Jeff Buckley, 26 years old and halfway through making his first album, takes
a break at Bearsville recording studio in Woodstock, New York and talks
about the dislocation that comes from having to nail your dreams to a reel
of tape, and from becoming part of the Sony Corporation, the multinational
that owns Columbia Records, Buckley's new label.
"I'm aware that it's hard," Buckley says. "I'm aware of the past; I know
about Columbia and Sony and other big places. I'm not talking about Sire or
SST, I'm talking about big fucking Michael Jackson money. I was wary at
first that they didn't know how to do anything small, but I'm really
determined and I think it will work out for the best." He stops and thinks
and then adds, "I know it will. I have to take them at their word that they
understand, but you know how people are. Their actions will say exactly what
they mean. And sometimes they need a little help. I can't really totally
trust anybody in the music business. I've been brought up not to."
Jeff was brought up in southern California by a mother who loved the Beatles
and had had a brief teenage marriage to her high school boyfriend, Jeff's
father, Tim Buckley. Tim never knew the son he left behind when he headed
east to make a career as a singer/songwriter. At 21 Tim was a star. At 25
Tim had been rejected by a music business that deemed him difficult. At 28
Tim was dead of an overdose. Jeff grew up playing Little League, singing
along with the car radio and knowing little about his natural father. But he
had inherited his father's good looks and he had inherited his father's
remarkable voice. He also had inherited strange characters like his father's
old manager, who used to check in periodically to see how the kid was
progressing, if he was showing any musical tendencies, if he was interested
in getting into show biz. When Jeff says he was brought up not to trust
anyone in the music industry, he's not kidding.
Which made his situation even more confusing when Jeff's gifts led him
through hard rock and reggae bands in California, through an L.A. guitar
school, and then to New York City, where for two years he was pursued by A&R
men, managers, sidemen and other representatives of the record business he
resisted and the music he loved.
Now he's settled on a label and he's living inside the result, the creation
of a much-anticipated debut album. Producer Andy Wallace plays back a string
overdub for Buckley's scrutiny. Jeff nods along in agreement until a
pizzicato section tiptoes up the song's build. He makes a face. "You don't
like that at all?" the producer asks.
"It sounds like shopping music," Buckley says, and starts picking out the
sequence on his guitar. "White pumps!" Buckley also rejects a bit where the
strings echo his taped guitar line. He is being scrupulous in his attention
to every aspect of this album. He has to be. His whole life is riding on it.
Very few young musicians have arrived on the New York scene with the impact
of Jeff Buckley. His first major New York appearance was at an April 1991
Tribute to Tim Buckley concert at St. Ann's (a Brooklyn church known for
hosting hip musical events, from the workshop premiere of Lou Reed and John
Cale's "Songs for Drella" to a solo recital by Garth Hudson). Organized by
record producer and underground catalyst Hal Willner, the concert consisted
of musicians from the downtown/Knitting Factory scene performing Tim Buckley
songs. It was not the best show St. Ann's ever saw; too many of the beatniks
on stage seemed to have little connection to Buckley's work, and were
deconstructing the songs with a musical abandon that aspired to Ornette
Coleman, but ended up closer to Moe Howard.
