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.