[and accompanying article]
Option Magazine -- July/August 1995
66 Jeff Buckley
God Bless the Child : Jeff Buckley's Search For Salvation
By Sue Peters + Photo by Bob Berg
"How do you feel about this?" asks Cheryl, of Columbia Records, holding up a copy of People magazine's annual "50 Most Beautiful People" issue. Number 12 on the list is "dishy" young musician Jeff Buckley.
Buckley looks away from the magazine. "Get it out of here," he declares. "It doesn't mean anything."
She quickly puts it away, but the damage is done. Sitting on the floor in a pair of boots, jeans rolled above his knees, with matted, dyed black hair and a pout on his face, the 12th Most Beautiful Person in the World seems indifferent about his looks and hostile towards the temptations of vanity. He's equally disturbed to hear about a brief exchange that occurred outside his previous night's show in Los Angeles, in which a young woman told a man, "What are you doing here? This is a chick concert!"
He frowns. "A *chick concert*. It does make me self-conscious," Buckley says. "Is it something I'm doing? My first tendency is to blame myself."
It *is* something he's doing. The 28-year-old singer/guitarist has a voice that sounds as if it comes from a different era. One minute he extracts a writhing serpent of a chord from his throat, the next he delicately mimics an Edith Piaf vibrato, then sinks into a Presley croon or launches into a shriek worthy of Robert Plant. On his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," Buckley peels back the husk of Cohen's voice to reveal the latent sensuality in the words he gently croons : "But remember when I moved in you, the holy dove was moving too, and every breath we drew was hallelujah."
Onstage Buckley puts himself at risk with spiraling vocal gyrations and weird contortions that make it seem as though he may not be able to reach the notes. Watching him deftly ply the strings of his guitar, lost in the deep focus of his singing, you feel like a voyeur in some private domain. That intimacy, though, is fair game: you're invited. "The rules," Buckley says, "are that if we're together, then anything can be said."
Some find Buckley's raw display off-putting or pretentious; others find it utterly entrancing. But what does *he* want people to get from his performances? "Anything," he says. "Even angry and disappointed. I like to be transported, penetrated and changed by music. What I want is for people to stay still for a while and let something that they have no power over wash over them, gladly, and be a little better for it."
Buckley is in San Francisco for two gigs, still on tour in support of his 1994 full-length debut, Grace. Waiting to record a few songs at KFOG, the station where his song "Last Goodbye" shares the playlist with Boz Scaggs, U2 and King Crimson, he looks up, quizzically, to the ceiling where the "adult alternative" roster is streaming through a pair of speakers. How his songs fit in here, he's not sure.
"Who the fuck is this -- John Cougar Jackson Browne Mellencrow?" he asks, leaning forward, intently, sensing a conspiracy. "Do I really belong here" Is it because of my fucking father?!"
There is an eerie poignancy to the arrival of Jeff Buckley on the rock music landscape, at the very age which his experimental folk-rock cult-hero father, Tim Buckley, died of a heroin overdose. That was in 1975. Jeff was only eight.
Like the affluent son who's just found out that the significant job he thought he'd gotten on his own merits was actually "arranged," he's deeply suspicious of some kind of cosmic nepotism. He shouldn't be surprised. Buckley inherited from his father an amazingly supple voice -- and pretty nice bone structure.
"When I was born, my grandfather looked at me and said, 'Yeah, he looks just like a son of a bitch.'" He smiles with a glimmer of wickedness; his Panamanian grandpa isn't the only one who disapproved of the Buckley marriage. "No one did," he says. "They both were young, 17 and 19." By the time Jeff was born in November of 1967, the brief marriage was already dissolving. "I'm a bastard child," Buckley says. "I think I was born after they were divorced."
That same year, Tim released Goodbye And Hello, the second of his 10 albums. "Once I Was," an overwhelmingly pretty and melancholy folk ballad (used as the suicide soundtrack for the film Coming Home), is one of only two songs by his father that Jeff has performed. It contains the haunting refrain, "Will you ever remember me?" At a tribute to his father in New York where he played unbilled, he barely made it through the song.
Buckley's unresolved relationship with his father haunts his life; it's as integral to his music as it is seemingly irreconcilable. "You can't exorcise what's a part of you," he says. "It's just an opening of a reserve that is endless. Maybe it's an exorcism of unhappiness."
Buckley was raised in Southern California by his mother, Mary, and briefly a stepfather, Ron Moorehead, whose surname Jeff assumed as a child. After finishing high school at 17, he moved out and began taking guitar lessons. When his mother and stepfather divorced, Buckley returned to his birthname, assuming all the blessings and curses that came with it.
Jeff met his father only once, a few months before the elder Buckley died. "All my anger has been towards the press, not towards his ghost," Buckley insists. "I grew up without him. I have the press thinking I feel one way, but now it's over."