The audience had come to hear Tim Buckley music, not to hear Buckley songs
used as launch pads for orbits around individual egos, and halfway through
the congregation was fidgeting in the pews. The stage--the church's
altar--went dark while one musician shuffled off and another shuffled on. It
stayed dark while the figure in shadows adjusted his mike and guitar and
then let loose with a loud strum and Tim Buckley's haunted voice. Jeff
Buckley stole the show. In the vestry afterwards he was almost trampled by
people who know his father and wanted to weep on his shoulder, and
record-biz monkeys handing him business cards and promising to make him
"They found out I sang and they asked me to come," Jeff says now of the
tribute concert. "I realized I probably wouldn't ever have another chance to
pay my respects, no matter what kind of twisted feelings I have about Tim,
no matter what kind of pain or anger I have against him--whatever I haven't
come to terms with. The fact that I never got to go to his funeral always
bothered me. And I thought, I can sink down with this or I can get off it,
and then whatever sort of development I've gone through, at least I've done
Asked to go back and do one more song at the end of the tribute show, Jeff
reluctantly went out and sang Tim's "Once I Was." "It was the first song my
mother ever played me by Tim," he explains. "After she left my stepfather, I
guess she wanted to get me into who my father was and she played me 'Once I
Was.' So I learned it. It was hard to learn it. I couldn't do a really full
version of it at home without crying. I almost cried onstage. I broke a
string onstage at the end of that song. They were brand new strings. I was
really pissed. I felt embarrassed about the whole thing. I just felt really
open and vulnerable. There's such a ravenous cult around Tim and you know
how people are. I mean, if people learned they could recreate Jim Morrison
from his ancient bone marrow they'd fucking do it."
A little shook by his welcome to the New York music world, Jeff made the
wise choice of avoiding (a) the uptown businessmen who didn't let knowing
nothing about Jeff's own music stop them from saying they loved it, and (b)
the '60s types who mised Tim and wanted Jeff to replace the father he never
knew. He instead fell in with (c) the downtown hipsters, the progressive
musicians in that Knitting Factory/Golden Palominos/St. Ann's orbit.
Jeff eventually joined Gods & Monsters, a band centered around ex-Captain
Beefheart guitar wizard Gary Lucas, and supplemented during Jeff's tenure
with session aces Tony Maimone on bass and Anton Fier on drums. The rhythm
section was just coming off Bob Mould's house-burning "Workbook" tour. Gods
& Monsters looked like an underground supergroup.
But the band always sounded better in theory than it did in nightclubs,
mostly because it never was a real band. It was a merger of several talented
individuals looking for a big break. Gods & Monsters might have been to Gary
Lucas what Led Zeppelin was to session ace Jimmy Page: a ticket to
mainstream success. But Gods & Monsters remained a great idea for a band,
rather than a great band. About a year after the Tim Buckley tribute, on
March 13, 1992, Gods & Monsters had a big showcase concert at St. Ann's
during which the sound was bad and each fine musician onstage seemed to be
listening only to himself. After that performance Jeff told Lucas he was
quitting; he would play the rest of the gigs they had booked that week and
that was it.
Jeff Buckley's final show with Gods & Monsters, to a small audience at the
Knitting Factory the following weekend, was filled with tension and barely
contained recriminations. One song into the set Buckley told the soundman,
"Let's hear Jeff's guitar," and proceeded to hijack Lucas' band for the
remainder of the night. As Jeff led the group, Lucas filled in piercing
guitar leads and counterpoint. Jeff let loose howling, primal vocals that
were, ironically, like the young Robert Plant while Lucas--relieved of
leading the group-- played with disciplined abandon, raising the stakes at
every hand. It was an amazing set, everything that the St. Ann's showcase
had failed to be. It took the grim relief of failure and the anger of a
breakup to show what the musical prototype for Lucas to Buckley should have
been--not Page to Plant, but James Honeyman-Scott to Chrissie Hynde.
One scene-maker leaned over duing the set and said, "If all the A&R people
who'd been at St. Ann's were here tonight, these guys would be going home
with a record deal." When the last Gods & Monsters song ended, Maimone, Fier
and Lucas walked offstage but Buckley hesitated. He then surprised
everyone--including himself--by staying onstage and continuing to sing
alone. It was a bravura, egotistical move, a violation of all band
etiquette, and exactly the right thing to do to establish that he had the
guts and the ambition to build his own vision, and that he was not going to
be tied to anyone else on his way.
When he finished singing, Jeff walked off the stage and across the room to
his girlfriend Rebecca. They locked into an embrace in the middle of the
club, his head buried in her shoulder, not speaking and oblivious to the
people who came up to tell him what a great finale it had been.
