Bookbuster Book Review
Dream Brother the lives & music
of Jeff & Tim Buckley By David Browne
Fourth Estate, RRP £9.99, available at Bookbuster for £3.50
Review by Tim Barton
Both Jeff and his father, Tim, were aware of ‘alcoholism, violence, and general weirdness in [their] lineage’, with, for Jeff at least, a side order of abandonment and death. Both had ‘father figure’ issues throughout their lives; both expressed these through embracing then rejecting such figures as they appeared in their lives; both made transcendent music. Both died young.
It is, then, unsurprising that an elegiac and fateful aura surrounds them both. All lyrics, all conversations with friends, find subjects, across a wide range. Which to focus on, though? In the ‘doomed and entangled’ camp some see threads of meaning at the time, though most pull meaning selectively through some romantic drive to understand after the event. Both Buckleys said and sang enough that can be given a mystical spin – whether that narrative is ‘the truth’ or not is for each of us alone to decide.
Browne, at some points, rejects too fatalist an interpretation but nevertheless his framing narrative, perhaps inevitably, succumbs to exactly such an approach. Just some of the nuggets available, to use as a prism to extract such portentous meaning, follow:
‘Jeff wrote about “transition and reincarnation and becoming molecules in rain.”’; he penned a song for the unfinished second studio album, Murder Suicide Meteor Slave; one of his lyrics (a clear paraphrase of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Your Time Is Gone Come’) reads ‘One of these days and it won’t be long / Call my name and I’ll be gone’; another journal entry – ‘I prepared my entire life to face the future unprepared to face the future. I hope my brain splits open and that my guts blow out either side of my body. I hope my eyes are open when I die so they can see you for the final breath. I hope that I never come back alive.’ There are many more references to death, pain, suicide…
Many of Tim’s lyrics were penned by Larry Beckett, but nevertheless, there is ample fruit for the fatalist doomsters in his cupboard, too: I pick only one here. Check this, from a letter to friend and erstwhile band member, Lee Underwood: ‘You are what you are, you know what you know, and there are no words for loneliness, black, bitter, aching loneliness, that gnaws the roots of silence in the night, […] and we are lying there, blind atoms in our cellar depths, gray voiceless atoms in the manswarm desolation of the earth, and our fame is lost, our names forgotten, our powers are wasting from us like mined earth while we lie here at evening and the river flows… and the dark time is feeding like a vulture on our entrails, and we know that we are lost, and cannot stir’. Of special importance for the mystique is the reference there to the river. And, too, this lyric (actually Beckett’s, I think): ‘Should I stand amid the breakers? / Or should I lie with death my bride?’ … Later, long after Tim had died of an overdose, Jeff, a few years older than his father had been, drowned in a tributary of the Mississippi – his body was found, days later, washed up near Beale Street, Memphis.
This latter leads me to the more interesting accounts of Tim and Jeff’s intriguingly entangled biographies and musical gifts – Beale Street is one of the music Meccas of Memphis. Indeed, let’s put to retire, for now, Jeff’s ‘subconscious suicidal impulse’ with this harangue (oops, tellingly ambivalent, perhaps we are retiring Fate too early?) regarding Tim, from a 1990 letter, never sent: ‘It was only a mistake he made, it was no murder, it was no real suicide, it’s only that Tim’s momentum had been going all that time on “I’m-gonna-die-no-matter-what”, that the dumbest message in the world had become a subconscious language from so much practice.’
And really, this book is about the Music; about the Talent; about the Biz. Any greenhorn wannabe musician (Hastings is chock full of ‘em) can learn a great deal, vicariously, from highs and lows and tragedies of the Dream Brothers. Both immersed themselves totally in newly discovered music, mainstream and weird. Jeff expresses it in relation to one band he toured with, ‘They destroyed me in a really beautiful way’. Of Tim’s magnum opus, a commercially unsuccessful album, gorgeous and transcendent, Jeff says ‘…Star sailor wasn’t a failure. It was an untouchable beauty’.
Not only is this a powerful and detailed book on the careers and lives of these artists, it is also imbued with the poetry of the music. Both Tim and Jeff were powerful artists and their music speaks for itself. I immersed myself in it whilst reading Dream Brother – I suggest you do too. And ignore Browne’s dour view of Sefronia, it is a beautiful album.
Both father and son had high range expressive voices, and loved to experiment, each in their own way. Columbia A&R man, Steve Berkowitz, says ‘He wanted to do what he wanted to do’, and, applicable to Tim as well, of course, describing the self-destructive approach both took to authority, ‘Maybe it was being provincial, maybe it was fear’. In a letter, Jeff complained ‘those studio cats make me want to EAT FLESH, they ruin so much good stuff, sometimes I don’t love the music. I only have a certain respect for it right now’. The first part of that was an attack on his father’s producer, Joe Falsia, regarding the final and generally abhorred album, Look at
the Fool. I am sure Tim felt the same, and the last part of the quote makes it very clear that Jeff was talking as much of his own battles with Sony as Tim’s (who was on Warner sub-label, Frank Zappa’s Discreet).
Indeed, to finish properly Jeff’s letter of 1990, on the ‘dumbest message’: ‘[…] I just think he had the whole thing backwards on purpose so that, somehow, he could make sure he was protected from the enemy.’ The enemy was one they shared, commercialism drives corporate agendas, tolerance for ‘real music’ is low. On the last of Jeff’s Australian tour dates he bursts out an expression of the existential angst auteurs may feel when pressured to produce pop: ‘Despite all my rage I’m just a rat in a cage. Go figure.’