AMAZING GRACE Jeff Buckley Pt. 2

As 1993 unfolded the singer’s career was shifting from
cruise control to hyper speed. Within four years, he’d be dead.

 

BY JEFF APTER

 

Buckley died 13 years ago this week, on May 29, 1997,
in a tragic drowning accident in Memphis.
We hereby pay tribute to the late troubadour via this book excerpt from
A
Pure Drop: The Life of Jeff Buckley, written by Jeff Apter and published in
March of 2009 by Backbeat Books. This excerpt originally appeared last
summer in the second print edition of BLURT
. This is the second
of two parts; go here to read  Part 1. –
The editors.

 

 

Buckley’s first
move was to recruit bassist Mick Grondahl,
whom he’d met briefly in March,
after a show at Columbia
University’s Post Crypt
Café. Though born in Denmark,
the 25-year-old Grondahl had grown up in New
York, where he was raised by his divorced mother, who
owned a cosmetics business. Although Grondahl was never so crass as to talk
about wealth, there were suggestions that he came from a ‘monied’ family. And
he wasn’t the most upbeat of characters; he was described to me as ‘gripey and
complain-ey’ and ‘snobbish’. ‘Mick… was a little bit of a shit. He was a
little too cool for everyone, he was more of a snob than the rest of them,’
said Mark Naficy, Buckley’s long-time soundman. (During our lengthy interview,
it would be fair to describe Grondahl as polite yet detached.) Just like Mary
Guibert, Grondahl’s mother was an avid music fan, and introduced her
cherubic-faced son to what would now be called ‘world music’, which Grondahl
described as ‘bazuki, flamenco, Middle Eastern music’. At the same time she
would also play him Talking Heads’ groundbreaking LP Fear Of Music. ‘She had a very open ear to new stuff,’ he said.4

 

Grondahl started playing the drums at 12, and shifted to
bass when he was 16. He’d met a lot of wannabe guitarists, so he figured that
there had to be vacancies for reasonably skilled bassists. Influenced by such
classy players as jazzman Stanley Clarke, it also didn’t take him long to
figure out that ‘there is a whole range of things you can do with the
instrument’. Almost immediately he was playing in high school bands, but most
of them stayed in the garage. ‘We couldn’t get into bars, not even in New
York,’ he said. While studying fine arts at college in Saratoga Springs,
majoring in art history but also dabbling in sculpture (especially stone
carving) and photography, Grondahl continued playing, mainly in a band that
mixed funk and reggae standards with covers. Already he was showing the type of
anything-goes musical spirit that would prove useful when backing Buckley. His
attitude, even then, was: ‘Have fun with it, improvise, let’s see what
happens.’ But music was still a hobby for Grondahl; it wasn’t until he returned
to New York, after graduating, that he considered it as a possible career,
answering some ‘bass player wanted’ ads in the Village Voice. But nothing gelled for him. ‘I would be in the band
for a while,’ said the softly spoken Grondahl, ‘and if I wasn’t happy with it,
I would immediately quit. I was kind of disenchanted.’

 

At the time he met Buckley, Grondahl was in another
dead-end band named Glories, who shared rehearsal space with Daniel Harnett’s group
Glim, who were also on the Columbia University bill with Buckley. Grondahl
tagged along, primarily to see his friend’s band play. He watched Buckley’s set
for around an hour, more out of curiosity than anything else. ‘I knew nothing
about him,’ Grondahl told me in 2007. He didn’t link Buckley to his famous
father until they met again, soon after, at a party. But even Tim Buckley
didn’t register that strongly with Grondahl. ‘I knew him a little bit from
sightings in the record bins and stuff,’ he said off-handedly. And Tim Buckley
certainly wasn’t a point of discussion between him and Jeff at the party.
Grondahl recalled how they chatted about ‘Howling Wolf or something’.

 

In July, Grondahl spotted Buckley’s name in the Village Voice; he was playing a solo set
at Fez as part of the New Music Seminar. Although he didn’t have any cash,
Grondahl dropped by the venue, with his friend Cynthia in tow. His luck was in:
Buckley saw Grondahl and snuck him into the gig. ‘Jeff just popped out of
nowhere,’ he recalled, ‘recognised me and we exchanged numbers.’ This time
around, Grondahl was far more impressed by Buckley’s one-man-and-a-Fender
approach. ‘He’d improved enormously in that time; he’d made huge advances. It
was better than the first show; I was knocked out.’ In 2007, when asked what
was his most vivid memory of Buckley, Grondahl cited this Fez set. ‘He walked out with such
determination,’ said Grondahl, ‘and got to the mic and started pounding his
feet and doing this rhythm, while singing “Johnny Lee”. And he kept pounding
his feet and singing. There was nobody talking; nothing. It was just so
powerful.’

