... in Words: Features
"The Arrival of Jeff Buckley," by Bill Flanagan
This interview was originally published in Musician Magazine, February 1994, pp97-101.
"The Arrival of Jeff Buckley: A Talented Young Musician Learns to Navigate the Record Business While Protecting His Music", by Bill Flanagan
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 Wilner, 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 famous.
"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 that."
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 missed 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 during 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 Sin-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 Sin-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-é, 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 business!'"
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 he died.
"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 longhaired 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.