"You've been listening to Robert Johnson, haven't you?"
Jeff Buckley flashed a smile at his new friend, Michael Tighe. He liked what he had just heard. They were sitting on Tighe's bed; the guitarist had never been in a serious band before, but he was playing Buckley some music for a song he was working on. Buckley, meanwhile, had just signed a recording deal with Columbia Records.
Fast forward to late 1993 and Buckley, his friend Chris Dowd from the band Fishbone and Tighe were in the Sony Studios in New York's Hell's Kitchen, trying to finish some likely B-sides. The main sessions for Buckley's debut album, Grace, were done. Tighe's song now had a title – "So Real" – but it didn't have much in the way of lyrics.
"I'm going for a walk around the block," Buckley said, tucking his ever-present notebook under his arm and heading off into the night.
It was very late, around 2am; it seemed as though the session was over. Tighe and Dowd shrugged and hit the local 7/11. But when they returned, Buckley was in the vocal booth, way deep in song – the song Tighe had first played for him in his bedroom. Clearly, something had happened during his nocturnal stroll. Buckley lost himself in the soaring outro that became a highlight of "So Real", and as he brought the song to its powerful, overwhelming climax, Dowd and Tighe looked at each other, lost for words.
"That's in," said Buckley, as he and Tighe shared a cab home. "That is in. It's on the album."
Grace was finally complete.
Buckley's debut was both a beginning and an end for the singer. It was the beginning of his "proper" recording career for prestigious label Columbia Records, who had such high hopes that they envisaged a musical bloodline that connected Buckley with Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. It was also the end of his relatively carefree café days, in which he'd served a musical apprenticeship at the downtown New York café/drop-in centre known as Sin-é. The fun of Sin-é, where Buckley sometimes sang for no-one, or shot the shit with locals while strumming his electric guitar, was over as soon as he signed his Columbia contract in October 1992. This was business. Big major label business. The pressure was on.
Buckley, however, had mixed emotions about signing with Columbia. He understood the star-making power of a major label, something he'd craved since first coming east for the 'Greetings From Tim Buckley' tribute, a musical memorial to his father, staged at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Church on April 26th, 1991. But Buckley also knew how impersonal and destructive major label life could be. He'd heard all about it from his L.A. friend Chris Dowd, as Fishbone had been signed to Sony.
When revered New York guitarist/composer Gary Lucas, who'd worked closely with Buckley at the St. Ann's tribute, tried to introduce him to Sony's David Kahne during an April 1991 visit to the imposing Sony HQ in New York, Buckley refused to shake the exec's hand.
"Why did you do that?" asked an embarrassed Lucas.
Buckley explained he'd been told it was Kahne who'd "ruined" Fishbone's career, despite working closely with the band on their four albums. Clearly, Buckley was conflicted about the business of music.
But eventually he did sign with the label, a three-album deal worth close to a million dollars. Buckley laughed about it nervously, calling the deal "big fucking Michael Jackson money". The goateed, obsessive Steve Berkowitz, who worked in A&R, became Buckley's main "go-to guy" at the label. Berkowitz had seen him perform at Sin-é before signing him, while sipping coffee with Hal Willner, who'd brought Buckley over from the west coast for the St. Ann's show.
As Berkowitz looked on, Buckley walked out from behind the espresso machine, picked up his guitar and began to play. In a New York minute, Berkowitz grabbed Willner's arm. "Hal," he asked, "am I hearing what I'm hearing?"
Berkowitz coined the perfect term to describe Buckley's vocal gymnastics, the moment when he opened his mouth and journeyed into the unknown: "The Flying Buckleys".
Soon enough, the shabby, downbeat Sin-é was swimming in record execs, all in search of Buckley's signature. Some would vent their frustration, demanding to know why they couldn't book a table. Why did they have to queue with the regulars, straight off the street? The venue's laconic owner, Shane Doyle, would laugh and reply, "Because we don't have a phone. And we don't take bookings."
It was a smart move on Columbia's part to introduce Buckley with an EP named Live at Sin-é, which was released with little fanfare in November 1993. The four-tracker was a snapshot of a time and place – Buckley learning his craft, early 1990s, downtown New York.
