Monday, December 1, 2008
Jeff Buckley On Death, Fucking And The Lingering Influence Of Sesame Street
By Darryl Mason
"I'm weird in the head.....sometimes," says Jeff Buckley, his voice quiet and low and soft, as though he has gotten used to this fact. Simply accepted that his mind, his brain, does not function in what most would deem to be 'normal' ways. That's okay with him. He has put his 'weird head' ideas and moods to monumental use on his acclaimed debut album, Grace.
Buckley is convinced, he knows, that it was his "weird in the head" mindworkings that made the words, the music, the freaky energy and sombre, funereal moods of Grace so much more special. Unique. There's nothing else on radio today that sounds anything like Jeff Buckley. He knows that, too.
His songs sound familiar, but not of yesterday, or a week or month ago. Buckley's music isn't locked to a decade or a music trend, it sounds like music that has always been there. His songs became classic FM 'edgy' radio staples virtually the first time they were aired, last year. At least in Australia.
There's a beautiful mystery to Buckley's music, and even he doesn't know where a lot of it comes from.
A dreamy, surreal pulse runs through Grace, and the 'twenty-ideas-funnelled-into-one-song' style of his songwriting also permeates conversation with Buckley.
His thoughts, through his words, show his mind bolts off into a dozen different directions, and Buckley sighs sometimes as he tries to find his way back to his original point, as though the turmoil of his brain despairs him, or annoys him, when it's not helping him create brilliant music.
He talks, quietly, about how he ran away from LA, at seventeen, to find his music in New York City.
The son of folk singer Tim Buckley, Jeff made his first public appearance at a Tim Buckley benefit show in Greenwich Village, stunning most who saw him that night as he played a few of his dad's songs. Jeff's father died when he was eight, two months after he first met him, and only briefly.
It was in NYC that Buckley found his musical core, playing solo in small cafes and clubs as he wrote songs and dreamed of putting together a true band in every sense of the word. He wanted to find a gang who would live and breathe and sleep the music, as he did.
After scoring a major label deal, Buckley had almost a year to work on his songs, to plan the recordings of Grace, to put together his band, to get a live show happening. He’s done all of this now, and is ready to show the world that what he laid down on record is not even close to what he can do live onstage.
The rest of the world, as usual, is slow to catch on. But Jeff Buckley is already huge in Australia. Grace is set to go gold, Buckley's first, during his tour here in the next few weeks. He is surprised that there is such interest, down under, in his music, when his homeland has been slow to embrace him.
I explain, at length, that Australia has a solid record for not only delivering legendary live rock bands to the world (AC/DC, Midnight Oil, for starters), but noticing and getting into, sometimes getting hysterical about, bands and singers that are going to be huge, months and sometimes years before they break elsewhere.
Buckley is intrigued. Like who? he asks.
Well, in the 1970s, ABBA and the Bay City Rollers were massive in Australia before the rest of the...
Buckley laughs, a shriek, at the mention of the Bay City Rollers.
I was trying to explain to him that having Australians go nuts over his music is a good sign, that it perhaps might be the start of the same kind of interest, and record sales, and instantly devoted fans, in other countries as well.
Buckley goes quiet, he's humming something. He says he doesn't mean to be rude, a new tune has come to him, he has to hum it to remember it.
It can be as weird and surreal talking to Jeff Buckley as it is listening to his music.
Questions then. The answers come, spoken, but his voice rises and falls, like he is humming along, sometimes singing along, to music only he can hear, and long pauses, many long pauses, but not uncomfortable ones, not the pauses where you feel like you have to jump in and say something to fill the silence while he composes his next symphony of ideas.
Being at the centre of such success over the past twelve months, does it feel like you're living in a dream world, that is that you dreamed of this happening, and that you might wake up to find it all just a memory?
"It feels terribly real.....so real that there's a certain sensation to reality that I haven't felt before, in a lot of years, since I've been on my own, either because of my youth or the situation I was in......
"I think I've been building up a haze in my mind about what is real. Maybe that's just growing up, I don't know. In the last few years there's a certain sensation that comes with like feeling that you're in reality, and that all these things are real, and you are in this amazement of it all.....you wonder if you're a physical being or a mental being........I've been through that whole thing."
You were thinking about such things as a kid? Where did that influence come from?
"Living with a generation from the 1970s that got into all the metaphysical theories of God and of existence, and that the mind is the thing that matters, and that the body is the slave, or that the body is the main guy, and the mind is like the caboose of the train.......all that stuff.....you become an adult that thinks too much."