"It was after that night," Jeff says of quitting Gods & Monsters, "that I
knew I needed to invoke the real essence of my voice. I didn't know what it
tasted like at all. I knew I had to get down to work and that anything else
would be a distraction. In that band there were conflicts. It was really
crazy, a desperate situation. I just didn't need things to be desperate. I
needed them to be natural."
By the time he left Gods & Monsters in early '92 Jeff Buckley had some
notion of where he wanted to go, but he didn't have an idea of how to get
there. He had no band, and general good will aside, he had no real
prospects. Rather than start his own group immediately, he determined to
learn to be a performer the hard way, by playing solo around Greenwich
Village. He also wanted to understand how the best songwriters did what they
did, so he began a self-imposed course of study. One night he came into an
East Village restaurant carrying a new CD of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. He
had heard the song "Sweet Thing" on the Best of Van Morrison album and
wanted to follow that trail back to its source. Within a couple of weeks he
was adding Astral Weeks material to his solo sets, along with Edith Piaf,
Mutabaruka and Bob Dylan songs.
Looking back on that period of study now he says, "Before I left for New
York for the last time all I was obsessing about in my notebooks was that
there's this...this place I want to get to. And I was remarking to myself
that there are no teachers. There was nobody to show me. Well, actually
there were, but they weren't alive or else they weren't...I'm not going to
be able to walk up to Ray Charles and be his protege.
"I went into those cafes because I also really felt I had to go to an
impossibly intimate setting where there's no escape, where there's no hiding
yourself. If you suck you need work and if you don't then you have to work
on making magic and if you make magic then everybody has this great
transformative experience. Or at least a good experience.
"And it wasn't easy at first. I mean, when I first walked into Sin-é or the
Cornelia Street Cafe, people talked their asses off. They didn't want to
hear it. And that was a problem and it made me frustrated. Until I made the
audience a part of the music. Until I made those sounds part of the music
like they were samples on a record. They were actually an interactive part
of what I was playing and was going to sing. And then all of a sudden I just
fell into a rhythm and I learned about what it means when the audience is
responsible partly for the experience. I'm determined to start from that
space again with a band. I want to get the band ready to go into these
intimate places and learn how to make big magic in little areas. Things that
you just can't forget."
During the summer of '92 Buckley's one-man gigs grew in confidence and
reputation. He played all over town, but his main venue became Cafe Sin-é, a
tiny Irish club on St. Mark's Place in the East Village that presents
original music nightly, and had become the site of surprise sets by visitors
such as Hothouse Flowers, Sinead O'Connor and the Waterboys. The Sine-é gigs
began as a way for Jeff to learn his craft out of the spotlight, but the
spotlight found him there.
Over the course of that summer Jeff generated a buzz that reached all the
way up to the midtown offices of the major record labels. His weekly shows
at Sine-é became an A&R magnet, and pretty soon long black limousines were
squeezing down St. Mark's Place and executives with hundred-dollar haircuts
were trying to maneuver between the bohemians without getting their suits
wrinkled. Regulars got a kick out of watching the bigshots smiling and
waving at each other and then scrutinizing each other' reactions. One ritual
was absolute: A&R man A did not leave until A&R men B-Z left.
Pretty soon the label presidents were showing up at Sin-e, too. At a meeting
set up by Arista A&R, Buckley had the balls to tell label president Clive
Davis that he would not be interested in signing to Arista when Davis had
not even seen him play. So Clive came to Sin-é. "He said, 'What are you
looking for in a record company?'" Jeff recalls of Clive. "I said, 'Well,
basically, three things. Integrity,' which was, you know, a fantasy but I
just thought I'd throw it out. A record company's integrity is to make
money, to move units. I understand that. The next thing I said was
'patience,' because I didn't know at that time what anybody's threshold for
interesting music was. Number three: 'Hands off.'"
