LOS ANGELES — Singer-songwriter Tim Buckley died at the Santa Monica Hospital emergency room at 9:42 p.m. on June 29th. At first police suspected that Buckley, 28, had suffered a heart attack, but the county coroner’s office later ruled that death was due to a heroin/morphine overdose coupled with alcohol.
Ten days later, Richard Keeling, a 30-year-old research assistant in the music department at UCLA, was arraigned on charges of second degree murder. Keeling allegedly furnished Buckley with the drugs that caused his death; under California law, this constitutes grounds for a murder indictment. Detective Tom Petroski of the Santa Monica Police Department said that the case had nearly been closed before Keeling was linked to it by statements he’d made shortly after Buckley’s death. Buckley supposedly visited the Ph.D. student’s apartment with his wife shortly before he returned to his home and collapsed.
Police said that Keeling had helped Buckley home and put him into bed after the singer had fallen to the floor. They added that two hours later Buckley’s wife became suspicious about his erratic breathing and called for medical assistance. He was then taken to the hospital, where he died shortly thereafter.
Buckley was reputedly a hard drug user several years ago, but the coroner’s report showed no indication of recent sustained use of narcotics. No needle marks were found, and L.A. insiders are speculating that he may have snorted the heroin thinking that it was cocaine.
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Buckley had been without a label for the past few months, but Arista and Asylum had expressed interest in signing him. His newer albums – Look at the Fool, Sefronia and Greetings from L.A. – contained a number of successful straight-ahead rock & roll songs, a departure from the more plaintive tunes heard on mid-Sixties albums like Tim Buckley and Goodbye and Hello.
Though likened to such L.A. song poets as Jackson Browne and gifted with an impressive, multioctave voice, Buckley never quite achieved real stardom. He first won attention as a sensitive, almost fragile, writer and singer, but during the late Sixties he began to explore unstructured jazz vocals, sometimes singing onomatopoetically onstage for up to an hour.
Longtime followers often questioned Buckley’s later jazz and rock explorations, but keyboard player John Herron, who recently backed him onstage, said that “the timing could not have been worse. He was at a point where he was going to make the big move. Even though he never got the recognition, he was head and shoulders above a lot of the big names in the business.” There were signs that such recognition was forthcoming; Buckley had played an 1800 capacity show at Dallas’s Electric Ballroom the night before his death.
Jim Fielder, the former Blood, Sweat and Tears bassist who played on Look at the Fool, said that Buckley had “looked okay” when encountered in a San Fernando Valley club just three weeks before his death. “At the time of Look at the Fool,” Fielder added, surprise evident in his voice, “Tim was great, in real good shape. It was one of the healthiest times of his life.”
Buckley had recently been involved in a UCLA research project as an apprentice in a program working with obscure instruments. He was writing a screenplay and a novel, and was being seriously considered by director Hal Ashby for the role of Woody Guthrie in the film Bound for Glory.
At the time of his death, Buckley seemed to be in excellent spirits. Frankie Nemko, a Los Angeles writer who’d interviewed Buckley in late June, said that he “was so excited about his career, so up it was lovely.” And Jackie McGuire, a friend of Buckley’s wife Judy who is helping to organize a benefit/tribute tentatively scheduled for Burbank’s Starlight Bowl on August 11th, echoed that Buckley’s frame of mind had been “very up.”
In addition to his wife, Buckley is survived by Taylor, his 12-year-old son from a previous marriage.
This story is from the August 14th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.