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Larry Beckett Interview

Larry Beckett Interview with Pat Thomas - September 12, 2015

Many people don’t realize that Tim Buckley didn’t write a lot of his own lyrics. Like Jerry Garcia did with Robert Hunter, or Jack Bruce and Clapton (while they were in Cream) did with Pete Brown or even Elton John & Bernie Taupin – Tim often wrote just the music and let his best friend from high school and beyond – Larry Beckett write the lyrics. I sat down with Beckett to discuss a bunch of songs that had been written for the seminal 1967 album Goodbye & Hello – several of which, they wound up NOT using on the final record – and the songs just sort of disappeared until Light in the Attic Records issued the album Lady, Give Me Your Key in 2016.

Pat Thomas: Why don’t we start off with, speaking in a general, broad strokes, your memories of the Oak Court tape which, of course, Jerry told me was done at his house in Laurel Canyon. So, before we dive into specific songs, I’m sure you have various things to say so I’m just going to give you the floor for a moment.

Larry Beckett: We’d already worked out with Elektra that we were going to do a second album but they decided that they wanted to do a single first. That was news to Tim and I. I mean, they actually wanted us to write a single, not extract it from existing material. So, just taking that, we thought--we decided that in a sort of mock way, we were going to “mock” record a “mock” single. [Laughs]. In order to prep for that we laid in my Venice apartment and we listened to the radio and actually stayed up for about twenty-four hours and we would alternate between AM top 40 and FM arty album tracks. That was the division in those days. We decided that we would write an AM side and an FM side. The A side would be the AM and the B side would be the FM. After twenty-four hours of listening to this kind of music, we decided that AM music was childish pop songs and FM was subversive and countercultural. Then we got some sleep, and started to write songs and the songs in the Oak Court demos--I think a couple of them were already existing, but most of them were written for this project, for the single project. The end I think it was “Once Upon a Time,” “Lady Give Me Your Key,” “Six Faced,” and “Contact” were the ones that were written for the single and then he also demoed “Once I Was” “Never Have to be a Mountain” and “Pleasant Street.”

Pat: That is correct. Your memory is correct, I’ve got the track listing right here.

LB: Yeah. So, those were already written. “Once Upon a Time” was the childish fairytale song and “Lady Give Me Your Key” was the subversive, countercultural song. The key in those days… Well, in those days, there was a sub-genre of lyrics that was really interesting which the clever lyricist would come up with language that alluded to sex or drugs at the same time. I mean, Dylan sort of kicked it off with “I would not feel so alone/Everyone must get stoned” and then Lennon: “I’d love to turn you on.” To “turn on” was to take a drug and get high. Mick Jagger: “I just can’t make no connection/But all I want to do is get back to you.” The connection was the man who had the drugs. Or John Phillips: “Baby, are you holding/Holding anything but me?” There we go again! “Holding” meant possessing drugs. We thought we would do something like that and I came up with “Lady, give me your key.” Key was short for kilo, an amount of marijuana, but it also it could mean romantically, key to your place. So, we contributed to that sub-genre which we thought was quite an honorable tradition, I think.

Pat: Mhmm. So, of course, the single gets recorded and then Elektra decides, “Eh, we’re not going to put this out anyway.”

LB: Right, right. “Once Upon a Time” was, in retrospect, not so well-written, but he just sang it so powerfully and passionately that he made it. “Lady Give Me Your Key” actually was maybe the single best unreleased Beckett/Buckley song. Really haunting.

Pat: Let’s switch over to the other two songs that didn’t see the light of day. “Six Faced” and “Contact”--am I correct in both of these?

LB: Yes. For “Six Faced,” of course, being a completely compulsive lyricist, I actually did have six verses in there, of which he trimmed out two. We should have re-called it “Four Face.” He also added “Little girl spin around,” or however it goes, that was his addition, too. That one was kind of a collaboration. That’s just a sort of Dylan-esque love song. Then “Contact” is another one in the sub-genre. “Contact” meaning someone you’d go to for drugs.

