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Monday, 22 November 2010

Morning Glory



Ipomoea purpurea (Morning Glory flowers)
: photo by PiccoloNamek, 2005

I lit my purest candle close to my
Window, hoping it would catch the eye
Of any vagabond who passed it by,
And I waited in my fleeting house

Before he came I felt him drawing near;
As he neared I felt the ancient fear
That he had come to wound my door and jeer,
And I waited in my fleeting house

-- from Morning Glory: Tim Buckley and Larry Beckett, 1967

There are many tests that may be applied to a song or a poem, but perhaps the most important of these is the test of time: it sounded good back then, but how does it sound now?

Much of the poetry and song of bygone epochs is best left buried in the tar pits of recycled history. It sounded good back then, but now, well, kindness compels a silent nod, and nothing more, as one passes on, and the song or poem recedes into the distance.

Songs and poems may be like mirrors in that respect. Once they may have offered a fair reflection of the feeling and colour of a time. But now most of them are like broken mirrors, cracked and clouded-over. All one can discover in them is the past. There is nothing left to learn about that. It's done and dusted.

But then there are the marvelous exceptions.

File:Glorious Morning Glories.JPG

Ipomoea tricolor ("Blue Star" Morning Glory flowers)
: photo by DMaciver, 2007

One of these special exceptions, for me, is the Tim Buckley/Larry Beckett collaboration Morning Glory, recorded by Buckley on his 1967 album Hello, Goodbye.

Tim Buckley was twenty-one at the time that record came out. Here he is a year later, performing the song live on the BBC. (The lip-synching on the video clip is approximate, as per most of the clips one sees from that period.)

Several things about this song continue to engage.

The hobo is a character who has lingered. Nowadays he might be called homeless person or street person. He is the other. He is definitely still around, in fact more so than ever. You may have stepped over or around him on the public pavements just last night.

The fleeting house which the hobo approaches, in which the narrator waits with an ancient fear, and in which he lights his purest candle, remains to be understood.

Some have suggested that the fleeting house is the house of fame, in which Tim Buckley very briefly dwelt.

Briefly is meant here in a literal sense. Tim Buckley died of a heroin overdose in 1975, at the age of twenty-eight. Since then the song has taken on retrospective meanings that could not have been foreseen at the time of its composition.

The lyric of the song was probably penned by Larry Beckett, Buckley's close friend and collaborator.

Buckley is said to have asked Beckett to write a song with a hobo in it.

The Hobo: Charles Burchfield, 1931 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.)

Introducing it in one extended clip of that recorded performance from 1968, Buckley recounts an anecdote whose bearing upon the song does little to dispel its mysteries.

"This new song," he said, "is about a hobo beatin' up on a collegiate kid, outside of Dallas, Texas."

Buckley is said to have been troubled by problems of guilt and deficient self-esteem deriving from the early experience of an abusive father.

His own "collegiate" career, at Fullerton State, which is in California, not Texas, lasted but a few short weeks.

In any event, the possible autobiographical elements in the song appear to have virtually nothing to do with its lasting impact as a poem and a piece of music.

All houses are fleeting. Many have wished to leave their purest candle in a window as a signal of compassionate receptiveness.

But offerings of warmth and light and refuge may be tentative; such offerings may be withdrawn; candles may be snuffed out, lights extinguished, windows shuttered and closed.

These complications seem to enter the song, as Tim Buckley sings it.

December Twilight: Charles Burchfield, 1932-1938 (Wichita Museum of Art)

The poet Robert Creeley spoke in his later years of life as a long solitary journey in the dark, in the course of which one is always looking for that light in a window which signals rest, or relief -- some distant yet emotionally securing memory or reminder of whatever it is one means by home.

Twenty years ago, in remarks recorded in a small book we did together about his life, in which he addressed at some length his sense of the meanings of the terms the common, and the common place, Creeley parsed one of his own poems, a poem dedicated to his wife Penelope, titled So There, which has the lines "Happiness, happiness -- / so simple... / It's one world, / it can't be another... / I don't want to / argue the point..."

"I don't want to argue the point," he said. "That's, again, the common language.... I love the commonplace, but I have no interest in the argument that follows. I used to be really bemused by that statement of Wittgenstein's 'a point in space is a place for an argument'. My reaction was 'Don't tell me that!' I mean, the light in the window, the hills of home -- forget it! It can't be simply a place for an argument." (Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place)

But Creeley's comments on this subject came, as I say, in later life.


