turning from, and ideals we were turning toward. I was influenced in my thinking by ideas voiced on countercultural FM radio. The chorus sections were meant to be sung in counterpoint, so that “O the new children dance” and “I am young” would be sung at the same time, and “All around the balloons” with “I will live”, and so on. But Tim chose to sing them consecutively. I always wrote the words first, and he’d come back in a few days with amazing music.
SD!: What do you make of the cover versions of ‘Song To The Siren’?
LB: Each of them shows the song in a different light. Robert Plant’s sounds like the ocean; Alfie Boe takes it to the opera; and Ivo Watts-Russell’s masterpiece by This Mortal Coil haunts whoever hears it.
SD!: ‘Song To The Siren’ appeared in ’67 on The Monkees’ TV show. What was the reason it wasn’t recorded for three years? Is it really because of Judy Henske’s comment about the oyster?
LB: Yes; Tim was unsure about it after that, eventually asking for the line to be re-written. But in ’75, we were planning a Greatest Hits album, which would be our favourite songs sung live, and we independently came up with ‘Song To The Siren’ as our best. I wrote him a long letter showing how the original lyrics worked, and he agreed to sing them, oyster and all.
SD!: I’ve read elsewhere that you considered your songs as inferior to your poems, and that they were relatively dashed off. Other than the relative lack of care and attention, are your working methods for songs and poems markedly different?
LB: “Well, you’ve got to start somewhere,” as Debussy said to Stravinsky after hearing ‘The Firebird’. I did work harder on poems than songs back then. But that goes against the idea of “pop art verging on fine art”. I was mixed up. After Tim’s death, I vowed to write any future song with all I had.
SD!: Your best work with Tim merges poetry and music into a symbiotic whole. What are your favourite examples of poetry and music being successfully married by other bands/artists?
LB: I love these lyrics, and the music is mated to them: ‘When daffodils begin to peer’, Shakespeare; ‘Auld Lang Syne’, Robert Burns; ‘Big River’, Johnny Cash; ‘Four Strong Winds’, Ian Tyson; ‘Early Morning Rain’, Gordon Lightfoot; ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, Bob Dylan; ‘No Expectations’, Mick Jagger; ‘A Day In The Life’, John Lennon / Paul McCartney; ‘Lalena’, Donovan Leitch; ‘The Lady Of Shalott’, Alfred Tennyson / Loreena McKennett; ‘Foolish Games’, Jewel Kilcher; ‘This Low’, Marketa Irglova.
SD!: There seem to be other non-Beat influences, such as the romantic overtones of ‘Knight-Errant’, and Classical influences, such as the Homeric references in ‘Song To The Siren’. Do you agree? And if so, can you elaborate?
LB: I love street poetry, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, and academic poetry, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare. The division between them doesn’t exist in me. So both sides are influences on my work, in form and imagery.
SD!: As well as collecting your poems and lyrics in 2002’s Songs And Sonnets, you have also translated many poems. Can you explain the impetus behind this? Does it stem from dissatisfaction with other translations, a lack of a previous translation?
LB: When I’m not writing songs or lyric poems, I’m working on long poems that take years of research before composition. So to stay sharp, on Sunday mornings I work on translations. I choose writers I naturally connect with: Lao Tzu, Li Po, Li Shang-yin, Heraclitus, Goethe, Heredia. I hope my versions improve on previous tries.
SD!: How important was The Beat Generation in your own poetry, and what was the genesis of the 2012 Beat Poetry book?
LB: I was always a poet, but started writing steadily after reading Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. I take big pleasure in the poetry of the San Francisco renaissance, and its spontaneity, street language, and oral presentation have been crucial in my work. I’m awake for a few hours in the middle of the night every night. I got the idea that I ought to do something with that besides goofing off. I like to write books that haven’t been written, and I saw that there was no book on Beat poetry and only that. So I wrote it.
SD!: What exactly is American Cycle? Is it true that it’s been over 40 years in the making? Will it ever be published?
LB: When I started reading American literature, I looked around for its great narrative epic poem, and didn’t find it. So American Cycle is a sequence of long poems out of the American past: US Rivers: Highway 1, Old California, Paul Bunyan, Chief Joseph, Wyatt Earp, PT Barnum, Amelia Earhart, Blue Ridge, US Rivers: Route 66. I’ve been working on it for 45 years; I’m now doing research for the last section, John Henry. Each section is written in a form appropriate to its subject. Its themes are love, local mythology, history, justice, memory, accomplishment, time. Paul Bunyan is being published in England this June by Smokestack Books: smokestack-books.co.uk
SD!: You’re currently collaborating with the UK-based Stuart Anthony & The Long Lost Band? How did this come about; what’s it like having a long distance working relationship; and what’s it like to have a musical outlet again?
LB: Facebook! We kind of edged our way in to becoming friends and collaborators. Between messaging, emails, skype and downloads, it’s working. The lyrics I’ve written since ’75 I think of as far exceeding most of my old work. I wrote them as dreams, and now, with Stuart Anthony & The Long Lost Band, brilliantly produced by Paul Walmsley, they’re coming true.
Larry tours the UK in June and July.
Contributors: Richard Turner, Kris Needs and Mark Goodall.
With thanks to Stuart Anthony.