During the summer of '92 Buckley's one man gigs grew in confidence and reputation. He played all over town, but his main venue became Cafe Sin-e, a tiny Irish club on St. Mark's Place in the East Village that presents original music nightly, and had become the site of surprise sets by visitors such as Hothouse Flowers, Sinead O'Conner and The Waterboys. The Sin-e gigs began as a way for Jeff to learn his craft out of the spotlight , but the spotlight found him there.
Over the course of that summer Jeff generated a buzz that reached all the way up to the midtown offices of the major record labels. His weekly shows at Sin-e became an A&R magnet, and pretty soon long black limousine were squeezing down St. Mark's Place and executives with hundred-dollar hair cuts were trying to maneuver between the bohemians without getting their suits wrinkled. Regulars got a kick out of watching the big shots smiling and waiving at each other and then scrutinizing each others' reactions. One ritual was absolute: A&R man A did not leave until A&R men B-Z left.
Pretty soon the label presidents were showing up at Sin-e, too. At a meeting set up by Arista A&R, Buckley had the balls to tell label president Clive Davis that he would not be interested in signing to Arista when Davis had not even seen him play. So Clive came to Sin-e. "He said, 'What are you looking for in a company?'" Jeff recalls of Clive. "I said, 'Well, basically, three things. Integrity,' which was, you know, a fantasy but I just thought I'd throw it out. A record company's integrity is to make money, to move units. I understand that. The next thing was 'patience,' because I didn't know at that time what anybody's threshold for interesting music was. Number three: "Hands off.' "
It was not a partnership meant to be. Jeff was taken aback when Davis brought him into his office and showed him a video presentation about...Clive Davis. "He had an eight-minute video all about him," Jeff recounts with amazement. "Him with Donovan, him with Janis Joplin, him with Sly Stone, and him donating all this money to charity. 'My life with the music business!' "
By the end of the summer Jeff Buckley was a big topic of conversation whenever record executives got together. Some felt that Jeff's lawyer (he had no manager) wanted too much money for an unknown, unproven talented. Others said that while the kid had a great voice and undeniable charisma, the songs weren't commercial. (Buckley's original material tended toward moody, elastic forms, not a million miles from Astral Weeks.)
One of the fascinating aspects of Jeff's attraction for A&R men was that precisely because he was playing without a band and because he was doing a wide range of cover songs, they could imagine him being whatever they wanted him to be. The general impression was of a young Van Morrison early R.E.M. style, but brilliant Sire A&R man Joe McEwen heard in Buckley a soul singer, and imagined him in Memphis recording R&B with producer Jim Dickinson.
The same lack of clear direction that frightened some labels away made Buckley attractive to others. Talent scouts saw a very handsome kid with a fantastic voice- and from that they projected everything from a younger Michael Stipe to a hipper Michael Bolton.
How hard was it for Jeff to turn down offers of record contracts and money at a time when he was living hand-to-mouth?
"Very," he answers. "It was really hard. I always knew that my natural place was to make my life making music. The whole reason I was so wary of automatic things is because I suspected that my lineage had everything to do with it. I didn't get the feeling that anybody really heard me.
"Or I didn't know, I had no way of knowing. Because of my father people assumed things about me that weren't true: that I was well taken care of, that I lived in Beverly Hills, that I was a brat. My father chose a whole other family. I mean, it was just me and my mom and my little brother. And my stepfather for a couple of years. I didn't even meet my father until I was eight, and then just for one week, and Easter vacation. Two months later he died.
"Actually my stepfather and my mother had everything to do with my musical roots. My stepfather couldn't carry a tune, but he had a passion for great music. He bought me my first rock 'n' roll album, Physical Graffiti, when I was about nine years old. I was into the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and all these weird things kids would never know about, like Booker T. and the MG's. I began listening to Edith Piaf when I was about 16. Later I found Bad Brains and Robert Johnson and idolized them simultaneously. There exists a common thread through all that stuff. My music has to be a culmination of everything I've ever loved. It's how I learned my alphabet. But I learned, probably in my Miles Davis phase, that in order to really pay tribute to things you love you must become yourself."