It is hard to keep Jeff Buckley on one subject for very long. He doesn't dodge questions, but being on the road for the past five months--performing, doing interviews, dealing with record company business--has kept him from his primary love of songwriting.
Buckley is dead serious, reflective, and careful when discussing his music, but he's trying to keep a thousand things straight in a cluttered mind he hasn't had time to empty. So he's given to wandering off in mid-conversation, telling one very long story about how Sony's Japanese executives gave him shiatsu massage to cure a hand he jammed when his tour bus came to a sudden stop.
"They all converged on me like all these dogs cleaning this one dog," he says. "And they fuckin' healed my right hand."
Such attention from record company executives is not at all foreign to the 26-year-old. Two years ago, Buckley was an unknown performer every music-business type in the world badly wanted to take home and mount over the fireplace. Buckley's solo performances at the Sin- or the Fez in Manhattan drew dozens of major label reps, each hoping that Buckley--a kid who sings like Robert Plant and adores Edith Piaf, and whose father was once an idol to thousands of depressives--would sign with them.
Buckley held them off for a long time, and in 1992 eventually went with Sony-Columbia because of an A&R man who shared his passion for music and would allow Buckley absolute freedom.
The result of that freedom is Grace, which is either one of the most overwrought debut records ever released or one of the most ambitious. It's a folk-rock-jazz album filtered through Physical Graffiti and Songs of Leonard Cohen, sung by a young man who often sounds like an old woman. Buckley plays guitar, harmonium, organ, dulcimer, and tablas on a record that's further fleshed out by vibes and lush, out-of-nowhere string arrangements.
The search for a record label that could understand such a dense, complex album proved a bizarre odyssey. Music executives tried to pigeonhole Buckley as: a brooding young folkie; a sensitive jazzbo singer-songwriter; a soul artist; the indecipherable Michael Stipe-type; or an arena-rocker who merged Robert Plant and Bono.
It wasn't easy for a young man still finding his own voice to have so many men in suits trying to define it for him. At the very least it made him suspicious; at most, it nearly scared him off.
Jeff's suspicions were not unwarranted. As son of '60s icon Tim Buckley, who committed suicide while in his late 20s after unsuccessful bouts with fame and depression, he didn't want to be known simply as the son of a man he did not know. (Jeff's mother and Tim were married only briefly in the late '60s, and there are, in fact, no references to Tim in Jeff's record-company bio. He is also said to be quite unhappy with a recent Rolling Stone feature that focused almost entirely on the similarities.)
"It's precisely because of knowing about the laughable disasters of the music business that I was determined to find something that worked," Buckley says of his decision to sign with Sony. "All music industry places are the same, really. They have the same dynamics and the same concerns and the same needs. But the chemistry is rare, and that's usually what I go on. I'm totally emotional when I make my decisions like that, because I have no idea how it will work out. I'm very paranoid.
"I am very observant of people's character. [Choosing a record company] is like getting a sixth member of your band. This is really close to my blood, and I couldn't sabotage myself with other people. It'd be like using your friend's arm to stuff a knife in your throat."
Grace is the most difficult sort of record to describe. Buckley doesn't so much sing songs as transform them, drawing out a single syllable till it becomes a long, breathy note, floating beside wandering guitar licks that twist and turn in on themselves.
Sometimes, such as on the exception-to-the-rule rocker "Eternal Life," he sounds very much like a conventional singer with exceptional range. But more often than not, on a song like "Corpus Christi Carol," he sounds nearly angelic, his voice so ethereal and frail and feminine.
And the songs are so nonlinear they almost never touch the same point twice. Buckley seems to have dispensed entirely with the verse-chorus-verse concept. Yet this isn't jazz noodling or improvisation for its own sake; rather, Buckley is following a song instead of trying to lead it.
"I do like structure, and I'd love to be better at it," Buckley says. "It's not that I do away with it, but there's just so many other structures. A song just doesn't have verse-chorus-verse. It could just be one line. There are Chinese love songs that you have to learn one melody for a three-minute thing and nothing ever repeats. I like that.
"But 'So Real' has an insistence, and 'Eternal Life' is probably the most conventional form. There's a sort of collective consciousness that has heard these forms over and over again, and they've heard them done well. They've heard 'Johnny B. Goode' and everything from Son House to the Cramps, and we all know this. People remember forms and everything, and I don't need to do them again. I'd rather just do something I've never heard before."
If anything, Grace comes off as an experiment in sound and language, as though Buckley were trying to find that place where they join and become inseparable.
The lyrics of a song like "So Real" ("We walked around till the moon got full like a plate, and the wind blew an invocation and I fell asleep at the gate") mean nothing (and are perhaps a bit laughable) when seen out of context. But when heard through Buckley's impossibly high voice, when heard over this dramatic and sparse music that seethes and shifts and abruptly erupts for just a second, they seem like the wisest words ever written.
Buckley is not a poet in the strictest definition of the word, no more than Bob Dylan was a poet. They are, however, extraordinary musicians, songpoets who create words to be accompanied by music that accentuates the lyrics, that heightens the impact of an image ("Broken down and hungry for your love with no way to feed it") or underscores the emotion contained within a simple word like "love." Grace is a haunting record in that respect--dark and tortured, difficult to listen to all the way through without coming away feeling there's no hope left in the world.
"Music is that world that I feel makes sense because it does transcend trend, the troubles of convention, the errors of convention," Buckley says. "It also aligns with the things that always will be, which is good and fortifying. Everything I am is reflected in music. But the problem is that it does transcend and does bring you into these fuckin' areas that are so ugly and black and chaotic and cancerous that you don't want to look at them. But you have to anyway--either through you or through other people."
Near the end of the interview, Buckley recounts a story from his childhood, using it to explain his music. When he was a kid living in California, he knew an elderly couple: he was a bitter wheelchair-bound World War II veteran; she was a mean-tempered woman given to erratic bouts of screaming. Every day, Buckley would go to their house, wheel the man outside, help him out of his chair, and let the "crabby old soldier" hold on to Buckley's shoulder as they walked around his yard. It was during the World Series, Buckley recalls, and they'd often talk about the Pittsburgh Pirates' chances against the Oakland A's. For his trouble, Buckley would get two dollars a day.
"I was trying to describe this to someone about feelings that have no names, sensations people feel all the time," Buckley says. "I said to him, 'Do you know that feeling that you feel when you know somebody who's going to die or who's terribly sick and you feel like your thighs are tingling, like, that death tingle and that uncomfortable feeling you'd get in your stomach?' The things we're talking about simply have no language to speak of...
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"But I like literal stuff, too. I wanna freak you. I love those fuckin' R&B guys, those really literal, 'Girl, take your clothes off but leave your shoes on, I'm gonna freak you all night, wax your body down with love oils'--totally tacky and clumsy and material sex about satins and furs and 'I'm gonna do anything for ya,' and it's all a lie.
"It's good, though. I'm makin' up a song like that called 'Chocolate.' I love sex songs, but I don't like most sex songs. There's a song coming out of me called 'Chocolate.' It's just about how good"--Buckley pauses just for a split second--"pussies feel. And everything. I...love...it.
"I do love it--the way people make a moment out of nothing together, and they must show themselves, and they are naked and have a special language sometimes. Lots of things are being formed in my mind like rocks, like planets, and I'm fighting for every spare moment. So I'm constantly daydreaming about them and talking about them just so they'll be in my mind. Otherwise, I'll be buried in phone interviews and gigs and healing my hand and bad food."
Jeff Buckley and his band perform November 30 at the 21st Amendment.