Ipomoea nil (Morning Glory flower): photo by Frank J. Gualtieri, Jr., 2008

Morning Glory, on the other hand, is a young man's work.

But it has, as they say,
aged well, though the singer himself did not.

The singer not the song -- no. It's the song and not the singer that is the purest candle, the light in the window, the signal that even though the house may be fleeting, the flickering life of spirit is not to be so easily extinguished by time.


Tim Buckley at Fillmore East, New York City, October 19, 1968: photo by Grant Gouldron, 1968; image by Leahtwosaints, 2010




Really nice to find this this morning, after all this dramatic weather yesterday, last night's full moon climbing into the sky then disappearing into clouds, this special date this morning (11.22.2010), morning glories against the wall of some fleeting house, Tim Buckley singing his song, your reflection on song, memory of Creeley. . . .


pink edge of grey cloud in pale blue sky
above ridge, golden-crowned sparrow’s oh
in foreground, sound of waves in channel

whose position was physical,
continued observation

such as one to which, whose
visibility, once more

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
whiteness of cloud to the left of point

Anonymous said...

I don't think that there is anything about this analysis and appreciation of Morning Glory, and the relation between the artist and the art he created, that could be better. Given the plethora of bad, lazy (although often well-intended) writing on popular music (I'm qualified to comment on this; I read it too regularly), this feels like a great gift both to the reader and Tim Buckley. The pictures you've included and now Steve s poem here make this really memorable.

Robb said...

Thanks for sharing this, Tom. When I read the lyrics at the top of the post, I did not really like them. But as soon as he sang them, a world opened up. I also wondered if this guy was related to Jeff Buckley, who died when he was 30, and sure enough, Jeff was his son.

Here's a video for you.


Julia said...

I've been away this weekend (a long-weekend here in Argentina) and I love to see now that some light and glory have overcome the rain and darkness that have reigned these days before. It doesn't matter if its real or just metaphoric.

hardPressed poetry said...

"It's the song and not the singer that is the purest candle"

So true.



What a sight, those circular morning glory flowers against blue siding of the house -- "I lit my purest candle close to my/ Wiindow" . . . .


grey whiteness of cloud against shadowed
top of ridge, motion of leaves on branch
in foreground, waves sounding in channel

side of it become different
from what it was, yet

something else than present,
is past, that thought

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
sunlit white cloud to the left of point

hardPressed poetry said...

They remind me of LZ's Little, come to think.

TC said...

Thanks everybody,

Lovely to consider the glorious November weather of Julia's Argentine summer as we drip and shiver here,

Sad to recall that after Jeff B's swearing over and over that what happened to his dad would never happen to him, it did,

Sweet to remember L'il LZ,

Drifting a bit with memories of RC and his one eye out for the light in the window,

Shaken a bit by remembering Tim in his brilliance and his loss,

Time to remember again with Steve that things and Time

become different
from what it was, yet

something else than present

Larry Beckett said...

I read your as always luminous remarks on my old song Morning Glory, with such pleasure. Unlike most of my other songs written young, that had some yugen: mystery and depth.

In later years, I saw that I had adapted the enigmatic image of the fleeting house from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146:

Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

In this reading, the fleeting house is the body, home to the spirit, and by extension, it’s a way of living, always shifting, in a world of flux. This gives some urgency to his asking for tales of time, and pain to their refusal.

Thank you for your eloquence.

I also want to let you know that there are many biographies of Kerouac, but only one with the courage to end with a poem, and for that he blesses you from his heaven.

Larry Beckett

TC said...


This generous comment adds to our appreciation and understanding of your great song; for both song and comment, many, many thanks.

For as long as there are hobos, rain and night candles in fleeting houses...

Larry Beckett: Second Avenue

TC said...

Shakespeare: Sonnet 146

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[Feeding] these rebel pow’rs that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body's end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servants’ loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
And death once dead, there's no more dying then.

Alan Walsh said...

Well for me the hobo is a metaphor for ‘every man’ and the ‘fleeting house’ is as it says a transient or short lived dwelling place. How easily any one of us can lose everything we have, our house our home our loved ones and all our possessions and we then become that hobo, an ancient fear to be feared indeed.
Don’t take anything for granted, therefore but by the grace of god go I.

guitarsla said...

I read Buckley when he was younger lived near a hobo camp. And that the song means that the hobo was offered respite by the man in the house but rejectef the offer as he viewed it as pretentious. Makes sense