Pat: “Once I Was” obviously gets released--we know that song-- “I Never Asked to be Your Mountain” is a classic, and “Pleasant Street,” so everything else does kind of see the light of day. Let’s just briefly talk about the collaborative process between you and Tim. With someone like Bernie Taupin and Elton John, Bernie writes lyrics, hands them to Elton, and then walks out of the room. How did you and Tim tend to collaborate?

LB: Ostensibly, that’s how we worked. I always wrote the lyrics first and then he would come back with something. However, we had a kind of very real, clairvoyant connection. One time we showed up at a Bohemians rehearsal and I brought a lyric, and he brought a melody, and actually they fit perfectly. At that point, we looked at each other going, “OK, we’re gonna need to follow this up.” [Laughs] I mean, we weren’t just good friends, we had some bizarre connection. For people who were so different from each other, we had some kind of clairvoyant connection. If I wrote “Hallucinations” it was actually the perfect lyric to hand to him as he’s investigating Middle Eastern street music. The perfect one. It continued on that way.

Pat: Refresh my memory here, you guys met in high school? Where did you guys join up?

LB: Yeah, actually, we were in very different places in high school. I was the head of the honor society and all the accelerated classes and he was ditching school every other day, driving around with his girlfriend. But, Jim Fielder, the brilliant bass player, knew both of us and thought, “You know, those guys are gonna be friends. They need to meet.” So, he put us together and, sure enough, we really liked each other immediately.

Pat: Were you guys all in Orange County?

LB: We were much closer with each other than either of us ever were with Jim. [Laughs]

Pat: Yeah. I know you’ve been over this territory before, but were you guys all in Orange County at this time in those early days?

LB: Yes, all through high school. Tim and I--I had been such a good boy for so long and he taught me to also ditch school. We would go down to the art galleries on La Brea and we were doing creative things on our off-time, but he definitely kind of liberated the rebel in me.

Pat: That’s lasted to this day, I would say!

LB: Absolutely has. [Laughs]

Pat: Let’s go over the other set, the one with all the acetate. Do you know the origins of this thing?

LB: Yeah, it was done in New York. I think I emailed you about that. The exact place is on the acetate. Actually, there were two acetates, one of which has been lost, unfortunately. These were done after the single session but before Goodbye and Hello. Just to give Jerry and idea, I think Tim was touring back there and Jerry was back there so they arranged to go into a studio and do some acoustic demos of possible songs for Goodbye and Hello. That’s really all I know. I didn’t even know of the existence of the acetate until decades later when I was over at Jerry’s house and he’s pulling this stuff out of a suitcase. I realize that he’s lost one of them. He says there’s two but we looked all night and can’t find them so I realize he’s losing them. I told him, “I’ll just hang on to the one you’ve got and you can have it back anytime.” [Laughs] That’s when it came into my position.

Pat: Yeah. Let’s go through these songs, I’ve got the list in front of me. So there’s “Knight-Errant,” does that ever make it out anywhere or is that also unreleased? I can’t remember.

LB: No, no, that made it onto Goodbye and Hello.

Pat: My apologies. Maybe give us a two second synopsis of that tune?

LB: Yeah. Let’s see… That was like a madrigal but derived from a nursery rhyme so I kind of went along the path of making really direct, sexual references but in a playful way.

Pat: Then there’s “Marigold.”

LB: Right, and that’s a Tim composition.

Pat: So that’s something Tim wrote himself and that’s on the album?

LB: That did not make it to the album, no.

Pat: So that’s an unreleased song? Does he do that later?

LB: No, that is the only performance of it. Strange to say, I also wrote a song called “Marigold” at the same time. These are his lyrics.

Pat: Now, “Carnival Song” is obviously, in my mind, one of the best-known songs. Tell me a little bit about that song.

LB: Yeah. Probably somewhat under the spell of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and some Dylan-esque lyrics like “I Want You” but that’s, again, Tim’s composition.

Pat: Another classic “No Man Can Find a War.”

LB: That was my meditation--or evocation--of the idea that… I was protesting against not only the people who people who supported the war but I was protesting against the people who protested against the war.

Pat: Really?

LB: Yes, the idea being that they’re all worried about ending the Vietnam War and once that was done they would be fine. But I would not be fine because then, in all likelihood, they’d support the next war. What I wanted to do was end war, not this particular war. So that was when I said no man can find the war. You can do all the kind of political machinations in a particular conflict but unless you understand the source of war and stop it at its source, you’ll never end.