You mean along the theory that the mind, the brain, memory, imagination, all that is the soul, and the body is just the vehicle that gets it places, to absorb new info and experiences?
"I'll tell you what I found.....I can't get away from the idea that one is a direct reflection of the other, (the mind and body) aren't separated, they live together in eternal marriage, as so few things do......so few entities do.
"The thing that really shook my world and got my mind thinking about what is true, was issues of truth. Like living in this life as a public person now, which I never, ever, ever, ever used to be. "And it happens to many people, you're listening to them on the radio right now. I'm living in this place......this microcosm of the music world, and there's this really cool thing called here say, and I love it, it's my favourite (sarcastic tone). It's an amazing alternative universe. Just the way people base their decisions and their beliefs on the things they hear about other people, but not things that they actually find out for themselves."
That's a common human condition, it's faith that what you hear is the truth, thereby saving the person the hassle of finding out the truth for themselves....
"But then it's like you've lived you're life by proxy, constantly, and that creates a real problem in your life and in your body. You feel like you're surrounded by absolute non-trustworthy people, and life, and that can really kill you. And it did. It killed me. It got me, and it squeezed my brain till I couldn't think anymore......"
What changed that for you? Why did you stop trusting so faithfully?
"A few things happened to me that made me ask myself the question 'what is true? What is real around you? Who is real around you? Who are the ones that you love and trust?'
"Once I started to gather that knowledge it all came into focus. And it had never happened to me before, cause I always trusted everyone, always. I never put myself in the position to watch out for myself. If you live regular life you can pretty much coast, but in this one.......it's basically my music, and if that's not intact at the end of the day and able to grow, then I'm fucked. I have no purpose, all dressed up with no place to go, you just have the clothes.....and you're really fucked."
You don't want to be a caricature of yourself onstage? Do you fear being the fool?
"You can look like a fool and still live life....you must do it, you must be the fool, but to be the fool in vain, forever, is something I really can't take. Being the fool, playing the fool, but left with nothing to show for it, no amusement, no glorious hindsight with the rose coloured glasses, no scars, no nothing. Just a fuckin' fool. Like a fool god. I can't have that.........so I had to wake up."
But also in order to protect yourself, don't you have to allow yourself to be cynical, a little paranoid, suspicious about the people who flock themselves around you now?
"I've always been cynical. There's cynicism and then there's just blatant and unbridled hope, but neither of them are awareness. I take awareness over those two extremes. I fall into one or the other, but if I can balance then I can go forward with both of them instead of being.......ruminating in a stinky basement of cynicism, with your select group of music, and only that music and nothing else is allowed to come in, create a change.
"Or you can have that unbridled hope, which usually doesn't like to face reality.....(he speaks now in a high pitched, childlike voice, a true innocent) 'Oh everything's wonderful, sure. Knife in the heart? Oh sure, can I have two please? Great. Yeah, take my riches, okay, see you later, yeah sure, bye, everything's fine' (laughs)."
Is it simply finding a comfortable balance? Where you can draw from both cynicism and unbridled hope?
".....both of them.....it's slow death if you're in just one or the other. That's the same for all issues of balance, really. So you have to be awake....everything's a fight, everything.......it's good....even fighting to come.....fighting against disturbed neighbours or physical fatigue to have an orgasm with the one you want, that's a fight.....I need the fight, just like the needle needs to be on the groove, or else there's no music.
"That's not to stay I've got the answer.....I know that I need to know what I want."
Is it like you have all these other people, these many other sides to yourself, is that what it's like?
"People have many people inside them, many selves I feel, and I feel that they shift from one to the other sometimes in times or stress or total importance. I'm not talking about psychopaths, I'm talking about normal people.
"You notice the difference in your girlfriend if she becomes the mother, and she slips into the mother telling the child what they can or can't do - drawing boundaries around the child. It's a normal thing.
"And every side of you has a language and a feel and rhythm and a melody and a colour, and it's hard to get to it, you just have to be open and unafraid. The more uptight and conservative that I am, the more conservative the music I'm making will be."
Is that a totally different self of you up onstage, from the one who walks through a garden, thinking about the world?
"Oh yeah, (onstage) that's me with the floodgates open. A different me....I don't fear that person......that's more me, empty......like a faucet with water gushing through it. But I know who that person is.
"People are different when music is in them, they change physically. A child feels different when it is singing. The energy in the room is different, you stop and listen, or you laugh, whatever. "When any artist is channeling through other people, they transform into this......I don't know, some people might call it the divine.....it has a special nature that is yours, even though you don't see it very often."
