When singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley talks about his music, he doesn't mess around.
"I'd say my songs fall into [the category] of twentieth-century American," he notes, "because that definition encompasses so much. Pop art. Even the Flintstones. It could be Gershwin. It could be Rodgers and Hart. It could be John Cage. It could be Zeppelin--even though they're English, listening to Led Zeppelin is still so American. It could be the Bad Brains. The Butthole Surfers. Japanese music. Pakistani. Anything with soul, really. I think they all contribute to my homeland, and I can't help but be a direct by-product of it all. I see a line connecting all of it."
Not many young artists would site such an eclectic roster of influences--but Jeff Buckley isn't just any young artist. In fact, he's among the few performers who actually transcend the tags imposed upon them by well-meaning music critics such as yours truly. On Grace, his first full-length offering for Columbia Records, Buckley and his bandmates (guitarist Michael Tighe, bassist Mick Grondahl and drummer Matt Johnson) transform typical rock, jazz, folk and blues cliches into mystical journeys that manage to surprise listeners at every turn. "Last Goodbye," for example, begins with an explosive guitar arrangement reminiscent of the aforementioned Zeppelin, yet Buckley's bold, expressive guitar playing and soaring tenor exhibit more of a kinship with Blue-era Joni Mitchell than they do with Robert Plant. And the atmospheric numbers "So Real" and "Lilac Wine" exude a poignancy that most folksingers would die for, despite the songs' decidedly torchy delivery. Taken as a whole, Grace stands as definitive proof that even in the ultra-derivative Nineties, there is still room for music that's fresh, original and--surprise--listenable.
For Buckley, his mysterious musical sojourns manifest themselves in a variety of ways. "Certain issues just seem to grab me," he explains, "and I just try to gather as much nectar as I can from these feelings. Sometimes things have a rhythm and a heat to them, and I try to reflect them. Or re-reflect them, I guess."
The guitarist has had plenty of time to perfect his songwriting skills. A native of a small California town, he first picked up a six-string at age six under the tutelage of his mother, a classically trained pianist and cellist. His late father, folk innovator Tim Buckley (who left the family when Jeff was still a child), was far less of an inspiration to him. Buckley is quick to dismiss any similarities between his work and that of the man best known for the albums Goodbye and Hello and Greetings From L.A. "If I were following in my father's footsteps, I'd be dead in some apartment somewhere," he exclaims with an air of exasperation. "I started playing guitar because of Jimmy Page and Ace Frehley, and I started singing because of my mom. He never really even entered into it."
When he was thirteen Buckley played his first gig--a sock hop at the neighborhood Methodist church. Today the guitarist recalls the event with mild amusement. "It was total white-boy rock," he remembers. "I think I spent all the money I made on chips and gas."
Uneasy with his provincial surroundings, the performer decided to sell his possessions and relocate to New York City in 1990. At the time, Buckley says, his only concern was distancing himself from what had become a particularly paralyzing jag of depression. "I was totally despondent," he says. "I don't know what happened to make me that way. I was just dead--walking dead."
Fortunately, the Big Apple provided the musician with an outlet for his pain. After "starving like a chump" for a number of months, Buckley decided to completely immerse himself in his music. "I was sick of dying, but I didn't know how to live," he claims. "So I just decided to situate myself in a chrysalis and wait to be reborn someday. I forgot my name. I forgot my body. I forgot my head and my hair and how ugly I thought I was. Everything. I disoriented myself from everything about being a human being and just played and played and played and sang and sang and sang."
The results of this transitional period can be heard on Live at Sine, an impressive, if brief, collection of Buckley's early solo material that became his debut EP for Columbia. Of the disc's four tracks, two (including Van Morrison's "The Way Young Lovers Do") are covers, while the other pair ("Mojo Pin" and "Eternal Life," co-written by former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas) are solo interpretations of songs that wound up on Grace in full-band settings. Buckley chose to render the selections on electric guitar--an unusual approach for a solo performer, but one that he feels was the most logical choice given his particular style of playing. "I've always liked the electric guitar better," he concedes. "Even though the acoustic can be a very sexy and mysterious instrument, I can go to way more places with an electric.
"Besides," he continues, "I knew eventually I would get a band. It was like I was sending out a pheromone to anybody that wanted to play."
Grondahl was the first to catch the scent; the self-taught bassist approached Buckley at one of his solo appearances. According to Buckley, the two hit it off immediately. "We got together, and I knew he was the one to play bass," he says. "He's got a natural beauty on the bass that nobody that's trained would have."
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Drummer Johnson fell in next, followed by Tighe, a longtime friend of Buckley's who came aboard shortly after the recording of Grace. A relative newcomer to the guitar, Tighe had never played in a band situation prior to joining Buckley's combo--a fact that amazes Buckley to this day. "[Michael] had never really picked up a guitar before he was 18, and he's like 21 now," he exclaims. "Mine is the first band he's ever been in. And so far, he's already been across the U.S. and Europe."
Several tours later, the foursome had garnered daunting reviews from such leading rags as Interview, Time and People. Among the disparate acts to whom Buckley and his crew have been compared: Roy Harper, Art Garfunkel and Queen.
At the same time, some journalists have attempted to lump Buckley in with the disenfranchised youths known collectively as Generation X. Buckley admits he's frustrated by this tack, but not because he's unsympathetic to his peers. He says his hostility is directed instead at those who've profited from all the hype surrounding this so-called movement. As he puts it, "All these people that want to make me out as part of Generation X had better watch out, or they're going to get X'd out themselves. I'm sick of all these labels and these manufactured subdivisions of music that don't even exist. And even though I'm pierced myself, I'm sick of everyone equating body piercing with musical courage.
"If you ask me," he adds, "it takes a lot more than that."
Jeff Buckley. 8 p.m. Saturday, November 12, Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street, $9, 290-TIXS or 477-5977.