... in Words: Interviews
DoubleTake Magazine Interview, by Josh Farrar
Josh Farrar is a musician and writer from San Francisco. This interview was conducted on February 29 1996 for DoubleTake, which is a literary quarterly run out of Durham, North Carolina, USA. It was previously unpublished.
Special thanks to Josh Farrar for transcribing this article, as well.
"Jeff Buckley and I met in Melbourne, Australia at 1:00. We were introduced by his tour manager, and sat down in the lobby of his hotel to talk." -- Josh Farrar
Josh Farrar: This might not be necessary, but I just felt that maybe I should give some kind of explanation or disclaimer about how I'm coming to write this article, because I'm not really a writer.
Jeff Buckley: One thing I noticed about that issue [of DoubleTake] is that I don't think I found [features on] any musicians or any artists in it.
JF: Well, that's the thing...the connection I have to that magazine is that I worked for the guy who's the editor. His name's Robert Coles, and I was his personal assistant. So, it was pretty much vicariously that I worked on the magazine. I didn't work on it directly. But I'm a musician, and he knew that I had a lot of passion for music, and he said, listen...you know, I had dabbled in writing, and he said, if you ever want to write something about music in the magazine, do it. I had just seen you play in Boston and Providence, with Juliana Hatfield.
JB: Where they started moshing to "Lilac Wine." That was wild...animals.
JF: A lot of teenage girls there.
JB: A lot of teenage girls.
JF: Anyway, I suggested this to him, and just briefly described it to him, and he was into it. That was when I called...I wrote a letter to Howard Wuelfing. So it came about that way. So I don't know how good a writer I am, or whether this is ever going to see the light of day...
JB: That's funny. I wonder about that. I'm always thinking about, having this inner argument about why there are so many inaccuracies somehow with music journalism. No, not inaccuracies ... just this weird...I think the bulk of music journalism that any band tastes is largely sensationalist, filled with hyperbole or hyphenated adjectives, and it's really dazzling, but it never conveys anything, unless it's a good writer.
JF: It never describes anything. Even the good writers. You know, I read Rolling Stone, and I used to read Musician a lot, when I was a teenager; I really liked that. Those guys never say anything; they never ask any questions that, to me at least, mean anything. It's usually like, "We set the scene for so-and-so asshole rock star's hotel room. He's got a girl sitting in his lap, and he's in Australia..."
JB: "And how do you find Australia?"
JF: "And at the show he played such and such song and such and such song." Then the article's over. They're usually about a page long.
So, I do have a ton of questions. Part of [my line of questioning] has to do with the fact that [DoubleTake] isn't a music magazine, and that I think that most of the people who read the magazine are pretty estranged from popular culture. So I wanted to start by asking you how you would describe your music to people who, say, would have no idea who...maybe they'd be familiar with John Coltrane and the Beatles, but they'd have no idea who Patti Smith is, for example.
JB: mmm...well, I'd say it's kind of in a romantic mode, just a sweeping feeling, somehow. How to describe it? It's just everything I've ever loved, put into music. It's funny, because, just like lots of things that are out there, it doesn't really lie with what is seen as a rock experience, not only lyrically and melodically, but in terms of arrangements [of the songs] ... which are very exciting, and also evoke unseen things, emotions.
I very much like listening to arrangements of things, anything from Duke Ellington to Edith Piaf, the small orchestra with the singer. I like Um Kalsoon -- you ever heard of her? She's an Egyptian singer, sang from the thirties to the sixties. She sang until she was very old, like in her seventies. Amazing woman. And these long forty-five minute songs, sixty-minute songs. There'd be a line of strings, and a line of drums, and a man on a plucked dulcimer. I like ornateness.
JF: You played solo for a while. So now that you're playing with a band, you're interested in the kinds of dynamic tensions that can come out of a skillful arrangement?
JB: Yeah, an appropriate arrangement. Fortunately, we're playing with electronic instruments, and the thing about electric guitar is that you can pull all sorts of things through that electric signal. You can have amp reverb, you can overdrive the amp. You can overdrive the amp and play very quietly. You can just hold a chord and the thing will shoot out with feedback. There are all kinds of textures involved.
But mainly it's all down to rhythm and melody, and what you sing. And attitude.
JF: Have you thought about experimenting with a different ensemble, a different kind of four-piece?
JB: You mean, not guitar, bass and drums? Sure, of course.
JF: As a touring thing?
JB: I don't know, I don't know. [Guitar, bass and drums] is a natural thing, because that's the way I hear music, through the guitar. I remember teaching myself to learn the ranges and the transpositions of saxes and violas and oboes...orchestration. I loved it. I still haven't applied it, though, but I will.
The arrangements of, say, the strings on Grace, that was mainly down to Karl [Berger, who wrote string arrangements for Grace], and then I'd sometimes come in with "Maybe you should bend that note here," or I'd go [suggesting a rhythm] "Klah, klah, klah, klah, klah,klah."
JF: So did you know his work prior to working with him?
JF: Someone smart set him up with you?
JB: Yeah, my smart A&R guy. He said, "I know a string arranger." I heard strings, and he heard strings on this one song. And then Karl came in, stood in the studio in a corner and danced around, sort of swaying from side to side with his eyes closed. Then he said, [mimics Swiss/German accent], "I think I have something for you tomorrow." Then he came in with all this shit.
JF: That's beautiful. [laughs]
JB: It was good. It was a great visitation, to have the strings in there, to work with them.
JF: There are some wonderful moments when you sing along with them, and then hit part of their melody. I'm thinking of "The Last Goodbye."
JB: But they were written after the melody was recorded.
JF: So he was mirroring your singing? That's cool.
JB: Yeah, that's more of a reactive jazz thing. He's a jazz vibraphonist.
JF: I'm interested in your early musical experiences. Some of your earliest musical memories, when you started listening to music, when you started to play the guitar, when you started to sing.
JB: It's been not so much a preoccupation as a companion. I hit me just like it hit everybody, really, as far as I know. There are people who take it on as a dry vocation. Music is like violence, it's accompanied mankind the whole way.
