... in Words: Tributes
"It's Never Over: Jeff Buckley 1966-1997," by Jim Irvin
This interview was originally published in Mojo, August 1997.
Just before 9:00 P.M. on the evening of Thursday, May 29, Jeff Buckley and his friend, Keith Foti realised they were lost. They'd just left a Memphis restaurant and were on their way to a nearby rehearsal studio. Work was about to commence on Jeff's long-delayed second album. Band members Mick Grondahl and Michael Tighe were arriving at Memphis airport and tour manager Gary Bowen had gone to meet their plane. Jeff was looking forward to jamming with his band again. But he couldn't remember where the studio was. Neither could Keith. They'd been there once before and knew it was round here somewhere...
But what the hell, it was a nice night and they were both in good spirits. They had an acoustic guitar and a ghettoblaster. Jeff suggested they go down to the riverbank to hang out and play a little music while they pondered their next move.
A few yards downriver from a bridge that takes tourists on the Memphis monorail across to a peninsular known as Mud Island (attractions include a miniature Mississippi in concrete), was a spot where Jeff had swum before. It wasn't exactly picturesque - the shore of the wide commercial channel turns into slimy mud, dotted with sharp rock , broken bottles and twisted junk - but Jeff decided to go in. He didn't bother to take off his jeans or the black and white T-shirt with the crossed rifles and the word "Altamont" printed upon it. Because of all the debris, he didn't even remove his heavy boots. He simply waded into the muddy water up to his knees. Keith tried to dissuade him. But the headstrong Buckley kept on walking - laughing and singing as he went. Staying at the water's edge, Keith strummed the guitar while Jeff kicked back in the shallows.
They struck up one of Jeff's favourite songs: "You need cooling, honey I'm not fooling/I'm gonna send ya back to schooling" - Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." Jeff joked about how like Robert Plant his voice sounded echoing around the harbour. Enjoying the water, he lay on his back and began to swim further out, singing as he went. Some small boats went by in both directions.
By this time, dusk had faded. Only the glow of the city illuminated the water. Jeff had been in the water about a quarter of an hour when Keith spotted a large tugboat passing. He saw Jeff begin to head back towards the shore as the tug's heavy wake approached. When the wash threatened to surge up the bank, Keith turned around to move the stereo so it wouldn't get wet. When he turned back, Jeff had gone.
for him. The heavy undertow must have dragged the singer beneath the water where the riverbed drops. His waterlogged clothes and boots would have kept him there. Keith thought about going in after him, but didn't know where to start. He began to shout for help. A passer-by heard him and alerted the Memphis police at 9:22 P.M.
Within half an hour a full-scale search was in place. A patrol scoured the bank. Scuba divers went into the water, and a helicopter fitted with heat-imaging equipment and a searchlight circled overhead. The Mississippi's spring tides are famously treacherous. Sergeant Dale Simms of the Memphis Police (Homicide) told MOJO that this stretch of river is not a recognized accident black spot for swimmers, simply because no-one who lives there would dare go in. Local lore has it that, at certain times, if you were to heave a heavy log into the water it would not only sink but would be as likely to reappear upriver, traveling against the current, as downriver. After three hours, the police had found no trace of the singer. At 1am the search was abandoned.
The following morning Buckley was pronounced missing presumed drowned. Jeff's mother, Mary Guibert later issued a statement: "It has become apparent to me that my son will not be walking out of the river. It is now time to make plans to celebrate a life that was golden. I ask people who cared about Jeff to please be honourable and faithful to his memory, to send their best wishes to Jeff and to all of us who are mourning his passing."
It was just another referral for music business attorney George Stein on a New York spring morning in 1992. The kid had a development deal with a small record company and he wanted a lawyer to give it a look. "I just kind of rubber-stamped it for him, another client among hundreds, but it wasn't a good deal and I had to tell him that." It might have been a routine meeting, but Stein was intrigued enough to go and see the young man play at a club called Tramps on a bill with guitarist Gary Lucas.
"I was blown away."
Stein's epiphany is typical of a first sighting of Jeff Buckley. Everyone who spoke to Mojo for this article described their initial experience of his incredible voice in similar terms. Particularly if they saw him in the intimate spaces he loved to play.
Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins remembers Jeff being introduced to them as Tim Buckley's son while they were touring in America in 1991. Having recorded an ineffably beautiful version of Tim's "Song For The Siren" (as This Mortal Coil) they were pleased to meet the young man, who was in turn awestruck by their music, especially the spectral voice of Elizabeth Fraser. Three years later it was their turn to see him perform. Simon and Liz went together to a small bar in Atlanta. "It was just Jeff and his little Fender guitar and amp. He sang for two hours and knocked me sideways. Liz and I spent some time with him over the next few days. He had tremendous energy and was completely into music. He carried this ghettoblaster everywhere to play his favourite CDs: mostly people with amazing voices, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Aretha Franklin, Dylan. And he could mimic them all. He could do Liz too. I loved him. He was an energising sort of person; if it was a choice between being infected by his zest or a night on a tour bus, well, you didn't want to go to bed."
Jeff Buckley, a beautiful, unfailingly charming man, with a heaven-sent voice, could identify the emotional core of any kind of song - from Led Zeppelin to Benjamin Britten, from Mahalia Jackson to Mahler - bring it to an ambitious, eclectic repertoire and sing it full of soul."
There was hardly any precedent for a rock performer of his potential, perhaps only Jimi Hendrix had such velocity of promise, maybe only Marvin Gaye brought such a daring voice to pop. But, unlike Marvin's, or that of Tim Buckley, Jeff's story was not one of a gifted young man leaning on the self-destruct button. Though he often sang about sorrow or death - almost every song on Grace alludes to it - Jeff Buckley loved life. His approach to it bore no resemblance to his father's and, when he finally stepped into the spotlight in his mid-twenties, he wanted to avoid any comparisons.
Yet the first time he came to public attention was in a new York tribute to his father, Greetings From Tim Buckley, organised by Hal Wilner and staged at St. Anne's Church in Brooklyn an April 26, 1991. Wilner asked local guitar luminary Gary Lucas, an alumnus of Captain Beffheart's band, to accompany Jeff that night.
Lucas recalls his first sighting of Jeff at rehearsals: "He had an electric presence and a look on his face like he was about to burst out of his skin. We were immediately sympatico musically, both big fans of Led Zeppelin, The Doors and The Smiths. I invited him to my flat and we worked out one of his father's songs, 'The King's Chain,' from Sefronia, which Hal Wilner had suggested. I had an arrangement where I created a loop with an Eastern sound and played some chords behind it. Jeff just started singing over this and it was overwhelming."
Scott Moorhead had a nomadic upbringing around Orange County, California. He was born on November 17, 1966, a few months after his estranged father, a folk singer, had released his debut album. His Panamanian mother, a pianist, remarried to a motor mechanic. For a few years the family was stable; but when mother and stepfather split, Scott got used to a life being bundled between trailer parks and cramped houses. Aged eight, he went to stay with his father for a week. It was the first and last time they met. Two months later, his 28-year-old father was dead from an accidental overdose.
In a young life full of flux, one constant was music. West Side Story, Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, Nat King Cole,The Beatles - when the TV wasn't blaring, music of all kinds was playing wherever the family settled. When he was 12, Scott's stepfather bought him a copy of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. The album inspired him to play the guitar and harmonica. When his mother and stepfather finally divorced, he opted to take the name on his birth certificate: Jeffery Scott Buckley.
Jeff's friend Roy introduced him to Benjamin Britten and opera in his mid-teens. In the 80's he became bewitched by punk and the new British bands, including The Smiths, and bizarrely, The Toy Dolls. After high school, rather than attend college, he studied for a while at the LA Musicians Institute. Though this, he declared later, was "the biggest waste of time."
About this time, Buckley demoed a batch of his own compositions. Among them were nascent versions of "Last Goodbye" and "Eternal Life," highlights of Grace. They weren't enthusiastically received in LA: "I was around an environment that thought they were loser songs," Buckley told college radio interviewer Gayle Keleman when Grace appeared. "I put them on the album to prove to the songs that they weren't losers. Sort of like finding kids that have been told all their lives that they're pieces of shit, and finally [showing] them they're worth knowing and loving."
Jeff thought he might get more attention in New York.