Pat: Right. So you’re looking at the much bigger, broader picture obviously.

LB: One of Richie Unterberger's favorite songs. [Laughs]

Pat: Good to know! “I Can’t Leave You Loving Me”

LB: Right. One of the remarkable things about this demo is the breadth of musical ideas. It’s reflected in Goodbye and Hello. Had it been a longer album, there would have been even more songs and even different genres, which is really a reflection of the breadth of his abilities. He did every kind of music. He could sing a country song or a blues or folk-rock--it didn’t matter. He loved everything and he could have sung opera had he tried.

Pat: Sure. Is that a Tim song?

LB: That’s a Tim song, yeah.

Pat: Does that make it out?

LB: No, unreleased. And that was the only recording.

Pat: Let’s dive into “She’s Back Again.”

LB: Yeah, that's another one in the same pass.

Pat: So an unrelated Tim composition, OK. I do want to pick up on the thread you just said which is that Tim could sing country western, he could have sung opera; the thing that I find interesting about Tim--and I kind of dove into this with Jerry--is that you’ve got all these various Tims. You’ve got the first album, which to me I classify as folk pop. You’ve got this album, Goodbye and Hello, which to me is baroque and psychedelic and rock, obviously, and reminds me of Sgt. Pepper at times because of your orchestration. Then you’ve got Goodbye and Hello which to me is like jazz folk, right?

LB: Oh, you’re talking about not Goodbye and Hello.

Pat: No, Happy Sad, sorry. Happy Sad I classify as jazz folk and then when we go much further we start to get into Starsailor which is sort of avant-garde and sort of jazz. Then you get into the heavy funk of Greetings from LA. Maybe you can just give me your thoughts about what made Tim such a diverse, incredible artist like that, or anything like that?

LB: With him it was about music not style. When I first became friends with him I’d go over to his place and his mom would be out working, dad long gone, sister in school, but lying around on the floor would be albums like Johnny Cash’s Sun Sessions and Frank Sinatra, Leadbelly, just every kind of music you can imagine. His mother had a really wide taste and that formed the basis of the music that he loved which was equally wide and he became accomplished. He just seemed to--he was such an absolute musician that he could absorb a whole genre and then excel at it. Doing these interviews I often regret that I’m one of the only people in the world that heard him sing all these different kinds of songs live that have not been recorded. Now, some of the rockier stuff like “Won’t You Please Be My Woman” came out on the Rhino reissue of Tim Buckley so you could see a little bit of that side but all of the different kinds of musics--and I said m-u-s-i-c-s--that’s a good way to think of him exploring musics. Really extraordinary because it’s not about coming under the sway of one particular style but of just loving music at its core and being able to create in any direction.

Pat: I’m sure this is something you’ve thought about or talked about and I know talked about it with Jerry, is this sort of being able and willing and eager to do all these styles of music certainly has made Tim the iconic legend that he became. Arguably, commercially, probably fucked him up badly, right?

LB: He didn’t have an identifiable thing, yeah. They wanted to hone you in and stick you on the correct radio show.

Pat: Yeah. My all-time favorite Tim Buckley story is only about ten seconds long, which is that he’s doing a concert in New York doing the Starsailor material and someone shouts out, “How ‘bout ‘Buzzin Fly’?” and he retorts back with, “How ‘bout some horseshit?”

LB: Yeah! [Laughs]

Pat: As admirable as that is and funny and there’s so many things we can say about it, ultimately it doesn’t build for strong audience--

LB: Well, that kind of interaction you can read about it in Dream Brother but he, in those days, he tended to, he started to, destroy his own career by being abusive to the audience whether they were appreciative or not. I remember him coming off stage and calling them lobos, meaning lobotomized, and they’re just people sitting there listening to his music. It seemed extreme and he had a self-destructive streak which I think manifested itself in concert and in his death.

Pat: I want to continue down this path a bit because my second favorite story I believe is one you told me at lunch a year or two ago, which is Tim at the BBC doing a BBC session and Herbie’s up in the booth. I believe the quote Herbie says is “I don’t really like this kind of shit but as far as this shit goes, it’s good shit” or something to that answer and then Tim goes, “I heard that!” Tim is so remarkable in so many ways but again the thing I really admire about him is this shifting of styles, constantly evolving, and kind of doing each of them well.

