... in Words: Interviews
"Painting with Words," by Amy Beth Yates
This interview was originally published in B-Side Magazine, October/November 1994, pp. 26-7.
What does it mean when the hipsters who patronize the legendary Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ shush and glare at those who talk during Jeff Buckley's acoustic performance? What does it mean when just a few nights before in Philadelphia--the most hostile city in America, incidentally--you could literally hear a pin drop while he played? How about a few months later at the Fez in NYC when the mostly industry crowd actually stopped schmoozing long enough to watch Jeff play with his newly assembled band? It means that the man who describes his astrological sign as Beavis with Butthead rising has a presence, and quite frankly someone with presence doesn't come along too often.
A person with genuine presence can talk with their mouth full and not be gross. They can do a loud, animated air guitar riff in the middle of a crowded diner and not make you cringe. They can tell you that they don't own a TV and then recount every episode of "Beavis and Butthead." They are also cordial when drug out of their hotel room on a day so awful outside it's not fit for man or beast. And lastly, how could you not like someone who, out of nowhere says, "You always see men washing their hands after they pee, that's so stupid. I never do that. My penis is cool, unless I'm totally sweaty. But little boys are taught that it's dirty and that you must wash up after touching it." So it is on this day that Jeff is given the short tour of Philadelphia, lunch at a cool diner and then it's off to the Rodin Museum, which is beautiful no matter what the weather. As he sits down with a cup of java and a turkey club he talks easily about himself and his past.
Grace is the first full-length release from Jeff Buckley and also his first release with a band. His previous release was the 4-song EP Live at Sin-é, which included such things as a deconstruction of Van Morrison's "The Way Young Lovers Do" and a cover of Edith Piaf's "Je N' en Connais Pas La Fin." Buckley now claims to hate Live at Sin-é, stating that he is not the same person he was when that was recorded. Nevertheless, Grace is an LP by a band led by a man not afraid to wear their classic rock influences on their sleeve, but this is not to say that he merely regurgitates. He uses his wide range of influences to create a sound that is strictly Jeff Buckley.
Jeff Buckley is a California native transplanted to New York City at the age of 22. After the move to NYC he played in a succession of bands that went nowhere and for a time was roommates with Christopher Dowd of Fishbone. He continued to move around--even returning to California for a brief time--before settling in his beloved East Village, a place he says he'll never leave.
Regarding his decision to move from California when so many flock there, he just says, "I never fit in [in California], and New York was just so overtly romantic that I thought that it had to be the place...I started playing there, and man, that is the wrong place to start. It's the wrong place to run out of money and not have food--it's the wrong place, baby. 'Cause you'd be walking down the street and doors are open and there's food everywhere -- there's food on the street. And you think about stealing it, some huge, beautiful pretzel that I wouldn't even buy now, but at the time it was like, 'ooh, Thanksgiving dinner, right there.'"
He is also the son of the late Tim Buckley, a haunting singer-songwriter long before the phrase became cliché. With that aside, he has a long line of musicians and singers on both sides of the family and thanks genetics for all they have given him. So while he doesn't believe that musical ability can be passed down, he does think it can help by giving you the right "parts."
He goes on to explain, "It's the attitude that you grow up in and the heart that you feel for people who sing. My grandfather on my mother's side wooed my grandmother by singing to her from across the street. So everybody in my family sang. And even when my mother married her second husband, I still can't escape the things that he played to me. He was seriously into really good music and he was a car mechanic. He was only my stepfather for about two years but he made a really big impression. He actually came to San Francisco to see me play for the first time ever, and it was really great."
Back in his childhood days Jeff was known as Scott Moorhead, but after his stepfather left the household he took back his birth father's name and his real first name and became the man of the house. Still, it is obvious that his stepfather has left him with lasting memories.
"He taught me about honesty and he taught me how to mow the lawn and how to fish. All that father stuff that his father taught him [he was teaching me]: I understood that. I was only about five when he was in the house, but I got it. And what else I got from him is his spirit. He's a big, big man physically, we look nothing alike, we have a completely different chemical make-up. He taught me how to be a man."
As we wrap up our diner lunch and head off to the Rodin Museum, the conversation turns to art and censorship. This is a subject that obviously touches a nerve.
"I resent the fact that a parental warning sticker has to be included on an album as cover art. To me that's censorship.
"The only thing that I can really advocate is thinking for yourself, and not disowning your own judgement and having someone else make your decisions for you. If you feel crappy because Rush Limbaugh is infiltrating your kids' minds, or even Robert Mapplethorpe, it's up to you to use that fucking thing inside your skull to do something about it. When people complain that these things are harmful to their children, what they really mean is that it scares the child inside them. Just because your kids are shorter doesn't mean that they're stupid. Art is always being blamed for the symptoms of society. It's throwing the responsibility on the government, like 'here, you raise my child'."
At the museum, Jeff is especially taken with a sculpture of a woman lying in repose. As we continue to wander he tells of feeling vulnerable after a live show, like he had just exposed his heart to everyone. Regardless, he is a natural born performer who says, "I'm made for this, I can't do anything else. I've tried."
The subject of pornography is somehow brought up, and the supposed detrimental effects it can have on some, i.e. rapists and serial killers. Jeff offers, "Mostly it just induces people to masturbate. And as low and vulgar as it is--and I'm not using those terms in a derogatory way, because I like low and vulgar things--it's still art, no matter how boneheaded. It's still a reflection on us [as a society]."
Finally, we stand before Rodin's epic sculpture "The Gates of Hell" which shows people screaming and writhing in agony. On the topic of religion, Jeff states, "Why do they always show Christ up there bleeding and dying on the cross? We don't remember John Lennon lying there with a bullet hole in his head. I'm just against all of it, all religion. I'm against the arbitrary organization of 'God' as a concept. We should all experience it all individually and purely. I don't agree with the separation of God and the body, I don't believe that we aren't a part of 'it', I don't agree that it's a man. In most religions there's no place for women. There aren't any women in the Holy Trinity and I need that. I love women, I came from a woman."
Finally, our day comes to a close as Jeff must be back at his hotel. As we begin to make the trek back to the car, Jeff bursts into song, singing that old Journey chestnut 'Separate Ways.' As we both crack up, Jeff laughs "White trash, man. Those are my roots!"
Be proud, Jeff. Be proud.
©1994 by B-Side Magazine. All rights reserved