But it also posed a problem for Columbia: What type of artist, exactly, was Buckley? While he played the occasional original at Sin-é, and the EP included early takes on "Mojo Pin" and "Eternal Life", his lengthy sets were littered with covers, everyone from Bob Dylan to Van Morrison, Screamin' Jay Hawkins to "Calling You", the yearning theme song from the recent hit movie Bagdad Café. Buckley sang Edith Piaf classics; he transformed himself into Judy Garland. He imitated the Sin-é coffee machine and chatted casually with the regulars while he tuned. There seemed no clear creative plan: was he a singer-songwriter? Or, as he preferred to describe himself, a male "chanteuse"? Grace would, hopefully, answer all these questions.
In the studio in Miami, remastering "Eternal Life" for a Japanese release.
Jeff Buckley may have never had a record deal before, but he was no musical novice. He'd learned his craft during the 1980s at the Musicians Institute in L.A., where he specialised in guitar and fusion and advanced musical snobbery – he could play the complicated jazz-rock of Weather Report note for tricky note. As for his family life, it was disorganised at best; he considered himself "rootless trailer trash" and bounced between various addresses in and around the "Orange Curtain" in Orange County, California, with his mother Mary and half-brother Corey. It wasn't long before he hit the road, playing bass in a Commitments touring band and also appearing in the backing band for a reggae toaster named Shinehead. He hung about New York for some time, a period of discovery that he documented in his diary.
"Escaped to NYC in '90 for about seven months, got into hardcore and Robert Johnson," he wrote. Buckley also discovered Pakistani Qawwali great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who he proclaimed "my Elvis". His stunning imitation of Ali Khan could silence the noisiest room — he would sometimes do this at Sin-é.
"I got into a few projects at once to make money," Buckley said of his early musical days, "because I shied away from filling in job applications because you had to fill in details of your high school, your elementary school – there were so many, it was too embarrassing. And to be worth my salt as a musician I had to play all the time, so I did... [But] some of the bands were fun."
Buckley's sense of self-mockery was also pretty well developed by this time. He laughed about his unibrow – a Buckley family curse – and referred to himself as the "Monkey Boy King".
When Buckley got a message from Hal Willner about the 'Greetings' tribute, he'd been playing guitar in a Hollywood metal outfit called Group Therapy, fronted by a vibrator-wielding wild child named Kathryn Grimm. Buckley had also started to write; the first draft of "Last Goodbye" was written while he was camped out on Grimm's couch. He cut a demo, too, funded by Herb Cohen, his father's former manager, which Buckley entitled the Babylon Dungeon Sessions. An early version of "Last Goodbye" – then titled "Unforgiven" – was on the tape, along with a prototype of "Eternal Life".
In a letter to a friend from this time, Buckley wrote about his father, Tim, who he only met twice before he died, aged 28, in 1975. "It's obvious that Tim was loved and respected," Buckley noted. "And if he were still around maybe there would be at least one guy who had something real to say... I would have liked to have kissed him and told him that everything was OK; everything he'd done was cool. [But] I'm done looking for him."
Then the call came from Willner and Buckley's life changed forever.
Buckley's band (from left): Matt Johnson, Michael Tighe, Buckley and Mick Grondahl.
Bearsville Studio, located in bucolic upstate New York, didn't appear to be the most likely place for the 26-year-old Buckley to record his debut major label album. Buckley had made New York his home. When not filling Sin-é he'd been taking in theatre and performance art events and turning up at seemingly every downtown gig, soaking up the city's vibrant artistic scene. Buckley had also had his first major relationship in the city, with a woman named Rebecca Moore, who he met at the 'Greetings From Tim Buckley' event.
What Bearsville had going for it was history: the legendary Woodstock festival, "three days of peace and music", had been staged nearby in 1969. Bob Dylan and the Band had got back to the country in Woodstock, creating some true musical magic in the late 1960s. Great records had been made at Bearsville by everyone from Cheap Trick to Alice Cooper, Foreigner and 10CC. But there were other reasons, too, why Sony had booked Bearsville in late September, 1993, something Buckley attested to when a documentary crew visited him as he settled into the countrified surrounds.
"I'm an easily distracted person," he confessed, as he wandered down a rustic Woodstock back road. "So this is great."
This was backed up by producer Andy Wallace in 2002. "Somebody Jeff's age and temperament," he said, choosing his words carefully, "well, there was bound to be significant distractions in the city."
Buckley got along well with Wallace, a man who looked more college professor than rock dog, and a solid choice by Steve Berkowitz as producer for Grace. As Buckley's drummer Matt Johnson notes, "Andy was steps ahead of all of us in his experience and competence." Wallace knew Bearsville, too, having already worked there. Wallace knew the room – rooms, in fact.
