It wasn’t unwavering fandom that led me to choose Jeff Buckley for One Week // One Band so much as the opportunity to complicate an artist who is, all too often, oversimplified. Which isn’t to say I’m not a fan, but his work has had years to settle into my musical subconscious. So rather than devote my week to a universally-canonized favorite or a deserving artist on the margins*, I decided to do a little PR cleanup for a relatively popular artist who’s evaluated, for better and worse, in narrower terms than his work merits.
Buckley’s penchant for singing melancholy love songs and his undeniable good looks have led to one substantial stream of Buckley fandom that manifests in fan poetry, lyric-quoting blog posts, and youtube videos in which his music often feels secondary—a soundtrack for soft-focus stills (seriously, search the #Jeff Buckley tag on Tumblr … on second thought, never search the #Jeff Buckley tag on Tumblr). His cultural legacy as lust object and doomed, idealized icon is probably worthy of attention in its own right, but I’m attempting advocacy here, and emphasizing his role as pretty, sad-faced pinup isn’t exactly going to snag the Buckley-averse folks in the room.
Even ignoring his visual appeal, though, it’s Buckley’s most superficial qualities as a musician—a well-used four-octave range, the easily-internalized romantic yearning of his most popular songs, the straight-faced melodrama for which he’s best known—that both provide an easy-in for young fans and fodder for his detractors to claim that his music is shallow or manipulative.
I’m going to offer up some alternate ways of approaching his music that might make him more nuanced to the rabid fan, more compelling to the casual fan, and more appealing (at least less off-putting) to the naysayer. I aim to bring out the oppositions within his work, the sneaky, little-discussed aspects of his career that defy easy categorization, and the ambiguous parts of his oeuvre that force us to derive our own meanings.
If this smacks of some kind of postmodernist reading to you, you’ve got me; but let’s call this “postmodernism-lite.” Since I’m playing DJ and PR guy here, I’ll keep the lit crit nerd stuff as on-topic as possible and keep the tunes coming. But one of the most appealing things about Buckley’s oeuvre is its multiplicity, and, if postmodern approaches are good for one thing (and I know at least a few folks who would argue that they’re not), it’s fleshing out multiplicities.
- Today, I’ll tackle beginnings. I’ll spend a little time on Buckley’s biographical data, but I’m more interested in the power of first impressions.
- Tomorrow, I’m going to take on Buckley’s place in the intersection of Romantic notions of originality and the tradition of folk music.
- Wednesday, I’ll look at Buckley’s status as self-proclaimed “Mystery White Boy” and his relationship to gender and race.
- Thursday, I’ll attempt to explore the emotional tone of his music in terms of sentimentality, sincerity, pretentiousness, and pastiche.
- Friday, I’ll discuss the open-endedness (or “writerly”-ness) of both his music and his career.
This week, I’m also going to be using my own Tumblr, My Big, Gigantic Drum Kit as a sort of “Jeff Buckley Annotated.” I’ll be putting up original versions of songs he covered, songs by artists with whom he collaborated … basically, stuff that ties in, but would distract from the content here. (I swear this isn’t a scheme to get new followers; I’m just overly fond of charting musical genealogies and don’t want to burden anyone who doesn’t want to be overwhelmed with related posts.)
* For the record, the others I seriously considered were Elvis Costello, Big Star, Shudder to Think, and Bruce Springsteen, and all but the last figure into the Buckley story. I’ll echo Brian Wall’s and Mark Richardson’s comments that someone really needs to tackle Springsteen on OW // OB.
Jeff Buckley - “Mojo Pin” (Live in Italy, date unknown)
You know how some artists seem destined for big venues? You read comments like this in reports of U2’s early days and Pearl Jam’s initial club dates; I felt it when I saw the Arcade Fire play a modestly-sized Milwaukee dance club in 2004.
Oddly enough, the first time I heard Jeff Buckley was in a 23,000-capacity outdoor amphitheater, and he sounded perfectly at home.
Kicking off a four-band, Soundgarden-headlined bill at Milwaukee’s Marcus Amphitheater on July 2, 1994 (Italian approximation above), Buckley had just begun the circling arpeggios and the wordless cooing of “Mojo Pin” when I found my seat. His debut album Grace wouldn’t be released until the end of August, his spot on this bill presumably the result of his new friendship with Chris Cornell. Having only secondhand knowledge of Buckley at the time (a recommendation from Bob Mould in SPIN here, an “artists to watch out for” write-up there), I had him incorrectly pegged as an acoustic solo singer-songwriter type and questioned the thinking that placed him as a lead-in for Tad (whose set would ultimately turn out to be so loud that it blew the sound on one side of the amphitheater for the rest of the night).
