“If you feel blocked, do not turn to others, but look inside, in silence, for the enemy of your progress.” — Jeff Buckley

For Jeff Buckley’s Birthday


My brother Brendan, in his 50 Best Albums list, which I posted here during 2020, wrote about Grace. But it’s about so much more. It’s about the time in which Grace came out, and what it was like in pre-9/11 New York City. I worked at The Hub, too, and Bren nails the whole vibe. I hadn’t thought of how Buckley was so interwoven in with that vibe though.


A piece I wrote in 2012, about the most memorable concert I have ever attended: Jeff Buckley at the Green Mill in Chicago. I saw him just before Grace came out. The groundswell of press had begun, which was why we were there. But he hadn’t “hit” yet. He basically hit the next month. So we saw him in the moment before.

I will never EVER forget that night.

Jeff Buckley at the Green Mill

On a rainy night in Chicago many years ago, my friend Ted and I went to go see a singer I knew little about at The Green Mill. His name was Jeff Buckley. He had a couple of tiny albums out, recordings of live shows. His voice was crazy. We bought tickets and went.

It is, to date, the most memorable live show I have ever seen.

Ted and I still talk about it.

A lot of people were pissed off at Jeff Buckley that night. Ted and I were enraptured. Buckley was there, at the bar, mingling, hanging out. We did a shot of whiskey with him at the bar, and told him how much we loved his songs. He seemed freaked out and morose, and we were saying to him, encouragingly, “You’re great, have a good show!” – not at all expecting that a young up-and-coming rock star would be so openly anxious, and telling this to the audience who was just about to watch him play.

In looking back on it: I can clearly see that he knew stardom was about to hit. He knew his life was about to change. The tour bus parked outside was indicative of what was about to happen. But he seemed so small, dwarfed by the bus, by the circumstances approaching him. He had just given an interview to Rolling Stone and had apparently said wildly inappropriate things to the reporter. He told us this! Don’t we all want success? Well, sure, but what success actually means, in the reality of day to day life, is another thing entirely. It’s intimidating, it’s a lot of attention, it’s REAL, and artists oftentimes are people who have trouble with reality. That’s why they’re artists. Stardom comes with responsiblity, with lots of “have-tos” and obligations, not to mention a painful loss of anonymity. Goldie Hawn wrote in her memoir about how she used to go to a little bar in Malibu before she was famous, have a glass of wine by herself, sit staring out at the waves, and write in her journal. It was a beautiful ritual for her. Stardom was a great blessing to her, and she is appreciative and thankful, but she still mourns that anonymous self, the person who could go have a glass of wine alone, write in her diary, and not have someone take a picture of it, sell it to a tabloid and have it appear on the newsstand the next day: GOLDIE HAWN DRINKS ALONE LOOKING LIKE SHIT. Fame is a sacrifice. Not for some, but for many it is a soul-crushing experience. Jeff Buckley was in that latter category.

So there he was, doing shots at the bar, talking with us, but, you could sense things shifting. He wasn’t “normal” anymore, he wasn’t “one of us”, he was not anonymous. He had been playing shows at Cafe Sine, a tiny joint in New York where the musicians sit out in the audience, guitars propped up against the wall, and then just walk up to the “stage” when it’s their turn. The blending of audience and performer. Comfortable.

That world was receding for Jeff Buckley on the rainy night at the Green Mill.

I’m talking about this like I sat down and had an in-depth conversation with Jeff Buckley about his thoughts and feelings. I did not, but it is what I gleaned from his behavior that night, the brilliance of his performing, his obviously self-destructive tendencies, but also his urgent need to connect. It was life or death to him that he break through his anxieties and connect to us. SO many performers do whatever they can (through choreography, lights, flash, impenetrable persona) to AVOID the anxiety of whether or not they are connecting to their audience. But for Buckley there seemed to be no other way, and all of it was happening at the same time, and all of it went into his performance.

I have never seen anything like it.