On the night of the Tim Buckley tribute, Jeff was first on after the interval. "He came out and sang 'I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain,'" recalls Lucas. It was electrifying." For the encore he sang "Once I Was," a song he remembered from his mother playing him as a five-year-old, while his step-father was out. On the last verse, he broke a guitar string and finished the song a cappella. "It destroyed everybody," says Lucas. Jeff described this performance as paying his last respects to his father. From then on he'd avoid the subject.
Gary Lucas soon asked Jeff to front his band Gods and Monsters, an amorphous, occasional outfit which Lucas envisaged becoming something permanent with a Led Zeppelin feel. Buckley accepted. While Jeff took a summer trip home, Lucas sent him demos of guitar pieces called "And You Will Rise Up" and "Be."
Jeff arrived back in New York and extracted lyrics from a large notebook that he carried everywhere. He re-christened the songs "Mojo Pin" and "Grace."
On August 17,1991, Lucas went into Krypton studios in New York's SoHo district with Gods and Monster's rhythm section, Jared Nickerson and Tony Lewis, to cut demos for the songs. Buckley came down in the early evening to add vocals, having been reluctant to reveal in rehearsals exactly what he was going to sing. But when the hour came, he shone. "I just heard magic happen," says Lucas, still moved by the memory. "He'd worked up a sinuous vocal arrangement, with all these intricate parts with Eastern influences. He surpassed my wildest expectations. We were playing rough mixes as we were packing up, and some jazz musicians came in for the next session. I remember the look on their faces: Wow, what is this stuff?!"
Lucas decided this was the most stunning music he'd ever worked on. "I felt it could shake the world." He got his lawyer to send round tapes. A scout came out to see the two play in Gary's flat, and a development deal was quickly drawn up. On November 1, Lucas took Jeff with him to the CMJ New Music Festival. "This was effectively the debut of the new band. John Cale was in the audience, Nick Cave. We did three numbers, 'Grace,' 'Mojo Pin,' opening with another song we wrote called 'Bluebird Blues.' The first line of that was, 'I have an angel, her eyes are the ocean blue.' But when Jeff came on, the first thing he sang was, 'I am a stone cold loner.' A little thing went off in my head. That was Jeff's first statement of intent appearing with the group!"
In the new year, Jeff planned to move permanently to New York (where he now had a steady girlfriend, artist Rebecca Moore). He and Lucas were to work on new material and showcase the group and St. Anne's Church on Friday, March 13. New songs - now arranged to include Jeff playing guitar too - came thick and fast: "Cruel," "In the Cantina," "Malign Fiesta," "The Harem Man," "Story Without Words," "No One Must Find You Here" and "She Is Free." They also worked up covers of an old ska tune - How Long Will It Take, Van Morrison's Sweet Thing and Dylan's "Farewell Angelina." But Jeff became unhappy during rehearsals and told Lucas he couldn't work with Nickerson and Lewis. His vision of the group in tatters, Lucas "reluctantly let them go". Ten days before the gig they hired Anton Fier and Tony Maimone. "In fact, the show was really good," conceded Lucas. "Jeff was magnificent. The next day I said to my wife, He did it again. He sang his ass off. This is as good as any music out there...I was elated, jumping up and down. Then I got a call from Jeff saying he was leaving."
Lucas was devastated, but realised that Jeff was determined to control his own future. The nomadic Buckley may also have remained uneasy about performance. Later he'd admit as much to Rolling Stone, talking of "ways I've grown up with: moving from place to place, gabbing on the phone making fast friends and letting them go." Lucas had a few more bookings to honour and Jeff guested. Their final date together was at Tramps. This was the show that George Stein caught.
Stein was soon encouraging record companies to check out his new find. They were reluctant: Jeff was singing mostly covers, and weird ones at that. Stein persevered. "You just gotta see him, trust me, you'll get it."
East Village singer Tom Clark was pissed off when he noticed his regular Monday night slot at The Sin-é Cafe on St. Mark's Place had been moved. And for a guy he'd never heard of, some Jeff Buckley. "I found out who he was soon enough," Clark laughs. "I went to see him and it was like seeing someone going out with your girlfriend. He was doing 98 per cent covers - though in his own way - and as a musician I knew who did every song, but there were a billion girls there who thought he wrote them all!" Buckley became a regular and Clark became a friend.