Buckley and his band played loose with the tempo, drummer Matt Johnson subtly pushing towards a dynamic shift in the first two verses, and the music occasionally landing on dramatic holds where Buckley’s tenor could peek through. They simmered where most bands would have boiled.
Structurally speaking, “Mojo Pin” is pretty goddamn weird. It is not, perhaps, “good songwriting” to connect a flowing, jazzy groove to a climactic vocal release with an ascending burst of jagged, strummed triplets. But this is where Buckley’s early musical loves shine through – this is a Led Zeppelin move. You do what’s necessary to get to the showy payoff. And that payoff – a descending wail that filled the amphitheater and probably made Cornell feel a bit inadequate backstage – was showy, indeed.
Not coincidentally, this is where I, a 20-year-old musician and fan who’d never quite lost my taste for getting the proverbial Led out after teen years spent listening to The Pixies, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Replacements, etc., officially got on board with Buckley. I loved Soundgarden at the time, but their similarities to Zeppelin never ran as deeply as the reviewers loved to claim (and, if you believe Chris Cornell’s interviews of the time, he and his bandmates weren’t big Zep fans, anyway). In fact, no artist had captured the qualities of Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham that I loved best – the go-for-broke drama, the hybridity and shameless musical colonialism (problematic from a cultural standpoint, maybe; but from an aural standpoint, not in my book), the embrace of technical excellence and musical messiness in equal parts, and a singer who could just fucking belt about absolute horseshit*, and it didn’t even matter.
This is the Buckley that first captured my imagination – a successor to the Led Zeppelin legacy; a guy who understood that they weren’t a hard rock relic to be mined only for their most ham-handed riffs and bluesy appropriations, but a group of musicians who had the audacity and talent to force their influences into a new kind of music, both heavy and light.
“Mojo Pin” is probably the first Buckley song that a lot of people heard during his initial burst of popularity. Not only is it the first song on Grace, but it’s the first song on the original, four-song version of the solo EP, Live at Sin-é, released in December, 1993. But it was this live performance, blasted out to a half-empty outdoor theater and thrust upon an unsuspecting audience of Soundgarden fans, that perked up my ears. It took a surprising set closer that day to clinch it for me, though.
* Like Plant, Buckley even goes in for faux-blues lyricism in “Mojo Pin”: “If only you’d come back to me … / If you’d lay by my side… / I wouldn’t need no mojo pin / to keep me satisfied.” He’d later claim it was about a number of things, but it’s pretty clear that literal meaning wasn’t exactly his goal on this particular song.
Jeff Buckley - “Kangaroo” (Live from the Bataclan) following “Vancouver” @4:20
As if their setlist was designed in a lab to prove irresistible to burgeoning cred-sensitive music nerds like 20-year-old me, Jeff Buckley and his band closed with Big Star’s “Kangaroo.” (As the quite-dedicated Buckley bootleg trading community has never unearthed a recording of the show I’m writing about here, I’ve linked to a spirited 1995 performance of the same song from the Bataclan in Paris).
Big Star had experienced an early 90s boost in popularity thanks to some Rykodisc reissues (my first exposure to them), but they were still a fairly well-kept secret among music geeks in 1994. Furthermore, the ethereal “Kangaroo” was one of the least intuitive cover choices possible for a vocal powerhouse who’d spent the last half-hour or so channeling Led Zeppelin (although, upon reflection, something like “Back of a Car” would have been far weirder … ).
Aside from adding an extended coda, Buckley doesn’t do much to the song’s structure. The spare, atmospheric feeling is true to Alex Chilton’s original recording, but where Chilton’s performance threatens to collapse, Buckley’s threatens to launch.
“Kangaroo” cemented the set as a novel synthesis* of the unabashedly big and ornate classic rock that first drew me to music fandom and the “serious,” “difficult” underground stuff that I was supposed to (and did, for the most part) love.
As I’d find out later, there was a logical progression that may have led to Buckley learning that particular Big Star song. This Mortal Coil covered “Kangaroo” on their 1984 album, It’ll End in Tears, which features another song from Big Star Third/Sister Lovers, “Holocaust.” What’s notable here is that these two Big Star covers sandwich a cover of Jeff’s father Tim’s “Song of the Siren.”** Conveniently, Tim is the subject of my next entry.
* A novel synthesis of these impulses, mind you, but not the only possible synthesis of them. For instance, the Replacements and Pearl Jam both hit the hard rock/cult influence sweet spot, but in completely different ways.
** Additionally, the “Song of the Siren” cover is sung by the Cocteu Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, with whom Jeff would later … I’m getting way ahead of myself here.
Jeff Buckley - “I Never Asked to be Your Mountain” (Greetings from Tim Buckley concert, 1991)
In a sense, some fans’ first impressions of Jeff Buckley predated his career entirely.
