The Hallelujah Trail: A talk with Jeff Buckley

Jeff Buckley had the blackest eyes of anyone I’ve ever met. That sounds like the usual mythic-romantic death-cult garbage people write about dead rockstars, but also happens to be true. It was the first thing that struck me about him.

This was the afternoon of February 28, 1995. Buckley had just arrived in the perpetually rain-swept Glasgow from Brussels, in the midst of the gruelling world tour to promote his recently-released debut album, Grace. He was not then, of course, the legend he has become since drowning in Wolf River in Memphis in May 1997, the sainted artist now claimed as having influenced everyone from Radiohead to Jamie Cullum. But everyone thought Buckley might just turn out to be something special. Grace was good, extraordinary in places – what most excited people about Buckley back then, though, was the sense of what he might do next. Already, in his restless live performances, mixing up the MC5 and Benjamin Britten, he was far outstripping what he had achieved on that album.

For the moment, however, he was just a tired, pale young guy with an inky spider’s nest of hair, staring out the window at the rain. For the previous two months, Buckley and his band had crawled the world, playing almost every night, New York to Tokyo to Frankfurt to Paris and all points between. Their tour bus smelled like it. First thing he told me was he hadn’t slept in a proper bed for ten nights. Five more days in the UK, he said, and he was set for a six-week break. He sounded like a prisoner up for parole.

He was to play The Garage in Glasgow that night. I was on the bus to interview him for a tiny local magazine. He seemed wary. For a few minutes, in fact, he was in danger of coming across as a condescending prick, but then seemed to relax. In retrospect, he was perhaps waiting for the inevitable question, and glad, maybe, that it didn’t come. He was 28 years old, the age his father was when he died of a heroin overdose, but I had resolved not to ask him about Tim Buckley, partly because he had hardly known the man – he met him once, as a child – and partly because comparing him to his father was what everyone seemed to do. And still do.

We talked around an hour, and he became enthused and candid, even about his own dissatisfaction with Grace. In any event, I ended up using only a few quotes from our conversation, and, in the way of things, lost the rest. Years later, though, I found an old notebook filled with scraps of what we had said. In the margins of the first page I’d scribbled: “Buckley has these real intense, soul-black eyes.”

JEFF BUCKLEY: First time I came to Glasgow it was snowing. Flakes this big. I totally bombed at the Glasgow School of Art. January 1994. University of Couldn’t Be Bothered.

DL: I guess you’re looking forward to your 6-week break.
JB: Yesssss. Yes. Thank you for mentioning it again. The pleasure is spreading around my body like junk. I’m so happy.

You had a fairly nomadic childhood. Do you think it was the lack of attachment, or steady relationships with others, that led to you adopting music, as almost a companion?
JB: Yes. Exactly. Because it was the only constant – like constant down to the very first molecule. Anything from, like, Aerosmith to the soundtrack to Close Encounters. Anything that I liked was mine, and I could appreciate the world through it. Music taught me a lot about every other art form; a lot about sculpture, a lot about poetry, a lot about prose, a lot about novels, a lot about drama, playwrighting, film-making, uhm… stuntwork, juggling, need I go on? Not as a surrogate, but just as a pathway.

I suppose the irony is you got into music because of that unsettled childhood, but now music is forcing you to continue a wandering existence.
JB: Yes. Except I’ve got my roots down in New York now. I know I’ll have to lead this life probably until I drop, but when I’m home, as long as I’m home, I’ve got more of a concentrated effort to have a home: a certain place, a certain time with certain people, a certain neighbourhood – which is something I’ve never really had before for more than maybe two or three years at a time. I will grow old and die there. If I grow old at all.

