Very few young musicians have arrived on the New York scene with the impact of Jeff Buckley. His first major New York appearance was at an April 1991 Tribute to Tim Buckley concert at St. Ann's (a Brooklyn church known for hosting hip musical events, from the workshop premiere of Lou Reed and John Cale's "Songs for Drella" to a solo recital by Garth Hudson). Organized by record producer and underground catalyst Hal Willner, the concert consisted of musicians from the downtown/knitting factory scene performing Tim Buckley songs. It was not the best show St. Ann's ever saw; too many of the beatniks on stage seemed to have little connection to Buckley's work, and were deconstructing the songs with a musical abandon that aspired to Ornette Coleman, but ended up closer to Moe Hooward.
The audience had come to hear Tim Buckley music, not to hear Buckley songs used as launch pads for orbits around individual egos, and halfway through the congression was fidgeting in the pews. The stage- the church's altar -went dark while one musician shuffled off and another shuffled on. It stayed dark while the figure in shadows adjusted his mike and guitar and then let loose with a loud strum and Tim Buckley's haunted voice. Jeff Buckley stole the show. In the vestry afterwards he was almost trampled by people who knew his father and wanted to weep on his shoulder, and record-biz monkeys handing him business cards and promising to make him famous.
"They found out I sang and they asked me to come," Jeff says now of the tribute concert. "I realized I probably wouldn't ever have another chance to pay my respects, no matter what kind of twisted feelings I have about Tim, no matter what kind of pain or anger I have against him - whatever I haven't come to terms with. The fact that I never got to go to his funeral always bothered me. And I thought, I can sink down with this or I can get off it, and then whatever sort of development I've gone through, at least I've done that".
Asked to go back and do one more song at the end of the tribute show, Jeff reluctantly went out and sang Tim's "Once I Was." "It was the first song my mother ever played me by Tim," he explains. "After she left my stepfather, I guess she wanted to get me into who my father was and she played me 'Once I Was'. So I learned it. It was hard to learn it. I couldn't do a really full version of it at home without crying. I almost cried onstage. I broke a string onstage at the end of that song. They were brand new strings. I was really pissed. I felt embarrassed about the whole thing. I just felt really open and vulnerable. There's such a ravenous cult around Tim and you know how people are. I mean, if people learned they could recreate Jim Morrison from his ancient bone marrow they'd fucking do it."
A little shook by his welcome to the New York music world, Jeff made the wise choice of avoiding (a) the uptown businessmen who didn't let knowing nothing about Jeff's own music stop them from saying they loved it, and (b) the '60's types who missed Tim and wanted Jeff to replace the father he never knew. He instead fell in with (c) the downtown hipsters, the progressive musicians in that Knitting Factory/Golden Palominos/ St. Ann's orbit.
Jeff eventually joined Gods & Monsters, a band centered around ex- Captain Beefheart guitar wizard Gary Lucas, and supplemented during Jeff's tenure with session aces Tony Maimone on bass and Anton Fier on drums. The rhythm section was just coming off Bob Mould's house-burning Workbook tour. Gods & Monsters looked like an underground supergroup.
But the band always sounded better in theory than it did in night clubs, mostly because it never was a real band. It was a merger of several talented individuals looking for a big break. Gods & Monsters might have been to Gary Lucas what Led Zeppelin was to session ace Jimmy Page: a ticket to mainstream success. But Gods & Monsters remained a great idea for a band, rather than a great band. About a year after the Tim Buckley tribute, on March 13, 1992, Gods & Monsters had a big showcase concert at St. Ann's during which the sound was bad and each fine musician onstage seemed to be listening only to himself. After that performance Jeff told Lucas he was quitting; he would play the rest of the gigs they had booked that week and that was it.
Jeff Buckley's final show with Gods & Monsters, to a small audience at the Knitting Factory the following weekend, was filled with tension and barely contained recriminations. One song into the set Buckley told the sound man, "Let's hear Jeff's guitar," and proceeded to hijack Lucas' band for the remainder of the night. As Jeff led the group, Lucas filled in piercing guitar leads and counterpoint. Jeff let loose howling, primal vocals that were, ironically, like the young Robert Plant while Lucas- relieved of leading the group- played with disciplined abandon, raising the stakes at every hand. It was an amazing set, everything that the St. Ann's showcase had failed to be. It took the grim relief of failure and the anger of a breakup to show what the musical prototype for Lucas to Buckley should have been- not Page to Plant, but James Honeyman-Scott to Chrissie Hynde.
One scene-maker leaned over during the set and said, "If all the A&R people who'd been at St. Ann's were here tonight, these guys would be going home with a record deal." When the last Gods & Monsters song ended, Maimone, Fier and Lucas walked offstage but Buckley hesitated. He then surprised everyone-including himself- by staying onstage and continuing to sing alone. It was a bravura, egotistical move, a violation of all band etiquette, and exactly the right thing to do to establish that he had the guts and the ambition to build his own vision, and that he was not going to be tied to anyone else on his way.
When he finished singing, Jeff walked off stage and across the room to his girlfriend Rebecca. They locked into an embrace in the middle of the club, his head buried in her shoulder, not speaking and oblivious to the people who came up to tell him what a great finale it had been.
"It was after that night," Jeff says of quitting Gods & Monsters, "that I knew I needed to invoke the real essence of my voice. I didn't know what it tasted like at all. I knew I had to get down to work and that anything else would be a distraction. In that band there were conflicts. It was really crazy, a desperate situation. I just didn't need things to be desperate. I needed them to be natural."
By the time he left Gods & Monsters in early '92 Jeff Buckley had some notion of where he wanted to go, but he didn't have an idea of how to get there. He had no band and, general good will aside, he had no real prospects. Rather than start his own group immediately, he determined to learn to be a performer the hard way, by playing solo around Greewich Village. He also wanted to understand how the best songwriters did what they did, so he began a self-imposed course of study. One night he came into an East Village restaurant carrying a new CD of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. He had heard the song "Sweet Thing" on the Best of Van Morrison album and wanted to follow that trail back to its source. Within a couple of weeks he was adding Astral Weeks material to his solo sets, along with Edith Piaf, Mutabaruka and Bob Dylan songs.
Looking back on that period of study now he says, "Before I left for New York for the last time all I was obsessing about in my notebooks was that there's this...this place I want to get to. And I was remarking to myself that there are no teachers. There was nobody to show me. Well, actually there were, but they weren't alive or else they weren't...I'm not going to be able to walk up to Ray Charles and be his protégé.
"I went into those cafes because I also really felt I had to go to an impossibly intimate setting where there's no escape, where there's no hiding yourself. If you suck you need work and if you don't then you have to work on making magic and if you make magic then everybody has this great transformative experience. Or at least a good experience.
"And it wasn't easy at first. I mean, when I first walked into Sin-e or the Cornelia Street Cafe, people talked their asses off. They didn't want to hear it. And that was a problem and it made me frustrated. Until I made the audience a part of the music. Until I made those sounds part of the music like they were samples on a record. They were actually an interactive part of what I was playing and was going to sing. And then all of a sudden I just fell into a rhythm and I learned about what it means when the audience is responsible partly for the experience. I'm determined to start from that space again with a band. I want to get the band ready to go into these intimate places and learn how to make big magic in little areas. Things that you just can't forget."