 

Grondahl made the next move, calling Buckley a few weeks
later and suggesting a jam. (In 1995, Buckley admitted that Grondahl was ‘so
honest, frank and sincere that I knew I’d have to call him back’.5 They got together very late in Buckley’s apartment for what turned out to be
the most inspired jamming of Grondahl’s career. ‘It was magical,’ he told me.
‘I really felt, without sounding too airy-fairy, that there were angels present
in the apartment while we were playing.’ What amazed Grondahl was the fact that
they barely knew each other yet ‘there was this strong connection that I’d
never felt with anyone else. It just seemed like a dream, mythic.’ The pair
recorded their noodling, on a new Mini Disc recorder that Buckley had scammed
from Sony. Known in Buckley folklore as ‘The Angel Tape’, Grondahl still has a
copy, even thought it’s barely audible. (Buckley was wary of the neighbours, it
being the middle of the night and all.) ‘It ended up on really low volume on
the tape,’ recalled Grondahl, ‘and I still wonder whether it did really happen
at all, without sounding too strange or obscure. It just had this huge
impression on me.’

 

Speaking in June 1994, Buckley was just as enthused,
describing their jam as ‘two-o’clock-in-the-morning-type-music’. ‘He had all
the qualities I dug,’ said Buckley. ‘There are bass players all over the city
that can play rings around him in terms of technique, but nobody else could
ever make the music he makes. And that’s more powerful.’6 According
to Grondahl, Buckley admired his ability to keep things ‘low key’. ‘He said
he’d experienced a lot of busy bass players and he liked the fact that I was
more simple, more methodical in constructing bass figures. When I started out
with Jeff I felt that he needed to stay “in front”, there was already so much
in his voice and guitar. I tried to stay out as much as possible, but when I
did come in, I felt that it was mostly to support him. Once that was
established I could meander a bit and explore the tonal range.’

 

The hiring of Grondahl typified Buckley’s attitude towards
his band. While he could have easily hired road-hardened ‘cats’, who could
match him note-for-note, he seemed intent on finding players that he could
connect with personally and musically – and, although he didn’t say it out
loud, he was probably also looking for musos that would give him the necessary
room on-stage to let him work his magic. These guys weren’t likely to compete
with Buckley; they were there to support him, not challenge him. Gary Lucas
considered them to be some ‘hand-picked band of young acolytes’. Leah Reid, for
one, could see that these guys weren’t quite on Buckley’s level as players.
‘Mick wasn’t the greatest songwriter or musician and he felt that maybe he
would never get this chance again. Michael [Tighe] would never become a
road-weary session guy, and Matt [Johnson] wasn’t the best drummer. But it
worked.’ And it must have pleased his label enormously that the group of
20-somethings he hired all possessed brooding good looks, making them an
easier, if not necessarily easy, sell.

 

Grondahl may have been turned on by the chance to play
alongside Buckley, but when he was hired, and then told that he had all of six
weeks to get in shape for the Grace recording
sessions at Woodstock, he started to doubt himself. On two separate occasions
he said to Buckley, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, you may need to get someone
better.’ Buckley paused, and in a gesture that dispelled all of Grondahl’s
fears, looked him straight in the eyes and stated: ‘No, you’re the man.’ ‘He
could tell I was down for the ride,’ said Grondahl, ‘and that’s what he was
looking for in musicians.’

 

Grondahl, however, remains unsure whether Buckley’s choice
as drummer, Matt Johnson – the first tub-thumper to audition, incidentally –
was totally ‘down for the ride’. Described by Leah Reid as ‘ warm and kind and
generous, [with] this great smile,’ Johnson was a Hollywood-handsome 22-year-old
Texan, who’d been living in New York for only four years, playing in a band
called the Choosy Mothers and also drumming for singer Dorothy Scott, who’d
helped Buckley score his Sin-E residency. A friend of Rebecca Moore had
recommended him to Buckley. After finding a message on his answering machine
from ‘a raspy-voiced Jeff Buckley’, as he recalled in The Making Of Grace EPK, Johnson first met with Grondahl and
Buckley in Context, a New York
rehearsal space.