JF: Maybe I can try to be more specific. I've read a fair amount about the musicians you've cited as having a big impact on you, like Nina Simone or Bob Dylan or Patti Smith
JB: Or Kiss.
JF: Maybe not even famous people, but people you've encountered in your life who have influenced you not only musically, but who have inspired your life in some way.
JB: Sure. The Grifters. The Butthole Surfers were a big comfort to me. I love Can. I love Sebadoh. I really like that one Red House Painters album, the roller coaster album.
JF: Let me tell you what I'm thinking of...
JB: You mean, just personal, unknown paradigms from my life?
JF: Here's what I mean. I sang in a boys' and men's choir for five years when I was little. Our choirmaster was a fucking tyrant [laughs], but was a beautiful, beautiful person. Some things in music he would just drill into us. He's someone who, if I were to tell you his name, you'd have no idea who he is, but he had a huge impact on my life, whether I had been interested in music or not. That's what I'm talking about.
JB: Yeah. They pretty much all ended up being my friends. I had a friend named John Humphrey. I went to this really crappy guitar school for a year, and he used to teach there, he was a bass teacher. And then he left, and we ended up being roommates later on, after I graduated.
This is the kind of school where you give them a shitload of money in order to spend a year learning their curriculum.
JF: What was it, G.I.T. (Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles)?
JB: Yeah, it was G.I.T.. They give you their curriculum, and it's not too comprehensive, but it's just enough, and then you can [snaps his fingers] move on to the next thing. And pretty soon you have all this shit inside you and then they give you this paper that says you have what it takes to be a professional musician.
JF: It's a rock-oriented thing, isn't it?
JB: In the end, I think, the only true product of that kind of learning is to get you gigs on the studio circuit and to get you gigs on the session guy circuit.
JF: So, Lee Ritenour went there or something?
JB: G.I.T. was started by Howard Roberts, the guy who played the wah-wah guitar on the theme to Shaft. And this other guy named Pat Hayes. I don't know. It just seemed like a racket, really. John said a lot of things to me that stuck in my mind. He said that there was nobody who stopped you, sat you in a room and said, okay, we have all these artists that you're learning the licks from, you have your guitar heroes, your virtuoso lust objects. But there's nobody who can make the kind of music you can make now except for you. And you can make it now. You don't even have to know how to go fast. And that makes all the sense to me in the world. It's also kind of an unseen process, that concept, originality. It's like that in all the education systems; there's never any real...identity education, self-generative identity art sort of thing, to be yourself. If everybody in Melbourne had a Wurlitzer organ and had the passion to sing something or make something, you'd have hundreds of thousands of different styles, if they were coming exactly from only their DNA, only their makeup, and their emotional percepts, their idea about what art is. You could have way-removed genres from what is already accepted, avante garde country-rock-punk-folk-whatever. It's unlimited. But for some reason, the conventions always take over and there's a very ready and powerful formula to step into...
JF: Those are the type of [formula-derived] players who can say, "Well, I was listening to the radio in 1967 and I heard the guitar solo in Jimi Hendrix's 'All Along the Watchtower,' and that guitar sound, that tone, would work perfectly for this television commercial."
JB: Yeah. See? "Stealing from the greats, that's okay." That's right. Once I stopped in [at G.I.T.] years later, when I was on tour going through L.A., just to see what it was like. They've got a completely high-tech, multi-million dollar facility.
JF: More so than when you had been there?
JB: Way more. When I was there, it was just a ragtag bunch of teachers, and they had all left by then. They had video facilities and a class for stage moves and all kinds of things. And I saw this guy who was working the desk, the guy who watches the door. He had a bass on, and he was practicing his Nirvana chops! He was playing "In Bloom" on his bass, way up on his chest, jazz-fusion style, to the Nirvana song. I thought, oh shit -- he was practicing his grunge riffs! He was getting his grunge down!
Best fucking thing you can do, if you have the interest, is go to a private teacher, go someplace, some college, and learn theory. That was something I really enjoyed, actually, something that wasn't totally pointless. Theory meaning the meaning of the musical nomenclature. I was attracted to really interesting harmonies, stuff that I would hear in Ravel, Ellington, Bartok.
JF: It's apparent in the way you voice chords, and in the [chord] changes in some of the songs. You know, there's something that occurs to me when I hear you talking about originality. I just moved from Boston to San Francisco, and I drove, and my first stop was in this town called Troy, Pennsylvania. I used to study drums, and I was visiting my drum teacher from San Francisco, who had just moved back to Troy. He grew there. He's a Quaker. He lives in this...
JB: No shit, he's a Quaker? Oh my God.
JF: Yeah. He lives in this great old house that used to be a station in the Underground Railroad. Anyway, this guy, Steve, is fifty, and he looks seventy; he's a junkie.
JB: A Quaker junkie! [laughs]
JF: Yep. He's a jazz drummer and an old hippie, moved to San Francisco in 1967. The two of us spent about three days in front of his fireplace -- it was really cold -- listening to music. He had just bought a CD player and was listening to a lot of Bartok and Beethoven. I played a bunch of CD's for him. I played Grace for him. I played him some things that I had been working on. He's always been my biggest supporter; whenever I'm working on a song, I'll play it for him, and he'll always listen so well. He'll tell me exactly what's up: he'll tell me if the drummer has a little time problem...
JB: The groove's just not happening.
JF: Yeah. I played him some of my stuff that he really liked, and then I played him some songs that I'd been working on, and he didn't like them. He said, you've gotten too esoteric. I had been writing some stuff in form, poetic form...
JB: What do you mean?
JF: Well, just trying to write words in form.
JB: You mean like Whitman, Keats -- pentameter?
JF: Right. Anne Sexton has this poem, "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator."
JB: Yeah, I know that poem.