How long have you felt settled in New York now?
JB: This happened maybe four years ago – pretty recently. I never had been there before. But when you’re a kid in America, New York sort of permeates every bit of the media. Cartoons, sitcoms, variety shows, news reports, documentaries, feature movies, uh…

JB: Stuntwork, painting – everybody seems to have made it either in Paris, England or New York, you know? Or Tangiers. And, y’know, Bugs Bunny had a Brooklyn accent and everything took place in New York, so it started for me very young. Saturday Night Live, The Steve Allen Show and blah, blah, blah. I just, for some reason, had a completely, full blown, romantic/ anti-romantic vision of what New York was, and I just decided to sell everything I had and move. So I did, and now I live there.

So, having carried that vision around with you, was the city everything you had hoped?
JB: It was everything I expected. Because I expected Bugs Bunny’s New York, and I expected Jack Kerouac’s New York, and I expected William Burroughs’s New York and Martin Scorsese’s New York and Gene Kelly’s. And it’s all there. Boom. Unfortunately. It’s a majestic cesspool. I love that place. I mean, I really love that place. I’ve never loved a city as much. Ever. But through that city, I’m able to love other cities. My advice to anyone is: stay lower and stay east. Stay in my neighbourhood.

I guess I should ask you about music. In terms of your influences, you seem attracted to almost elemental types, people like Dylan, Patti Smith, Van Morrison, who can seem dramatic, almost magical, and yet can still feel real, rooted in the street.
JB: Yeah, the river beneath the river. Because that’s my sense of the world. It’s just the way I see the world, I mean, you’ve got it. It’s sort of self-evident. I dunno how to describe it. Even with all the banal stuff that I write, the dumb little rhymes, I see that as true.

Was Patti Smith a crucial influence?
JB: I remember seeing her, on TV, on The Mike Douglas Show. It was when Horses was released. I think she did “Gloria.” And she had these skinny feet, no shoes, and on The Mike Douglas Show, I mean, that was like being on…I dunno: pick any waffly talk show host on daytime TV. She was insane. Fucking insane. This, like, royal guttersnipe, siren girl-woman, and she rocked. She freaked Mike Douglas out. He was like this really horrible Andy Williams/ Perry Como type that got his own show, competing with Dinah Shore. And Patti’s like, I dunno, either drunk or totally junked out, it seemed like the latter, and she was just, like, curling up next to him and cackling “HA-HA-HA,” and he’s like, “Uh-we’ll-be-right-back-after-this.” And right there, I was like, Hmmm… there’s one kind of life on the one side and then there’s…her. I want that. That’s what I want. I was probably, maybe, eight or nine.

Do you think there’s a lack of that kind of wildness now?
JB: Well, not a lack, in the world, because it’s always there. There’s places I could show you, actually, there’s tons of people like that, tons of ’em – but not really going into music. And if they are, well, y’know, the wild people going into music, they don’t really do music well. The thing about Patti was that she had a real universe of what beauty was to her. She’s a great fucking writer, an amazing gatherer of nectar. You know what I’m saying: some people write from their experiences and it’s like…y’know, like The Cult, just the worst, hackneyed rock rhymes. But other people go through the same things: sex-living-death-loss-travel-glamour-junk-dirt-stink, and it’s like some horrible rhapsody we can’t turn away from, like seeing someone’s arm get ripped off. Like that, that truthful and amazing. She’s really a great writer. There’s both things going on, a great mind at work. Just like Iggy.

Yeah, I think Iggy’s writing is really underrated. Just as prose or whatever.
JB: Y’know who he reminds me of? James Brown, because the thing about James Brown is that your basic literary types would not look at all well on James Brown. But the thing is that what he said was so elemental, he’s like the sloganeer of soul, y’know, things that are repeated over and over and over again. Iggy Pop is a lot like that. All that stuff, “The Dum Dum Boys”, “Shake Appeal”, “Death Trip” – really simple, but it rocked. It’s very hard to be simple. Very hard, which is a lot of the problem about writing: because people have very big thoughts. Pop music, either it’s totally simplistic or, on the other side, very heavy and you can probably just catch the rhythm sometimes, but the words don’t quite fit into the rhythm so it either hangs over like toes on an open-toed high-heeled shoe, or it just doesn’t work at all. And the other thing with these people is, they’re very much into melody, and that’s another thing that’s very difficult if you’re not serious. I find it’s very hard to think of melody to fit the lyric. But these people are artists.