Maybe so, but it's not the press that comes to mind when Buckley screams lines like, "Father do you hear me? Do you know it hurts" What will you say when you've seen my face?" or implores to his "dream brother," "Don't be like the one who left behind his name." This unresolved relationship gives an angry and anguished edge to his music.
Like his father's, Buckley's honeyed voice is particularly well suited to the perambulations and idiosyncrasies of jazz, as he demonstrates on "Jolly Street," a breezy jaunt on last year's Jazz Passenger's album, In Love.
It's clear, however, that Buckley has a talent and vision of his own. After toying in various bands in L.A., he moved to New York in 1990, where he tested himself as a solo performer in small venues as "the soundtrack to people's evenings. I never looked to be signed anywhere."
The proverbial buzz started to happen, specifically around the Sin-e' cafe in the East Village where the young singer/songwriter's solo performances had begun to draw crowds. Eventually Buckley signed with Columbia, where fittingly, his first release was an EP recorded live at Sin-e'. Last year Buckley released the full-blown Grace, on which his vocal dexterity comes fully alive in a studio setting; he also plays guitar, organ, dulcimer and tabla on the album, complemented by bassist Mick Grondahl, guitarist Michael Tighe and drummer Matt Johnson.
Buckley's lyrics are plaintive, at times bitter, laments. Grace combines a faint sensuality with a vaguely religious sensibility. Although he wasn't formally raised in any religion, Catholicism is part of Buckley's background. "You can't help the residue of Catholicism," he says. "Catholicism and voodoo."
Buckley is also taken with Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn's *qawwali*, the devotional music of India and Pakistan, for its "open-heartedness," and he'd like to follow the *qawwali* tradition of making songs from poems. "I'd like to put Rimbaud to music," he says. When he discovers that the poem he is contemplating is an innocent one, written before the poet's famous "season in hell," he murmurs subversively, "Maybe I'll sing it like a whore."
To Buckley, the craft of writing great songs remains his most important hurdle. He still defers to the work of his songwriting heroes, Cohen and Bob Dylan, as examples of "a great balance of a writer and a songsmith." Calling his own words "idioc," he says, "The words should be essential. I wouldn't say I'm an great shakes in either department yet -- the muso-lyrico-thing. I just don't think I have a handle on it yet. I've been doing it lackadaisically since I was 14."
"But you'll see," he adds cryptically, "Next year."
When his KFOG recording session ends, Buckley coughs fiercely. The L.A. air has given him a nasty souvenir. When it's suggested that he could work the cough into his act, Buckley smiles. "Course I can. I can work *anything* in." And he promptly invents a new category for his style of music : "Punkadelicalternative -- with phlegm."
Later, in a small Thai restaurant in San Francisco's shady Tenderloin district, Buckley asks distractedly, "What's the name of that French award?" He means the Grand Prix du Disque, whose past recipients include Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Edith Piaf. "Guess who won it?" He nods solemnly. "Me. Me and my bar band. I got the fucking award!" He laughs at the absurdity. It makes sense, though, that the French would love a moody American rock poet *maudit* who sings Edith Piaf's "Hymn To Love" in her own hometown of Paris.
Buckley mulls over the effect that all the honors and attention will have on his next recording when he returns to the studio at the end of the year. "Next time won't be the same," he promises. "People will be calling me up and saying, 'How's that baby cookin'?!"
He's pacing himself. Buckley doesn't want to become an overhyped, overnight smash who finds himself dumped and forgotten a year from now. But as he's finding out, there are certain things he can't keep under wraps, like the seductive quality of his voice or his looks. Buckley may be a "bastard," but he wants to ensure his musical presence is entirely legitimate.
"I saw a man in Antwerp in a suit rocking out," he recalls of his recent European tour. "He had long white hair -- Einstein-y. He moved very well. He was beautiful. I hope one day to be 85, 90." These are fighting words, a subtle declaration that the one romance Buckley has no time for is that of the poet-artist who dies young.
On the way to soundcheck, Buckley suddenly remarks, "I hope Mark Kozelek won't be there tonight." He's afraid the singer of San Francisco's Red House Painters, whom he admires, might show up. "I don't care what rock critics say," he says bitterly, "but when someone I like walks out of my show, I can't take that."
Free-lancer Sue Peters last appeared in Issue 43 with a piece on David Sylvian.
"father?" "yes, son?" "i want to kill you."
By MARK KEMP
In 1966, a handsome, fresh-faced, and gifted singer/songwriter approached 27-year-old guitarist and former school teacher Lee Underwood in Greenwich Village, and asked him if he wanted to form a folk-rock group. Tim Buckley, then 19, had just quit his job at the Taco Bell in Anaheim, California, and left his pregnant wife, Mary, to embark on a musical odyssey that nine years later would take him to his grave.
