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
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Jeff Buckley
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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.

Lured back to California by an offer from his father's former manager to finance Jeff's demo sessions, he found himself stranded and creatively unsatisfied. He jammed around with a few bands, including a stint with Fishbone's Chris Dowd, but nothing jelled. Isolated and bored, Buckley tried to track down his father's estranged family. He went so far as to beg his grandmother's chiropractor for her phone number.

"I called her work, and they thought I was a crank caller, so I said, 'Just say her grandson called,' " Buckley recollects. "We met that night. She was really happy and always knew I'd show up. I talked with all the cast of characters, and then I was done with it. It revealed a lot of ugliness that I can't talk about."

"I'm totally unattached to any home right now, back on my own," Buckley says. "I'm being thrust into my old ways, ways I've grown up with, and I have to hang on: moving from place to place, grabbing on to people, making fast friends, letting them go. Now I've got to stay in touch – or I'll lose it."

These days, Buckley is living a variation on the vagabond routine of his childhood – touring clubs with a working band. Our interview takes place in Memphis, in between gigs. During a break, Buckley and company wander over to the legendary Beale Street. This is where jazz and blues were supposedly born decades ago in sweaty juke joints, but in 1994, the street comes across more as a neon-lit tourist trap.

Passing countless images of the baby-faced Elvis, the fat jumpsuit-and-Seconal Elvis and Elvis sporting angel wings on a fire-belching motorcycle, Buckley finally settles on the King's Palace Cafe. While everybody waits for their orders, a David Crosby look-alike in a droopy brown hat takes the stage, banging out hackneyed blues on an acoustic guitar.

Suddenly, Buckley is jolted by the would-be bluesman's ragged wailing. "We need Troub-Away – sends troubadours away fast!" Buckley says, nodding toward the stage. "Get Folk-Off! If you have annoying folk singers around you, buy Folk-Off today!" As the laughter around the table subsides, Buckley turns serious. "I guess it's understandable why it's misconstrued that I'm a folk guy, because people who play in small places with one guitar usually are. But that shit's dead." Buckley drifts off and looks at the stage. "The important thing is that he's doing it." As Buckley leaves the restaurant, he walks to the stage and shakes the busker's hand, stuffing a $5 bill into his guitar case. Typically, Buckley exudes a flash of rock-star haughtiness along with an overweening generosity that makes him easy prey for homeless beggars and hitchhikers.

At the concert later that night, an excited crowd fills the intimate South End club. It's not Buckley's best show: The young band is still finding its feet, but the highlights are staggering. On a propulsive version of Big Star's "Kanga Roo," Buckley alternates Alex Chilton's gorgeous melody line with slashing Sonic Youth-style guitar. The song ends with a cacophonous rave-up that leaves bystanders slack jawed.

Exhilarated by the evening's performance, Buckley later explains that the real impetus behind his solo performances was "to attract the perfect band." Buckley's ideal musician, however, has little to do with virtuosic ability. The players Buckley has hired are relative novices. Drummer Matt Johnson and bassist Mick Grondahl had played New York clubs with a variety of little-known bands. Second guitarist Michael Tighe – who co-wrote Grace's "So Real" – had never been in a group when Buckley snapped him up for a tour. "Jeff hates the staleness of a session band," says Johnson. "He's seen a lot of that shit, those pretty singer-songwriters who go and hire the people recommended by the producer or record people."

Buckley's real entree into New York's music world, in fact, came shortly after the Tim Buckley tribute concert in early 1992. Guitarist Gary Lucas (an ex-Captain Beef-heart sideman) asked Jeff to join his avant-jam band Gods and Monsters, which included bassist Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu) and drummer Anton Fier (the Golden Palominos). Lucas had encountered Jeff at the Tim Buckley show. "He was this longhaired kid just bursting out of his skin," Lucas says, "making faces like he was going to explode, and I was immediately attracted to that energy. I really felt he had a charisma."

That version of Gods and Monsters generated some record-company interest, and the band broke up promptly after two gigs. "There was an issue as to whether I could play guitar," reports Buckley. "So I disbanded it to go on my own." Lucas was crushed for a long time; he'd lost an ideal collaborator. Buckley continued their relationship: Lucas co-wrote "Mojo Pin" and the title track from Grace. "I've always believed in him," Lucas says. "If they make him Elvis Presley, fine – he can handle it."

Back in Memphis, Buckley visits Graceland on his way out of town. It's Elvis Week, seven days commemorating the 16th anniversary of Presley's death. Strolling through the mansion with throngs of worshipers, Buckley remains supremely cool and unruffled. Nothing rattles him: not the mansion tour with its intimate viewings of Elvis' "Jungle Room" (featuring carpeted ceilings and bizarre furniture in the shape of animals) or the three simultaneously playing consoles in the disarmingly yellow TV room. He even remains unaffected when he passes a display of a sequined jacket that uncannily resembles the one he wears on the cover of Grace. He doesn't notice – or pretends not to notice – the ironic coincidence.

But as he moves over toward the Presley family graves, Jeff Buckley's demeanor turns strangely solemn. Standing in front of the King's tomb, he removes a large safety pin from his shirt and places it on the gravestone in apparently earnest tribute. As he leaves Graceland, driving to the next gig in Nashville, Buckley dwells on the journey his own nascent career has taken.

"I go to Tower Records and see all these lives in the bins," Buckley says hesitantly. "It's insane, a really emotional place. That's why I spend so much time in record shops. All my life I tried to work in one, but they never accepted me, and now I'm in them! I got my own ass staring at me, and it's like 'Oh, Jesus – why didn't you take me when I had the chance!' " As he looks out at the lush river country hurtling by, Buckley drifts back to thinking about his father, the artist with whom he's destined to share shelf space. "Separated all our lives, and now I'm right there in the bin next to him," he says. "His thing should stand on its own; so should mine. Otherwise, how else could I bring honor to it?"

This story is from the October 10th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 693: October 20, 1994
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