I wanted to ask you about your reading of “Hallelujah.” I would guess that that’s based more on John Cale‘s version than Leonard Cohen‘s original?
JB: Yeah. But I heard the one on [Cohen’s album] Various Positions first, but then I was stuck in a room with that I’m Your Fan CD [a Cohen tribute album] and I listened to [Cale’s version], and it was, again, very simple. Then I heard that Cale version one time again in Tower Records, and I was just struck. There and then, I thought, “This is wonderful.”

But am I right in thinking you don’t really rate your version, compared with Cale’s?
JB: Well, he’s a man. Mine’s is too fast. I know the difference between myself in a totally empty situation – which is best, where anything can happen – and in a situation where something’s expected. And, I don’t know, I don’t feel very good about that day recording, and the time I chose that song to be included on the record, it was between that version and another version that I really despised. All in all, there must be 22 versions floating out there. It’s just never the right time. It seems that the only right time is when I’m telling it to people. And I guarantee, I have mashed that version into the ground nightly on tour, just creamed it. And there’s also a version on the master reel for “So Real,” that I was so wiped out and exhausted after that day – we’d recorded “So Real” and I recorded one last “Hallelujah,” and that was my best one – and I just forgot about that “So Real” because I was so tired. So it’s just hanging around out there. C’est la vie. Part of making records is letting stuff go.

When did you develop the confidence you have in your own voice as an instrument – I mean, as opposed to attempting to imitate your idols. Or have you always had that?
JB: Well, I’ve always had my own mark, but there was a period of time when I consciously took on my idols as teachers. One, to get inside the skin of the songs that they did that I loved, and also just to learn about what they did. Not only to make it my own, but to have it call up something from me. Just like any learning at all. It was only after that that I felt the most comfortable with me, and that was maybe, as a final stage, about four years ago.

Were you always aware of your range?
JB: Oh yeah, just from playing around in the shower, imitating ambulances going by. It’s really the language in which I speak – that’s anyone’s power, not their range. Because, y’know, I’ve heard plenty of people with really amazing ranges that just say nothing to me, because…It depends on your life, depends on how much it affects you, it depends on how much it kills you to be alive, or how much it changes you to die every day – all that stuff. Your prowess doesn’t mean shit, doesn’t mean anything. It’s only through your attention to your love of life that gives honour to your prowess. Otherwise, you’re just unbalanced. If I had seven octaves and nothing to say, it wouldn’t be worth anything. And there may be a day when I’ll lose a few of my octaves, know what I’m saying? Or I might gain a few, down below.

Do you find it easier to talk about other people’s music than your own? Do you resent this thing of trying to explain what it is you do?
JB: No. I just see it as futile, it’s just a little bit useless, it’s a bit of a game. Besides actually experiencing it, which I prefer, actually tasting the experience for yourself and deciding for yourself, either consciously or unconsciously, what it is you think music is and what it gives to you. Other than that, we have language, which is very static and full of little meaning, innuendo, puns and stuff. But in a large way, that’s what I work with. I work with these very structural things, and being a poet or a writer is like being an alchemist, you take things like a cup and a sandwich and you make…a carrot out of them. Or make a war out of them. But sometimes, it’s like talking about some voodoo, something that shouldn’t be given to the tourists.

That seemed like a good place to stop. Buckley had to soundcheck next, and he hoped to grab some sleep before the show. Later that night, the rain still coming down outside, I nodded briefly to him before he stepped onstage at The Garage. He would have forgotten the interview by then. That night, for a finale encore, he chose to dispense with the band to launch into an unaccompanied “Hallelujah.” It lasted around 10, 12, maybe15 minutes, as far as I remember it. He seemed to get lost in it. And, I guarantee, it mashed the version on Grace into the ground.