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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dramaturgy | Romeo Prefigured: A Portrait of Jeff Buckley

compiled by Kristin Idaszak, Dramaturg

Starlight takes hundreds of light years to reach the earth, and as a result stars continue to shine brightly in the night sky long after the antecedents themselves have died. Jeff Buckley’s light similarly continues to shine 13 years after his death. Excerpts from this 1993 article form The New York Times give us a glimpse into a brilliant past from an artist on the brink of stardom:

Strange things happen when Jeff Buckley opens his mouth to sing. One moment he's a white bluesman with a sound straight out of the Mississippi Delta; the next, a jazz singer whose acrobatic voice swoops and glides through a haze of cigarettes and pained memories. The last thing he sounds like is his age -- only 26.

Even odder, his singing makes otherwise jaded clubgoers and music-business executives rave with none of their usual cynicism. They will talk of catching Mr. Buckley at East Village hangouts like Sin-é and the FEZ, where they have heard him sing anything from "I Loves You Porgy" to a Sufi chant, an obscure Elton John oldie or one of Mr. Buckley's own unconventional songs. And they will talk about his new contract with Sony Records and how Buckley is a name to watch.

The one person who doesn't care for the talk is the source of it all. "The music business is the most childish business in the world," Mr. Buckley said one morning last month at a downtown bistro, "Nobody knows what they're selling or why, but they sell it if it works."

Mr. Buckley, whose hair is cut in a short, modestly spikey buzz, pauses and shoots an intense stare out the window. "There was a woman outside who was talking to someone, and I was trying to guess from her eyes what she sounded like," he said softly. "You can tell everything from the eyes."

You can tell a lot from Mr. Buckley's eyes, too. He's the son of the late Tim Buckley, who helped disassemble the barriers between folk, jazz and improvisational music before a fatal overdose of heroin, morphine and alcohol in 1975. Not only does Jeff Buckley have the same winding, sensual, octave-stretching voice as his father, but his waiflike looks recall the face on the covers of Tim Buckley albums like Goodbye and Hello, a cult classic from 1967.

Mr. Buckley grew up with his mother and stepfather, mostly in Southern California, and learned about his father from old friends…[He] played briefly in a rock band, Gods and Monsters, but departed in the spring of 1992. As his main solo base, Mr. Buckley chose Sin-é (Gaelic for "that's it"; pronounced shin-AY), a coffeehouse where the occasional baby mouse scurries across the wooden floor. The stage, such as it is, is a cleared-away area against a wall.

"I figured if I played in the no-man's land of intimacy, I would learn to be a performer," Mr. Buckley said. Gradually, he did; he also paid the rent on his East Village apartment with money he'd collect from the plastic pitchers passed around at Sin-é.

Shane Doyle, Sin-é's owner, said : "He'll stop by to sing at 2 in the morning, and it doesn't matter if only a handful of people are there. He's definitely unusual in that way." Mr. Buckley often helps wash the dishes, too.

When asked which musicians have influenced his work, Mr. Buckley cites figures that predate his father. Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong and Judy Garland records taught him about phrasing, for example. And "there was a time when I wanted to be Miles Davis," he said.

"A lot of time I feel like I don't belong here" he added, quickly turning forlorn. "Here" meaning where? "Here," he replied, as if the question was downright silly.

One moment Mr. Buckley will gush about a Led Zeppelin bootleg or will cockily say, "There are no precedents for what I'm doing,." Then he will turn near-suicidal : "I'm sick of the world. I'm trying to stay alive."

by David Browne ©1993 by New York Times. This interview was originally published in The New York Times, October 24, 1993.

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