When he was up there, NOTHING was excluded. A polished performance excludes many things. It excludes nerves, moments of doubt, embarrassment, insecurity. You put those aside so you can do your work and show up for the audience. Jeff Buckley INCLUDED all of that. He didn’t judge any of his own emotions as “inappropriate”, whatever they might have been – fear, anger, sadness, excitement. If he felt it, he let it out. People with decades of experience have a hard time doing that. Some can NEVER do it. Young Jeff Buckley did it automatically. Like Judy Garland. No matter what came up in Judy Garland, it was of use to her as a performer. She did not censor herself. That’s why she is like a raw nerve. Buckley was up there, and he was struggling, struggling to enter into his own life, into the performance, into his own music. He felt outside of it, and he let us see his struggle. For him there was no other way.

Like I said, a lot of people were pissed off at him that night because they wanted a conventional show. They wanted him to just play the damn songs they wanted to hear. They didn’t want him to talk in between sets about how freaked out he was, they didn’t want him to suddenly stop a song, mid-lyric, and announce, “God, that sucked. Let’s start it over again …” and then …. start the song over again … from the top. Judging from comments below this post from other people who were there that night, Ted and I were not alone in being absolutely riveted by him, but it felt like there were more people who wanted a straight show. Buckley couldn’t have given a straight show if you paid him a million dollars.

He grappled with himself. In front of us. It was inspiring to watch how private he was in public – something almost no one can do, something actors go to school to learn HOW to do, to shed our social selves, the social self that inhibits us from being, from admitting the darker parts of ourselves. Ted and I, both in theatre, actors/directors, understood what we were seeing, it was what we tried to do, it was what happens in rehearsals or class. You grapple with yourself to GET OUT OF YOUR OWN DAMN WAY, so you can get to work. That’s what Buckley was doing. His voice is otherworldly, as good live as on the album, but he was in a state of dissatisfaction and anxiety. The record company had obviously funded this tour and paid for the tour bus, and were probably trying to iron Jeff Buckley into some kind of appropriate persona. Because let’s not get it twisted: Buckley was dropdead gorgeous. Not handsome really, that’s not the word. He was soulfully beautiful. Like James Dean or Alain Delon. It seemed that success would be a slam-dunk. To look like that and have a voice like that?

But you could feel that Buckley wasn’t interested in ANY of that. Buckley seemed to feel this enormous institution behind him, he felt the pressure of it, and as he rambled on, and stopped songs, and confessed his feelings to us, he kept waving his hand at the wall – because he could FEEL the tour bus on the other side of that wall. He kept mentioning that damn bus, he hated it, it was too much.

The show was chaotic. He was heckled by the increasingly annoyed crowd. People were yelling at him in frustration. “SHUT UP – JUST SING THE SONG!” It was a constant chorus. There was a lot of hostility in that club. Buckley didn’t fight back, he didn’t bristle or snap, “Hey, fuck you, man, I’m up here doing my thing”. No. His ego wasn’t like that. Instead, he apologized profusely. He’d say, “You’re right, I’m so sorry.” He kept saying things like, “I suck … I’m so sorry … I just suck …”

Buckley said at one point, “I want to give everybody their money back … I am so sorry about the show tonight … I suck so bad …”

This sort of self-deprecation can be annoying. However, with him you could tell it came from a deeply true place. He was genuinely pained.

He was also drunk. He was drunk when he arrived, or at least seriously soused. He announced to us, at one point, with huge floppy gestures:

“You guys, I’m so sorry, but I am drunk. D – U – R – N – K. DRUNK!”

Did he mean to misspell drunk? Was he really that drunk? Was he kidding? Ted and I burst out laughing, and we still say that to each other. “The woman was drunk. D-U-R-N-K, ya know what I mean?”

