As the guitar armies marched through the '60s and '70s temporarily vanquishing all other instruments into the dust, there stood a loner who didn't quite march under any one flag. He didn't play the rock and blues licks that were the stock in trade of Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. He really didn't even play very loud, because often the only drums playing behind him would be the conga of Carter C.C. Collins. He didn't really even play rock, although Lee Underwood is most often identified as a rock musician. This is because of his long collaboration with Tim Buckley, but was Tim Buckley really rock? Perhaps he was folk-rock, if one wants to spend time affixing labels to bottles. All the same, if Underwood is a folk-rock guitarist, then his style is once again unlike any other in that genre. Just as banjo players Bill Keith and later Tony Trischka were credited with introducing chromatic concepts into the bluegrass scene, Underwood was the only guitarist active in rock whose improvisations involved the level of sophisticated harmonic development one finds in jazz. While Jerry Garcia and Frank Zappa always remained shackled to root chords and often simple pentatonic scales in their playing, Underwood floated as freely as Ornette Coleman. Combined with the frizzy haired, incredibly romantic and spaced out Buckley, it was a wonderful musical match...for a time.
An aspiring jazz guitarist when he first met the teenage Buckley, Underwood easily followed his musical partner from the quiet, hypnotic folk-jazz style into the noisy and abrasive world of a large avant-garde rock band featuring the silver-haired, horn playing brothers Buzz and Bunk Gardner. The guitarist was eventually edged out of the Buckley scene when that artist began developing yet another style consisting of loud, free-form funk. These records, such as Greetings From L.A., were largely hated at the time they were released, but have come to be seen as ahead of their time. Ahead or behind, Underwood was soon gone, replaced by Joe Falsia. The contribution he had made to the world of Buckley is generally considered major, with many reviewers ready to give him equal creative credit. But like anything that is discussed in the music world, there are dissenting voices. "He stuck with Lee Underwood for a long, long time," one such critic wrote, "although Underwood's guitar playing never varied or evolved and his piano playing was amateurish at best."
By the time these harsh words were written, one could have easily responded with a "Hey man, you can't critique the critics." In the '70s, Underwood's name was familiar to readers of Downbeat magazine. He had reinvented himself as a journalist while confirming what many listeners had perceived as the guiding influence of his guitar playing. As the Los Angeles correspondent for that jazz magazine, Underwood helped popularize the idea of local "scene" columns, and also did a series of profiles of West Coast players. In the latter part of that decade, he was still closely following new developments in jazz as an enthusiastic supporter, and was responsible for John Zorn's photo being printed in Downbeat for the first time. He also helped guide readers of this magazine toward the music of international artists such as Pandit Pran Nath and L. Shankar, as well as avant-garde composer La Monte Young. In the '80s, he relocated to a remote part of New Mexico. He began collaborating with composer and electronic musician Steve Roach in the late '80s, and they appeared on each other's projects. The guitarist began getting involved in what is sometimes called new age music, the influence also spreading to his writing. His musical style as presented on self-produced recordings, such as California Sigh, was often described as "space guitar," while his freelance writing market changed from Downbeat to Body Mind Spirit. He was a co-writer on the autobiographical tract dedicated to flutist Paul Horn, Inside Paul Horn: The Spiritual Odyssey of a Universal Traveler, published by Harper Collins. Tim Buckley liner notes produced some of Underwood's finest writing in this period, as well as the '90s. He got plenty of practice in this regard, as a steady series of material by the singer continues to be released, often accompanied by well-written Underwood memoirs that make many Buckley fans wish the guitarist would crank out a biography of his old friend. In an exchange of letters with this writer during the '90s, he expressed enthusiasm for what was his favorite venue in that period: playing his guitar by the banks of a small stream. "I am glad to be away from the music business axis of New York, London, and Tokyo," he added. An inventive, original, and happily not completely forgotten guitarist, Lee Underwood simply wound up preferring rocks by a stream to the rock scene. ~ Eugene Chadbourne