 

Though not as ‘magical’ as the ‘angel jam’ between Buckley
and Grondahl, there were sparks, nonetheless: the framework of the track ‘Dream
Brother’ came to them within the first couple of hours of playing. (Buckley had
a knack for writing songs during first meetings: he’d also done this with Gary
Lucas and later on with Michael Tighe.) It began when Buckley turned to
Grondahl and asked: ‘Do you have any grooves?’ The bassist started to play
something he’d actually discarded from a previous jam, and Johnson settled into
what Grondahl described as ‘this really nice cymbal and snare and bass drum
kind of figure’7 Buckley then began to play a ‘snakelike pattern’.
Grondahl, for one, wasn’t sure that the song was flying – his initial reaction
was ‘Oh God, this form sounds really bad’, partly because he was using a
‘crappy’ amp and was also having trouble muting his strings – but they
continued, and the jam, in Grondahl’s words, ‘started to take off more and
more’. Straight away, Buckley knew he’d found his guy; as the instrumental
wound down he told Johnson he should join the band. ‘I asked Matt what he was
doing the next few months,’ Buckley said in The
Making Of Grace
, ‘and he said nothing was going on, which wasn’t quite
true. Maybe nothing special, but he had this whole life that I was upsetting.
So was Mick. Things were happening fast and I kind of ruined their lives and
made a new one.’8

 

The Grifters’ Dave Shouse, soon to become a Buckley
insider, recalled hearing a story from Johnson about that jam. ‘[Johnson] said
that the first time all three of them played, Jeff didn’t play any songs or
sing, he just did these weird guitar pattern things, because he wanted to make
sure that he took a person’s safety net out of play,’ he said. ‘Sometimes being
a really good musician doesn’t always cut it. Jeff wasn’t sure who he was
playing with and kind of said, “Let’s all be green at once.” Intuition, that’s
what he was looking for.’

 

A few days after that night at Context, Leah Reid
collected Buckley to drive him to a gig in Philadelphia. ‘He had a mini disc,’
she said, ‘and he told me, “I jammed with Matt Johnson.” And in my head I was
thinking, “The guy from The The?” I
didn’t want to not be cool, but I just couldn’t understand why he’d be playing
the drums with Jeff.’ This just went to show that while Johnson may have been a
drummer of repute in certain dark corners of New York, he was no Keith Moon.

 

Yet almost immediately, Grondahl, at least, sensed that
Johnson’s attitude towards the band differed to his. ‘Part of the situation
with Matt Johnson,’ he said to me, ‘was that he wasn’t necessarily down for the
ride in the long term. He was more focused on doing this for a while and then
moving onto another thing.’ (In hindsight, Grondahl was spot on: Johnson has
since played with Rufus Wainwright, Joan Wasser, Beth Orton and many others and
is now one of the most in-demand timekeepers in modern rock.) Grondahl’s
attitude towards Buckley was different. ‘We wanted to be like The Beatles and
continue on and on,’ he said. ‘So that was an issue.’

 

Grondahl, however, stressed that Johnson was ‘super
talented’ and ‘easy to work with musically’. And even though they came from
very different places on the map – Europe and New York in Grondahl’s case,
‘trailer trash’ California with Buckley, and Texas and Ohio, in the case of Johnson
– they ‘shared the same sense of humour,’ according to Grondahl. ‘There were
some differences, but we related really well, laughed a lot and felt good about
each other’s playing.’ He emphasised that the ‘deeper part’ of their connection
happened through music, not some craving for chicks and dope, like so many
bands (although Grondahl would have trouble with the latter in the near
future). ‘[Music] was the thing that stitched us together,’ he said.

 

One thing that Johnson did share with Grondahl, at least
at the start of their Grace odyssey, was a sense of panic: the trio was now
only weeks away from heading to Bearsville studio in Woodstock and starting
work on Buckley’s ‘proper’ debut. ‘It was very, very quick, very shocking,’ he
said in The Making Of Grace, ‘to go
from meeting someone to playing with them and then recording a few weeks later.
It was really scary.’ If anything, Columbia’s Berkowitz was relieved when
Johnson was hired. ‘[Until then] I was concerned a lot as to where he would
find a drummer that could hang with him,’ he confessed.9 Mike Webb,
Berkowitz’s assistant, gives due credit to his boss for allowing Buckley to
hire such a bunch of greenhorns. ‘Within himself he knew Jeff could choose
better guys but within his heart he wanted Jeff to make the album he wanted to
make.’