JF: Well, I scored it, and it took me only a couple hours, and I was riveted by it, and I thought, shit, this is a ballad, it's a song. She had written a song with no music. So I started playing around, using some forms, using ten syllables per line, and I played Steve some stuff like that, and he didn't like it. It clashed with his, I don't know, his aesthetic sense. He thought, this is bullshit.
JB: Because he thought it was too ornate or too froo froo?
JF: He thought it was...esoteric was the word he used over and over. Yeah, ornate, pretentious. The reason I thought of all this was...well, have you ever heard of a guy named Jonny Polonsky?
JB: Oh yeah sure, the amazing Jonny Polonsky. Yeah. He came to CBGB's Gallery and ripped it up.
JF: It was a good show?
JB: He killed 'em.
JF: So I played Jonny's CD for Steve, and you know his songs, they're kind of derivative of stuff he likes -- the Kinks, the Beatles...
JB: Well, on the outset, and then the charm of it is that he's brought it into his own thing. It's a nice miniature. He does it with soul; you can tell the difference between someone who just slips into the Beatles or something and someone like him.
JF: So I played Steve the stuff, and he was wasted. He drinks milk and vodka all day.
JB: Ugh! A Quaker!
JF: An out there Quaker! [laughs]
So I played him the stuff. We had just had our argument, and I was trying to make things a little less tense, just play him some nice music. While Jonny's CD was playing, he looks over at me, smoking his pipe and drinking his milk and vodka, and he says, "What, are you trying to prove a point with this?" And I said no; I mean, we had never had that kind of tension between us. I said, no, I would never play you music just to make a point, to stick something into your side. And so he said, okay, let's keep listening. But he was wary. We listened to maybe two more songs, and he said, "Fuck this." He puts the CD back into the case -- you know, it's called "Hi, My Name is Jonny" and has a picture of him on the cover. Steve says, "Hi, my name is Jonny; please like me." And he goes on this drunken, half-coherent tirade about originality, finding one's own voice. Things kind of went sour.
JB: That's what CDs are for, though. They're for you to get acquainted with a personality, or to scoff at it or spit on it. Sooner or later, a song will mean something to you. He's taking it as a package, as we all do as consumers. But music, songs find meaning elsewhere. They're sort of like picnic flies ; they buzz in and take your shit.
That's funny. God only knows what he thought of the packaging of Grace. "Hi, I'm Jeff Buckley, I'm a syncretic wanker."
JF: Back to the poetry subject, I read somewhere that you had an interest in putting a Baudelaire poem to music.
JB: It was Rimbaud. Yeah, a girl who interviewed me for Option suggested that. That was the article that the editor completely rewrote because he hated me. I had never met him, but he hated me. That was the one with the sidebar that said that I was trying to kill my father. Incredible.
JF: Is that the kind of thing that happens often -- someone from on high in a magazine intervenes?
JB: Yeah, or the reporter themselves. It's happened a few times. But that's an occupational hazard. What it leads to, I don't know. I have no real character to defend. That's the thing I was trying to talk about before. It's all pretty much a crapshoot of true perception about an artist. It seems that, when music is the subject, the writing can turn into a free-for-all. It's an amorphous concept: why does music have the effect it does? It's indescribable. It has no language, really, to describe it, unless you turn to alchemical language and poetry. Rock journalists usually wind up just taking a run at whatever they feel my personality is. It's funny.
But anyway, the Rimbaud? I told that writer that the next time I saw her, I would take a stab at putting music to it, but right now, I'm just concentrating on my own stuff.
JF: I'm just going to dig through this pile of questions here, try to find some good ones.
JB: I wish I had been this prepared when I interviewed Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. My thought was, go in cold, don't prepare. Big fucking mistake. I had tons of questions to ask him, all for my own gain. The magazine-oriented questions were shot back to me from his interpreter. On the tape, the only English quote from Nusrat was a misunderstanding. I was saying something about writing all the poems by heart, because all the Qawwals are sung by heart. Nusrat said, "Without heart, you cannot be a Qawwali." I said, " No, learning by heart." And he said, "Oh yes. Sing them every day."
He was amazing. He was a fucking cafe-au-lait colored Brando.
JF: There is a resemblance there.
JB: In the vibe as well.
JF: So when you were talking to him, did you get flustered? Was it kind of overwhelming?
JB: Yeah. I was dying. There's that man. There's another man named Abed Azrieh. There's a man named Alim Kasimov. Abed Azrieh lives in Paris. He's a Syrian singer, very low voice [Buckley sings a few notes in Azrieh's style]. Abed changed my life because of the way I see men. He was a man who was, somehow, gentle, strong, talented and centered. I had a dinner with my friend Susan and Abed Abrieh. When he walked in the room, he made me feel so different just by being in that room with him, so different. And I wanted to align with that, just like we all want to align with any beautiful creature. And I remember, that was the first time I had seen a man sing with the hand drum.
The second time I saw my life pass before my eyes because of a human being was when I sang with Alim Kasimov. There was a classical music festival in Saint Florent, in France, in this little summer community. Very small venue, a six-hundred seater. Alim came on, and he's from Afghanistan, and he's a master singer. Usually he has these two string players who are brothers, but they couldn't come down, so he just came with his drum, and he sang, and it was so pure and effortless, and like...a huge hill of blooms.
That's what the voice is for. It really is beyond anything I understand right now. It must be, because the breath doesn't flow through me like it does through those men. [The voice] is an eternal gust of wind that has never stopped, and never began. I'm just saying that because I feel like an idiot. But you see these men, and they all have this beautiful man-age of, like, forty-six, forty-seven.
JF: Totally antithetical to the young, rock 'n' roll culture.
JB: Yeah, these guys are men. They've become symbols to me. They bring with them this amazing tradition and this very rich poetical culture and religion. When I met Nusrat, I think I may as well have met Muddy Waters, because he was so terribly ordinary.
JF: You mean humble?
JB: Yeah. Humble. Small, too. He was very small.
JF: So, he's like a little circle.
