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Jeff Buckley: The Son Also Rises

Fighting hype and the weight of his father's legend, Jeff Buckley finds his own voice on 'Grace'

Jeff Buckley
David Tonge/Getty Images
October 20, 1994

Being the son of a rock legend, even a cult figure, is a mixed blessing. Jeff Buckley knows that better than most. He's an idiosyncratic, highly acclaimed 27-year-old singer-songwriter; in the Sixties and Seventies his late father, Tim Buckley, wove folk, jazz and blues into his own distinct hybrid. At best, Jeff is ambivalent about the father he barely knew. Jeff becomes increasingly emotional when he describes the event that placed him at the center of the New York music scene. In 1991 producer Hal Willner organized an all-star Tim Buckley tribute concert at St. Ann's Church, in Brooklyn, N.Y. "See, I sacrificed something for my father's memory," Jeff says heatedly. "Technically, the tribute will be seen as my debut in New York – which it really wasn't.

"It wasn't my work, it wasn't my life," Jeff recalls. "But it bothered me that I hadn't been to his funeral, that I'd never been able to tell him anything. I used that show to pay my last respects. There was one song, 'Once I Was,' that I remember because my mother played it for me when I was 5, when my stepfather was out of the house. So I sang this song, and a string broke at the very end, and I had to finish it a cappella." Jeff pauses, adding softly, almost in a whisper, "I didn't sing it very well."

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Much to Jeff's dismay, his father's fans insisted on comparing him – positively and negatively – to their idol. The cult around the elder Buckley, who died in 1975, is particularly protective – and not without reason. Over nine albums during an eight-year career, Tim Buckley ranged from psychedelic-folk experimentation to his own off-kilter brand of blue-eyed soul. Entrancing audiences with emotionally charged, bluesy performances, Tim's best material ran parallel to the evocative ramblings of Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison, yet he added his own distinctive whimsy.

Tim Buckley fans may have overreacted, but there are deep musical similarities between father and son: their eccentric and commandingly versatile vocal styles, just for starters. Both artists have also pursued an affinity for odd instrumentation and fearless experimentation; the results are diaphanous, extended pieces that hover between genres.

Today, Jeff Buckley is quick to assert himself as an individual, at times mocking his father's oddball notoriety. "Sometimes he sounds like the fucking Kingfish from Amos and Andy," Jeff says, suddenly bursting into a line from his father's soul-influenced late period: "I woke up this morning . . . What the fuck is that? Every, every single day I've been loving you . . . What kind of bullshit is that? I never sound like that. . . . Gonna look, between your toes . . . Fuck that shit. It's like you don't know if you're Tom Jones or Al Green, and the two mixed together don't really sound that great."

Jeff Buckley began attracting attention two years ago with his solo shows in intimate downtown Manhattan bars, cafes and java joints like Sin-é. Legendarily jaded New Yorkers were won over by his intense theatrical delivery: Buckley combined inspired, sometimes bizarre cover versions with sensuous originals and a dash of endearingly corny stage patter. Naturally, his doleful street-urchin good looks didn't hurt.

Still, the main event is Buckley's voice. To the uninitiated, it's almost shocking in its virtuosity, in its ability to envelop an entire room. He echoes the operatic warbling of the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser one minute and in the next projects a natural warmth recalling Aretha Franklin or Mahalia Jackson. (Buckley has even been known to incorporate Jackson's "A Satisfied Mind" into his sets.) Unlike the typical Pearl Jam/Stone Temple Pilots rasp, Buckley's voice sounds most comfortable in a near falsetto, allowing his material, even at its most blaring, to assume an appealing feminine glow.

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"In my early shows," Buckley says, "I wanted to put myself through a new childhood, disintegrating my whole identity to let the real one emerge. I became a human jukebox, learning all these songs I'd always known, discovering the basics of what I do. The cathartic part was in the essential act of singing. When is it that the voice becomes an elixir? It's during flirting, courtship, sex. Music's all that."

Released late last year, Buckley's debut EP, Live at Sin-é, neatly summarized his solo performances. Moving beyond his wandering-troubadour image, Buckley assembled an impromptu band for his debut album, the recently released Grace. Spanning a wide range of styles, Grace moves from the Zeppelinesque bombast of "Mojo Pin" to the undulating raga rock of "Dream Brother." Throughout, lyrics conceived in late-night coffeehouses veer between flower-child mysticism and earnest soul baring. "Last Goodbye" and "Lover, You Should've Come Over" detail a dying relationship's fade. On "Last Goodbye," Buckley begs to be kissed "out of desire, babe, and not consolation." Elsewhere, Buckley tackles Big Questions like racism and war. He says "Eternal Life" was inspired by anger over "the man that shot Martin Luther King, World War II, slaughter in Guyana and the Manson murders." His cosmic bent is balanced by earthier inclinations, Buckley says. "I like a spirituality," he says, "with a God that knows how to drive a car, that knows how to take his girl to the dance club, dance all night, have a little drink, kiss the kid when they come back in and go to sleep. God doesn't need a chauffeur – he needs to drive himself."

The philosophical bent of Grace is balanced by more cover versions, of course. Both Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and Nina Simone's "Lilac Wine" pay homage to the originals and tap into Buckley's idiosyncratic sensibility, but he turns up his nose at the interpreter's role. "I don't want to do any more covers," he says. "It's good to learn to make things your own, but the education's over. Grace is putting a lot of things to rest."

Jeff Buckley has plenty of memories that he'd like to retire, the bumps and turbulence of a nomadic childhood. Born in late 1966 during a brief marriage between his mother, Mary, and the then unknown Tim Buckley, Jeff led a painful, rootless existence. Other than spending a week with his father when Jeff was 8, he never knew him. (Tim Buckley died of an overdose in 1975, only two months after their initial meeting.) On their own, mother and son constantly moved due to the hassles of being a single parent in the mid-Sixties – at the time a very alternative lifestyle. "I didn't even have any luggage," recalls Buckley. "I just put my stuff into paper bags."

"When I was 12, I decided to become a musician," Buckley says. "Physical Graffiti was the first album I ever owned. My stepfather [who lived with Buckley's mother from 1971 to 1973] bought that for me."

After high school, Buckley worked at a hotel and attended L.A.'s Musicians Institute for guitar, notorious for turning out Eddie Van Halen clones. "I wanted to 'learn to be a better musician,' and it was the biggest waste of time I had ever seen," Buckley says. Tiring of L.A., Buckley moved to New York in 1990. There he languished for months, taking odd jobs: selling clothes at Banana Republic; working as an answering-service operator for Denzel Washington and F. Murray Abraham; and even auditioning unsuccessfully for the comedic skate punks Murphy's Law.

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