"One of the first things I noticed about Tim was his charm; he could charm just about anybody," Underwood recalls today, from his home outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. "He was a very funny, insightful, energetic fellow. He was also angry, tormented and enormously creative."
Over the next five years, Underwood served as Buckley's bandmate, best friend and mentor, turning him on to the jazz of Miles Davis, Roland Kirk and Bill Evans, the music of composer Olivier Messiaen, and the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Federico Garcia Lorca. Buckley absorbed Underwood's wellspring of knowledge like a plant; what blossomed was some of the most eclectic folk music of the period. Over the course of six albums -- including Goodbye and Hello (1967), Happy/Sad (1969), Blue Afternoon (1970) and Starsailor (1971) -- Buckley's style veered from folk-rock to jazz to avant-garde, with romanticized lyrics that have been compared to the verse of Leonard Cohen, Wallace Stevens, and even Samuel Coleridge.
"Tim was very expressive; some times witty, always obnoxious," says Underwood. "He had no patience for pomposity or stupidity, and as a result he made lots of friends among rebellious people, and lots of enemies within the media. He called people on their bullshit without ever looking back."
Underwood moved on after Starsailor, but remained close to Buckley until the songwriter's death in 1975 of a heroin overdose. Together, the two experienced spiritual journeys and battled with their self-destructive impulses. "We were soul mates on many levels, including drugs and alcohol."
When Tim's long-lost son, Jeff, began making his own name in music last year, Underwood was disturbed to find the younger Buckley bad-mouthing a father he never knew. "I think the whole situation between Tim and Jeff is very sad," says Underwood, who barely conceals his own anger towards both Jeff and Jeff's mother, Mary. Underwood believes that Tim needed to leave his past behind in 1966, and he feels that Jeff should come to terms with it.
"Jeff is enraged at Tim for abandoning him," Underwood says. "Apparently Jeff would have had Tim remain at Taco Bell and climb up the management ladder rather than become what he was. Jeff's rage is like smoke around his mind. He can't see either Tim or himself clearly at all."
Underwood criticizes Jeff for pilfering his father's style, particularly from the Starsailor period. "If Jeff respectfully acknowledged the source, Tim's music would be an influence; as it is, Jeff is a plagiarist. He has gotten from Tim his good looks, his intelligence, his voice and his insight -- and yet he says Tim gave him nothing. He could learn a lot from Hank Williams, Jr. and Natalie Cole."
Yet Underwood insists he likes, and feels compassion for, the younger Buckley. "Any rebel worth his salt begins by kicking his father's ass, and Jeff is no exception. This is Jeff's time, and it's appropriate that he kills the previous generation, sends it up in flames, and goes his own way. I wish him well."
Sue Peters' Letter :
As the ostensible author of the article on Jeff Buckley in the Jul/Aug issue of Option, I object to the final edit (cutting 400 words from my article altered the original intent), and I find Mark Kemp's accompanying sidebar, which effectively attacks Buckley, bizarrely mean-spirited. The angry and irrational claims made in the sidebar by Lee Underwood deserve a response.
Underwood trivializes the fact that Tim Buckley-however talented, beautiful and visionary he was-walked out on his son. And to claim that Jeff would have preferred his father keep his day job and not pursue music is ludicrous. My understanding is that Jeff's regret is not that Tim was a musician, but that he never got a chance to know his father.
Underwood's take on Tim Buckley's paternal generosity is also peculiar. To say that Jeff owes his looks, intelligence, voice and insight to his father doesn't acknowledge any of Jeff's own talent and musical training, and completely overlooks the fact that Jeff's mother also contributed to the gene pool. And as the one who raised him, she deserves the most credit for guiding his insight and intelligence.
Of course Jeff is influenced by his father. How could-and why should-he not be? But to imply that Tim's music is his only influence and to say that Jeff has "plagiarized" him is grossly unfair. Underwood doesn't acknowledge the influence of other artists (from Nina Simone to Van Morrison), or the 20 years of music that's happened since Tim Buckley's death, or Jeff's own musical vision.
I tried to convey my sense that Jeff Buckley's anger is a protective facade. But unfortunately, much of that was edited out, beginning with the minor detail that his second comment about the People story was said not in anger, but "quietly" (and not "with a pout"-which was entirely an editorial invention).
Tim Buckley is a hard act to follow and Jeff most certainly knows it. "I think it's over," Jeff said to me regarding comparisons between the two. But apparently that was wishful thinking. There will always be those who say he is not as good as or better than his father. Hopefully one day such comparisons won't bother Jeff anymore. But until then, how he comes to terms with his father is really no one's business but his own.
All of this detracts from the real and unique talents of both Jeff and Tim Buckley, and fuels a feud that really doesn't exist.