It was not a partnership meant to be. Jeff was taken aback when Davis
brought him into his office and showed him a video presentation
about...Clive Davis. "He had an eight-minute video all about him," Jeff
recounts with amazement. "Him with Donovan, him with Janis Joplin, him with
Sly Stone, and him donating all this money to charity. 'My life in the music
By the end of the summer Jeff Buckley was a big topic of conversation
whenever record executives got together. Some felt that Jeff's lawyer (he
had no manager) wanted too much money for an unknown, unproven talent.
Others said that while the kid had a great voice and undeniable charisma,
the songs weren't commercial. (Buckley's original material tended toward
moody, elastic forms, not a million miles from Astral Weeks.)
One of the fascinating aspects of Jeff's attraction for A&R men was that
precisely because he was playing without a band and because he was doing a
wide range of cover songs, they could imagine him being whatever they wanted
him to be. The general impression was of a young Van Morrison/early REM
style, but brilliant Sire A&R man Joe McEwen heard in Buckley a soul singer,
and imagined him in Memphis recording R&B with producer Jim Dickinson.
The same lack of clear direction that frightened some labels away made
Buckley attractive to others. Talent scouts saw a very handsome kid with a
fantastic voice--and from that they projected everything from a younger
Michael Stipe to a hipper Michael Bolton.
How hard was it for Jeff to turn down offers of record contracts and money
at a time when he was living hand-to-mouth?
"Very," he answers. "It was really hard. I always knew that my natural place
was to make my life making music. The whole reason I was so wary of
automatic things is because I suspected that my lineage had everything to do
with it. I didn't get the feeling that anybody really heard me.
"Or I didn't know, I had no way of knowing. Because of my father people
assumed things about me that weren't true: that I was well taken care of,
that I lived in Beverly Hills, that I was a brat. My father chose a whole
other family. I mean, it was just me and my mom and my little brother. And
my stepfather for a couple of years. I didn't even meet my father until I
was eight, and then just for one week, an Easter vacation. Two months later
"Actually my stepfather and my mother had everything to do with my musical
roots. My stepfather couldn't carry a tune, but he had a passion for great
music. He bought me my first rock 'n' roll album, Physical Graffiti, when I
was about nine years old. I was into the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and
all these weird things kids would never know about, like Booker T. and the
MG's. I began listening to Edith Piaf when I was about 16. Later I found Bad
Brains and Robert Johnson and idolized them simultaneously. There exists a
common thread through all that stuff. My music has to be a culmination of
everything I've ever loved. It's how I learned my alphabet. But I learned,
probably in my Miles Davis phase, that in order to really pay tribute to
things you love you must become yourself."
Buckley signed with Columbia at the end of 1992 due in large part, he says,
to his personal connection with A&R man Steve Berkowitz, a long-haired
hipster whose shank of chin hair makes him look like an Egyptian pharaoh and
whose love of blues and R&B manifested itself in his weekend gigs as
guitarist "T. Blade." Berkowitz advised a slow build for Buckley, doing
everything possible to avoid hype. They rejected offers of interviews with
fashion magazines and photos for the Gap, and determined to take the
pressure off the first album by preceding it with an EP recorded live and
solo at Cafe Sin-é.
The four-song EP was recorded in a marathon set at Sin-é last August. Andy
Wallace, who had mixed Soul Asylum, Guns N' Roses and Nirvana was brought in
to produce. The recording gear was set up in a small pub two doors down.
During Jeff's set the Sin-é regulars were joined by top brass from
Columbia/Sony. Jeff, who seemed to be in an exceptionally light-hearted
mood, played just about every song in his eclectic repertoire.
