Interview: Lee Underwood

 Lee Underwood has lived the life of a music enthusiast. After re-locating to New York City in 1966, the man of jazz met the troubadour Tim Buckley. Needless to say Tim and Lee teamed up to play Buckley's first NYC gig in Greenwich Village. Under the guidance and management of Herb Cohen, Buckley was signed to Elektra records in the summer of 1966. They recorded Buckley's self-titled album in Buckley's native Los Angeles with Lee as lead guitarist. They were accompanied by Jim Fielder on bass, Billy Mundi as a session drummer (Mothers of Invention) and Van Dyke Parks on piano; not to mention Buckley's song writing partner Larry Beckett. Buckley's debut album acted as a platform for future artistic development. Lee was part of Buckley's rollercoaster career in the late 60s and early 70s. He's an important figure as a musician, author and as a music journalist; of which he wrote for the likes of Rolling Stone, Billboard and Down Beat.

Where and how did you meet Tim Buckley?
I met Tim purely by chance in Greenwich Village, on the stairway of the apartment building where he was staying. I recognised him from having seen him sing at the Troubadour in L.A. some six months before. He remembered me from my performance that same night.

We struck up a conversation after he heard me play my songs in the Village that day for a friend of his. He asked me to play guitar at the Nite Owl nightclub with him for that next couple of weeks, and that led us back to L.A. where we recorded the first album, Tim Buckley. I remained his lead guitarist from that time on, more than seven years. The rest, they say, is history.

How were the tracks on the debut album composed?

That first album consisted of songs that Tim and his close friend Larry Beckett had written together in high school. Larry wrote most of the lyrics, and Tim put them to music. Tim had an amazing talent for doing that. In this first of five conceptual periods, I simply rehearsed with Tim, made up my own guitar lines, and used them to play along with the songs. As time went on, there was less rehearsal and more spontaneous improvisation within the song structures. 

What artists and/or albums were you listening to in the period up until Blue Afternoon?

I have always been a highly eclectic listener. In the folk realm, some of my favourite artists included Odetta, Spider John Koerner, Mississippi John Hurt, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee.
However, my primary love for years before that was jazz - everything from Louie Armstrong to Dave Brubeck, Lennie Tristano, Bill Evans, Miles Davis and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. As Tim evolved out of folk and folk/rock, I shared with him my love of jazz. In my book Blue Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered, I talk at length about this phase of Tim's development, during which he recorded Happy Sad  and Blue Afternoon, both of which included vibraphonist David Friedman and bassist John Miller.

As a musician, who are your biggest influences?

I can hardly begin to list the major musicians and writers I have loved. Some musicians/composers, however, include Chopin, Bach, Scriabin, and pianist Glenn Gould in the classical domain. Dave Brubeck, John McLaughlin, Cecil Taylor, and McCoy Tyner in the jazz domain. Pink Floyd, Crosby/Stills/Nash/Young, and later on, Jeff Buckley in the popular domain. Steve Roach, Kevin Braheny, Harold Budd, and Michael Stearns in the New Age Spacemusic domain.

Among hundreds of writers, I can include novelists Hermann Hesse, Henry Miller, and Jack Kerouac; poets Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and e.e. cummings; and Higher Consciousness writers such as Ken Wilber, J. Krishnamurti, and Osho. I have recently developed an interest in science, and have been reading books by and about Richard Feynman. 

Did you ever question Tim's direction as an artist?

Early on in Tim's development, I recognised him as a significant creative force. His voice was great, of course, but he was also an evolutionary conceptualist. He used that incredible voice to serve a creative aesthetic that expanded conceptually into five distinct domains. He began with rather conventional folk music, then evolved into folk/rock (with Goodbye and Hello). From there, he explored jazz and improvisation (Happy Sad), and from there jumped up still another notch to the avant-garde "contemporary classical music" of Lorca and Starsailor (which he regarded as his masterpiece).