JB: Yeah, he's a sphere. After the show, I went with a couple of friends; we were invited by the manager, Ikbal -- he's a fucking party animal. Muslims don't touch liquor or cigarettes or anything, and this guy's like, [mimics Middle Eastern accent] "Come up, we'll have drinks, drinks, lots of drinks."
JF: But Nusrat is a Sufi, right?
JB: What I actually said in the interview is that he was the first Sufi I had met in my life, as far as I know.
JF: But if you live in New York, you've probably met a few.
JB: Oh, I went to a couple of Sufi meetings. It was embarrassing. It felt like a hippie ashram. And I think I would know the difference between that and the real thing. I think Sufi meetings are untraceable; you'll never find them.
Nusrat says he "follows the Sufi," meaning that he's following that path and he wouldn't yet call himself a Sufi because he does not, at least to his sensibility, live as his father lived. His father was a master, a scholar, and not an entertainer. Nusrat probably feels that he's getting into the scope of entertainment in order to better the [Qawwali] form, and in order to get the message across. So, there's money involved, there's touring involved; it's a very ramshackle touring company -- I saw them get kicked out of a fucking hotel room that day. A guy with the hotel came up and said, "Who's in charge of the room here?" And I'm thinking, "This is the fucking Jimi Hendrix of fucking Pakistan right here! This is the man right here!" Later, they were moved out of Town Hall -- "Let's clear the room here, people!" -- the same thing.
JF: So, do you think it was a race thing?
JB: No, no. Well, I think a typical hotel owner sees a bunch of Pakistani men in a hotel room, and just freaks. I used to work in a hotel, and I know that's exactly what it was. But, no, [Nusrat's touring company] just didn't have it all together. They're not the high-powered, cellular phone, money-belt sort of tour managers. Ikbal, after he finishes singing in Nusrat's chorus, counts up all the tips thrown up on the stage, goes and buys dinner for everyone. He somehow pays for the rental van.
But the thing about Nusrat is that he was so terribly -- well, I said "ordinary" before....he sat in a restaurant, he didn't eat too much, he was reading the paper, watching a comedy show with the rest of the singers, his brother, his cousins, his cousin-in-law, and they're laughing their asses off, and I guess I slipped into some sort of fantasy where he was my uncle or something. His big shoulders, his little wispy hair. I could almost touch, smell him.
I sang a few of my favorite Qawwali melodies and ragas that I knew were his favorites.
JF: You learned them from his recordings?
JB: From his recordings and from other people I know who know ragas. But I can't go that far. I have to go from what my tradition is.
JF: Yeah, if you go too far, you become an ethnomusicologist.
JB: Fuck that shit. It just doesn't rock. I have to sing about my experience. I go wholeheartedly into those disciplines, but I'm looking for a very different kind of information, something that will translate to my experience.
JF: Where I went to college, they had an amazing ethnomusicology program, and I studied with a drummer named Royal Hartigan. He wrote a twelve-hundred page thesis on how to incorporate Ghanaian, South Indian and Balinese rhythms into the African-American, jazz drum set. His stuff was sometimes very difficult to make sense of, but he was a beautiful player. He rocked, he was not stiff at all. He did have this intensely intellectual thing going on, but when he sat down, it disappeared. He had some very strict ideas about what was right to incorporate from other cultures, and what was not right, and I think those ideas were based on a kind of spiritual integrity he had, and respect for the musical traditions he was studying.
JB: The people who discovered those rhythms and utilized them did it to summon deities, and summon the rain, and keep evil spirits away -- a very secret thing. I can only sing and play what has power to me. I don't wish to come up with an attractive amalgam; a Balinese puppet show, gamelan sort of vibe would have no meaning to me. [laughs]
JF: I was really pleasantly surprised to read something you said in that British magazine, Mojo. You were talking about Blonde on Blonde. And you were describing Bob Dylan the singer, and you said, "On that album, Dylan is Billie Holiday." I wanted to ask you about your development as a singer as opposed to your development as a musician, and how you think of your identity as a singer in the context of your admiration for people like Patti Smith and Bob Dylan, who, rightly or wrongly, are perceived less often as singers than...
JB: As poets.
JB: I wonder why that is?
JF: It's the same thing we were talking about before -- it's conventionality, western music, pitch, being in tune.
JB: Exactly. I don't recognize that sensibility at all. I don't recognize anything that doesn't recognize a bloom. You were talking about Anne Sexton and her rhythm. The thing missing from your written poetry is [points to his chest] this, the body that gives it meaning and shoots it out into the air. Poetry comes from the people who make it; the books are just books, blueprints. Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith, all dark, all romantic. When I say "romantic," I mean a sensibility that sees everything, and has to express everything, and still doesn't know what the fuck it is, it hurts that bad. It just madly tries to speak whatever it feels, and that can mean vast things. That sort of mentality can turn a sun-kissed orange into a flaming meteorite, and make it sound like that in a song.
And there's that pretentious label we were talking about before. People say, "Why dress it up? It needs to be a song. Why all this froo-froo stuff?" Well, why art? Why painting? Why sculpture? It seems as if the world has done away with art altogether, any concern or any relationship with it. So many easy things seem to be over the public's head. But really, if they just came at it a certain way, it would hit them right in the guts; it's so easy.
Smith's and Dylan's and Cohen's power lies in their ability to tell that story so well, and all the stuff on Blonde on Blonde and on [Smith's] Horses and Radio Ethiopia and [Cohen's] Songs From a Room, even Death of a Ladies' Man, which is a sleazy-ass album; it's a real jewel, for someone to be able to sing that, to say that. Dylan had no ornamentation whatsoever. He had pure feel and pure language coming out of him, and that did all the work. He had such affectation! [starts imitating Dylan singing "Visions of Johanna"]
JF: One time I was listening to [Dylan's] Greatest Hits Vol.1 on a walkman, and in, maybe, the second chorus of "It Ain't me Babe", when he sings "No, no, no, it ain't me, babe," he really nails the third "no." I was on the subway, and I just looked a round in shock, I was so riveted by it. And then I thought, well, fuck good singing and bad singing. If you had a singing person take that phrase apart and analyze it, how could they not say it was great?
