Recording of September 1990: Dream Letter
Tim Buckley, vocals, 12-string; Lee Underwood, guitar; David Friedman, vibes; Danny Thompson, bass
Enigma Retro/Straight 73507-2 (2 CDs only). Bill Inglot, Lee Hammond, prods.; Bill Inglot, Ken Perry, John Strother, engs. AAD. TT: 116:42
From time to time during the third of my life I sleep away every night, I dream of new releases by some of my favorite musicians. The music of those dream-records is always less interesting but always more melancholy than what's eventually released. Listening to this aptly titled album, the first of "new" material from Tim Buckley in 16 years (he died in 1975, footnote 1), I felt the similarly delicious discomfort I recently had when listening to a Beatles bootlegalmost as if I really wasn't supposed to be hearing this dream-music from far beyond the grave.
But these feelings faded fast, and I floated along for Dream Letter's two hours on Buckley's unique way with a song, his incantatory voice, the astounding confidence of this 21-year-old so musically wise beyond his years. Dream Letter is a single concert recorded July 10, 1968 for Britain's Radio One (the source of those amazing Jimi Hendrix tapes recently released by Rykodisc), complete from the audience rustlings before the announcer walks across the stage to the very last handclap from the polite but obviously informed London crowd. Buckley's third album, Happy Sad, had just been released, and Dream Letter is very much in that album's small-combo jazz veinguitars, bass (Pentangle's Danny Thompson, no less), vibes, no drums, all acoustic but for Lee Underwood's understated guitar.
The arrangements have a decidedly seat-of-the-pants feel, Thompson, hired for this concert only, often laying out for entire songs. But this was 1968; considering what else was going down musically at the time, Dream Letter's music is virtually timeless. While Buckley never had what you'd call hits, they're all here anyway: "Phantasmagoria in Two," "Morning Glory," a harrowing solo "Pleasant Street" segueing into a minor-keyed "You Keep Me Hangin' On," a once-through-lightly of "Love from Room 109," a strong "Happy Time," "Once I Was," the difficult "Hallucinations" arrangement verbatim from Goodbye and Hello, and a hot, soulful, bluesy, much-changed "Strange Feelin'." All smoothly translated into the dark, brooding musical argot of Happy Sad. There are covers of Fred Neil's "Dolphins," an almost creepy "Hi Lily, Hi Lo" (!?!), and the old folky chestnut "Wayfaring Stranger."
But best of all, and a big surprise, are the half-dozen Buckley compositions previously unheard: the easy-loping groove of "I've Been Out Walking," Buckley melding the relaxed ease of a jazz crooner with white folk-revival singer/songwriter rhythms; "The Earth is Broken," Buckley solo, a love/"ecology" song so far ahead of its time it's scary, and one of his best songs and performances ever, different from anything else he ever dida totally Americanized Irish ballad. "Who Do You Love" is typical late-Buckley modal rut-rant, like much of Greetings from L.A., with some wonderful ensemble playing. But best of all is "Troubador," sheer beauty in song, lonely and infinitely sad, as good as anything else Buckley ever wrote. The chorus more than hauntsit possesses.
The sound is remarkably good for tapes that have been forgotten for 22 years, with little hiss though some distortion at the beginning. We're lucky they were in stereoHendrix's Radio One tapes of the year before are all mono.
Amazingly, Dream Letter is not only essential for Tim Buckley fans everywhere, but is a perfect introduction to the man's music for those who've never heard him. Highly recommended. Steve Levesque of Enigma tells me that another Buckley concert, from L.A.'s Troubador, has recently been discovered and may be released. If it's half as good as this one, I'll recommend it in advance. Keep up the good work, Enigma/Straight; it's good to know someone cares.Richard Lehnert
Footnote 1: For a thorough discussion of Buckley's entire recorded legacy, see my article on the Enigma reissues in the March 1990 issue.