LB: I would say that in fact we had a model for that. I was also constantly trying to not just new songs but come up with new ways of writing songs. So for example the first song on the first album which is “I Can’t See You” there’s a song where the title is not repeated in the lyrics a la Bob Dylan but the verses are five lines long. There’s just no ways to put that into thirty-two bars like a normal melody but Tim was totally fine with that. I was constantly thinking of new ways of getting outside the normal songwriting procedures and he was too.

Pat: I was about to say it: as his collaborator and as his friend, that’s a hell of a rollercoaster ride that you took with him, right?

LB: Yes, indeed.

Pat: I mean, were there times when you felt a struggle to keep up or overwhelmed? Times that were exciting obviously…

LB: Well, I think one critical problem that’s probably not going to go into liner notes, is that he was about ten times the artist that I was at that point. I think I finally, many decades later, caught up but not then. So it’s really going to be about his singing, not his lyrics, not my lyrics. Some of the melodies I actually think he was a great composer and thought that was as seriously a good of him as his intense performances.

Pat: I would say as a listener it’s taking me decades to catch up and fully appreciate all the various genres, you know what I mean?

LB: I actually forgot to tell you when I left off when I was talking about “I Can’t See You.” The thing is we had a model and that was Miles Davis. What happened with Miles was that he put out two albums that just actually changed the shape of everything and that’s Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain in ‘59 and ‘60. Really us suburban boys picked up on that in a huge way. The fact that Kind of Blue--well, Kind of Blue was different from any jazz that had come before because it was modal, widely, and Sketches of Spain had nothing to do Kind of Blue! It was like orchestral versions of [**not sure what he’s saying here 29:23] or some crap?! What is going?! Then the next thing that Miles did after that was in a new direction, so he was inspiring to us, the fact that he embraced change. Tim and I actually consciously spoke about Miles as our hero and about the way he could go from one style to another, master the new style, and then reject it and move on. Of course, Dylan in the end is another example that was happening at the same time.

Pat: Yeah, back to Miles for a second, I would also guess that in a silent way, Bitches Brew also grabbed him and that’s where some of the Starsailor shit comes from, right? Would I be correct in that, do you think?

LB: Um, that’s a really good inference. I can’t confirm that it’s true but I did notice that he was doing unusual time signatures, which could as easily have come from Brubeck. But yeah, the intensity and the atonality I could think he absorbed from Miles of the day.

Pat: We’re skipping around here a little bit but when we had that lunch you told me two things that had a big impression on me that I definitely want to touch on. One was towards the end of Tim’s life and you and Tim sort of come back together and one was there was sort of a rock opera of sorts in the works or halfway in the works? Maybe you could talk about that for a moment.

LB: Yeah. We had for years thought about a song cycle and not a rock opera. We kept waiting for somebody to do it. It didn’t look like Sgt. Pepper was really a song cycle; it was just kind of a riff. If you have a reprise at the end, does that really tie it together? I don’t know. We meant something to cycle where the imagery and the characters from song to song are the same so they’re integrated. I actually finally wrote it and it’s called The Outcast of the Islands and it’s based on a novel by Joseph Conrad, his second novel. His novel is called An Outcast of the Islands.

Pat: Correct me if I’m wrong on this, but there’s a handful of Tim recordings I’m still trying to get my hands on, his so-called final recordings and I somehow thought that maybe some of this stuff that you and Tim were thinking about had been on that, or am I dreaming that?

LB: Actually, let’s see… Let me just back up and say that at the end of his life we had two projects in mind. One was a “Greatest Hits Live” which was going to be recorded at the Troubadour and we had a track list that included “Siren” and “The River,” and things like that that were really good. The other was the song cycle, The Outcast of the Islands, and for that he was going to have me recite passages from Conrad as linking sections of the songs and come down a record them. So it was going to be both of us performing. I never heard any of the music. It sounded something like the “Sefronia - The King’s Chains” he told me, and that does make sense; it sounds just right for those lyrics. I actually have heard that he had a cassette of rough drafts of this stuff and that somebody in the world got ahold of it.

