When I met Jeff Buckley
My relationship with Jeff Buckley started when all the women I worked with at Columbia Records were going ga ga because handsome Jeff was in the building. What was all this fuss? Just because a guy was good looking? I wanted to know if he had any talent, cause good looks (on a man or woman) is not a good enough reason to listen to someone's music.
So my first chance to hear him came when he decided to record his debut EP at Sin-e', a very small club in the East Village of New York City. I came to the club pretty determined not to like him, and left a fan for life. He was awe-inspiring. I described it as Ella Fitzgerald meets Jimmy Page, and I actually (if not accidentally) went up to him after the show and hugged him. I'd never met him, and didn't really mean to, but it was a very moving gig, and he was kind of drained, and we just did that manly 'right on B' kinda hug.
So I was kinda psyched the next time I saw him at a rehearsal studio in Alphabet City. I went up and said hello, reminded him I worked at Columbia, and suddenly got the coldest of cold shoulders that I've ever gotten (maybe only surpassed by Rosie Perez as she turned her head to look as far away from me as possible when I smiled at her). The frozen-ness of the moment spilled over to my bandmates who I will love forever for asking me if they should go kick his ass.
Luckily my next encounter was with the music. I started working for Steve Berkowitz, Buckley's A&R man, right about the time Jeff started the Grace recording sessions at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY. Every week producer Andy Wallace would send down mixes of what had been recorded, and it was obvious that this was going to be an amazing debut album. The sessions started with Jeffy recording all by himself. He did about 30 takes of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", and all 30 or so were pretty different (the album version is a composite of the best parts of 3 takes). He also recorded 3 or 4 versions of "Corpus Christi Carol", and several other cover songs that would not make the album –"Calling You", "Sweet Thing", "Night Flight" and "Alligator Wine." Jeff's ability to get inside the music, and express the emotion of the songs really shone threw on these solo songs, so I couldn't wait to hear what was to come.
Next, the band went up and the full recordings came in. And they were great. A masterpiece was being created right under my nose. Best of all, it was the skeletons of songs – the final touches had yet to be added. Berkowitz became excited about one song called "Forget Her." It was the hit song. Every album needs a hit song, and this was it. A pretty basic song - verse, chorus, verse – standard blues rock ballad structure, and a broken-hearted love song to boot. All the elements of a hit song. Berko just wanted to add a screaming guitar solo to the middle section, and all would be complete.
"Mojo Pin" and "Grace" (both lynchpins from his previous band Gods & Monsters) came next, and then two different versions of "Last Goodbye", a cover of Nina Simone's "Lilac Wine", "Lover, You Should've Come Over", and the horrible "Eternal Life" all came through on tape. ("Eternal Life" would continue to evolve, but the version on this album has almost nothing to do with the nature and meaning of the song. The original version on the Live At Sin-e' EP has the sadness & passion, and the live band version has the anger – but this song stands as the lone mis-step on Grace).
So now the album was just about ready to be mixed and mastered and introduced to the public at large. But young Buckley felt the album wasn't quite ready – hadn't quite been cooked enough. In fact, he decided "Forget Her" needed to come off the album. He thought it sucked and he hated it. But Columbia smelled a hit song, and wasn't about to let it get away from them. Battles ensued, Buckley allegedly cried his heart out, and Berkowitz decided to err on the side of an artist making a creative statement rather than on the side of commerce, and the song came off. Young Buckley wasn't going to leave the label starved for a key track though, and asked if he could go in and record 2 more songs. Thus came the beautiful "So Real" (with its terrific buzzsaw acoustic guitar solo), and the phenomenal "Dream Brother" (with it's foreboding vision of death in the line "asleep in the sand, with the ocean washing over").
Andy Wallace's final mixes of the songs took away some of the intimacy of the recordings. He's a hit song mixer, and these weren't necessarily hit songs. The general range of sound is crowded right into the middle of the mix so that's it's ready to be played on the radio. Yet it's not an album that was ever really meant for radio. Grace has it's own meaning to lots of different people – girls in the throes of a relationship breakup, guys who found their sensitive sides in Jeff's music, and all the people who still like to be moved by soulful, thoughtful, heartfelt music.
There's something about Grace that really seems to touch people. The regret of a soured relationship in "Last Goodbye" is as easy to relate to as the longing for an ex-lover expressed in "Lover, You Should've Come Over." It's so easy to relate to because the singing is so skillful and transcendent - you feel as Jeff feels. Buckley had the voice of an angel, and there probably has never been and will never be a male singer as talented.
Grace is one of those rare debut masterpieces. It's sickeningly sad to think about what would have come and what he was capable of doing. The posthumously released Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, shows a glimpse, but it never got the chance to cook enough – it simmers, but doesn't melt on the tongue like Grace.
Jeff Buckley's death is one of the great tragedies of rock'n'roll. Luckily, we'll always be graced by the short time he was with us on planet Earth.