He started to sing “Halleluia”. But … but … you could just feel (that’s the other thing: he was emotionally transparent just standing there. If you were paying attention, as Ted and I were, you could FEEL everything he was feeling.) So he started “Halleluia”, but … it didn’t feel true to him … you could tell … so he stopped the band impatiently: “Stop stop stop stop …” It was like he was in pain, far away was he from his own ideals. I am thinking of Clifford Odets in Hollywood, experiencing spiritual death. What Ted and I saw (and we went out and talked about it all night afterwards in a diner down the street as the rain splashed against the windows) was a man trying to imagine himself, work himself, push himself closer to his own ideal in his head. He wanted to transcend. And if that meant starting a song over, even though there was a whole crowd there, a whole crowd who was dying to hear him sing “Halleluia”, so be it. What we were seeing was not a finished product. He would not BE a ‘product’. He was in process.

It was self-indulgent, yes – but any artist’s process MUST be self-indulgent. How else will you know what works, what failure feels like? You have to GO there. Art is worthless if the artist isn’t willing to pay the price, to have it cost them something, to put ALL of it out there.

After the “Halleluia” debacle, he sang “Lilac Wine” and you could have heard a pin drop in that dark club. His voice made the hair rise up all over your body. He went to another place entirely, a private place of fantasy and creation. You were afraid to move, you were afraid to break the spell.

I watched Buckley up there, alone by the mike with that beautiful face, the innocence of his face, but also the wildness, and how he would throw his body up towards those high notes, his neck flung back, launching his voice up into the octaves above, eyes closed, body slack and open, letting it happen, letting it come … he seemed to be not just a singer but a CHANNEL: he just had to open up to let that other thing – his GIFT – come pouring through. I watched him and I remember so clearly thinking: God, what is going to happen to this boy. This special wild boy. This is not just retrospect talking, I want to make that clear. The whole night was like that. Buckley kept talking about the interview with Rolling Stone, he seemed to be having a nervous breakdown almost about the impending fame. It made him far away from himself. He was trying – in front of us – to get back into alignment with himself.

We would be among the last people to get to see him in a small club. He was going somewhere else now and Buckley felt the loss.

He handled the heckling with grace but he didn’t change his approach. He didn’t “pull himself together”. He started to sing one song and for whatever reason he felt like he needed to sit down, so he crossed his legs, and sat down with his back to the audience. He sang the entire song in that position. Beautifully, by the way. He needed to shut us out in order to do his thing.

His band was amazing. They went wherever he went. If he stopped a song, they stopped. When he wanted to start over, they started over.

They started to play “So Real”. Like I said, I didn’t know Buckley’s music well at that point. But I loved the song, and his voice pierced through me. Ted and I stood there, lost in it (many of us were lost in it, hecklers be damned) and maybe after a verse and a chorus, Buckley said, in this drunken “oh, fuckitalltohell” tone, “God, stop stop stop … ” He seemed like a little boy, hurt, because his mom interrupted his make-believe game of knights and dragons with the prosaic request that he set the table. He was BUMMED that he wasn’t being transported like he wanted to be, that his song wasn’t taking him where he wanted to go.

So he stopped the song, which had sounded FINE to me, BETTER than fine. He was openly in pain: “God, that sucked … we SUCK … ” (more heckling – which he acknowledged) “I know, I know, you guys … I’m so sorry … Let’s start it again …”

They started the song again. And almost immediately you could tell what had happened. It was like night and day, the performance before the interruption and the performance after. The performance before was a rough draft, or like a dancer “marking” the steps so as to conserve energy. And Jeff Buckley realized that, he realized he he wasn’t IN it – and so he needed the break to clear the deck. He needed to FOCUS so that he could “go there” in the song. And that’s what happened after the interruption. The band almost blew the roof that tiny club. Buckley was a shaman, a madman, a choirboy with Lucifer on his shoulder, a fallen angel, wailing to the skies, catapulting his voice up, up, up, his gestures fearless, uninhibited. When he “pulled himself together”, by stopping the song and starting over, when he cleared the deck of everything extraneous and unnecessary to his performance, the power, the passion, that came pouring out gives me goosebumps to this day. I’ve seen a lot of live performances and nothing else comes close.