"He got on with everybody," recalls former Sin-é proprietor, Shane Doyle. "I gave him the gig without knowing anything about him. Sin-é was this laid-back place where musicians just showed up and played, and he liked the atmosphere." Jeff would sing all night until two in the morning, with a few breaks, trying everything he knew and honing his own style.
Stein's persistence paid off and A&R men began to frequent Sin-é. Jeff wouldn't allow them to reserve seats. They had to get there early and sit with the Village eccentrics Jeff encouraged, people such as Tree Man, a tramp who festooned himself with twigs. "He had a kind of disregard of the idea on being 'on' for certain people," confirms Doyle. "He didn't like pressure. There'd be days when there were only 10 or 15 people in the room, yet he'd be at his best. All the major labels showed up. Steve Berkowitz at Columbia was the guy I got to know, he was very mindful of Jeff's attitude - that it wasn't about pushing him or getting everything out of him."
The Sin-é shows developed Jeff's desire to take risks. His confidence in his singing grew. He left mimicry behind and sculpted a vast repertoire - Edith Piaf ballads, MC5 songs, Asian laments, classical lieder - into something unique. (Friends testify that Jeff had only to hear a song once to memorise it completely. He could also uncannily mimic sounds and old TV shows.) You can hear him stirring the vocal crucible on the subsequent Live At Sin-é EP when he stretches Van Morrison's "The Way Young Lovers Do" over 10 minutes, moving from lovelorn moan to soulful croon to an impossible scat segment that climbs into a Robert Plant-on-helium climax. All Buckley's future shows would be marked by their unpredictability as he went in search of these extended episodes of rapture.
As summer warmed up, so did the bidding war. "Everybody wanted to sign him," says Stein. "But he was fearful of the industry, afraid of being chewed up and spat out. He had to work out whether it was possible to work with a major label and keep his integrity. Sometimes he and I would go out to City Island, a little boating community outside New York, to cool out by the water and talk. Driving out there I'd try to start the conversation about his future, his goals and his thoughts - you know, the deep stuff - and all he wanted to do was hunch over the car radio. He was like a primitive that had discovered a new device for making magic, he would jump from pop to reggae to rock to classical, humming along and so involved, like he'd never had a chance to hear music before and if he didn't listen to it now, in this half hour, he was going to miss something."
Stein also recalls a revealing moment when they were talking to record companies. "We were sitting there with one label president and he was asking Jeff what he was looking for from them and Jeff said, 'Well if I went with...' and he paused. He couldn't remember which label it was! Everybody knows which label you're at because it's so important. 'Where are we?' And it was guileless. He wasn't being disingenuous. The label president shrugged and loved Jeff even more because he realised the kid just didn't care about that stuff."
Finally, in October 1992, Jeff signed with Columbia. The deal allowed him time to write without rushing anything out. Everyone was happy. The brass went down to Sin-é to check out their new boy. Stein laughs at the memory. "Jeff asked the audience, What do you want to hear? And someone in the crowd shouted 'Nusrat!' Jeff proceeded to play, not a riff, not a minute, not two, but about a quarter an hour of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I thought I was having an acid trip - I couldn't believe that my artist, just signed, was singing a 15 minute Pakistani cover song. That was Jeff. He didn't pander. It was just about the music he loved."
Andy Wallace, who'd mixed Nirvana's Nevermind, was hired to produce the debut album. Jeff decided to hire a band to toughen his sound and expand his options. His method of finding the perfect players being simply to try and attract like-minded souls rather than advertise for virtuosi. "Who wants to tour with a bunch of muso pricks you can't stand?" notes Tom Clark. "Jeff went for people he liked."
He'd met Mick Grondahl at an after-show party in March 1993. Grondahl, an increasingly disillusioned member of various New York bands, was impressed by Jeff's musical daring, and shared his vision of a band that could mix great songs with freefalling improvisation. "Here was a person who wanted to just fall into the abyss and trust that he'd land on his two feet," Grondahl told Gayle Keleman in 1995. A bass and 12-string jam in Jeff's flat that summer cemented the relationship. Six weeks later, after they'd found drummer Matt Johnson, Grondahl found himself heading up a mountain in upstate New York to record.