JB: And the emotion behind it...there's no good singing, there's only present and absent. That's it.
JF: What do you mean? The emotional commitment? How deeply felt it is?
JB: There's that. I think it's even more guttural than that. It's the balls. Just the utter deathlessness, fearlessness. Not the fearlessness to (throws a drink menu against the window) do that, but fearlessness to...invent the lightbulb. It's a very clear power that we almost never see, and we only see it in music; people invent things. We don't have friends who invent new kinds of water heaters or drinking glasses.
Your basic, immediate excitement of invention comes from music, and that's probably why there's so much tension tied up in it, so much money tied up in it, so much status tied up in it, all the misconception and pain and real spiritual struggle on the part of the artists to find out whether they're necessary or relevant to the world. That's the very first struggle: Should I live? Must I live? Must I do this living thing? Is there a place for me? Does anybody give a shit? Do I? Why should I?
One thing that struck me about Patti Smith is that she has either developed or always had a great deal of compassion for herself, and it's translated to the entire world. Great band leader.
JF: Yeah, that's the great talent that no one ever mentions.
JB: I saw it, man. I was there, at this one jam. It was me, Lenny [Kaye, Smith's guitarist], [guitarist] Tom Verlaine, Jay Dee [Daugherty, Smith's drummer], [Smith bassist] Tony Shanahan, this guy named...Hearn [Gadbois] on dumbek, and this kid named Oliver [Ray]. They were doing this jam that they were going to edit down and turn into a song. I had never met Patti before, and she was fabulous, fabulous. She's been part of those people's lives forever. For me, being an outsider, and not a really good friend, although ultimately trusting and giving of trust...it was like a death initiation. Really, all I was doing was contributing to a jam, but I felt very embedded in every second that went by. I was playing this instrument that I can't play, this miniature sitar called an essrage, a bowed instrument. And my bowing technique is eight years old. But I managed to get a melody out of it, and she was so accepting, accepting of all ideas, except for the ideas that put a strangle on something, a strangle.
JF: And then she was tactful?
JF: She'd just say, "Don't do it?"
JB: Yeah. "Shut up."
JF: The drummer I was talking about, Steve, the Quaker -- his biggest gigs were with Joe Henderson and Van Morrison.
JB: What? Together?
JF: No, Van Morrison, then Joe Henderson.
JB: Oh, I was thinking, "How did I miss that?" [laughs]
JF: He played with Van Morrison right after Astral Weeks and Moondance. Apparently, he recorded a lot of shit and never released it, like a three-year period or something. Steve said that he felt that with Van Morrison, he wasn't playing as much as Van was playing through him. He would play a fill that would work with a melody...
JB: And set something else up.
JF: Yep. Steve would say to himself, "I didn't do that. It wasn't my instincts, it wasn't subconscious, it was him, Van."
JB: I'm willing to bet that it was an energy that Van extracted from him. It really does depend on your attitude. Those people I played with in Patti's band had a certain attitude that was contagious and that resonated.
JF: How do feel about yourself as a bandleader? You seem to have a nice kinship and affection and love for the people you're playing with. When I see people play music together, and they're looking at each other, whether it's a smile or a nod or some other kind of manifestation of the bond between them, it brings the music to...a much higher level.
JB: Yeah. Or gets it down to an essential. A lot of our shows just seem like huge, pleasurable, messy kissing sessions, where you're so filled with passion that every move you make on the body...sends it into pleasure. That's mostly what it's like; then the songs just happen by themselves. I guess it's all just giving up to certain states of being. I imagine the reason the Qawwalis are so excellent is that they live their life in order to be in that state. They're not your typical young, white rock dude.
I suppose the convention there is that rock is for the stage. I don't know how other people treat it. I know some people who treat [a rock show] as a special occasion. They get dressed up, and they get revved up, and when it's done, it doesn't follow them home. But it's not like that for me. It's not like that for us. And it's not anything lofty or pretentious; it just makes more sense for us that way.
JF: Well, isn't that the difference between finding musicians you have some spiritual kinship with and finding someone who's just, say, a great lead guitarist?
JB: Yeah, that's just like Michael, our guitar player. He had never been in a band before this one, and he can't play leads. But his music sent us into a whole other dimension. When he got up and played with us, I knew he'd work out, and he did. I knew he would. A strange bird...
JF: So you three are going to continue together for a while?
JB: Yeah. That's the way I've always thought about it. I've
always been in bands that know about dynamics. There are all kinds of different ways to do it: the band where two people are involved [as the main collaborators], the band with the dictator, the total, wide-open free-for-all. There are jealousies, anger, always.
JF: "Relationships in a band are like romantic relationships -- the same kind of vulnerability and the same kind of pain, the potential for betrayal. It's so intense, you can just live in that world. When I was in Boston, for a while I didn't have any real friends except the people I was playing with, but that was enough for...a life! I wasn't happy, but it was a life. It was huge.
JB: And just like a romantic relationship, you're both working on this shared thing between you.
JF: And when it's not working, it's so obvious and so painful.
Is your writing taking on any changes that you'd be able to characterize?
JB: No, I'm just flowing with it. I don't know yet.
I'm going to have to break down and tell you that I don't think any of this is very noteworthy.
JF: What you're telling me?
JB: This whole fucking affair. I have to remember...what it means to be in a magazine. It doesn't mean nothing.
JF: I'm not following you.
JB: Well, okay, you've got my album. Dry interpretation: me fleshing out originals, along with some standards that I'd been playing at my cafe shows. That's about it. Now there's all this acclaim, praise, damnation, speculation; it's very strange. What is it like out there? How do people see me? What do they think I am? What do they think I am? Do you know?
JF: You're asking me?
JB: Yeah. And the girls and everything?
JF: Well, all I can really talk about is my own reaction, and, maybe, my shock at other people's reactions. I read a review of one of your recent shows in Boston, in which the writer said something I felt was so off the mark. It was a comparison, a derogatory comparison between you and Jim Morrison.
