Thursday 23 January 2020

Rock: Jeff Buckley - Irish blood, an American heart

Jeff Buckley
Jeff Buckley
Jeff Buckley on the 'Grace' album cover

Tanya Sweeney

Jeff Buckley's debut album Grace - released 20 years ago today - was a bewildering, delightful stew of diverse influences.

Released at the tail-end of the grunge era, Grace had muscle, raw emotion and soaring falsetto vocals; delivered by a young man with his heart very much on his sleeve. And amid it all, Grace had the strong trace of an Irish bloodline running through it.

The great grandson of a Cork hedgemaster, Buckley also befriended a number of Irish musicians in New York before his untimely death, aged 30, in 1997. Among them were Mark Geary, whose brother Karl co-ran the Sin É venue in Manhattan. As the down-at-heel café where Buckley routinely performed and recorded his first EP for Big Cat Records, Sin É would eventually hold a central place in the singer's mythology. Elsewhere, Frames frontman Glen Hansard was also a close pal (Buckley worked occasionally as Hansard's guitar tech on the Commitments tour in 1991). There was little disputing, too, the influence of his own father, the late folk singer Tim Buckley, who died in 1975.

Yet Buckley - who was estranged from his father - was determined to plough his own furrow, going so far as to rebuff an industry leg-up from his father's venerable manager Herb Cohen. Not that Buckley needed much in the way of help: after a furious bidding war, he signed to Columbia Records for a reported $2m contract. It was the perfect home for him: a label that engendered long, album-rich careers and created 'heritage' artists like Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Bruce Springsteen and Simon & Garfunkel. It wasn't always a simpatico relationship (Buckley hated the 'pretty boy' angle the label were reportedly keen to pursue).

Still, Columbia were in the business of creating classic albums, and as debuts go, the Andy Wallace-produced Grace was a stone-cold classic. Yet Buckley was no-one's idea of an overnight success; nor did he arrive in New York City a fully realised songbird (there were many hard yards put in via various struggling jazz, funk, metal and reggae outfits). But in many ways, these early years were less a wrong turn and more the germ for his genre-bending songwriting. Trace the co-ordinates of Grace, and you're likely to hit on Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, Robert Plant, Patti Smith, Billie Holliday and Nirvana. It was a feat attempted by few, and mastered by fewer.

"It absolutely blew me away in every sense of the word," recalls 2FM's Dan Hegarty. "It was so different to everything else from that time. I don't ever think that Grace is timeless: it really captured that era and was a huge, special part of it."

Says Daphne Brooks, Yale professor and author of Jeff Buckley's Grace (33 1/3): "He was so adamant about his love of female vocalists. Generationally, he was very much part of this intervention against the sexism and misogyny of hair metal bands that were popular at the time. There was such an emphasis on trending around alternative music, that it didn't really give him the chance to be taken seriously in terms of complexity and sophistication." That there were three cover songs on Grace - Nina Simone's Lilac Wine, Benjamin Britten's Corpus Christi Carol and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah - hints that Buckley was still an artist finding his feet and his true voice. This is, of course, is the great tragedy: Grace was to be Jeff's only studio album before he waded into the Wolf River in Tennessee in May 1997. Almost immediately, Grace was no longer a promising, exciting debut, becoming instead a grim and haunting foreshadow of tragedy.

Not long after, Grace was re-released as an extended 'Legacy' edition, as was the Live At Sin É EP. Other live albums and rarities followed.

Opinion was divided, too, when Buckley's second unfinished album - Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk - was released in 1998 at the behest of his mother Mary Guibert. Some fans baulked at the Buckley goldrush, claiming that the barrel-scraping onslaught of posthumous releases lessened his legacy. Others, meanwhile, were simply grateful for that last goodbye.

"I'd spoken to his mother while writing the book, and I know she was so committed to maintaining his legacy and having new fans keep discovering Jeff," reasons Brooks.

Predictably, Buckley has influenced swathes of singer-songwriters who do a neat line in octave leaps and pained melancholia. In many cases, the lineage is direct; Muse, Coldplay, Rufus Wainwright, Elbow, PJ Harvey and Snow Patrol all owe a not-insignificant debt to Grace. Ireland's DIY, singer-songwriter scene - a charge arguably headed by Hansard and Geary, and featuring bedroom troubadours like David Kitt, Gemma Hayes and Damien Rice - has long doffed its cap to Buckley, too.

"It's hard to know what Jeff Buckley would have done, and that's the worst part of it," surmises Hegarty. "My guess is he would have released plenty of albums with many more new reference points."

Adds Brooks: "He had such a rich archive inside him: he could remobilise and reanimate. There was always this risk of unpredictability bound up in his style. For that reason, he really had a boundless future."

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