To keep Jeff out of the city, Andy Wallace had suggested the residential Bearsville studio in Woodstock. "Jeff had quite a crew of fans and friends hanging around. While he was very driven, he was not the most organised person and easily distracted." Pre-production had revolved around jamming while the band became more comfortable with each other, so knocking the material into shape was slow, exacerbated by Jeff's constant desire to improve everything. "Jeff never stood still," Wallace recollects. "Whatever he was working on, he was torn between finishing it so he could move on or not finishing it so he could update it. He'd never sing a song the same way twice. Or even close. We'd go in to fix a line and he'd sing a whole new verse." Experiment became the norm as they tried numerous routes to the best performances. Wallace would also get Jeff to do hour-long, Sin-é style solo sets in the studio. "We recorded four or five of those. He did a lot of covers and a couple of very funny things, a take off of old Delta blues that had us cracking up."
Gary Lucas was invited to Bearsville to add guitar to "Grace" and "Mojo Pin," and witnessed Jeff laying down the startling vocals to the album's title song. "He came out of the booth with this sheepish, little boy look, like, Did I do it good? He knew it was fucking great."
As work on Grace wound down and Live At Sin-é was being released, Dave Lory, former manager of Greg Allman, came on board as co-manager with Stein. His first sighting of Jeff on-stage was when he took the singer on a two-week solo tour of tiny North American venues, early in 1994. "Just him and me pulling into bad truck stops and buying bad cassettes and talking about music," he remembers. "The first couple of nights in Vancouver were kinda rough. He could do anything he wanted in New York at that point, but now we were getting into the general public who didn't know who he was, but this was how he wanted to learn his craft."
The solo dates brought Buckley to Europe for the first time. His British premier was on March 11, 1994 at Ratners, a tiny bar in Sheffield. After three London dates that week, he was the talk of the town. This writer won't ever forget seeing Jeff Buckley sing Hallelujah at the Borderline club and hearing a stunned hush descend over the usually clamorous music-biz crowd. It was the start of a mutual love affair with European audiences. The French fell hard for him, eventually awarding Grace the Grand Prix Internationale Du Disque, a prestigious gong previously handed to the likes of Edith Piaf, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. A French EP Live At The Bataclan caught the controlled hysteria of his Parisian shows (Jeff advised friends not to buy "that fucking record", however). British publicist Jacquie Rice recalls a large, enthralled, almost entirely male Italian audience singing along to Lilac Wine like some love-stuck football crowd.
A second guitarist Michael Tighe, who'd never played in a band before, was recruited for a pre-Grace tour. During rehearsals he came up with a guitar line that transfixed Jeff. They quickly wrote the haunting "So Real." Excited by the new composition, Jeff insisted that they cut it live in an LA studio, initially to use as a B-side. The results were so good the song was added to Grace, usurping one called "Forget Her," which, according to Wallace, was "a simple, three-chord thing with a great bluesy vocal, recorded in one take. He felt it didn't say much about him as a songwriter, which I certainly don't agree with. A wonderful song."
Grace (finally issued in August 1994) received ecstatic reviews but didn't ignite any charts or garner much airplay. Buckley was happy, however to tour behind the album for the next 18 months and let his following grow naturally. Audiences all over the world began to swell. With only one official single, "Last Goodbye," and hardly any interviews, word of mouth was doing the bulk of the promotional work.
"Jeff was the type of artist whose instincts you trusted," states Dave Lory. "We used to laugh about it. He would call up and want to do something unconventional, and the joke was, 'We're gonna jump off the cliff and the parachute always opens.' Whether it was setting up his mic on one side of the stage - other managers would be all, 'Oh no, you gotta be right in the centre, - to when he first started with the band, they didn't rehearse, just jammed, and didn't play the songs until the first night. And they were great. And "Kanga-Roo" [Buckley's wild, super-extended version of the Big Star song] - others would say, 'He's playing that song too long.' But I saw it as the only way the band could really grow together, so I'd fight to let 'em do it. That was the fun of managing Jeff Buckley, jumping off that cliff."