I was so sad when he died. I imagined him swimming in the current, drunk, stars wheeling by overhead, communing with Bacchus, with God, lost in his dream of himself. I can’t say I was surprised, though, because his wildness was so apparent, his yearning towards the edge, his openness and vulnerability. You could sense it all in the room.

To me, Jeff Buckley was always that pale-faced boy doing shots at the bar on a rainy night in Chicago, many years ago, with a gigantic tour bus looming outside. Change coming, change coming fast … and yet … in the moment, there was just him … on stage … trying to transport himself into the world that he imagined.

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18 Responses to “If you feel blocked, do not turn to others, but look inside, in silence, for the enemy of your progress.” — Jeff Buckley

  1. Kate says:

    Sheila. I was there too. It was life-changing. I can’t tell you how often that night comes back to me. I think of it every time I try to define for myself what I think of as art, or great art, or an artist who expresses things we mere mortals cannot. I also don’t think I’d ever seen such a beautiful man. Thank you for putting this down.

  2. Danni says:

    I have tears streaming down my face…

    Thank you

  3. sheila says:

    Kate – too funny and amazing that you were there too!!

  4. sheila says:

    Danni – you are most welcome. what a special artist he was.

  5. ted says:

    You brought something new and other-worldly to your memory of that night in your writing of it which captures its specialness. I remember finding out that he died in City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and suddenly I was looking at the world through the wrong end of a telescope.

  6. Cathi says:

    I’m a little late to the whole Jeff Buckley thing — I’m embarrassed to admit it really. I can’t even completely remember how it happened, but it struck me about a week before Christmas. I believe it might have been something mentioned about him in an article about Chris Cornell that sparked my curiosity. I knew about Jeff, of course, having been a fan of his father in the 60s and recalled hearing “The Last Goodbye” on the radio and liking it a lot. And I knew he had been dead for many years. But even though I had “heard” him, I never listened. In any case, my curiosity lead me inevitably to iTunes and “Grace”. To say I was blown away is an understatement. I immediately downloaded the entire album and couldn’t stop listening to it. I laid down on the bed in a darkened room and listened to it straight through on my iPod — twice.

    It wasn’t enough. I went searching for more and discovered, among other things, “Live at Sin-e'”. I cooked Christmas dinner with it playing full blast through my headphones, and sobbed when he sang one of my favourite songs, “If You See Her, Say Hello” while I mashed 5 lbs. of potatoes. I felt like I was right there in the room with him while he sang.

    I’m 60 years old, and things like this just don’t happen to me, regardless of the fact that I spent about 20 years in rock bands myself and still have a Strat and a practice amp in the corner, always at the ready. Music has always been a huge part of my life but I have been consumed like this only a handful of times, and not this powerfully in more than 20 years. After reading a LOT of stuff about him over the past few days, I get the impression this is not an unusual reaction. Jeff Buckley seems to have this effect on everybody, and I can attest to the fact that it’s power hasn’t waned in the 16 years since his death. I also suspect I’m not alone in deeply mourning his passing at the same moment I’m discovering him. For someone who was apparently as shy and private as he was, he was one of those unique artists who has no protective shield — everything he was poured out in the music. It’s impossible to hear him and not feel connected to him, to not feel everything he felt.

    I envy you. You got to experience this in person. Given the impact of his voice, music and “presence” through a set of headphones, I simply can’t imagine what it must have felt like live. It must have been like standing on the surface of the sun.

    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful memory.

    • sheila says:

      Cathi – and thank YOU for sharing your experience of hearing him for the first time. I got goose bumps!!

      • Cathi says:

        Well I must admit it’s a pretty remarkable experience, and I’ve been forcing everybody I know to sit down and listen to him. My two teenage grandsons were instant converts as was my son so I guess it’s all about keeping the memory alive.

