Look At The Fool, the ninth and final studio album to be released by Tim Buckley in his lifetime (the album was released in November 1974, and Buckley was to die from a drug overdose on June 29th, 1975, aged only twenty-eight), is seen by some as the last in a trio of'sex-funk' releases. He'd begun this trilogy with Greetings From LA in 1972, his first album release in a couple of years, after the formless Starsailor in 1970. He followed Greetings with Sefronia (also available on Edsel Records), and the last album in his deal with Disc Reet, the label owned by his manager, Herb Cohen, was this - Look At The Fool. Greetings had seen Buckley abandon the allusive poetry and otherworldly ambience of his late sixties albums such as Lorca and Starsailor in favour of a far more direct - explicit, in fact - celebration of sexuality and carnal desire. Musically, he'd also embraced rhythm and blues and funk. Sefronia, his penultimate album, had broadly followed similar lines, but contained more outside material than he had ever entertained before. Look At The Fool would correct this by being entirely self-penned, apart from two songs co-written with his school friend Larry Beckett, with whom he had collaborated often over the years.
Apparently, Buckley had originally wanted to call the album An American Souvenir, seemingly informed in part by Van Dyke Parks' 'Discover America'. In the end though, the actual title perhaps says something more about Buckley's mental state - having to cope with a debilitating drinking problem, and his downward record sales spiral. Opening with the title track, Buckley delivers a stratospheric, tortured vocal that is eerily reminiscent to that of the last great Southern Soul star, Al Green (who was then at a real commercial peak, having crossed over from the rhythm and blues charts into mainstream international pop success). By any standards, 'Look At The Fool' is a remarkable performance.
A few years of hard drinking and sometime substance abuse may have robbed Buckley's vocal pipes of their youthful 'innocent' quality, but his four-octave vocal range was intact, and Buckley certainly pulls out the melismatic stops here. The arrangement is similarly ambitious, morphing through rolling funk to the tension and release of the breakdown. Whereas I can see where Buckley diehards would say that "it ain't 'Buzzin’ Fly'", it is, nonetheless, as ambitious and full-blooded as anything Buckley had cut in his career. 'Bring ft On Up' is gutsy funk, and again, Buckley artfully shuffles his vocal personae, from urgent falsetto to funk grits ‘n’ gravy.
The coda, which has Buckley referring to "belly to belly", revisits some of the overt sexual themes of Greetings From LA. 'Helpless' is more groove than song, but it's a solid groove, and delivered with commitment. 'Freeway Blues' is another teak-tough outing, based on an insistent clavinet motif with tart guitar stabs, and Buckley staying in one vocal persona for the song (both 'Freeway Blues' and its successor, 'Tijuana Moon' are Buckley co-writes with Larry Beckett).
Without wishing to worry any particular bone, what is SO wrong with Buckley here? He doesn't dial in a vocal, he sounds like he's enjoying the process - the lyrics certainly aren't folk poetry, but are certainly more reflective of the times they were written in - the album has worn considerably better than most critics would have you think. 'Tijuana Moon' is slight, but fits in with the Mexicali themes that crop up elsewhere. Buckley is onto something here though, rightly alluding to the odd ambience of border towns, the sense of unease and a space where cultures collide, where things get mixed and messed up. In its way, Look At The Fool inhabits borders – where the sacred collides with the profane (a conflict that informed the careers of great black R’n’B performers, from Jackie Wilson through to Al Green and Marvin Gaye, of course), the escape into no-strings sexual encounters and the need for love, and the breaking of musical borders - it's all in here, if you listen carefully.
'Ain't It Peculiar' partially purloins the title of a Marvin Gaye hit, but its lissom, loping funk is of Buckley's own invention. 'Who Could Deny You' opens in mellifluous style, Buckley's soulful upper register voice floating over the vibes and guitar track with a featherweight glide. He rings the arrangement changes, and proceeds to deliver an at times staggeringly 10 impressive, coruscating vocal, alternating between grit and grace with remarkable agility. 'Mexicali Voodoo' features a Steely Dan type guitar and keyboard dual riff- more groove than song again, but once more the groove is great. 'Down In The Street' is a lyrical departure for Buckley - more social observance than anything else, but the track has a real urgency and punch. Closing proceedings is the amusing 'Louie Louie' retread, 'Wanda Lu, a jokey sign-off that adds a little musical humour into the Look At The Fool mix that is welcome lighter relief, sounding like a Tijuana garage band.
One of the other undoubted plus points of Look At The Fool is the stellar crew of backing musicians listed in the credits. Produced by Joe Falsia. who had by then pretty much adopted the role of manager and minder to Buckley, and a fine job of marshalling the musical elements he does, too. Included in the personnel are Mike Melvoin (keyboards), and Chris Coleman (percussion), who, in addition to their being seasoned session players, are also the fathers of Wendy (Melvoin) and Lisa (Coleman), for many years the mainstays of Prince's band, as well as being recording artists in their own right.
