FEATURE JEFF BUCKLEY
JEFF BUCKLEY’s new album proves that he is destined for greatness. Alastair Mabbott talks to the singer/songwriter who will play one night in Scotland.
hipped up a full nine floors by the wind, a small plastic bag drifts past Jeff Buckley’s hotel room window. He takes this as a good omen — as if the auspices weren’t already favourable enough. At 27, with movie-star looks and enough raw talent and vision to overcome the tribulations that inevitably face the son of a legend, things are already looking remarkably good for him.
Already. he’s been responsible for a head- turning live solo EP. Now comes one of the year’s most essential albums, Grace, which features shrewdly-chosen covers of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, Elkie Brooks’ ‘Lilac Wine’ and Benjamin Britten’s ‘Corpus Christi Carol’. But it’s Buckley’s own songs that are the heart and soul of it. The opening track, ‘Mojo Pin’, is an instant classic, delicately-picked verses shattered by thrashed climaxes of brittle, ascending chords. Hear ‘80 Real’ once and you’ll be singing it for the rest of the week. And tracks like ‘Eternal Life’ and ‘Grace’ show that contemporary American rock has bitten him as deeply as jazz, blues and everything else he’s absorbed in his life.
Jeff Buckley grew up as ‘rootless trailer-trash’ in Southern California, moving from town to town with his mother and stepfather and feeling like a misﬁt everywhere he went. His natural father was the late, great Tim Buckley, but Jeff, with understandable tinges of bitterness, plays this down; he only met his father once, spending nine days with him, two months before Tim’s untimely death. He prefers, instead, to credit his mother with his musical background.
Nevertheless, hearing Jeff Buckley in full voice inevitably brings on the sense of a family tradition being kept alive. And it’s notjust down to the fact that both were blessed with angelic vocal cords. It’s also a shared eclecticism, a respect for jazz and a taste for improvisation, a passionate struggle to unshackle the voice and merge with the infinite.
His mother never gave him lessons. he says in his rambling but engaging way, never pointed him in any particular direction. "But we always sang. It was very important to us, music. Always. There was nothing we ever really talked
about. We never really talked about our relationship to it, wejust lived it.’
In his teens, he recorded his own songs at home and did session chores for friends (‘for grocery money’), but between the ages of sixteen and twenty he stopped singing for anyone but himself and submerged himself in bands. ‘I was just depressed. My life had been pretty weird.’
‘1 had been obsessing about being alone, and l was in a band at the time and l was in a lot of pain, and just rotting away in Los Angeles — which is pretty easy to do — and [just didn’t want to die any more. I wanted to really learn, you know, that learning that you want to get for yourself, so I just obsessed about how to do it and I would write it down, write it down, how to do it . . .
‘What I was gonna do was hang out on Venice Beach, get a permit and just play and play and play and play and play. . . anything that anybody asked and anything I knew and anything that came into my head, even if the song turned out
Jen Buckley (second left) and Ms band
to be fourteen minutes.’
What he actually did, in 1991. was relocate to New York and front a band called Gods And Monsters with ex-Beelhcart guitarist Gary Lucas and Bob Mould’s old rhythm section. The collaboration didn’t last long, and despite the excellence of the musicians involved Buckley seems not to look on it as a very signiﬁcant episode. ‘It was important, because it showed me that everything else was a complete distraction. lt wasjust an impetus to get me into this with all the more conviction.’
So he followed his initial instinct, setting about solo gigs in Greenwich Village and its environs, the same stomping ground that Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell had cut their teeth on.
‘I started out with a lot — a [01 — of old-time Delta blues; precisely to get it out of my system, because there’s a propensity for white people to do old-time blues and it sounds like complete shit. Just sounds fake. That was one thing, but the real reason was to find myself in the songs. Because the whole thing about the blues, and the reason it’s so beautiful, is that it comes from a very disturbing part of American history — I don’t know any part of American history that isn’t disturbing — just that you speak exactly
12 The List 26 August—8 September 1994