Published on June 30th, 2014 | by Martin Aston1
Jeff Buckley’s first ever interview, 1992
In 1992, after seeing Jeff Buckley playing at New York’s tiny Sin-é Cafe, I was fortunate enough to do his first ever interview, which appeared in the Dutch magazine OOR. A year later, I was able to interview him again, twice actually, for introductory pieces in Q and then MOJO. In 2002, four years after Buckley’s tragic death, my original interview appeared in MOJO magazine. Here is the full transcript from that interview.
Autumn in New York, 1992. A tiny East Village café, the Sin-é is packed, but there’s a seat near the very front. under the singer’s nose. His eyes are clenched tight. He’s nervous, edgy, a bit of a firework. You’re so nervous, over-awed even, embarrassed to be this close, that your notepad remains unopned. Memory must suffice. Good thing it’s a truly memorable show, and over two hours even from the time you arrive. At one point, the singer’s impersonating Elvis; another time, he whips off his shirt, puts it back on, laughing. It’s a jittery, comical performance, but thrilling, mesmeric, like a tightrope walker. But more importantly, when he’s singing himself, the voice is pure, stretching high-low, curling around a song, trying to take it to heaven or save it from hell. A cover of Presley’s Twelfth Of Never is profoundly moving – could you have felt that about the song before? He closes on a song that could very well be a lullaby, and your eyes close along with his.
Three days later, in another tiny café, via the mutual friend who knows that Tim Buckley is your all-tjme singer, and who told you, ‘you gotta hear his son, then, wow’, you meet Jeff Buckley. Owner of that melting, golden, swoonsome voice, that in late 1991, was utterly unique. As was his show; soloists were just never that in-your-face, engaging, raw, thrilling. He’s dressed down, though, grunge-style – plaid shirt, jeans, pretty indistinct really, which draws you to the face – short, unkempt hair, looming eyes, rich lips, but wary expression. He says that it’s his first interview, and he’s nervous, but in a different way to his stage persona. He’s defensive-nervous; the first thing he says, almost before pleasantries are exchanged, is whether I’m here purely because of Tim. No, but then again, yes. He accepts the situation, content at least that I’m aware of some of his history. That there’s no point writing about Jeff simply because I love Tim, any more than I can avoid Tim because of Jeff. In the end, only Dutch magazine OOR takes a chance on an interview with a total unknown, based, of course, on the famuilial connection to Tim. The interview is never published in the UK. By the time everyone catches up with Jeff, the interview is out of date. But now, given his death and enshrined appeal, it’s timeless.
When did music first make an impact on you?
As a child. There was my mother’s breasts and then there was music. It felt like anyother person in the house that floated with me everywhere. All my life, I’ve sung along to the radio, stuff like I Love You More Today Than Yesterday. My mum would drive me to school, playing mellow Californian radio, stuff like Chicago, Crosby Stills & Nash, Blood Sweat & Tears, Sly & The Family Stone, James Brown, The Temptations, everyday! She married a car mechanic, who couldn’t carry a tune, but he had amazing taste, and he turned me on to Booker T, Led Zeppelin and Joni Mitchell, Hoyt Axton and Willie Nelson. My mum pretty much sung to me – she’s a classically trained pianist and cellist. So it was mainly me and my mum, because my parents split before I was born. I hung around my grandmother too – she’d play me stuff like The Chambers Brothers.
There’s also a Bad Brains cover.
I Against I, yeah, I dig them.
It’s rare to hear someone equally smitten with traditional blues as well as modern blues forms. I’m thinking of your cover of Fare Thee Well
That’s Dink’s Song. It was originally written by a washerwoman. That’s where the best music came from, from old European-American criminals bringing Africans to America. My favourites are Robert Johnson and Bukka White, The Staple Singers, Billie Holliday. I cover Strange Fruit too. The thing I figured is, I wouldn’t be able to meet these people, so I learn from them by hearing them sing. Some of the coolest music is Johnny Cash, which isn’t a black or white thing. I love Mariachi music, Ray Charles, Edith Piaf, The Sex Pistols, Muddy Waters….