JB: Uh-huh? I wish I were that literate, and sexy, and imposing -- I wish.
JF: Well, it wasn't a compliment.
JB: It was a dig. Well, I don't give a shit! I'm just wondering, what sort of flavor is this? What...I don't know. I'm just wondering.
JF: Well, the reason I wanted to write about you, the reason I did any of this is that I think your music is so beautiful.
JB: Thank you. That's all I'm trying to do, is make beautiful things. I don't give a shit about people's cross-references. I have no compassion for their lack of understanding, or their fear of change, their fear of...music. I don't care about the perceptions of a press circle. It can hurt me sometimes, or it can bewilder me.
JF: I can elaborate a little bit. Probably like you, I grew up listening to this, to rock, and, as you said earlier, I'm closer to AC/DC than I am to Islam. Just like a lot of kids, we grew up with this shit.
JB: Yeah, sure.
JF: What I was moved by, being someone who is moved by a lot of different kinds of music, is the way that you incorporate so many different kinds of music that you have passion for. And you do it in a way that pretty much disregards anything that has to do with the affectations of rock 'n' roll. It's beautiful, it's brave, and it's disdainful of...all the shit that just doesn't matter.
JB: Right. I've seen so many things come and go. This whole music, socio-, fame-oriented culture continuum. I've seen all kinds of sounds come and go. I've seen them resurface, and I'm only twenty-nine. That's got to say something for how blind the whole thing is.
JF: It's self-feeding, the industry taking the easy way out.
JB: Yeah, it's all in-bred, pretty much, on the top. I know about the real great bands that nobody knows about, and we all know that that's where it's happening. I love Helium. But your average kid has Oasis, and they don't hear Mary Timony.
JF: This magazine, DoubleTake, is really young, and it has a very deeply felt sense of mission. It has do with a real sadness and dismay over what's going on in the magazine world right now. And they're also working hard to develop their own perspective on things. You ever read the New Yorker?
JF: I think that if the New Yorker hadn't changed in the way it has over the last, say, ten years, that they wouldn't have tried to start this magazine. What they're battling against, in part, is the cult of personality that dominates so much of our culture. Me, writing about you, and talking about the chick on your lap and romanticizing you smoking and drinking coffee -- in Australia! They want to move away from that, but their problem is...
JB: How else to attract the reader.
JB: There's nothing wrong with a magazine reflecting all those rock-star accouterments, nothing wrong with portraying them.
JF: Yeah, if it's there, it's there, and if you're a reporter, you try to tell the truth. It's the distilling of a person to that object that's so terrible, not looking at what informs it. Or trying to portray what the subject is honestly trying to express. Very rarely can somebody be reduced to that kind of cartoon.
JB: Well, Madonna can. She can be reduced to a symbol, to an aspect. Dylan made it into an art.
JF: But it was totally subversive, because he could express so much within that context.
JB: Well, people came to him with this...disbelieving hostility, and really stupid questions, really demeaning questions -- "Do you think people are really understanding what you sing?" "Fuck you!" -- that would be my response. His was, "Yeah, they told me [they understand]."
JF: The Beatles were great at that, too.
JB: Yeah. I love that shit. But that was a wide-eyed press. There was a real disparity in age and in focus. Now it's like the kids accompanying the kids.
JF: Everybody's peers, and the writers would probably want to trade places with you if they could. Don't you find it amazing how knowledgeable rock writers are? I bought my roommate the Spin Alternative Record Guide for his birthday...
JB: Aaay! They asked me to contribute to that.
JF: What, to write a top ten favorite albums list?
JB: Yeah, I fucking ripped up that fax.
JF: Well, it's good bathroom reading. When I read it, though, I think to myself, I've been listening to this music all my life, and I don't know what the fuck this guy is talking about. Sometimes I feel like those journalists at Spin just define their tastes in order to say "Fuck you" to Rolling Stone. If Rolling Stone likes Live, Spin will hate them.
JB: Yeah, they're a lot hipper than Rolling Stone. It's just the same old thing, isn't it? I think that those writers really do like the stuff they write about -- they're perfect, integrated machines. Their concerns have to do with the journalistic intent. Make no mistake! Once a man puts something into print, into circulation, that means something -- and I'm talking here, knowing I'm going to be in print and in circulation, edited or unedited -- there's a real power fix to that. There's also a real power in being an editor or writer.
The critics don't really make anything of lasting worth. But they act in the knowledge that they're doing the right thing. They inhabit a certain spectrum of taste, say what is hip and what is not. It's a very covetous, collector-oriented; they're like model builders who have never been on a ship. A guy like that gets a guitar and comes up on my stage, I'll boot his ass off immediately.
There's nothing wrong, in my mind, with criticism. But there's something sinister about critics who are outside the process ferociously trying to legitimatize an art form into their sensibility. Can you imagine living in that kind of world? You would listen to a shitload of Billie Holiday, Satchmo, Fats Waller. You'd concentrate on the 30's, 40's and 50's, and then you'd write about PJ Harvey because she's sexy and she reminds you of Howlin' Wolf. I like a lot of their tastes. It's just that the way they speak about music obviously illustrates some real sour soul.
JF: I just feel like those guys are posturing. I have a fantasy of a writer at Spin rushing home after work and putting on Born to Run. They would never be allowed at their place of work to like Springsteen.
JB: Right. You can't kill the past by denying the past. You can kill it only by making it obsolete. And even in that, you have to find honor in the past. You can't hack off pieces of yourself, and expect them to grow again.
Genre, genre, genre. Think about Nirvana. Something that was really great and fun and different, heart-rendering rock. It got totally sucked up into the same fucking trap. Kurt Cobain dies, and what happens? A tribute book comes out by the editors of Rolling Stone, who care so much that they publish a compilation of their articles within months!
