Memoirs of a Sideman: Unlucky Buckley

The strange thing about writing your memoirs is the confusion that amasses concerning dates, times and places.  Some characters appear in your life without your being able to recall their introduction to the events surrounding the circumstances. 

Jim Fielder
One such prominent individual to my musical history is the great bass player, James T. Fielder, the original bassist with the mega-groups “Buffalo Springfield” and “Blood, Sweat and Tears.”  Jimmy was a studied New Yorker through and through who had quit BS&T to move to the west coast and try his luck in another, sunnier climate.  Once again we have an example of the necessity for a “Sideman” to change direction, seek something new and search for further development away from the secure success of a steady gig.

I am not sure how Jimmy and I met but I think it was jamming in Silver Lake at a house owned by a gypsy family, not just hippie but real Rumanian gypsies who had a pop group for which I was playing viola—don’t ask,  I have no idea why, but there you have it.

At any rate Jim and I became fast friends and one day he called me with a chance at an audition for the great folk rocker and unique performer, singer-songwriter and guitarist, Tim Buckley. 

Jim was touring with Tim at the time and evidently the previous guitarist had left the gig under mysterious circumstances.  I said what the hell and two days later I arrived at a complex on the east end of Sunset Blvd., not far from the Gower Gulch, to give it a try.  At that time, Tim was managed by Herb Cohen who also handled Frank Zappa, and this undistinguished building in a quieter section of central Hollywood housed rehearsal spaces, offices, studios, the whole gambit. 

I arrived early, a bad habit of mine which still to this day plagues me, and wandered around until I ran into Mr. Cohen.  He was a gruff looking character with a beard and a cigar who pointed me to the room for Tim’s audition with little fanfare and only a slight recognition that he had another person in his presence.  As I approached the room I could hear a guitarist jamming by himself on a Fender twelve string electric guitar. Fuck, I thought to myself, this guy sounds great and I hope to God there aren’t a dozen more like him waiting in line.

I opened the door quietly and entered.  The guitarist looked at me, kept on playing for a while then stopped.  He smiled at me and said,

   “...You must be Art Johnson: I’m Tim Buckley, thanks for comin’ by.”

At that time I had no idea that Tim could play that well, I was truly impressed.  A few minutes later Jim and the rest of the group arrived and we started to rehearse.  Tim’s tunes were intelligently written with scathing lyrics and a powerhouse of energy to boot.  When I took my first lengthy solo, Tim began to strum harder and harder, coaxing every sound out of his guitar that he could.  I was hired on the spot and thus began a year of great touring and much fun.

Tim, for all his bodacious personality, was actually quite a shy and sensitive person.  He was well read, always with a book on hand for the endless travel by air and ground, and a very serious thinker, to the level of philosopher cum intellectual.

One of our first gigs was in an old theatre in downtown Detroit.  It was 1974 and Detroit, or as Lena Horne would later refer to it as “Destroy-it” was then a slum area full of crime. 

As a matter of fact, traveling around the US as a touring musician, even under the best of circumstances, has always offered some element of danger.  During the 1970’s, urban areas such as New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., and many other large cities were breeding grounds and still are to this day, for street crime in many forms.  Nothing new here, except how this condition might apply to a touring sideman.  Muggings, drug related incidents, hotel theft and other such nefarious undertakings were prevalent all during my intense touring years on the road. Granted, it was not the same as it is today.  Most of the friction was left over from the racial predicament of the 1950’s and 60’s. 

Another element was the encroaching masses of “street people” who, for one reason or another, had no means of support and found their way onto the streets, some of which embarked upon a “forced” life of petty and other crime.

I was a lucky guy.  In my fifteen years of road work, only two incidents stood out as life threatening.  The first was my premier gig with Tim in Detroit.  During the winter of 1974, the downtown area of Detroit was dark and foreboding.  Most of the small businesses were closed having succumbed to the sprawling suburban housing developments outside of the center of the city, along with mega stores such as K Mart and others who were now supplying the needs of the inhabitants at bulk, discount rates in comparison to the “mom and pop” shops of the inner city.  But, at this time, in downtown Detroit, there was a great old movie theater that had been converted into a performance space. 

