Buckley signed with Columbia at the end of 1992 due in large part, he says, to his personal connection to his A&R man Steve Berkowitz, a long-haired hipster who whose shank of chin hair makes him look like an Egyptian pharaoh and whose love of blues and R&B manifested itself in his weekend gigs as guitarist "T. Blade." Berkowitz advised a slow build for Buckley, doing everything possible to avoid hype. They rejected offers of interviews with fashion magazines and photos for the Gap, and determined to take the pressure off the first album by preceding it with an EP recorded live and solo at Cafe Sin-e.
The four-song EP was recorded in a marathon set at Sin-e last August. Andy Wallace, who had mixed Soul Asymul, Guns N' Roses and Nirvana was brought in to produce. The recording gear was set up in a small pub two doors down. During Jeff's set the Sin-e regulars were joined by top brass from Columbia/Sony. Jeff, who seemed to be in an exceptionally light-hearted mood, played just about every song in his eclectic repertoire.
The three hour-plus set provided plenty of examples of the lessons Jeff had learned about including the audiences in his show. A couple of hours along, a bag lady wandered in and stood staring at Jeff, who began singing to her (to the tune of the old Hollies hit, "Long Cool Woman"), "She was a short black woman..." She took offense and started squaking at him. Jeff noted that her squaks sounded like Howlin' Wolf and sang Wolf licks back at her in a bizarre Howlin'/ hecklin' duet. When a waitress quieted her down, someone else yelled out a request for something by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. If it was a dare, they picked the wrong boy. Buckley is a big fan of the Pakistani singer and launched into a monologue about his hero, as well as a generous sampling of Nusrat's music. At this point a few of the Sony execs began peeling the labels off their beer bottles and staring at their watches, but there was a good hour left to go. During that night's version of Astral zWeeks' "The Way Young Lovers Do," Jeff surprised everyone by launching into a scat-solo. He'd never done it before, but the tape caught it and the song made the final EP selection. (Buckley was relieved when it proved too eccentrically played and sung to be edited down.)
Jeff played and played, the tapes next door rolled and rolled. Perhaps aware that some of the record execs were there because they had to be, Buckley began strumming "The End" by the Doors and reciting, " 'Jeff?' 'Yes, Sony?' 'We want to ffffffgggg you!' 'Wo! Ugh!' " The Sony bigwigs smiled. By the end of the night Buckley, Berkowitz and Wallace knew they had plenty of good material from which to pull four songs. Everyone felt great, although when one bystander joked to Buckley that he had just given Sony a couple of boxed sets worth of music to stick in their vaults, Berkowitz stopped smiling long enough to warn the big-mouthed, "Don't tell him that,"
In the autumn Jeff headed up to Woodstock to begin work on his first album. He had found a bassist named Mick Grondahl and a drummer named Matt Johnson, both downtown Manhattan players who hooked in with Jeff emotionally as well as muscially. The burden of actually beginning to make a debut album after two and a half years of circling around it was exacerbated by a series of personal misfortunes that befell the musicians, including the sudden death of Jeff's girlfriend Rebecca's father, to whom Jeff had grown very close (the album will bear a dedication to him).
The assumption almost every one of the music-biz kibitzers had made about Jeff Buckley was that he was an artist who needed time to grow, that he would expand his talent and his popularity over four or five albums (like R.E.M.) rather than explode out of the box. Which is probably true, but not necessarily. The side of the road is littered with the bodies of talented young musicians who got discarded when the popular momentum turned against them, or the person who signed them moved to another label, or they didn't perform up to corporate expectations.
But listening to the first track from Jeff Buckley's first album, another possibility emerges. Wallace and Buckley finish adding eerie, almost eastern strings to Buckley's moody lament "Mojo Pin," which Grondahl and Johnson have anchored to earth with throbbing bass and drums. Bringing out these colors makes the song less akin to Astral Weeks and more to Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." It is almost a shock to hear that transformation while seeing Jeff, leaning against the studio glass strumming his Rickenbacker, looking like James Dean crucified on his shotgun in Giant. For the first time it seems possible that Jeff won't have to wait long to become famous. Whether that would be a blessing or a curse is a seperate discussion.
In the Bearsville studio dining room a little while later, Jeff is asked what he hopes to get out of his Sony recording contract. "Just to make things I never heard before," he says quietly, "that say things that I can't say otherwise. Not to so much go as far as I can, but to as deep as I can."
Jeff Buckley plays a Gibson L1, a borrowed Fender Telecaster and a Rickenbacker 12-string. He's using a Fender Vibro-verb amp and, today, D'Addario strings. He just bought an old steel dobro and a Bina harmonium from Pakistan. Buckley uses Jim Dunlop slides. After experimenting with several microphones for Jeff's vocals, producer Andy Wallace settled on a Neumann U87. Mick Grondahl plays a Fender Jazz bass throgh an Ampeg bass amp. Matt Johnson plays Slingerland drums and Zildjian cymbals.