At that point, there was nowhere left to go in a conceptually ascending line. So he completely reversed himself and went to the opposite extreme: the white funk, low-down, barrel-house dance music of his final three albums, most notably Greetings From L.A. - which should have been a radio hit then, and could certainly be a hit today if his business people would get him on the so-called "classic rock" stations.

The other two final albums - Sefronia and Look At the Fool - are a bit uneven, and yet also contain some of the best songs he ever wrote. All three of these last albums are usually dismissed, but the people who dismiss them have clearly not listened very carefully. There is a lot of good stuff in each of them, and people who are serious about Tim and his music need to give these three albums a more open-minded listen. Some of the best songs of his entire career are in there, including "Sweet Surrender" and "Move With Me" (Greetings); "Because of You" and "Quicksand" (Sefronia); and "Look At the Fool" and "Who Could Deny You" (Look At the Fool).

I did not question Tim's various directions, as some others did. That would have been presumptuous of me. Instead, I marshalled whatever knowledge and insight I had in an effort to serve Tim and his music wherever I could, in whatever conceptual phase he evolved into. "Change" was his middle name. I thought his creative imagination was magnificent. I supported it one-hundred percent.

It must be hard to specifically pick one track, but could you name your most cherished Tim Buckley track?
I really can't pick just one. A few include: "Pleasant Street" (Goodbye and Hello), "I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain" (Goodbye and Hello), and "Love From Room 109" (Happy Sad). "Pleasant Street" because of its impassioned anguish. "Mountain" because of its extraordinary, exhilarating power. "109" because of its five-part construction, its quiet lyricism, and its sheer beauty of concept and execution.

What was your impression of Jeff Buckley when your first met?

I was astonished at how much he looked like Tim. When I opened the door of my apartment for our first meeting, he was standing there in exactly the same pose as Tim had on the first album, Tim Buckley. Jeff had Tim's high cheekbones, his full lips, the same intelligent look in his eyes. It was uncanny.

In that first meeting, as well as the second, he asked me questions about Tim, and I answered. However, Jeff said nothing about himself. I had no idea from either of our meetings how much he loved Tim and how much he resented him at the same time.

He loved Tim because he yearned to be with his father, and because Tim's music was such an inspiration for him. But he also resented Tim for not being there for him as a nurturing father. Those two factors were something of an obsession for him. Because I made the mistake of not asking Jeff about himself and how he felt about his father, I missed. Only after Jeff left for New York and got discovered did I read his interviews. Through them, and through his extraordinary music, I came to understand both his love and his resentment for Tim. I wrote about this subject in the Coda section of Blue Melody.

"Greetings From Tim Buckley" is soon to be released and William Sadler will be taking the role of Lee Underwood. Have you seen the scenes you're involved in and how accurate is the films portrayal of Tim, Jeff and yourself?

I have not seen or read anything about that "Greetings" movie. However, I am involved with a Los Angeles writer named Train Houston, who has written a superb script based on Jeff Apter's excellent book about Jeff, entitled A Pure Drop. Train is rounding up personnel and funding for the project right now. He is also using certain scenes from my book, Blue Melody, and is a writer of considerable integrity. I hope to see the film produced within the year. It's an excellent script, with great insight into Jeff's psychological dynamics, his music, and his conflicted relationship with Tim.

Critics praise Tim's vocal work and experimentation. Do you think Tim appeals to a wider audience today?

I get letters quite often, from people all over the world - South Africa, Tasmania, France, Spain, England, etc. They love Tim's music. Many new listeners have come to Tim because of Jeff's music. When they discover Tim, they are astonished, not only by his voice, but by the huge conceptual range and the rich variety of his songs over the course of his career (nine studio albums in only nine years, plus several posthumous albums). So, yes, I think Tim appeals not only to a relatively small group of devoted fans that have been there from the beginning, but also to a wider audience around the world, and that audience consistently grows.

Pop-oriented audiences back in the late '60s and early '70s rejected the extraordinarily imaginative avant-garde music of Starsailor. However, over the years, listeners in the popular domains have become much more knowledgeable and sonically sophisticated. As a result, Starsailor dazzles many new listeners and continues to gain more popularity.