Pat: Yeah, there’s a gentleman who was playing guitar with him at the very end and I forget his name. He and I have spoken and he keeps dangling this tape in front of us, which is that he’s willing to sell it. We’re willing to buy it but we gotta hear it, right? So it’s become this chicken and egg thing where we said, basically, “Hey, why don’t you meet us at such-and-such studio, you play it, we’ll listen, and then at the end of it we’ll figure this out.” He always kind of backs off or gets cold feet but hopefully now that I’ve put this particular project to bed I can try to go back to that one.

LB: Well, I can certainly help you in any way that you want me. If you have patches of lyrics, I can identify them immediately.

Pat: Let’s talk a little bit about, sadly, Tim’s passing in terms of did that come as a surprise or something that seemed inevitable, or just your thoughts on that if you’re willing to discuss it, of course.

LB: Sure. Well, he’s one of two people I’ve known in my life that was not happy inside his skin and they both killed themselves as a way out. I hung out with him quite a bit toward the end when he would come up to Portland. His behavior was really erratic and dangerous. For example, just driving in a car with him at the wheel, you felt that your life was in danger. Then I heard stories later that he’d be on tour and just grab a bunch of pills and take them all not knowing what even they were. But he kind of, like, was risking his life until his luck ran out, which it finally did and then he got out. Still, even sensing that that was going to happen sooner or later, it still was a terrible, searing experience for me. Not only that, but to make it worse because of the drug aspect of it, the people who contacted me--I think his guitar player, maybe the same guy--called me up and told me that he was climbing up stairs and had a heart attack and that’s what made it into Time Magazine. Just a bunch of lies, you know, which he would have not liked. Twenty-eight, that’s too young to go, man.

Pat: Oh my god, I forgot how young he was.

LB: There were all kinds of other things to be done.

Pat: He didn’t even make it to thirty. Wow. Jesus Christ. Being of a younger generation obviously than you guys, as a teen, everybody who played at Woodstock--and this is after the fact because I didn’t really get into Woodstock until the mid-70s--they seemed old to me. But now, when I look back, the average age of a Woodstock player was I think twenty-four if you average them all out. Now that I’m fifty-one, when you’re twenty-four you’re like a child, really, or most of us are a child. It’s sort of sobering to hear on a Saturday morning all these years later about a twenty-eight year old Tim is as far as he got and yet in those twenty-eight years, boy, what a catalog, right?

LB: Yeah, just amazing.

Pat: Touch ever so briefly on Jeff. I guess you got to know Jeff a little bit?

LB: Yeah, Jeff actually looked me up when he was touring and came into town so I heard him I think two engagements and we had become instant friends. I’d heard that other old friends of Tim that had met him were just shocked at how much he looked and/or sounded like Tim and that was the one thing he didn’t want to hear, so I made sure that I would never say that. After his gig I went up to him and said, “Well, congratulations on being yourself,” to which he responded, “So that’s the verdict?” [Laughs] like he’s on trial and we’re handing down a verdict. I don’t know. But anyway, we then sent letter back and forth, and corresponded up until his death. I still have his letters which are like mad, unpublished--I think because he was writing to a poet, he thought, “Wow, I can’t just write anything like ‘I need to buy new shoes.’ I need to write something like some kind of mad, rambo prose poem.” So that’s what he would send me. [Laughs] I have all these unpublished Jeff Buckley prose poetry. I think in the back of our minds we never explicitly came out and said it but we were thinking about, you know, maybe I should write some lyrics for this guy.

Pat: Yeah, I can imagine it’s sort of the unspoken ghost in the room.

LB: Yeah, and I think it would have gotten to that had he lived longer.

Pat: Sure, definitely. Well, Larry, this conversation has been incredible, this whole journey, in which you really turning me on to what you had and what Jerry had, I also want to say that Jerry went from being, well, I wouldn’t use the word difficult because he wasn’t really being difficult, but he was being something. He turns into butter in my hands--once he trusted me. Obviously trust means everything. All of my more recent viewings and conversations with Jerry have been awesome. He really opens up, not just about Tim but just as one professional to another. As you know, there was a time there where I thought I was going to have to bring you in to be the Jimmy Carter of Camp David but it all worked out.