  7. Nicole says:

    Gorgeous recount. I’m quite young- I was born a few months after Jeff passed, and I just discovered him about 3 months ago. I am already do captured by this man- the voice, the looks, the humor, the behavior, everything. I have fallen in love with a dead man. And I am beyond grieved about the fact that seeing his magic in the flesh is not even remotely a possibility. So thank you for depicting your experience so vividly. I sort of feel as if I saw him for myself.

  8. Miriam says:

    In an odd way, Paolo Nutini feels like a Scottish version of this guy, especially on live performances.

  9. Monica says:

    Just ‘discovered’ Jeff Buckley about 2 months ago. My 17 year son was going to cover “Hallelujah” with his band. I can’t even describe how much I love that song. Just wanted to thank you Shelia for writing this. Wow! just now thinking of HOW COOL that would have been to be around Jeff Buckley in real life. Amazing amazing talent……

  10. Steve Lafreniere says:

    Not sure if you still look here. It’s November of 2020.

    I had a friend in Chicago who died a couple of years ago. Her will was finally sorted out (she died in Switzerland) and last week I received in the mail what she wanted me to have.

    I remember that she had gone to the Green Mill show, a true early Jeff Buckley fan at the time. But she was so disappointed in his performance that she wrote him a letter in New York. Not sure how she got the address, perhaps through the record label. I don’t know what she said to him, but some while later he wrote her a beautiful letter back, in which he talks about that night. This letter is what she willed to me 25 years later.

    I’ve taken pics of both pages, if there is some way I can attach the jpegs and upload it to you. Let me know if you’re interested in seeing it, and if so an email address I can send it to.

    Steve Lafreniere
    Eugene Oregon

  11. Johnny says:

    Hi Sheila, it’s Johnny again. I don’t know why or how but recently I’ve started to delve deep into Jeff and his music and I got this feeling you might have written about him in the past. Lo and behold I stumbled upon this article and believe me when I say this, this might be one of the best things you’ve ever written. The fact that you got to witness him in person is in and of itself a miracle. To keep this brief, when you talk about his ability, his NEED to imagine or dream himself into his own private place of fantasy and dreams, that is something I see a lot of myself in him. I’m neither a singer or a performer but because I’ve always liked to spend a lot of time in my head (for better or for worst), I too have this desire to be transported into my own dream world and the only way to do so is by the power of music. There’s so much more I could say about what you’ve written but I’m so thankful this exists.

    • sheila says:

      Johnny – thank you so much! I have heard that Buckley was so horrified about this particular show that he did another show at the Green Mill to make up for it. Someone further up thread mentions a friend who was one of the irritated ones.

      But I am glad I saw him on that night. I learned SO MUCH about the artistic process, about the way to work through your demons and come out on the other side – and you have to be bold enough and dedicated enough to do it in front of your audience.

      I am so glad this piece spoke to you. I’m so glad I wrote about it!!

  12. Dennis says:

    Greetings from London. I was in Chicago and was at both Green Mill shows. I stood right in front of Jeff both nights. I was invited onto the tour bus after the second show as the rain poured down I was with a girl called Grace that second night. I was so in awe of Jeff I barely could speak but although weary after such a slew of emotions he had poured out he was so gracious. I am now 77 years of age and still go regularly to live music in small venues, but nothing has come remotely close to those 2 nights when I saw, heard and was consumed by all that was Jeff Buckley when he made me feel he was performing just for me.

    • sheila says:

      Dennis – Hello! It’s so funny – I wrote this piece 10 years ago maybe, maybe even longer – and it’s amazing how many people have found it saying they were there that night (or the next night). Incredible!!

      What a wild experience you had! On the tour bus! What a special thing.

      // nothing has come remotely close to those 2 nights when I saw, heard and was consumed by all that was Jeff Buckley when he made me feel he was performing just for me. //


      I, too, will never forget that night. Granted, I didn’t go to the next show – but that first one was enough to cement him in my mind forever and ever. Still one of the most remarkable live shows I’ve ever seen.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

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