Drummer Earl Palmer had played on most of Little Richard's hits, as well as on Randy Newman recordings, Beach Boys records, and scores of others, including Little Feat, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. Speaking of Waits, bassist Jim Hughart was a member of Waits' band at this time, and another bassist featured here, Chuck Rainey, played with Steely Dan, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin and Joe Walsh in a lengthy career resume. As important as all of the backing crew is the presence of guitarist Lee Underwood back in Buckley's fold, after an enforced absence dealing with his own personal demons. In the end, though, the jig was up for Buckley, for the time being at least.
The album was released to little fanfare and some critical kicking on its November 1974 release. Buckley hated the cover painting, in which he wears a somewhat defeated expression, and by the end of the year, he had severed his managerial ties with Herb Cohen and DiscReet. On the website, www.timbuckley.net there is reproduced a four-part Buckley retrospective penned by the journalist Max Bell for the New Musical Express in 1979. The fine article ends with a couple of revealing Buckley interview quotes - referring directly to this album, but they tantalizingly point the way in which Buckley's career could have moved had he not died so tragically young: "An instrumentalist can be understood doing just about anything, but people are really geared to something coming out of the mouth being words. I use my voice as an instrument when I'm performing live. I figure if I can do it, why not stick with it? The most shocking thing I've ever seen people come up against, besides a performer taking off his clothes, is dealing with someone who doesn't sing words.
This kind of thing also figures into An American Souvenir' because I get off on great sounding words. If I had my way, words wouldn't mean a thing, but the rules are different for a single singer than a band - they can get away with it because their life expectancy is only two years, "If I haven't done it and I'm capable or old enough and ready, I'll do it while keeping an eye on communication and not necessarily trends and fads. If I thought a whole album of Hank Williams songs was right, I'd do it even if burlesque was the style. Miles Davis went for 15 years without really selling a lot of albums, but his company kept putting them out because there is only one Miles Davis. Now I'm not equating myself with him, but there isn't anybody who can sing or write like me, and if I wasn't allowed to record, then recording wouldn't be valid."
In the forty years since Buckley's passing, his music has been re-discovered and reappraised; for a brief while, Buckley's long-estranged son Jeff Buckley looked to be the true inheritor of his father's musical mantle, possessed of an equally staggering vocal and emotive range, but died in a drowning accident in the Mississippi river on May 29th 1997. Look At The Fool may not be the favourite album of many Buckley fans, but to me, it has worn very well down the years. Time to give it another chance, I reckon.
by Alan Robinson, July 2017
1. Look At The Fool - 5:12
2. Bring It On Up - 3:28
3. Helpless - 3:20
4. Freeway Blues - 3:13
5. Tijuana Moon - 2:43
6. Ain't It Peculiar - 3:37
7. Who Could Deny You - 4:24
8. Mexicali Voodoo - 2:26
9. Down In The Street - 3:22
10.Wanda Lou - 2:38
All songs by Tim Buckley except tracks 4-5 co-written with Larry Beckett
*Tim Buckley - Guitar, Vocals
*Lee Underwood - Guitar, Keyboards
*Venetta Fields - Backing Vocals
*Clydie King - Backing Vocals
*Sherlie Matthews - Backing Vocals
*Joe Falsia - Bass Guitar, Guitar, Arranger, Producer
*Jim Fielder - Bass Guitar
*Jim Hughart - Bass Guitar
*Chuck Rainey - Bass Guitar
*Jesse Ehrlich - Cello
*David Bluefield - Clavinet On "Freeway Blues"
*Mike Melvoin - Organ, Piano, Moog Synthesizer
*Mark Tiernan - Electric Piano
*Terry Harrington - Horn, Saxophone
*Richard Nash - Horn
*William Peterson - Horn
*John Rotella - Horn
*Anthony Terran - Horn
*King Errisson - Congas
*Gary Coleman - Percussion
*Earl Palmer - Drums
1966 Tim Buckley - Tim Buckley (Part 1 of 2017 eight cds box set)
1967 Tim Buckley - Goodbye And Hello (Part 2 of 2017 eight cds box set)
1969 Tim Buckley - Happy Sad (Part 3 of 2017 eight cds box set)
1969 Tim Buckley - Blue Afternoon (Part 4 of the 2017 eight cds box set)
1970 Tim Buckley - Lorca (Part 5 of the 2017 eight cds box set)
1970 Tim Buckley - Starsailor (Part 6 of the 2017 eight cds box set)
1972 Tim Buckley - Greetings From L.A. (Part 7 of the 2017 eight cds box set)
1967-69 Tim Buckley - Works In Progress (Part 8 of the 2017 eight cds box set)
1973 Tim Buckley - Sefronia (2017 remaster)