The three hour-plus set provided plenty of examples of the lessons Jeff had
learned about including the audience in his show. A couple of hours along, a
bag lady wandered in and stood staring at Jeff, who began singing to her (to
the tune of the old Hollies hit, "Long Cool Woman"), "She was a short black
woman." She took offense and started squawking at him. Jeff noted that her
squawks sounded like Howlin' Wolf and sang Wolf licks back at her in a
bizarre Howlin'/hecklin' duet. When a waitress quieted her down, someone
else yelled out a request for something by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. If it was
a dare, they picked the wrong boy. Buckley is a big fan of the Pakistani
singer and launched into a monologue about his hero, as well as a generous
sampling of Nusrat's music. At this point a few of the Sony execs began
peeling the labels off their beer bottles and staring at their watches, but
there was a good hour left to go. During that night's version of Astral
Weeks' "The Way Young Lovers Do," Jeff surprised everyone by launching into
a scat-solo. He'd never done it before, but the tape caught it and the song
made the final EP selection. (Buckley was relieved when it proved too
eccentrically played and sung to be edited down.)
Jeff played and played, the tapes next door rolled and rolled. Perhaps aware
that some of the record execs were there because they had to be, Buckley
began strumming "The End" by the Doors and reciting, "'Jeff?' 'Yes, Sony?'
'We want to fffff-fgggg you!' 'Wo! Ugh!'" The Sony bigwigs smiled. By the
end of the night Buckley, Berkowitz and Wallace knew they had plenty of good
material from which to pull four songs. Everyone felt great, although when
one bystander joked to Buckley that he had just given Sony a couple of boxed
sets worth of music to stick in their vaults, Berkowitz stopped smiling long
enough to warn the big-mouth, "Don't tell him that."
In the autumn Jeff headed up to Woodstock to begin work on his first album.
He had found a bassist named Mick Grondahl and a drummer named Matt Johnson,
both downtown Manhattan players who hooked in with Jeff emotionally as well
as musically. The burden of actually beginning to make a debut album after
two and a half years of circling around it was exacerbated by a series of
personal misfortunes that befell the musicians, including the sudden death
of Jeff's girlfriend Rebecca's father, to whom Jeff had grown very close
(the album will bear a dedication to him).
The assumption almost every one of the music-biz kibitzers had made about
Jeff Buckley was that he was an artist who needed time to grow, that he
would expand his talent and his popularity over four or five albums (like
REM) rather than explode out of the box. Which is probably true, but not
necessarily. The side of the road is littered with the bodies of talented
young musicians who got discarded when the popular momentum turned against
them, or the person who signed them moved to another label, or they didn't
perform up to corporate expectations.
But listening to the first tracks from Jeff Buckley's first album, another
possibility emerges. Wallace and Buckley finish adding eerie, almost eastern
strings to Buckley's moody lament "Mojo Pin," which Grondahl and Johnson
have anchored to earth with throbbing bass and drums. Bringing out these
colors makes the song less akin to "Astral Weeks" and more to Led Zeppelin's
"Kashmir." It is almost a shock to hear that transformation while seeing
Jeff, leaning against the studio glass strumming his Rickenbacker, looking
like James Dean crucified on his shot-gun in "Giant." For the first time it
seems possible that Jeff Buckley won't have to wait long to become famous.
Whether that would be a blessing or a curse is a separate discussion.
In the Bearsville studio dining room a little while later, Jeff is asked
what he hopes to get out of his Sony recording contract. "Just to make
things I never heard before," he says quietly, "that say things that I can't
say otherwise. Not so much go as far as I can, but to go as deep as I can."
Jeff Buckley plays a Gibson L1, a borrowed Fender Telecaster and a
Rickenbacker 12-string. He's using a Fender vibro-verb amp and, today,
D'Addario strings. He just bought an old steel dobro and a Bina harmonium
from Pakistan. Buckley uses Jim Dunlop slides. After experimenting with
several microphones for Jeff's vocals, producer Andy Wallace settled on a
Neumann U-87. Mick Grondahl plays a Fender Jazz bass through an Ampeg bass
amp. Matt Johnson plays Slingerland drums and Zildjian cymbals.