That night, we were opening for Chick Corea and his electric band.  We arrived for the gig down an alleyway behind the theater in two taxi cabs.  It was the beginning of winter and a light snow had begun to fall as we arrived at our hotel earlier in the day.  That’s right, fly in from LA to Detroit in the afternoon, unpack your suitcase and throw some water on your face and head for the gig. 

As the cabs pulled up in the evening darkness, everyone scampered for the stage door, about twenty feet from the cars.  Being handicapped, I was the last out of the cabs and after retrieving my guitar from the trunk, I began to shuffle my way carefully towards the entrance.  I suddenly realized that everyone else had gone in and the stage door was closed.  No big deal, when I arrived I would just knock.  But then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a shadow moving amongst the trash bins.  My heart began to pound, my intuition kicked in and I knew there was potential danger lurking here.  I tried to pretend that everything was fine, but the figure from the shadows began to move quickly in my direction.  I tried to move a little faster but to no avail.  The man approached me and said,

     “...Gimme that fuckin’ guitar!”

An automatic response system activated immediately within my hysterical consciousness.  I waited until he was right in front of me and offered the point of my hard-shell guitar case right into his crotch with as much force as I could call on.  He screamed, doubling up and smacked his head into the middle of my guitar case and fell to the ground.  I hauled ass to the door, pounding furiously, and it was opened immediately by a stage hand.  I burst through, as he paused to view the body in the alley and then closed the door.  I was breathing hard and out of breath.  The stage hand regarded me without any expression, and said “...Welcome to Detroit” and then moved on about his business.  Another initiation passed successfully. 

That first night on stage with Tim Buckley is still impregnated in my memory. I don’t recall the tune, but it was one of Tim’s great modal high energy pieces.  The spotlight was on him as we dug in, supplying the energy he needed to give it his all.  Tim was a New Yorker at heart.  He had at one time lived in Edgar Allen Poe’s brownstone dwelling on the lower east side.  When he finished his first chorus of vocalizing he turned to me with that great “smart ass” smile of his and said over the roar of the music,

     “...Come on over here, Artie,” motioning me with a gesture from his head towards the spotlight.  I obeyed the call and the next thing I knew I was literally flying with notes and completely on fire as the spotlight beamed down on me.  Honest to God, I felt my feet levitating off the floor of the stage!   This is no drug induced bullshit; it was a heavy dose of emotional adrenaline sparking my performance.  The more I played the more he kept yelling at me to “Go, go, go...!”

Tim had totally turned over the moment to me and I let it rip for all I had.  What an experience.  Once again I had encountered a touch of class by an employer who appreciated what I had to offer and was more than willing to share the limelight with me.  These occasions with other stars were rare and that is perhaps the reason I never forgot the moment.  With Tim however, this experience, to one degree or another, was repeated many times over the year that I toured with him.

In the summer of 1975 the group was included in a Warner Brothers tour of Europe which included Tim and the band, the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison and John McLaughlin’s ensemble.

Tim Buckley onstage Knebworth (photo from  by Vin Miles)

One of our performances was in Knebworth England on the castle grounds outside of London.  In these ancient days of pop touring, there were no fifty thousand watt sound systems and no giant flat screen TV’s for the audience in the back of the pack to view the show.  Instead, a stage was built about one hundred feet high so that all of the one hundred thousand people in attendance that day would be able to see the performers on stage.  We had to climb the tall stage by a thin ladder and once in place, the wind was blowing so hard you thought you were going over the edge of the stage.  I was playing through two Marshall “stacks” and could barely hear anything. 
Staring out over the castle grounds with so many people in this massive audience waving colorful banners mounted on long poles was like traveling back in time.  My sense of place was altered during that hour long performance.  I really did not know which century I was in.

Art rocks the pink trousers (L) with Tim Buckley at Knebworth in 1974

Tim and I had a deep mutual respect for each other that continued until the end.  He had been a heavy drug user, but at the time I was with him he was only drinking a few beers now and then.  Tim had a well deserved enormous ego but it was seldom out of hand.

We had ample opportunity to hangout together in London during this tour.  We would hit the streets of the West End and let it rip, visiting pubs and having a few toddies along the way. 

I remember Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, guitarist with the Doobie Brothers, passing us on the street, a girl on each arm, sporting his Air Force sunglasses.  Jeff was not only a great musician, but a bit of an electronic genius and the last thing I heard about Mr. Baxter was that he has been employed by the United States Air Force to program air to air missile sites.  Talk about your career transition:  Incredible!  