JF: Once I heard you interviewed on the radio in Boston by a DJ there who said, in all seriousness, something like, "Jeff, I've been really into your album for a few months. Whenever I put it on in the house, it makes me want to take my wife and head straight for the bedroom. Really. Do you consider yourself a romantic?" [laughs]
JB: By romanticism, I mean not wooing a woman or wanting a woman or fucking, or anything like that. I'm talking about the emotional arrangements that you fall into, the states of disarray that burn you, for days and days and days, and with them bring all sort of realizations -- like a break-up? Not even a break-up, a rotting. I mean, why do people break up? Why do people do that? Why do they, all of a sudden, become invisible to each other, and then start to de-magnetize? They don't know what's going on -- [they make realizations] after the fact, and always in a huff. "God help me, this is fucking dying! What's happening?" That kind of thing.
Nowadays when I get stoned, I have death fantasies. They're very vivid, they're vivid daydreams that repeat over and over again. If they're really good, they repeat over and over and over.
JF: What are they about?
JB: Well, mutilation, other people's mutilation, how quick it is. Not a paranoia -- I just see it happening. I see murders. I am murdered in my dreams. I confront murderers in my dreams. I rarely get killed, but they're right there. And rarely am I a killer. Someone is always trying to kill me. There's the wife-beater, a huge, massive guy with black hair and a belt. He's going to take off the belt. I hated it because of the way he beat his wife. He has a beautiful wife.
JF: These aren't people you really know?
JB: No. Well, they probably have aspects of people I really know. I do know people like that. And he was going to kill me.
I met a killer, also in a dream, who was an artist. There was a guy, a really short, shy guy, kind of balding on top, balding too young. And he was an artist; Meaning, when he killed his victims, he didn't kill them immediately. He would anaesthetize them and weave them into baskets, with their guts still working in the baskets. He'd keep them alive, and then take pictures of them.
JF: I'm sorry, but...
JB: This was a dream.
JF: The images came in a dream, but was the knowledge of all this background information already there. Because what you're describing is pretty complex.
JB: No, no, I saw what he did, and I could see that the eyes of the person were still alive.
And there was the time I was sentenced to death. This [artist] guy was great -- he was down on his work. There were lines of easels, and on each side of the easel there was a photo. He had his own gallery set up inside his private, little...he lived in something that looked like a little school, a schoolhouse out in the country, in the South. I was scared shitless, and shaking, and looking at these photos of these mutilated people, and trying to comfort this guy, trying to point out good parts of his work, the whole time being completely horrified. And the police came in and saved me at the last moment. The police also took me away to be sentenced to death by lethal injection -- for what I don't remember. I think I was flying, I flew to escape some bullies, and I flew out of bounds regulated by the city. So the cops took me, and the bullies, the assailants, into this chamber. We're walking down the hallway, and I keep on talking to the police, which I learned was forbidden, a misdemeanor. I said, "Wh..."
JF: I'm sorry, the rule was what?
JB: The rule was not to speak to the guards at all. What I did I don't know. Okay, maybe I flew too high out of bounds, but they just sentenced me to death. They assigned me legal counsel, this useless blonde lady, who didn't tell me exactly what was going on. All she told me was that I had ten minutes to live. And she gave me this state's evidence, these file pictures showing what what was going to happen to me. What happens is they take you to these doctors' pavilions, and they're sitting at picnic tables in front of the pavilions. So, I saw the photos -- there were about ten or eight, something like that. First thing they do is they shave your head. The second thing they do is they lay you in this sort of dentists' harness. And you're strapped in, and then they take one needle and they stick it in your stomach, and then they take another needle, and they stick that in the base of your neck. What they're doing is inserting a little metal globule into your brain, and also giving you a serum that makes...
Shit like that. That's where my work comes from. And other things. It's not a literal thing, and it's not anything I can explain. It's not a magic thing that I can explain. It just is what it is, and I can describe it to you. You know what I mean? That's my wellspring.
When we were in Adelaide [Australia] -- it was a good thing we went there -- we went down this street that was very homey and beautiful and perfect, much like the places where I grew up, in Orange County, in Anaheim. Very perfect lawns, and shiny cars, tools lined up nicely in the garages, and Daddy and Mommy and Fluffy and Jodi. Little Sparky the dog. [laughs] Totally perfect -- then me and my single mother. I remember having this dream -- it was magic day. We lived close to Disneyland, and sometimes my mom would say, "We're going to Disneyland tomorrow," and so I'd go to sleep with this amazing excitement for the next day. And I remember this dream. All the plants and trees had turned into these fiery-colored blooms, and there were these huge, massive reindeer, cartoon reindeer made of flowers, and you could ride them like monkeys, and it was magic day. And there was this music. And I can't quite remember it, but I know what it feels like.
Driving down that Adelaide street at six in the evening reminded me of all that, and that's good, because at least I've got some innocence left...somewhere. And that sort of wellspring, that reservoir. I know I do, but I lose touch with it sometimes. But it is there. I don't think you ever lose your four-year-old or your five-year-old or anything; you just grow shells on the outside. I know plenty of forty-year-old-plus men who haven't grown up at all.
JF: Yeah, sometimes I'll remember the way my mind worked when I was, say, six, and I'll think, "Shit. The way I arrived at that thought then is exactly the way I arrive at thoughts now." Things I liked, things I didn't like.
JB: Yeah. This [memory] today was of my step-father. It was right as I was about to lie about something, and he knew it. He was this big guy, six-three, six-four. I remember being in my room; I think we were living in Fullerton, next to the railroad tracks and the airport. And he said, "If you lie, I'll spank you. If you tell me the truth, nothing will happen." He kept his promise.
JF: So did you lie, or did you tell the truth?
JB: I told the truth. Believe me. But I remember that he made good on his promise, I remember that sensation ... really special things that have no words to them. I hang on to them, because...so much of the rest of this existence is so fucking obvious, so easy to repeat, so easy to get bored of. But there's this other rhythm that's happening all the time; it's much more vibrant, but it's just harder to share. I imagine that it's in the deepest depths of that rhythm that the Sufis live. They're completely...aflame all the time.
