Jeff Buckley: The Son Also Rises

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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.

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