Whenever I turn on the "classic rock" radio stations, I keep wondering why they don't play more   of Tim's music. If Tim's business people promoted his albums to those stations (staring with Greetings From L.A.,  followed by Happy Sad and Goodbye and Hello), I think there would be a tremendous resurgence of new interest from still more listeners everywhere.

Do you listen to your own recordings?

I do not listen very often to the music I recorded with Tim, simply because it happened quite some time ago, and I rarely look back on my life. In the time since I wrote Blue Melody, I have pretty much let my thoughts remain in the present.

However, in addition to having played on Tim's albums, I have recorded three albums of my own. One is a New Age solo acoustic guitar album, entitled California Sigh. Then came a solo piano album, entitled Phantom Light, followed by a second solo piano album, Gathering Light. All of them are available through my new site, at http://www.leeunderwood.net (see the Purchase link for descriptions). I listen occasionally to these albums, but only occasionally, because I am constantly moving forward in my creative work.

For example, I recently created my new web site that includes music from my solo albums, as well as poetry readings from my new poetry book, Timewinds. Both the site and the book took quite a bit of time to put together. As well, I've put a new book on the site, entitled Diamonds In the Sky. It includes some of my thoughts on a wide variety of subjects, including Creativity, Psychotherapy, Writing, Reading, Music, Families, Relationships, Higher Consciousness, etc.

As for what I think about when I'm listening, I actually remove myself from the listening process and listen (to any music, not just my own) without thinking. The whole idea is to first remove preconceptions, tastes, analysis, memories, and like-or-dislike opinions, and just listen. Only afterwards do I move into personal thoughts about either the music, or myself, or both.  I recently published a brief article online about how to listen, how to hear - http://www.mtnspiritonline.org/ms-art.html . 

What is your take on modern music? 

As I have evolved in my listening, I have more or less separated myself from pop-oriented musics. The usual folk, blues, rock 'n' roll and other mainstream musics tend to bore me with their cliches, bombastic excitement modes, and their relatively immature levels of psycho-spiritual development. I'm not condemning them; I just don't find much depth in them.

Instead, I have moved well into classical music, notably Glenn Gould's piano interpretations of Bach's keyboard music; Chopin; and Alexander Scriabin. I also hang out with Harold Budd's piano music, and some very sexy techno-trance music by Underworld and Fluke.
As for the rest of it, my main musical pleasure consists in listening to the stream outside my mountain cabin; to the wind rustling through the surrounding forest; and to the wonderful chatter of our neighbourhood birds.

What was it like writing for Rolling Stone?

From the early '70s into the '90s, I was a freelance writer for a number of publications, including Rolling Stone, the L.A. Times, the L.A. Weekly, Body/Mind/Spirit, Soul Publications, Players, and of course Down Beat.

It was wonderful, meeting top-notch editors, teaching myself how to write about music and musicians, having close contact and involved conversations with musical heavyweights, and spreading the word internationally about the music. My main contributions were with Down Beat, of which I became West Coast Editor for over five years, writing numerous cover story interviews, as well as record reviews, essays, news items.

I thought some people thought of me as a critic because I wrote for music magazines, I was not a critic. I was actually an advocate for the best and highest levels of music I could find in each genre. I also evolved in my explorations and tastes in music and in writing, from soul, country, and pop music, into the jazz domain, and from there into Higher Consciousness electro-acoustic New Age Spacemusic. Writing about music and musicians was probably the best education I ever had.

Could you offer any advice to any aspiring music critics / journalists?

Don't waste time criticising music you don't like. That does not help music's evolutionary development. Instead, support and celebrate the best music and musicians you can find. When you write, take full responsibility for the music, the musicians, the readers, and yourself as a writer. Think clearly, and write with honesty, integrity, and courage.

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Discovery: Interview: Lee Underwood
Interview: Lee Underwood
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