Before heading to Bearsville, Buckley knew that he wanted to get beyond the "singing jukebox" solo act he'd become at Sin-é. He needed a band; he craved having some "warm bodies" nearby. The two guys he chose would join him for a month for a bit jamming and pre-production in New York's Context studios, before heading north.
The Danish-born Mick Grondahl had met Buckley a few months earlier in the city, which led to a jam at Buckley's apartment and an invitation to record together. (The recording of that jam, known among Buckley-philes as "The Angel Tape", is a much sought-after bootleg.)
Twenty-two-year-old relocated Texan Matt Johnson had played for singer Dorothy Scott, who helped Jeff get his Sin-é residency, which led to one of Buckley's mysterious late night phone messages, inviting Johnson to Context to jam with him and Grondahl. Within a few hours of the trio plugging in together for the first time – Johnson had not met the other two guys before – the framework of the track "Dream Brother" started to take shape.
Buckley had his guys. He knew, as he told Grondahl, that they "were down for the ride".
Producer Wallace dropped by Context and got to know Columbia's new rising star. As the band blasted away – and they were still very much getting to know each other, musically and personally – Wallace would quietly sit in a corner, taking notes. At one stage he asked Buckley a question. "Is this song meant to be 15 minutes long?"
"Well, it could be, right?" Buckley grinned.
Speaking some 20 years later, Grondahl, who has since relocated to his native Denmark, recalls their time at Context as a time to "live and breathe music for six weeks. We were all discovering new things and new approaches, new ways to attack the songs, and that kept us going."
Matt Johnson, who these days tours with Angus and Julia Stone, now accepts that "in many respects... the record company would likely have preferred a seasoned senior roster of noted session musicians to accomplish the task at hand. But one has to start doing this sort of thing somehow, someway.
"The fact that we had yet to 'fall into' a band dynamic meant that there was a collaborative meeting and melding of minds at play. It was inspiration in action, intoxication with the process... in this sense, the 'green-ness' of the band was turned from possible con to pro."
"I was dying for the chemistry of a band," Buckley explained at the time. "You know, people, bass, drums, dulcimer, tuba, anything – any way that the band would work out."
The musical firm of Buckley, Grondahl and Johnson had yet to play a proper gig together – or work in a professional studio such as Bearsville – yet now they were on the road to Woodstock.
There was big – and then there was Bearsville. There were two studios in the complex along with guest cabins, where Buckley and the band bunked down. Studio A, the main facility, was aircraft-hangar-huge, with a high ceiling. Wallace had arranged a couple of different configurations: an acoustic set-up, which was an attempt to make Buckley feel as though he was back at Sin-é, with everything miked. Then there was a second, more traditional configuration where Buckley and band could cut loose.
Almost immediately, he warmed to the acoustics at Bearsville. He sat down, uttered a few words to get a feel for the space and turned to no-one in particular. "This room is awesome."
When not settling into the studio, the intrepid three wandered the grounds, sizing up the neighbourhood. Deer darted around and stopped to drink at a nearby creek. Buckley was a long way from Sin-é, but that was perfectly cool, at least for the time being. He quickly adapted to the bucolic surrounds.
But exactly what music did he have prepared for the Grace sessions, as the trees around Bearsville started to explode with what Matt Johnson calls "the most intoxicating" colours imaginable? Hard to say. One morning in early October, Buckley woke and got to work, ripping through a take on Focus' prog epic "Hocus Pocus", yodelling like a deranged cowboy. He also tried out the Dylan songs he'd played at Sin-é — "If You See Her, Say Hello" and "Just Like a Woman" – and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "Alligator Wine". Then there was "Calling You" from Bagdad Café, Van Morrison's "Sweet Thing". During his time at Bearsville, Buckley would record close to an album's worth of covers.
During these first sessions, he recorded as many as 30 versions of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (a song, admittedly, that he'd learned from John Cale's rendition). The final version – which in many ways remains Buckley's biggest musical statement – was pieced together from at least three different takes. While he was working his way through the song – which Buckley believed celebrated "the hallelujah of the orgasm", an "ode to life and love" – a camera crew, hired by his label for a making-of doco, appeared at Bearsville, capturing Buckley's every move. After one particularly enthralling take of the song, when it seemed as though some spirit had briefly possessed Buckley, there was complete silence in the room. Everyone: Wallace, the crew, Sony staff, were speechless. Everyone, that is, except for the singer.