The gigs veered between delicate acoustic sets and full-scale sonic onslaughts; Jeff becoming increasingly interested in the harder end of the sound and the power of a band. But in spring '96 in Sydney, Australia, drummer Matt Johnson announced his intention to leave, finally enforcing a hiatus in which Jeff could start writing the follow-up to Grace. But the rigours of touring and the pressure he felt to improve upon his debut initiated a long spell of writer's block. "Columbia wanted the second album out faster," notes Stein. "But if the record company had a timetable and Jeff Buckley had a timetable, Jeff's won out. He wouldn't put something out if it wasn't ready."
Slowly, the songs came, many of them dark and strange. On October 26, 1996, Jeff posted a rambling message on his website telling fans that his next album, due in the spring of '97, would be called "My Sweetheart The Drunk." Wallace remembers the title being discussed: "He described the album to me as a guidebook for losers in love." Tom Clark heard some of the demos: "The new stuff sounded pretty rocking, but he also had some incredibly beautiful things. One song was a hit record, I swear."
In December, Buckley decided to develop his new material by airing the work-in-progress on a string of solo dates, appearing under pseudonyms such as The Crackrobats, Possessed By Elves, Topless America and A Puppet Show Named Julio. When fans complained that they hadn't known about these shows, Buckley replied via the Internet, in January this year: "[The shows] are simply my own way of survival, self-assessment and recreation. If they don't happen...nothing else can. I can be all alone with nothing to help me to save myself.
"I'm in the middle of some wild shit right now," he continued, "but I'm coming soon to a cardboard display case near you, and I'll come out and of my hole and we'll make bonfires out of ticket stubs come the summer."
A new drummer, Parker Kindred, debuted on February 9 at Arlene's Grocery in New York before the band relocated to Memphis at the invitation of The Grifters, a band Jeff had befriended who were based at nearby Easley Studios. Buckley rented a house on North Remebert Street and work started at Easley with Tom Verlaine as a guest player and co-producer. A few songs were recorded but the sessions fell apart, though Buckley and Verlaine remained friendly. The band returned to New York and Andy Wallace was asked to produce again. Work was due to begin on June 30.
Jeff elected to stay in Memphis. He even made enquiries with his managers about buying the house on Rembert Street. Every Monday night, in an echo of the Sin-é days, he'd perform in a bar called Barristers. Mojo writer Robert Gordon witnessed some of these sets: "It was very informal and as much about working stuff out as playing complete songs. He'd talk a lot between songs, saying funny stuff and just having a good time."
On May 27, Jeff called his old Sin-é buddy Tom Clark, who was recuperating after a bad fall. "I'd not heard from him for ages so it was great to talk to him. We talked about the usual things: girls, guitars and music. And he spoke about his frustration making this record. He'd got over the writer's block. Bam. He had about 30 songs ready."
Dave Lory called George Stein at two in the morning on May 30. "Jeff's missing."
"I was groggy but I thought, He'll show up. He's gone underground before," says Stein. "But then Dave said he was in the Mississippi and there were divers. My heart sank. I knew he was gone."
On the afternoon of June 4, passengers on the American Queen riverboat sighted something caught in branches floating in the Mississippi. It was the body of a young man in an Altamont T-shirt.
Two weeks later, medical examiner Tammy Ruth declared that Jeff Buckley had tested negative for drugs and that his blood alcohol level was less than half that required for a person to be declared drunk. "The official cause of death is accidental drowning," she concluded. "We're not investigating anything," confirmed Lieutenant Richard True of the Memphis Police.
"He was a complicated person," decides George Stein, when asked to sum up charge and friend. "He had a lot of sides to him. But he had a musical soul. He was a musical soul."
September 1, 1994, The Garage in London's Finsbury Park. Jeff Buckley removes his shirt. The first three rows - entirely comprised, it seems, of smitten women - swoon en masse. The room ripples with sweat and electricity throughout the heady song which follows. As it finishes, one girl yells in a desperate, yearning tone, "Have my babies!" "And mine!" shouts another. Jeff laughs. "Hey I gotta show to do."
"He didn't let too many people in. Even his good friends," concludes Tom Clark. "No-one really knows what his private life was like. But he was great to be with and so funny. The minute Jeff walked into a bar he'd be singing, the theme song to The Jeffersons, anything. I feel bad for his band. They're really hurting right now. I am too. I really miss that fucking guy."
©1997 by Mojo. All rights reserved