Jeff met his father, 60s and 70s folk-jazz experimentalist Tim Buckley, only twice before Tim’s death in 1975 and vehemently denied him as a major musical influence to virtually any interviewer dumb enough to not read the last interview in which it was brought up. Regardless, it’s hard to deny some similarities (perhaps genetic, which Jeff would admit on occasion) in voice, affinity for elaborate compositions, and musical restlessness.
If distance from Tim was his goal, Jeff arguably made a crucial mistake early on: performing at Hal Willner’s 1991 concert tribute “Greetings from Tim Buckley.”
Held in St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn, the show was heavy on seasoned punk and avant-garde musicians’ musicians, like Robert Quine, Syd Straw, and former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, with whom Buckley would later collaborate (and co-write “Mojo Pin” and “Grace”). In this crowd, Jeff was an unknown quantity, a 24-year-old aspiring frontman, who had, until then, only played guitar and sung backup in little-known bands.
One can only imagine what an audience of Tim Buckley fans would have made of his first song, an intense, Lucas-backed cover of “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain,” a provocative choice. As Jeff explained it:
It was about him having to take the gypsy life over a regular one. I’m mentioned in the song, as is his girlfriend at the time - my mom. It’s a beautiful song. I both admired it and hated it, so that’s what I sang. There are all of these expectations that come with this “‘60s offspring” bullshit, but I can’t tell you how little he had to do with my music.
Not only is the performance compelling in its own right, but Buckley’s vocal resemblance to his father is put into sharp relief, and the lyrics are thoroughly unsettling coming from the lips of one of its subjects:
The Flying Pisces sails for time
And tells me of my child
Wrapped in bitter tales and heartache
He begs for just a smile
O he never asked to be her mountain
He never asked to fly
And through his eye he comes his love
And tells her not to cry
She says, “Your scoundrel father flies
With a dancer called a queen
And with her stolen cards he plays
And laughs, but never wins
O the child dreams to be his hands
In the counting of the rain
But only barren breasts he feels
For her milk will never drain.
Buckley intended this performance to be a means of paying his last respects, not as an “official” debut of any kind. But the likeness was unmistakable in this context, and the bombardment of comparisons began even before his career really had.
For some fans at the tribute show, this was undoubtedly the debut of a striking new artist. For others in the crowd (and for many Tim Buckley fans who would hear Jeff in the subsequent years), this was likely seen as a continuation. To them, Jeff was an extension of his father.
Jeff Buckley - “The Way Young Lovers Do,” “Kick Out the Jams,” “New Year’s Eve Prayer” (Live at Sin-é)
After the Tim Buckley tribute and a brief tenure with Gary Lucas’ Gods and Monsters, Buckley the younger began his solo career in earnest in 1992, performing at a number of New York venues, but most often in the East Village café, Sin-é. He was granted a regular Monday night slot that saw him experimenting with an impressive array of standards and obscurities, covers and the odd original.
As you can see in the video (the only one I’ve encountered from the era), Sin-é forced Buckley into tight physical and musical spaces. Sometimes leaning back against the wall, he had only his voice and a clean Fender Telecaster (with some tasteful reverb) to depend upon. Yet, these limitations prompted some of his most unpredictable performances and bring to light crucial influences that appear only in the nuances of his studio work.
Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do” becomes a scat-influenced vocal showcase, with his guitar strumming steadily while picking up stray horn hits from the original. The MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” which Buckley would resurrect and frequently play after assembling his band, is practically a goof—a knowing acknowledgment of the limits of rock bombast in the café context. But he sells it on joy alone, and the crowd clearly loves it. As for the poetry reading (unrelated to his later song, “New Years Prayer”), well, Buckley was using his time at Sin-é to develop as an artist. Some growing pains have to be expected.
It was at Sin-é that Buckley established his first substantial following and brought Clive Davis knocking, but given the breadth of content he’d performed and the skeletal arrangements of the songs, it was anyone’s guess what his first album would sound like.
Buckley’s first release for Columbia saw him returning to Sin-é in 1993—after he’d abandoned his Monday night gig—to record a couple of night’s worth of performances that were condensed into the four-song Live at Sin-é EP, which was later expanded into a posthumous, two-disc “Legacy Edition.”
Songs just come out of poems and sometimes poems come out of dreams or reality or something I want to say. Sometimes, I’ll hear … some tune will come down on me first … but mostly, songs come out of poems.
- Jeff Buckley, interview from Live at Sin-é Legacy Edition Bonus DVD
I wanted to go through the same training as best I could. It was like, y’know, the old greats that I had respected and loved. And I just wanted to learn things. So [Live at Sin-é] really wasn’t indicative of what was gonna come.