"That was OK," he shrugged, and asked for another take.
Work with the band began soon after Buckley had exhausted his collection of covers. Guitarist Gary Lucas, Buckley's early New York mentor and, for a time, bandmate in Gods and Monsters (a loose-knit downtown ensemble that included members of Television and Talking Heads), was invited to Bearsville for three days to work on songs he and Buckley had co-written, "Mojo Pin" and "Grace". It was now about three weeks into the costly sessions – and sparks really started to fly.
But this wasn't an easy assignment for Lucas. In March, 1992, Buckley insisted upon line-up changes in Gods and Monsters – which Lucas had formed in 1989 – not long after joining the group. The day after a well-received Gods and Monsters show at St. Ann's that same month, Buckley called Lucas at home.
"I'm just not comfortable with this any more," Buckley said, referring to the band he'd just reconfigured. "I just want to work on developing my voice more."
"I felt sick," Lucas recalls, "like he had just stabbed me."
Buckley duly bailed on Lucas, the band and a production deal they had in place with start-up label Imago.
So it was with mixed emotions that Lucas re-united with Buckley at Bearsville; the scars hadn't fully healed. Buckley was inside what Wallace had dubbed "The Writer's Cottage", a pencil in hand, agonising over unfinished lyrics. According to Lucas, he "had the look of a guy who was way, way under pressure". That night, after sharing a few spliffs with Lucas and the band, Buckley excused himself and headed back to his cottage. Clearly, there was more work to be done.
The next day at the studio, Buckley began recording the vocals for the album's title track. Lucas may have seen Buckley make magic in New York, but this was something else altogether: again, it was as if he was possessed. After a soul-stirring vocal take, Buckley emerged from the vocal booth with a sheepish grin on his face.
"Did I do good?" he asked.
"He knew it was fucking great," says Lucas.
As for "Mojo Pin", another song that had come to life in Lucas' New York apartment a couple of years back, this represented a key moment in the sessions, according to Mick Grondahl. At this point, at least 19 takes had been recorded of "Last Goodbye"; Grondahl also recalls the track "Grace" as "some undertaking" in the studio. Neither came particularly easily. But "Mojo Pin" brought real clarity. "It was fluid, intense and did not feel like a five-minute song."
That night, Buckley, Johnson and Grondahl drove around Woodstock in a rented red mini-van, the type of vehicle usually favoured by soccer mums, not rock bands. A rough recording of "Mojo Pin" blared on the van's stereo. They listened, enthralled by what they'd created. This became their way of "road testing" songs-in-progress.
"It was a really good gauge of what the song was doing," says Grondahl, "whether it needed anything more."
Matt Johnson says these nocturnal drives also helped unite the band.
"That was a bonding experience," he offers. "There was a shared feeling of joy at the creation that was taking shape."
For Steve Berkowitz, an occasional visitor at Bearsville, "Mojo Pin" was the moment when Grace came into sharp focus, proof Buckley was much more than some "human jukebox", the king of covers. Berkowitz said the track represented a "volcanic eruption of artistry" from Buckley. He looked on, gobsmacked, as "hundreds" of musical ideas emerged from the singer.
Buckley was now clearly in charge.
Yet after five weeks at Bearsville, Buckley and the band had nowhere near enough original material for the finished record, having recorded only "Mojo Pin", "Grace", "Last Goodbye", "Lover, You Should've Come Over" and "Eternal Life". All amazing songs, admittedly, but not enough to fill an album.
There was another Buckley original cut at Bearsville, "Forget Her", which Berkowitz thought would have been a great lead single, but Buckley stubbornly insisted it stay off the finished album, leading to no small amount of friction back at Sony HQ. (It seemed to be a kiss-off to his former girlfriend, Rebecca Moore, perhaps too close to the bone emotionally speaking even for Buckley.)
The singer was always good for an intriguing quote, but wasn't always clear when it came to explaining his songs. He insisted that "Mojo Pin" was "about a dream", though he also told Gary Lucas that the term "mojo pin" was a reference to heroin use.
"All my songs come from poems," Buckley sort of explained. He lugged a notebook with him pretty much wherever he went, scrawling ideas and lyrics in his cramped, left-handed style. "You're shaping sound to fit a feeling," he told a reporter when asked about his lyrics. "Words have to be emotionally accurate, you know."