LB: I did want to add one thing that I forgot to tell you and that is that we were writing at a great rate of speed, I mean, everyday we would write songs from before the first album all the way to the Goodbye and Hello sessions and by the time of Goodbye and Hello, Tim literally had a hundred songs to choose from and we were writing more at the time. Goodbye and Hello is like a subset of all the rest.

Pat: You know, actually, I have one more topic I wanted to ask. I’m glad you brought that around, because you guys obviously in those years were spending a lot of time together and I just want to try capture that like a photograph in the sense that besides that you’re writing songs, you’re obviously listening to music, probably smoking a few joints, talking about women, you know, the things that twenty year olds do, I’m wondering if you can give me a little snapshot of that somehow for a moment.

LB: Yeah, we had two main hangouts. One was his house in Santa Monica. That’s where--I’m sure you’ve heard the essay that I wrote on the composition of “Song to the Siren,” that took place there. The place is still there, actually. The thing is that it took place there, and the other place was a place we called Big Pink, of course after the band Big Pink, which is now available for rental, by the way.

Pat: [Laughs] I saw that actually.

LB: That would be kind of great. It’s ambient and you could record a few tracks down there. So, Big Pink was a duplex with Lee Underwood on one side and me on the other. There was actually a door between them. They had kind of built a fake wall between the two sides and there was a door. All of us, the whole crew, would be at one of those two places at all times. Music was always on and not necessarily what you might think. It might be Bach’s preludes and fugues, or piano music of the Gymnopedie, piano music by Erik Satie, or it could be Lennie Tristano or Miles Davis or whatever new rock album. We listened to Dylan, Beatles, and Donovan constantly, and whatever else bizarre thing Tim would come up with. He had no record collection at all, he would just only pass things through his hands. We loved folk music; we loved Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and Judy Collins, then all the folk rock stuff. Just massive. If a record wasn’t playing then the radio was on.

Pat: Was there a lot of interaction with some of those other artists you mentioned? Of course those on Elektra, were you guys ever interacting with, let’s say, The Doors?

LB: Yeah, a little bit. I mean, we were prematurely, I think, introduced to Judy Collins and went over--we created a demo tape for her which… Did we have a demo tape or did Tim just sing some live as we were sitting there? Anyway, we met her and played some songs for her and she was, at that point, not writing but she was covering singer/songwriters and our stuff--we hadn’t really hit our stride yet so it was kind of premature. It was too bad because she did many years later record “Once I Was,” just recently actually, but I felt that we really could have collaborated with her in a big way had we delayed for like one year. But she didn’t like we had to show and passed on it. That’s about it. I mean, we would come into the sessions and Love [**note: not sure if this is a name or a joke here 47:39] would be there and we’d kind of make fun of him and wait for him to leave so we could record Goodbye and Hello but there wasn’t a lot of interaction I don’t think. I know that Zappa made a point of complimenting Tim and my work and he was a huge inspiration of course.

Pat: Yeah, and then of course you have the Zappa/Herbie/Tim connection.

LB: Right, he’s got the same manager. I know that Tim actually met Fred Neil and there was that story of where we were invited to drop in at Fred Neil’s session for the Fred Neil album and we happened to show up--we were only allowed to be in the booth. We were only there for probably like fifteen or twenty minutes but it was still like, to us, we idolized the guy. It was a huge honor just to be in the same building with him and they happened to be recording “Dolphins” at the time, I mean, the signature song.

Pat: Yeah, which became, in my mind, Tim’s signature song as well.

LB: Absolutely did. That’s where it started, I mean, that’s the first time we heard it. The studio’s all dark and he’s got John Sebastian out there on harmonica and he’s playing different versions. Instead of doing take one, take two, take three, it would be like version one, version two, version three. I mean, he completely reconceived the song for the next take and we were looking at each other going, “Are you kidding me? That’s still ‘Dolphins’?!” And the actual one that showed up on the album wasn’t any of the ones we heard. And that was like, OK, you can actually do this. You can actually reconceive and recreate, I see. That was a lesson from Fred to us.

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