- 17 Nov 20
To celebrate what would've been Jeff Buckley's 54th birthday, we're revisiting a classic interview with the legendary singer-songwriter.
Jeff Buckley is of the opinion that the batteries of my super slick Sony Dictaphone are on their last legs. During a trial test to see if everything is in perfect recording order his voice sounds deeper than usual. I reassure him that we have the technology to continue without a hitch.
“Grace is very much a studio creation” he observes, “even though the basis of it is live performance. Playing live is the only way for a whole series of things to happen. Although I do enjoy studio creation there’s a real intangible effect when you play live that stays with you forever.”
Jeff Buckley’s first full length album, Grace, is a fully-fledged band effort. One of the things apparent on it is the tension between the American East Coast and West Coast musical styles. Jeff Buckley originally hails from Southern California but after some wandering, has finally settled down in New York, the Lower East Side to be precise, where he says he feel more at home than any other place on earth. Obviously his sense of place is very important to him.
“The Lower East Side is a region of Manhattan that’s just intoxicated with it’s own eccentricity. I appreciate that. It’s easier to be me there. Southern California is kinda dead. There was always a lot of life there but there’s a certain electricity missing that New York will have always above everywhere else. That’s just my opinion, though. New York has this caffeinated frenzy. Anything that’s excellent that comes out of Los Angeles like The Doors or Jane’s Addiction, you just can’t figure it out. That’s the strength of the place. It just works. It’s freaky. It’s great. But I’m talking about a way of life.
“Also in L.A. and in Hollywood, especially, it’s an industry town. It’s like a steel town except it’s the fame industry. Irish people would hate it in Los Angeles. They always do. They fucking hate it, man. It’s all who-you-know. It’s like you have to sweep up the names dripping down everybody in restaurants. It’s just boring. Even the architecture is set up for maximum schmooz capacity. It’s a game, the rules of which I’ve never understood.
“But there’s some really great places there. There are lots of great underground clubs. Lots of great people – but I was more interested in being in a place that was more cosmopolitan and more artistic in every way, shape or form. But wherever the human race is involved, unspeakable horrors lurk just around the corner. Whether it’s religious, political or just plain insanity. And because of Reagan, there’s a lot of mentally ill out on the streets. They’re in a dream anyway. They’re not really dangerous or bad, they’re just very eccentric. They just need a lot of love and care from people who understand them. It’s a hard life, man. It’s fucking hard. And that’s the way Sin-É was a lot of the time. Just out on the street. And all my gigs were pretty much just out on the street.
“Sin-É is a café run by Shane Doyle,” he elaborates. “It’s informed and it has the potential. Cooney and Begley can totally get in there and do two hours and people will freak. Marianne Faithfull will be there – I actually saw her there. Or me. Or a full-on rock band. It’s very low pressure and very high quality soul. Plus you play for your own tips so it’s pretty self-reliant. That’s what I used to do.”
Mention of Cooney and Begley is a reminder that Jeff Buckley is rumoured to be a big fan of Irish traditional music.
“Not big enough, probably, but I have a fair interest in going to Galway and getting lost. It’s in my roots. With respect to the whole world and mystery of it, I shouldn’t say it’s in my roots but I know it is somewhere. The quality of my voice and the range is very Irish tenor. My family is actually Panamanian and Irish. Or my blood. Traditional music is very hypnotic. It has just enough of the earth and just enough of the heavens.
Jeff Buckley certainly doesn’t shy away from the mystical connotations of music.
“I’m totally captured by it actually. The nature of music is mystical. It’s not to sell Pepsi. It’s to express being alive and being a human being. It really does bind all peoples together. You may not know a peoples’ alphabet but you can get a sense of them from their music. Anything, from D.C. Punk to Pygmy songs. You can have music in your house. Not as a product but in your self and in your soul. It expresses people. Since you have blood pumping and you love and you get angry and you lose, you can get to any culture really as long as you have the right orientation.”
As it happens Jeff Buckley is also a big jazz fan.
“Yeah. I like the improvisational aspect of it, and the harmonies and the forms but I’m not really a jazz guy. I mean jazz is dead. But the things which it was based on and the artists are still valid. Even Miles would have told you that some marketing guy made up ‘Jazz’. To him he was just singing the only music that he knew. And Parker as well. And Billie Holiday.
“Also, with the jazz idiom it’s easy to get caught up in countless players and countless instrumentalists who play faster or slower or something else. I never got into that. It’s exhausting. You end up with these poor deluded musos. But my body just agrees with improvisation. All jazz was really was a bunch of musicians after they had learned how to play ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ for the white folks getting together and partying all night and saying I’ll do my own melodies and play for as long as I want and I’ll try and get this girl over here. And it was born to die as well. It became something else. It became rock ‘n’ roll, soul, funk, hip-hop.”
Jeff Buckley makes no effort to hide his enthusiasm for other people’s music. Naturally, he has countless heroes but his encounter with one of them, Bob Dylan, still haunts him.
“I needed therapy directly after I met him. Unfortunately, his boys caught me lampooning him the day after at a gig and took it back to him. It was a real drag. He felt dissed. I was doing an impression of him doing the new songs and the old songs from a gig I saw him do at the Supper Club. He went right through the old songs and then the new songs were completely brilliant but it was funny.
“So I was talking to the crowd about it. And out in the audience are these three guys in trench coats who look, dressed and try to be exactly like Bob Dylan. Turns out they’re his management. When I got wind of the news I was standing in the middle of Tompkins Square Park just staring at the ground with the snow falling down, wishing I was never born. I never felt so fucked up in my life.
“I was having a bit of immature fun and it was turned into a big political thing between their management and my company. It was just a big fucking mess and I was embarrassed beyond belief. It shows me something about fame – that you feel people become these ideas instead of human beings and you can never touch them. But you can I guess. Fuck it he doesn’t know who I am anyway. I wrote him a letter and he probably still thinks I’m a fucking wanker. So be it.”
There are three covers on Grace, one of which is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, a favourite in Jeff’s live shows.
“Any of the covers on the album are there because they mean a certain thing in my life that I love and I miss. One day I was house-sitting for a friend and she left her whiskey out and I got into it and hit this horrible sorrowful jag. I went to the gig - SinÉ, in fact – weeping like a fucking animal. The whole time. I sang ‘Hallelujah’ that night and I got through the show just on the edge of tears. I don’t know why. It just wells up inside you.
“I recorded ‘Corpus Christi’ because my friend Roy, who I met in high-school, introduced me to opera and turned me on to classical music. But our lives are going in separate directions now mostly because I’m a flake. And I like ‘Lilac Wine’ because of Nina Simone. I learnt it from Nina not Elkie Brooks. ‘Lilac Wine’ was a great ‘fuck you’ to everyone for me.
“In fact, Grace is a lot about leaving things behind. Letting them live on their own and moving on to other things. As well as that, Duke Ellington was very elegant, the kind of elegance that transcends any kind of ugliness. That’s why I like the word ‘grace’. It’s the only thing that matters.”
Do you feel that because you’re the son of a great singer, namely Tim Buckley, that you have to be better, to prove to people that you’re here on your own merits?
“All I have to do is be myself. This is my past. This is my thing. I have no reverence, knowledge, want, desire, relationship, connection, object in it. I was done with it before I was born. I have my mother’s sense of rhythm. I know all my mom’s songs. My mother brought me up, musically.”