Cover versions seem an integral part of what you’re doing
I just saw gifts dangling from them and wanted to take it. I guess I what I want to do is be an archetypal entertainer, an archetypal bard, a minstrel. I guess I have a romantic vision. Even though punk happened to me, and Robert Johnson, I want to be a really good storyteller, and those songs have great stories.
What do you love about Twelfth Of Never?
I cover the Nina Simone version. It’s just the way she does it. I can’t get into Elvis’s version, it doesn’t capture my imagination, though he had a beautiful voice. Every time I hear Can’t Help Falling In Love, I cry. I can’t separate Charles Manson from The Beatles or the Clam Bake movie from Elvis, though. But I love all music. I’m the Cocteau Twins’ biggest fan too. They allow their deepest eccentricities to be the music itself, and not just something they want to project. Liz Fraser is one of the only originals. They’re just regular people too. I got to meet her once, she was very shy, which puts a weird curve on music as well. Imagine that sound coming out of her mouth when she’s in the kitchen scrambling eggs. I lose my mind when I’m washing the dishes.
Was music your first true love?
Besides sex? One surrounds the other. I can remember being obsessed with my stepfather’s stereo, getting into trouble for using it. He was really possessive of control over it, like a car. It was really expensive equipment, so I was really careful, then one day, I wanted to list to a live bootleg of Jimi Hendrix, and he went mad. I had a tape player in my room, which I shared it with another kid in the family. You had to stick a hanger in it in order for it to work
How do you feel when you open your mouth and sing?
Like it’s real. I feel like crying..I feel like I am crying! It’s the middle point between laughing and immense joy and crying. I feel the best when I’m singing.
When did you start?
In front of an audience at a family get-together. My stepfather got drunk, and fell asleep, in front of everyone, and my grandmother got really embarrassed, so to direct attention away from him, I sung every Elton John song I knew. I was a huge fan then. They gave me some silver dollars for doing it. I was 13 (laughs). My friend and I started play electric guitars, you know, Stairway To Heaven, for a talent show at junior high school. We lost… We were living in Southern California then. I later had a band in Northern California, in Willetts, called Axxis. It wasn’t my idea. It’s one of the nineteen cities I’ve lived it, I attended four high schools. One I spent two weeks in. My mum was quite a gypsy.
What did you make of your own voice?
I hated it, but I got over it. I’m horribly self-critical. I think that the first time I heard it, I thought no way that I could ever keep anything from anyone, it was all there in the voice. Some ways that people sing, they put it across in language, and it’s almost impossible, because they have a wall between them and the expression. I’m trying to get deeper in the hole, trying to learn things when I heard voices.
Did the concept of singing on stage come easily to you?
It was totally natural, I just did it. It was like going to the beach, like, I’m going into the ocean, the water! I never thought about it. I first sang at a dance in Northern California Methodist Church, to high school kids. When I was thirteen, I already knew what I wanted to do. My all time favourite was Led Zeppelin, and I knew that I wanted to belong to that. In the seventies, there was an overspill of rock life, which becomes coffee table material, with books on Kiss and rock stars on TV. I knew it was possible for some people to do it for a living. I spent hours listening to Magical Mystery Tour. I felt like an archeologist, which is fine, because I liked dinosaurs! But that was the wrong direction…
Give me some more Jeff Buckley archeology.
I left home when I was seventeen, because I was tired of moving around. I played in lots of LA bands, just to make money. There was a reggae band for a while, The AKB Band, a rag-tag motley crew, with one rasta guy. I played guitar. We ended up backing up U-Roy, Shinehead and Judy Moyatt, and at the Bob Marley day at Long Beach. We did cheesy session work for demos too.
What did the experience teach you?
The simplicity. I guess it didn’t teach me much at the time. It’s like your parents telling you what not to do. But Pablo, the rasta, everything he said about playing makes sense now. Forget the next band. I then decided not to spread myself that thin. I didn’t like Southern California, LA especially. Hollywood isn’t a real town, but that’s the reality of it. I’d wanted to see New York since I saw it on TV when I was twelve, to experience the energy, so I took off in 1990. I got a couple of jobs, and went hungry for a long while, before I got an offer to record songs in LA, so I flew back, and recorded four songs. I went back and forth a bit, before I met Gary Lucas at a show in New York, at a tribute show to my father. I thought playing with Gary would be interesting but it turned out to be a disaster. We had two completely different paths…the cart was before the horse. But I learnt to go out and sing, in impossibly intimate settings, when guys are right up against you. You learn how to move a room. The biggest challenge is to put a song across live. The audience shouldn’t see your face, or your body, they should just hear you. People really like it.