JF: I'm reading a novel right now called The Bone People, by this woman from New Zealand, Keri Hulme; it's a book about the Maoris. It's about a woman who's half-European, half-Maori, and her relationship with this Maori man, and his son. The boy is not the man's blood son. The boy had been in a shipwreck, and the man had found him, and raised him as his own. Much of what the book is about is the father's combination of brutality and tenderness, how in this particular relationship they are the flide of each other. He beats the shit out of this kid over and over, yet he gives the kid...himself. He's loving, he sings at the kid's feet every night before he puts him to bed.
JB: It's because he has no woman.
JF: Yep. That's pretty much it.
The way this author describes the Maoris, it sounds as if their dreams are very present in their everyday lives.
JB: You know what happens after a while, is you read everything as you read dreams.
JF: When you were talking about those death dreams, you were talking about something that you visualize when you're high?
JB: No, these dreams are in sleep.
JF: So, you were stoned and asleep?
JB: No, no, never stoned and asleep. But sometimes, I have waking daydreams.
JF: That build upon stuff that you're experienced?
JB: No, brand new shit. I'd say that they're obsessive visions, not the true...magic visions that some people have.
JF: So, they're not generated totally independently from will?
JB: Right. I think I have a hunger for feeling... obliterated, somehow, destroyed.
JF: So these visions become the fuel for the imagery in songs?
JB: Sometimes, I develop some slang or a joke that only I understand which means [the dream] to me, and still conveys it in the song somehow. Like "Mood Swing Whiskey." That started off as a joke, a name for a fictitious product that I sort of saw as a euphemism for this life. A thing that takes people away from ordinary strains of life. And which causes a lot of problems. I've never felt a part of any place or any thing, but I did feel a part of this, this life, and in this life I'm a part of everything.
It's so funny. I'm out of step. But I have one thing that I'm in step with, and that's that I have to go to the soundcheck at 4:30, and preparing the space for the show tonight. That's ... an industry that I can relate to.
You know how you can have a couple, and one of them is completely stoned, and the other is not? So, they feel very distant. Alcohol and guitars will take people's children away on this fucking ride that will scar them for life. They'll never be the same. So that's usually where [my dreams] find places in the songs.
JF: What you're describing is interesting to me because it's such a different approach from what I'm familiar with. The reason I asked you whether or not what you were describing was something you dreamt in sleep or not is that your description of the dream was so detailed that I almost felt I was in the dream.
JB: It's a habit of mine.
JF: It's a little bit offputting, a little frightening.
JB: Yeah, I have a habit of that. Maybe that's what happens. A couple of friends of mine were annoyed at me talking like that, in pictures. I didn't know why it bothered them, and I didn't know why it made any difference. And I didn't know why I was doing it.
JF: You were talking in pictures? What do you mean?
JB: You know, crazy metaphors, like..."It sounds like a furry lock." Stuff like that. It's not some kind of self-conscious surrealism, it's just...I have this memory, it's a cross between a stone, a twinkie, and a dog. And I don't know what it is, but I remember touching it. I remember it having the consistency of a twinkie, but being very smooth, and I don't remember what it was. I don't know whether I dreamed it or not. But for some reason, things like that are a concern for me, and I don't know why. But they're fascinating. Because they're human. I mean, if this glass [picks up a glass] is an accepted accoutrement of being human, then so must those memories be.
Being a human being encompasses so much that we already perceive, but which all goes by us so quickly. You go over and talk to those two gentlemen over there [points to two businessmen]? You'll resonate with them, you'll see certain things, certain messages will be brought to you, very rational messages...there's much more there than the tie and the Mercedes, man. And it's important. You just wonder what the other 80% of them is doing.
JF: Well, you want to hear something? Right before I came over here [to Australia], I had the best -- no, the second best haircut I've ever had in my life. Back in Boston, this great woman cut my hair. She was a Boston native, she was beautiful, she was gentle, and every time I got my hair cut, we would get into this intense shit. [laughs] It was like therapy. It was what therapy should be. Anyway, that was Yvonne, Yvonne Bonnacorso.
JB: A Boston native! There you go!
JF: But I left Boston, and moved to San Francisco. There's there's neighborhood in San Francisco called the Sunset. It's right by the ocean. I was looking in the phonebook, and I found a place called Isabel's Hair Design, on Taraval street. I just called her up, because I love the name Isabel. I've known, like, three of them, and they've always been cool. So I called her up, and she had a very, very thick Filipino accent. So I went there. She's a beautiful, probably fifty-five to sixty-year-old woman. Her hair is piled up on top of her head, she's got on an ankle-length dress and high-heel shoes. When she was thirty, she would have been a knockout. But she's still beautiful. And she tells me, well, she told me her life story. She came to the U.S. with her husband; she's been here since 1956. Her husband died ten years ago, and the only thing she's been doing then is she's taken up ballroom dancing, and she cuts people's hair. And that's all she does.
JB: Sounds delightful.
JF: And she was describing what it was like to get into ballroom dancing after her husband died.
JB: To have to deal with a partner all the time?
JF: Yeah, and she just floats from partner to partner to partner. She says they're always nice men, but that she won't get involved with any of them.
JF: So, she's describing this to me. A year earlier I had written a song about a woman approaching death, alone. A widow who envisions Fred Astaire coming to her and dancing with her every night, dancing her to sleep. It was meant to be a metaphor for this woman trying to say hello to death.
JF: And the song was so reminiscent of what Isabel was telling me, that I started thinking: Did I dream her dream, or her life? Was it coincidental? Why would I pick her name out of the phonebook?
JB: I think that, had you been another kind of man, it wouldn't have happened. Some people walk around with...dry sockets...and when certain other people walk into the room, it sort of nourishes them, or pushes them. One thing didn't happen without the other -- she just didn't give it to you. It's pretty precious...pretty precious. Obviously, there was something about you that...she sensed was fine.
So that covers it.
JF: Thank you so much. It was really nice talking to you.
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