There’s probably a well-worn adage about journalists not reading their old printed work. Why wallow in ancient bad syntax? It’s advice that certainly applies for music journalists considering a leaf through their back pages. Turn away, old-timer. Put the bound volume back. Here be monsters. For nothing can prick the self-satisfied glow of a comfy pub story quite like the truth in gruesome black and white, there to remind the author of a time when they considered themselves an authoritative writer just because they’d had a few things printed in the NME.
That’s the misapprehension I was under as I disembarked a flight in Atlanta, Georgia, on 5 August, 1994, in town to interview Jeff Buckley on the eve of the release of his first full album, Grace. I’d seen him play a couple of small gigs earlier in the year in London, sitting on the floor at his feet, open-mouthed as he sang like a tousle-haired grunge angel, and I had been excited about the chance to write about him. But as I prepared in my hotel for the interview with Buckley the next day, I burned with a sense of idiotic injustice.
On the flight over, his PR had sheepishly told me that his US managers had faxed a list of questions that they’d rather journalists didn’t ask Jeff Buckley. Top of the list was any question about his father Tim, the celebrated singer who died of a drug overdose in 1975, aged 28. I never discovered what the other items on the banned list were because I was so insulted by item number one that we never got around to it. Instead, I ranted long and hard about this outrageous request.
The PR quietly agreed, of course. I could obviously ask what I want, she said, she was just telling me so that I would be gentle. Tim had abandoned Jeff and his mother when he was a baby and Jeff was very sensitive to that, so perhaps I should be too. I didn’t listen, though. I was too indignant. I would crack this nut. I was the NME. And so I sat down with a very softly spoken Jeff Buckley in the basement of The Point before his gig on 6 August, determined to ask my toughest question first. It was an interviewing tactic that a seasoned lag at the paper had given me a few weeks earlier – most likely as a prank – and it backfired.
Buckley was such a mellow companion, however, that as we settled into our seats I almost forgot about my mission. He had gentle eyes and an endearing intensity, he loved James Brown and the recent Cocteau Twins album, he said. Me too! I liked him. He pulled a couple of cold beers from a nearby ice bucket, we clinked bottles, I pressed record... and then I asked him about his dad’s influence on him. Buckley slumped. He stared down at the floor for a moment and then looked up with “really?!” in his eyes.
Eventually he spoke. “I knew him for nine days,” he said. “I met him for the first time when I was eight years old over Easter and he died two months later. He left my mother when I was six months old.” As he spoke, I shrank. By the time he’d finished I was looking out for bugs on the floor lest they accidentally crush me. “So I never really knew him at all,” he continued. “We were born with the same parts but when I sing, it’s me. This is my own time.”
Jeff Buckley then had a few words about my kind, about critics. He looked me directly in the eye as he spoke. “They think they can nail your whole life down just by knowing the bare bones of your history, in partaking in 10 minutes of conversation.” He snorted dismissively. “If you’re going to write, then write a novel with a Haitian woman in it and try and describe her accurately. When you can do that, you can write about people.”
The atmosphere was a little frosty after that, but we managed to reboot the interview somehow, touching upon his itinerant childhood before resting more comfortably at his music making. “The words come from here,” he said, touching his heart. “From memories, from dreams, from people I’ve known. I want to suck it all in.”
That night he played one of the longest gigs I’d ever been to, certainly by someone yet to release a debut album. He started his set in front of a packed bar room. Two hours later, as he launched into his second 15-minute version of Big Star’s Kangaroo – in a different octave – the bar was more than half empty. I left the venue sure that I had the basis for an affectionate two-page interview.
Not everyone read it as such. As soon as it appeared, Buckley’s PR called me aghast. She couldn’t believe I’d started the piece with the phone call between her and the management making interview requests. The management team weren’t happy either, and neither was Jeff Buckley apparently. He was very upset, she said. I pleaded my case. After all, in my defence, I was an idiot. I couldn’t help that. I thought the piece was good, too, but reading it back now I know it was on the rubbishy side.
A few weeks later I found myself waiting for the lift at the Ramada hotel in Reading. It had been a hard day’s night celebrating the end of that year’s festival and as dawn called I was heading back to my room from another. As the lift doors opened I was presented with Jeff Buckley and a young friend. They were both glowing with their own in-room celebrations and were on a similar journey to bed.
“Hi, Jeff,” I said, offering my hand, which he silently shook without a smile. We travelled facing forwards for a few seconds in heavy silence. The doors opened at my floor. I turned to him and said, “Sorry if I offended you.” Nothing. But as I exited the lift I thought I heard “that’s OK” quietly behind me. I turned and he cracked a thin smile as the doors closed. I never saw him again. Ted Kessler @TedKessler1
This article originally appeared in Q336