In an interview promoting his upcoming book, Retromania, Simon Reynolds remarked, “You can’t really map Modernism and Postmodernism onto pop, since it was always both at the same time, or at least had that potential.” To Reynolds’ characterization of pop as a mix of Modernist and Postmodernist impulses, I’d add a big dollop of anachronistic Romantic impulses, particularly in that region of pop designated “rock.”
Specifically, contemporary rock remains infatuated with the idea of inspired genius and utter originality, a notion popularized in the late 18th and early 19th century that would ultimately guide the development of modern copyright laws. Decades of Modernist and, particularly, Postmodernist thinking reveals shortcomings in this thinking—namely, its failure to recognize the inherently collaborative nature of art (both culturally and directly). But many remain attached to the attractive idea of artistic works arriving in the form of visions and epiphanies rather than through influence, collaboration, and hard work.*
In the Buckley quotes I’ve selected above, you can see the battle playing out between Romantic and Modern/Postmodern impulses. In the first, Buckley’s slightly mystified by his own creative process. Where are these strange currents of inspiration coming from? He even attributes his ideas to dreams both in this quote and elsewhere; he precedes the first track on his first EP with the words “This is a song about a dream,” and he’d later write songs called “Dream Brother” and “Nightmares by the Sea.” There are few Romantic clichés sturdier than the dream-as-inspiration (see Coleridge, Mary Shelley, and Berlioz, among many others).
In the second quote, though, Buckley acknowledges the importance of his musical DNA and of achieving synthesis through training and repetition. In this sense, Buckley allies himself to folk traditions rooted in reuse and the free exchange of ideas. It may not seem an intuitive jump from modernism/postmodernism to folk (although you could argue that modernism and postmodernism were just hitting the reset button on a historically anomalous idea), but they have at least one major thing in common: that original authorship business doesn’t fly.**
Today, I’ll explore Buckley’s navigation of his influences, his skillful integration of them into his own work, and why, in those “songs come from poems come from dreams…” lines, he was actually selling himself short as an interpreter and artist.
I should note here that today’s coverage will seem light on Buckley’s immensely important non-white and female influences—I’m saving most of them for tomorrow, which will continue the theme of influence and interpretation, but with an emphasis on gender and race.
* This attachment is nowhere near as apparent in pop, possibly because the overtly collaborative partnerships of songwriters, producers, vocalists, etc. make any illusions about isolated, singular geniuses difficult to maintain.
** No less an authority on the folk tradition than Woody Guthrie responded to the intellectual property rights granted him via years of corporate capitalization on Romantic ideals with this cheeky copyright statement for “This Land is Your Land”: “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”
Jeff Buckley - “Dink’s Song” (Live at Sin-é Legacy Edition)
To be very on-the-nose about this Jeff Buckley-as-folk traditionalist idea, let’s start with his version of an honest-to-goodness American folk standard, “Dink’s Song” (aka “Faretheewell”).
When I used the word “folk” in the last post, I was primarily using it in a general sense—a recognition of cultural continuity and transmission. All music comes from other music, from other art, whether we’re talking about Lady Gaga directly riffing on “Express Yourself” or Brahms copping Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” moves for his first symphony.*
But Buckley wasn’t just a participant in this tradition in a general sense. While you wouldn’t guess it from Grace’s track selection, his early performances at Sin-é and elsewhere have their share of American and English folk standards like “Dink’s Song” and “The Twelfth of Never” (a mid-20th century adaptation of a 15th century lullaby).
“Dink’s Song” is a 1908 John Lomax find, the first recorded performance of the tune by Dink, an African-American woman, who sang it while washing her husband’s clothes (more info here). Superficially, “Dink’s Song” has a fair bit in common with Buckley’s original material of the time—it’s a song about desertion and love gone wrong. A woman mourns the loss of her lover who’s left her during pregnancy.
Strangely, though, and counter to a trend to be explored tomorrow, Buckley changes the gender of the narrator in “Dink’s Song” to add an extra character to the mix. This new male narrator swears that if he ever meets the jerk who abandoned the pregnant woman, he’ll “heave his body like a cannonball.” Still, heartbreak prevails as our new protagonist ultimately ends up as loveless as the woman he seeks to comfort.
Despite the lyrics, there’s a sprightliness to Buckley’s performance of “Dink’s Song” that separates it from, say, “Last Goodbye” or “Lover, You Should Have Come Over”; the characters are iconic and distant, not personal. We’re invited to hear their tale and even take some joy in the telling, but not to identify with it nor to identify Buckley with it.
* Apocryphally, Brahms’ excellent response to this accusation was “Any fool can hear that!” Less apocryphally, Lady Gaga has said that Madonna is cool with “Born This Way.”