Tag Archives: Jeff Buckley

America/Idea

I fell in love with an idea of America.

Desert roads, haze on the horizon, white lines on grey tarmac disappearing to the vanishing point in the impossible distance.

Art Deco towers in chrome and steel, visions of the future from the 30s.

Open skies above endless plains.

Wrought iron fire escape stairs unwinding down concrete buildings.

John Ford vistas in Monument Valley. Woody and Diane on a bench in Central Park, Springsteen ripping up the Jersey shore, Marvin and Tammi radiating love and colour through black and white TV sets, and Bob and Jeff in the Village, decades apart, holding coffee shops with just a guitar and poetry. Joni in Laurel Canyon.

Sane crazy dreamers on Haight Asbury, daisy chain strings in their hair, tuning in, turning on, dropping out. Pushing furthur on the bus with Kesey and the Pranksters. Chasing the ghost of Gram Parsons in the scrub of Joshua Tree.

Pedal steels and heartbreak.

Adidas trainers, laces pulled out, tapping on caged courts cracked under the sun.

Shore to shore, coast to coast, highways criss crossing State lines and states of mind.

I fell in love. And my idea of America remains.

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Disunion (him)

I wasn’t sure if you were pissed off because I didn’t want to come with you to Prague or pissed off that I didn’t want to look at throws in Ikea. Or it could have been the sheets again: you hated it when the smell of my Saturday night seeped its way into your Sunday morning. Lately, after a big night, I’d been crashing at Mike and Sally’s. You said you didn’t mind; I don’t remember when you stopped coming out with us. We tried to mix it up a bit, early on. Did things you were into. Ronnie Scott’s and piano bars and films on the South Bank, earnest discussions about the transient nature of things after we saw “Remains of The Day” with groups of men in roll neck sweaters and goatees and women styled exclusively in black: black hair, black nails, black clothes. (I was dying for the BFI to put on “Spinal Tap” just to see if the usual crowd showed up. I would have had a field day). Mono no aware. I got it. I just didn’t want to watch an entire festival of Japanese anime or another Ishiguro adaptation to reflect on it further. There’s only so much cherry blossom I need in my life. I wanted to stop standing around talking about how melancholy we all were, all are, and to get out there and live a little.

I’m guessing it was Prague. There was some piece you’d read in the Guardian on one of those long Sunday mornings with the supplements that listed the ten best jazz clubs in Europe. You’d seemed quite excited about it, started telling me about this place called Reduta, and how we should go. I think I made a vague noise to signal that I was listening which must’ve been lost in translation as next thing I know you’re checking flights on Skyscanner. The row didn’t start until you were asking me for my passport number. I tried to explain my whole thing with airports again – the apprehension, the stress, the people – but I’m not sure you believed me. I guess it does sound a bit weak, a bit like someone just making some shit up to avoid your European city break. It was true though. I couldn’t really handle airports. I’m an okay flier, it’s not that. It’s the anticipation of it. There’s just something funny that happens in my head when I have to queue up with hundreds of people to check that none of us are going to blow each other up. You said it was bullshit and went with some old friend instead.

I like London. I don’t really need anywhere else and I couldn’t understand your need to explore. To be honest it was even narrower than that. I liked specific bits of London. Three or four dirty clubs, usually down some half hidden set of stairs off a street in Soho and usually the sort of place you didn’t worry too much about why your feet stuck to the floor. A couple of pubs. Proud Mary’s for coffee and an unfussy breakfast. And The Gate serviced all of my re-run cinema needs. That was pretty much it and it was enough for me. I could live a little in my little corner of London. But it wasn’t enough for you. At first we at least shared The Gate together and you’d tagged along on my semi regular afternoon excursions, laughing as I puffed a hurried joint as we walked into Notting Hill. It was cheaper to go the The Gate and chemically enhance the experience than mess about with a Multiplex. You always declined when I offered you the roll up although we used to share a smoke sometimes curled up in bed late at night listening to Jeff Buckley. I think that was as close as we got musically. Enough blue notes for you and enough distortion for me. That was when we seemed happiest though, watching tendrils of smoke curl to the ceiling before you’d nudge your head into my neck and ask if I wanted to dance. That was your code for sex. You always thought it sounded more romantic and I guess it did. We’d dance whilst Jeff crooned “Hallelujah” and, on a good night, “Lover You Should’ve Come Over” as our soundtrack in the background, our rising sighs eventually eclipsing his.

I had this idea of us when we started out. The idea us would catch a tube up to Queensway, walk through Hyde Park, dodge the tourists visiting Diana’s memorial. We’d pull our coat collars up against the cold, you’d slip your hand into mine inside my pocket and drag me down to the gallery at the Serpentine. You’d try not to laugh as I gave my considered judgements on whatever exhibition was running. I’d try to pretend I wasn’t impressed, moved even, by your reflections on the art. You understood that stuff but you wore it lightly; it was all bluff with me. Then we’d walk past the lake, if it was really cold there’d be fog rising where the water touched the bank and we’d head down towards it. I liked to imagine us as two translucent figures disappearing from view, suspended in the magical mist. Mono no aware. I guess I’m not immune after all. As the afternoon faded we’d mooch over towards Mayfair, waltz into one of the big hotels like we belonged and settle in for the early evening; drinking cocktails we couldn’t really afford. Like we were just about to pass “go” and the two hundred pounds was coming. Then we’d find a quiet restaurant up on the outskirts of Soho, talk into the night, before heading home on the tube. We’d put on Jeff, share a smoke, and then dance ourselves to sleep. That was the idea of us and, for the longest time, that was the reality of us.

You used to say that love was like the bit in the middle of one of those circle pictures we used to do in maths. What do you call them ? Venn diagrams. The middle was the bit where we overlap. We don’t spend so much time in each other’s circle anymore.

 

And every breath we drew was hallelujah…

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.