Do you enjoy the New York scene?
I dig it. If I was in LA, I wouldn’t be doing anything, but here, there’s a real respect. There’s a lot of other emotions too, but there’s a respect for anything original. Maybe I’m overpoweringly romanticising New York, but so many amazing things happen here on an ordinary level, like Lou Reed lives here, wow! I first heard him in ’76 but he got into my soul, it just takes one time, like Helen Keller.. it’s just the sound of the song. I couldn’t get enough of that song, and it led to everything else. I was in somebody else’s car, feeling lonely. Heroin is so beautiful, like a big black kiss, the way it builds…He sounds like a punk who knows absolutely everything. He’s got such erudition, but he’s not too smart.
You’ve already had extraordinary notices. Have any comments freaked
One girl said it reminded here of the reason why she loved music. Another had a horrible week and day and came in and she was rejuvenated. Sometimes we all cry, sometimes we all laugh.
What stage do you see yourself at right now?
Always at the beginning. I’d love to make a record. Probably the night you came down to see me, record company people were coming down, and wanting to do something. Clive Davis at Arista wanted to sign me but he hadn’t heard me, it was just on the basis of what his right hand man, the head of A&R, had said. but he has to hear me himself. I plan to start from what matters. In September, I’ll perform all new material, a lot of covers, and I wanna find people to play with. Yeah, a band, just because of the certain feeling I need. An energy.
Can I raise the delicate matter of your dad, Tim?
Sometimes, with people who knew him, they’ve come see me for a nice night out, but they see me, they don’t think about him. They don’t really know him. Those who do, I don’t hang around them. We’re different. The people who knew him, they have apparently a very magic memory, but it’s been a claustrophobic thing all my life, I knew him for a total for nine days. He never wrote, never called.
Do people claim that you’re just your father’s son?
If anyone mentions that, I walk. If I go to a club, and some writer uses that area, then I rip the shit down and say ‘Fuck you, see you later, we can talk about this next time, because I’m on my own’.
Do you listen to his records?
Yeah, mostly to learn about him as a person. It’s there for anybody to take from, pretty much. He wrote a couple of songs are about me and mother, which is sometimes tough, sometimes not. His style had nothing to do with what I do. It’s funny that we were born with the same parts, but when I sing, it’s me. Technically, I can do what he did, but our expression is not the same, it’s a completely different sphere. His was a different time, influenced by Dylan and the folkies. I don’t even talk like him. But I can do a good impersonation of him, knitting up my eyebrows, which makes people laugh.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
As far as music goes, so many people who I know and love, who give me so much, they don’t even know me yet. I want to make something completely new. I was into Miles Davis in 1984, he said he could tell when people were paying tribute to him but it was just copying. The only way to pay tribute is to bring something completely new to the fold. If they could, the whole place would be overflowing with blooms of sound. I want to work so hard that everything of me burns away, like the chemical in the match. Which leaves what really is me, or what I think is me. It can be such a joy. Like The Beatles, they were geniuses, you know? Music’s like a sign language between people, so when a guy from Iran or America hear The Beatles, they go ‘wow!’ They don’t think of killing each other. There’s something about music that hits the cavemen in us, even more than a speech or painting. I just want to achieve my own vibe. I want to go someplace else. There’s more, so much more. More ways of saying ‘I love you’, more ways of saying ‘where the hell do I fit in?’, more ways of saying ‘why doesn’t anyone love me?, why doesn’t somebody just love me, when is somebody going to want to kiss me, I’m sick of waiting, waiting to be understood. And it’s nothing arty, nothing lofty, it’s just fucking different, and I want to leave this world behind a little so that maybe I will see that it’s bigger and I haven’t left it at all. I’m just trying to do my thing.