Do you drift away onstage? Do you hear this person singing and playing, but feel detached?
"I don't loose myself onstage, I loose my concerns for yesterday, or what's gonna happen tomorrow. People having been forced, or getting into situations, where they compelled to act in the present, totally changes a human being. And makes them......you're an instrument of the present when you are fighting in a war, or saying your vows for a Christian marriage....or making love.....your arse is on the line somehow, or your heart is on the line and it's life or death.....or it's brilliance or a needless dull pall over your heart, something you really need to be yourself in. Like death......facing death....."
Have you got your head around that yet?
"These two friends of mine were robbed. These thieves broke in and tied them up and pointed guns in their faces.......my friends were talking about the numbness that came with the acceptance that they were going to die......and the calmness, almost a ridiculous calm."
He think about this for a while, a sigh, a silence of maybe 20 seconds.
"Like missing a bus, 'oh well, I'll just wait for another one'."
He laughs to himself. He seems appalled and fascinated by what happened to his friends. To face death, to know you are going to die.
"It must be the fear that hits you and it stops the mind from panicking, you just freeze and think 'okay, here I am'. I think that's the sensation that hits the rabbit before the truck plummets into it, they freeze.....I've frozen many times.....there's no life without death......it's very simple...."
What was it about music that first grabbed you? That sparked an interest to make music of your own instead of just listening to it?
"As a child it was just the pure.....spectacle of rock. It just looked cool and sounded so cool, but for me cool had a certain musicality attached to it, and a certain abandon, which is the reason why I grew up liking Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. I knew what was going on, so do most kids.
"At the beginning it was the things on the radio, all that mellow post Dylan rock, including Dylan actually.....he could weave these deep dark magic spells, he had a quality even to a small child that he carried in his heyday.
"But as I got to be aware of what people were doing, Eagles, Barbara Streisand, Judy Garland, Led Zeppelin, the classic rock ditties, American Woman, and Crosby Stills And Nash. Tonnes of Joni Mitchell, tonnes of Stevie Wonder, when I was a kid, and Sesame Street."
It's amazing how many people forget that Sesame Street is where children first hear a whole lot of different music, over and over, and learn lyrics, even if it is 'C is for Cookie and Cookie starts with C'.
"I remember.....lots of stuff from Sesame Street.....James Taylor was on there singing one of Oscar The Grouch's songs.....and there's this Stevie Wonder song from that show.....it was one of the baddest, funkiest things I'd ever heard….”
Buckley then breaks into a wonderfully accurate Stevie Wonder voice, singing the alphabet. He is delighted with his impersonation.
You used to play around with home recordings as a kid, stringing together different records of your mum's with stuff that you liked, slowing records down, speeding them up?
"Yeah, that was just playing around, trying different things.....I used to scare the shit out of myself playing Beatles albums backwards.....I'd heard those stupid things like when you played it backwards you could hear Satan......I wanted to hear Satan, so I'd play the albums backwards.
"So then I started playing Funny Girl backwards, and I was totally terrified. Playing anything backwards will terrify you as a kid......"
Did you get obsessed with one album or one artist as a kid? That thing where you get addicted to playing the same album over and over and over? Where it's almost like you are inside the album?
"Yeah, anybody who I thought was brilliant I totally pounced on and they became my every waking thought.....their worlds were so appealing I couldn't help but get sucked in......Nina Simone's world, the Sex Pistols world, Dylan's world.....I think my father was pretty good....."
When did you first listen back to the records he'd made?
".....I was having nightmares when I was eighteen.....so I decided to listen to his records.......he had that too, in songs like Blue Afternoon, that thing where the song becomes its own world, and I could go and visit those places.....
"But his songs never really became a favourite.....it's just not my kind of music......"
POSTSCRIPT : On May 29, 1997, Jeff Buckley died, aged 30. He was in Memphis, getting ready to record the follow-up to his debut album Grace. He took a swim in a tributary of the Mississippi River. He was fully clothed, wearing boots and singing Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love' before he disappeared under the wake of a passing boat. His body was found four days later.
An autopsy and police investigations revealed no drugs were in his system at the time of his death. Friends and family do not believe he committed suicide. Perhaps he just decided at that moment that taking a swim was the right idea. An irresistible impulse.
Buckley had told a friend, a few months earlier, that he believed bipolar disorder might have been responsible for his intense, musically fruitful and very emotional mood swings.