Often, when we would arrive at a concert hall or club dressing room, Tim would immediately scope out the quality of his opening act.  If they were good people he was nice, offering conversation and generally being just another cat in the band.

One night we were playing a club somewhere in the Midwest and the band who was opening for Tim were acting like stars in his presence.  He smiled ruefully at me and said,

     “...Hey Artie, lets jam a little Django to warm up.”

I have always been a facile player with nimble fingers and Tim knew that I was heavily influenced by the great Django Rheindhart, the gypsy guitarist who set the standard for acoustic jazz in the 1930’s in Europe.  We always had a spare acoustic guitar or two backstage to warm up on before a show.  The band of wanna-be “stars” paid no attention to Tim and I as we sat down with two acoustic steel string guitars and let rip a rapid version of “Sweet Georgia Brown”. 

The other band had no use for either of us.  They were busy putting on makeup and costumes.  This was the mid-seventies ladies and gentlemen and never before had Tim or I encountered such theatrics before a gig.  We were fascinated with their attitude and eagerly anticipated their performance.  They stomped onto the stage with boots which had ten inch heels and began their show.  Basically they were just another rock band.  Tim turned to the promoter while taking in the theatrics and asked,

 “...Who in the hell are these guys?” 

The promoter said with little enthusiasm,

     “...They call themselves ‘Kiss’ ...”. 

I was truly experiencing the dawning of a new era of showbiz musical extravaganza.

I also played electric viola with Tim as well as guitar.  Never a great fiddler, I had developed a few tricks on the instrument which offered a nice color of sound on certain tunes that broke up the constant guitar mania.

I remember the only time that Tim and I had a little personality conflict.  We were in Vancouver, Canada doing a nice gig in a theater and the opening act was a local singer songwriter who was passably talented but nothing to jump up and down over.  I was with the band and Tim in our dressing room while the young man took the stage.  Many dressing rooms, like this one, have speaker systems in the area so that the other artists can hear their competition.  As the kid began to pick and sing, Tim paused to listen to the speakers in the dressing room.  One minute into the first tune and Tim became the obnoxious instant critic.  He began to rant and rave,

      “...Boy does this guy suck, what in the hell is this fucking song about and don’t you think he could find another chord to break the monotony just a little?”  

       For some reason that night Tim’s reaction didn’t sit well with me.  Without saying a word, I picked up my viola and bow and said,

     “...Oh he’s not too bad, I think I’ll go and jam with him.” 

Tim gave me an incredulous look as I exited the green room and silently walked on stage standing in the dark and began to accompany the kid.  The performer didn’t know what to think but in true show business style, he just started to play and sing with more energy and I kept egging him on.  I didn’t play the whole set, just two or three tunes then I left and returned to the dressing room. Tim was way pissed but said nothing to me.  He didn’t have to; the look on his face told me everything.  I just stomped on his ego and he knew why I did it.  I think he knew that as far as I was concerned, he was just a little out of line.  After this incident, as a matter of fact, our show that night was truly memorable.  Tim sang and played his ass off and so did the band.  Maybe Tim remembered the days when he was just a little punk kid with a guitar in the folk houses in Greenwich Village in New York.  Anyway, that’s the way I’d like to think that it went.

Tim often had his family on the road, his wife “Moo” and his young son, Jeff.

I thought at the time that this seven year old kid was the spitting image of his dad.  Often, I would take his hand on a walk with the family, offering Tim and his wife a chance to talk privately on the street.  I often wondered if Jeff Buckley ever remembered the limping guitarist who taught him how to look at crossing signals on major thoroughfares.

Unfortunately the son and the father would suffer the same fate: early demise.

I won’t recount the death of Tim and its impact on my life; refer to the beginning preface for that info.  When I began this book I made a pact with myself to not tell the same tale over and over.

Once again, as with Clarence White, the world changed on a dime as another talented individual was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We will never know what would have happened if Tim had lived and we had recorded a new album. I was fortunate to have been close to him, worked with and for him and to have been able to hang out with him all over the planet, from LA to London.

He was truly a larger than life individual with a scathing wit, a cutting sense of humor and the capacity to predict and change musical trends in his culture.

No comments:

Post a Comment