12. Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley Bristol, 1995
“It”. The difference between good and great. The intangible quality that separates countless singers with guitars from a star. That rare combination of talent, application, attitude, look, feel, and passion. Jeff Buckley had it. Had it in spades.
Sony execs must have been rubbing their hands together with glee when they signed Buckley; he sang like an angel, was a guitar virtuoso, and looked like a film star. His voice could be Robert Plant one minute, Nina Simone the next, and finish up pitching sounds that would bear comparison with only, maybe, Liz Fraser amongst recent singers. His guitar playing ranged from delicate, intricate picking to ragged distorted chords; fusing rock, jazz, blues, hymns, East and West. Feted to be the new Dylan, the new Springsteen, the new Led Zeppelin, the new Van Morrison: take your pick, who knows which path he’d have trodden.
Personally I suspect he’d have taken an artistic route more akin to Joni Mitchell than, say, any of her male contemporaries – a restless evolution of his sound and a deeper exploration of ever more complex musical forms. I doubt it’d have been necessarily very commercial but it’s impossible to second guess now. Van Morrison came out of “Astral Weeks” with “Moondance” and Springsteen reigned in some of the eclecticism from “Wild, Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle” to produce “Born To Run” so perhaps Buckley might have found a way to simplify.
We’ll never know, of course and it remains frustrating that there’s so little material – a solitary finished album (“Grace”) and the patched together recordings that may or may not have gone on to be its follow up (“Sketches From My Sweetheart The Drunk”). What there is, outside of that, are reams and reams of live recordings – seemingly every time someone pressed record on a mixing desk Sony / Columbia would subsequently release it. Whilst in some respects there’s a faintly depressing aspect to this as the label look to milk their ear marked “legacy” artist – their cash flow projections somewhat inconvenienced by his premature death – it does also provide a fascinating glimpse into Buckley’s evolution as a musician and singer.
The best pre “Grace” document is the “Live At Sin-e” recording, originally put out as an EP in 1993 but then issued as a full double album ten years later. It’s just Buckley, a telecaster, and a couple of hundred people. It’s clearly an environment in which he feels comfortable; there’s a lot of joking around, whether it’s improvising a song to help people find their seats (and then imagining the equivalent punk version for CBGBs), mashing up Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit”, or calling for “Jim Morrison levels of reverb” via an impromptu tease of the opening bars of “The End”. There’s also, in the same spirit, a lot of improvisation, stretching his own songs out as if he’s still working out the kinks, and extending and shaping the covers like he’s trying to unravel each song to suss out how it works before he puts it back together again. Inevitably some of it’s pretty raw and not everything works. The version of “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” (which is a stand out on “Grace”) is a bit of a mess and beset with tuning problems and there are moments when some of the goofing around outstays its welcome.
Much of it though, often when it’s more focused and slightly less experimental, is stunning: a gorgeous, fragile take on Edith Piaf’s “Je N’en Connais Pas La Fin”, a melodic run through Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello”, a sensuous “Strange Fruit” (Billie Holiday, Nina Simone), and an utterly lovely read of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing”. It’s worth stopping for a second to look again at that set of covers. That’s Edith Piaf, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison that he’s taking on and making his own as a 26 year old without a record to his name.
And then there’s “Hallelujah”. Back in ’93 the song was far less known than it is now, thanks in no small part to Buckley’s version. Written by Leonard Cohen Buckley uses John Cale’s interpretation as his template and it closes “Live At Sin-e”; the recording is probably the closest point of comparison to my first encounter with the song. At the time, in the months following graduation, I was back living with my parents and working a temporary job dealing with customer queries about their invoices for a mobile phone provider. It was a set of circumstances distinctly lacking in romance or magic.
Buckley was playing at The Fleece And Firkin (now The Fleece) in Bristol to promote “Grace”, it’s basically a pub with a stage, capacity probably around three hundred. The sort of place you can get within feet of the performers and reach on to the stage to pinch a taped down set list at the end. In all honesty I had principally gone that night to see Bettie Serveert who were supporting as I was a big fan of their “Palomine” record. I’d heard some buzz around Buckley and was curious but hadn’t heard a note of his music.
The gig was a revelation. I was there with a friend from school who’d ended up working at the same place as me, in much the same circumstances, and that time at work was significantly enlivened by his conversation and camaraderie – one of the few bright spots in an otherwise gloomy time. I suspect I started watching Buckley’s set with a slight “come on then, let’s see how good you are, impress me” attitude and, early on, the signs weren’t good. He had constant sound issues during the opening songs and some technical glitches, neither of which seemed to help his mood; he seemed tetchy, unable to really get into his performance – the malfunctions interrupting his (and consequently our) reverie. Slowly but surely though he (and band) turned it around; the equipment started to work and they wove a captivating spell.
Buckley was impossible to take your eyes off. On stage he had charisma to burn; a very attractive, sensual man oscillating (wildly) between little-boy-lost vulnerability to lithe sexuality. Irrespective of gender or orientation the man just had “it”. He was also impossible not to listen to. He had the technical chops but his much heralded four octave range doesn’t really tell the story. The range of expression in his vocals was breathtaking, although that’s probably the least appropriate adjective to describe them given his sustain. He sent notes out like birds taking wing: soaring, swooping, climbing and diving. “Grace” as an album acts as a fine showcase for his voice from the pure falsetto of “Corpus Christi Carol” to the heady languor of “Lilac Wine”, the resignation of “Last Goodbye”, the pain in “Lover…”, through to the free style screams of catharsis he lets loose at the close of “Grace” itself. It was a glorious instrument and to hear it in the flesh in such intimate surroundings was a genuine privilege and one of the finest live performances I’ve seen.
He closed with “Hallelujah”, I think it was an encore. Just him and a guitar. You could have heard a pin drop. If you had you probably would have asked it to be quiet. It was just jaw droppingly good. Astonishing. Staggering. Go to town with your own superlatives but he held all of us rapt, perfectly still, in thrall to seven minutes of perfection. We left shaking our heads in mild disbelief. I think I bought “Grace” the next day.
The song suffers a little now for its relative ubiquity, everyone from Bono to X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke has had a go at it. You can argue the toss over whose version is definitive – it seems to usually boil down to a straight fight between John Cale, KD Lang, and Buckley; maybe Rufus Wainwright – but the version I heard first is always the one that sticks for me. Towards the end of his life even Buckley started to lose some of his sparkle in performing it, listen to the recording on “Live At L’Olympia” and he sounds a bit like he’s going through the motions amid the audience singalong (to be fair the cut on “Mystery White Boy” that splices in The Smith’s “I Know It’s Over” is much better). But in the beginning it was, and remains, sublime.
In 1997, at just 30 years old with the world at his feet, he was gone. Drowned whilst swimming Wolf River in Memphis. Speculation persists that he intended to take his own life – vehemently denied by his family – and I guess that the fact that toxicology reports indicated nothing in his system could be read either way. His death was ruled an accident.
It was also, in some respects, an accident that I saw him that night in Bristol. It’s ironic given the dedication and determination he applied to his undoubted gifts: his artistry and musicality was no accident.