The turning point for Matt Johnson was the moment Buckley came up with his vocal for "Dream Brother". While recording the instrumental track, Johnson thought it was "a B-side, at best". But when he heard Buckley's vocals, everything changed forever.
"That was an important moment in my life. That was an instant when I could clearly see the transformative power of the human imagination. [It was] totally unexpected, deeply satisfying and delivered with a charismatic conviction that could make the sale."
Buckley explained that "Dream Brother" was about a friend, who'd "led a rather excessive life", even though it seemed to refer to his father. A posthumous Tim Buckley album was actually titled Dream Letter. Buckley never cleared up this mystery.
As for the bounty of covers they'd captured at Bearsville, it was agreed that Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", Benjamin Britten's "Corpus Christi Carol" and James Shelton's "Lilac Wine" were good enough for the finished LP. They represented, in Buckley's words, a gesture to "link this album to my past". Their inclusion was also out of necessity: Buckley simply didn't have enough originals for the album. ("So Real", the co-write with Michael Tighe, who joined the band for the Grace tour, came later, in New York, after the band had completed their work at Bearsville. This was the song that replaced "Forget Her". Buckley cryptically described "So Real" as a track that combined "fuck you" and "I love you".)
Interestingly, Matt Johnson didn't feel that Buckley was experiencing any kind of creative squeeze at Bearsville, despite the shortage of new material. That crisis came later, after Grace.
"So far as I know," he says, looking back, "Jeff wasn't under too much pressure to write at that particular time. He could use existing collaborations with Gary, songs he had previously created, covers and anything that popped up in sessions to complete the album. The songs on Grace were all strong and satisfying in and of themselves."
The work at Bearsville ended in late October 1993. Buckley, Grondahl and Johnson returned to the city, satisfied with what they'd achieved, especially so given their relative lack of experience. Buckley flashed back to the lengthy history of such originals as "Last Goodbye" and "Eternal Life", which had been with him since the Babylon Dungeon demo back in LA, before he got the call to come east in 1991. He referred to them, at least in their original context, as "loser songs". But not anymore.
"I put them on the album to prove to the songs that they weren't losers. Sort of like finding kids that have been told all their lives that they're pieces of shit and finally you have to go around proving to them that, no, they are worth knowing and loving."
Grace kept some interesting company upon its release in late August, 1994, among them Oasis' emphatic Definitely Maybe, Without a Sound from slacker rockers Dinosaur Jr and Boyz II Men's II. Grace, of course, sounded nothing like any of them, or, for that matter, like anything released in the first half of the 1990s.
Critics loved it, especially outside of America: on the year of its release, NME, Mojo, Select and Q all listed Grace among their top albums of the year, as did French magazine Les Inrockuptibles. France soon became, alongside Australia, Buckley's biggest audience. He was likened by critics to Nick Drake, Van Morrison – even his late father Tim, the man he knew only through his music. Peers Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell and Thom Yorke fell under Buckley's spell, as did more seasoned players such as Jimmy Page – who once tried to entice Buckley to open for Page and Plant, without success – Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney.
Despite all this, as Buckley and his band hit the road for the never-ending tour that would eventually bring them to Australia for the first of two visits in late August 1995, he could have had no idea what lay ahead: an album that people would still speak about in awe some 20 years later, and a life that was tragically cut short in the Mississippi in 1997.
"I can't overemphasise the quality of Jeff's gift," reflects Matt Johnson. "I had always been sensitive to music, but that sensitivity was never party to the type of effects that I perceived with Jeff. Jeff's death, sadly, took from us what was likely his greatest gift: his ability to deeply engage a listener and transform their listening experience.
"It's easy to forget that [Grace] was not made in the mindspace of 'destiny'," he continues. "It was cobbled together by whatever people could find and avail themselves of at the time. And thanks be for that," adds Johnson, "otherwise I'd have fucked it up royally."
Buckley was once asked what he hoped to achieve with the album. He thought the question through carefully before responding.
"Just to make things I never heard before, that say things that I can't say otherwise. Not so much go as far as I can, but to go as deep as I can."
Jeff Apter is the author of 'A Pure Drop: The Life of Jeff Buckley' and is the Creative Associate for A State of Grace: The Music of Tim and Jeff Buckley.
Top photo: Buckley in Atlanta 1994.
Topics: Jeff Buckley