On the cover of the CD, Buckley stands precariously atop a curbside bank of slippery snow, a tangle of skinny legs topped off by a then-trendy turtleneck and white-boy afro piled high, curl upon endless curl. The place: some nameless Greenwich Village alley. The time: probably 1966. Notice the backdrop, a brick wall plastered with a myriad of poster bills that succinctly describe the day’s percolating music scene, popular and otherwise: Velvet Underground & Nico at The Scene; The Blues Project plus Ian and Sylvia at the Bitter End; and–get this–John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman at the Village Theatre; same night, same stage, a double bill to die for.
Indeed, this sparkling 34-cut double-disc retrospective proves that Buckley at his best belonged right up there with the giants. Unleashing a gigantic voice closer to Pavarotti than Dylan, this folk-inspired eccentric wailed like some doomed soul man chased by the devil. His manic, high-register shrieks predated all the yowling Robert Plants of the future. Riding madly strummed 12-strings and noodling electric guitars, Buckley’s virtuoso vocals sounded nearly otherworldly.
The victim of a heroin overdose at age 28, Buckley waxed nine LPs during his brief lifetime, ranging from the sublime (Happy Sad, 1969) to the just plain shitty (Lorca, 1970). His spotty discography makes him a prime candidate for Rhino’s trademark greatest-hits approach. Accordingly, Morning Glory filters out the bad juju, including overwrought lyrics, the precious folk-rock arrangements of his early days and the endless acoustic jams of his weakest records. What remains is pure gold. Transcendent performances like “Happy Time,” pitting sunshiny warble against loose-limbed rhythm, and the famous “Song to the Siren,” which appears both in familiar form and a newly discovered version, suggest that Buckley should have achieved–at least–a bit of commercial success.
But not on this earth. Like artful contemporaries Tim Hardin and Nick Drake, a pair of fellow fallen angels who blended folk and rock in original ways, Buckley allowed us a quick glimpse of something beautiful–and then disappeared.