 

Grondahl once described their six weeks shut away in New
York’s Context Studio as a ‘kamikaze mission’, but he tones that down today. ‘I
think what I meant by that was that it was too strong; we were just very
full-on, we lived and breathed that music for six weeks. [But] it was exciting
to work with him. We were all constantly discovering new things and new
approaches, new ways to attack the songs, and that kept us going.’ Producer
Andy Wallace dropped by Context two or three times a week. ‘We’d be blasting
away, jamming, and he’d be taking notes,’ Grondahl recalled. At one stage,
Wallace turned to Buckley and asked: ‘Is this song meant to be 15 minutes
long?’ Buckley smiled and replied: ‘Well, could be, right?’ Wallace admitted
that it very well could be the case, but he didn’t hear the structure. Not yet,
anyway. ‘It was clear after talking with Jeff about it that they were just
jamming. He was, at the same time, I think, really trying to grab things that
worked arrangement-wise.’10 Wallace was too polite – or possibly too
scared of the possible response – to ask the key question: ‘Where are the
songs?’

 

Within a few months, Jeff Buckley’s career had shifted
from cruise control to hyper-speed: he’d gone from a Monday night residency at
Sin-E hanging with Tree Man to near boiling point. He barely had times to shake
hands with Grondahl and Johnson before they were to be shut away in one of the
most renowned (and expensive) studios in the USA. And it’s worth bearing in mind
that Johnson and Grondahl were as ‘green’ as Buckley when it came to working in
a major studio like Bearsville. ‘We weren’t seasoned professionals,’ said
Grondahl. ‘I’d had some experience, but more home-made studios and what not,
not 24-track studios.’ Established in 1969 by the imposing figure of Albert
Grossman, Bob Dylan’s first manager, Bearsville studio had been instrumental
(pun intended) in the creation of such albums as R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People and Green,
The Band’s Cahoots and Get Close from The Pretenders. It wasn’t
the kind of space that was used by novices. It was a massive risk on the part
of Columbia: there was every chance they’d be kissing several hundred thousand
dollars goodbye, and if it fell apart it could have spelled the end of very
brief musical careers for Buckley, Grondahl and Johnson. And Buckley certainly
didn’t have an album’s worth of new material ready for recording; he was
incredibly fortunate that the nucleus for ‘Dream Brother’ emerged from his
first jam with Johnson.

 

Nonetheless, Buckley’s stock was very much on the rise
within the corridors of ‘Black Rock’. Leah Reid witnessed that first hand
during one of Buckley’s regular visits to her office. It was her birthday, and
a cake had been organised. ‘He came and got me from my office – and everyone
swarmed all over him. It was like, “ooh, that’s weird”.’ The key-jangling guy
who until recently had been studiously ignored by staffers was suddenly a very
hot property. According to Mike Webb, ‘The women at Columbia were all giddy
about the guy.’ It was like Sin-E all over again.

 

***

 

Late September 1993 wasn’t too bad a time to be alive.
Execs at Columbia, for one, were chuffed; no less than three of their
hit-makers – Billy Joel, Mariah Carey and scruffy rockers Soul Asylum – were
riding high in the US Top 20 with ‘River Of Dreams’, ‘Dreamlover’ and ‘Runaway
Train’, respectively. And the scrawny 26-year-old who could well be their next
superstar was unpacking his bags and taking the country air in Woodstock, a
rural retreat with a weighty musical history. Bob Dylan, who had broken his
neck there, had made some of his finest music with The Band at Big Pink, their
Woodstock HQ (as heard on the legendary Basement
Tapes
). There was also the music festival at nearby Bethel in 1969, ‘three
days of peace and love and joy’, as the heady, epic Woodstock rockumentary informed those who weren’t amongst the
half-million or so mud-caked hippies who witnessed career-defining sets by Joe
Cocker, Santana, Country Joe McDonald, The Who and many others.

 

But the area’s musical past wasn’t necessarily the reason
that Bearsville Studio was chosen for the Grace sessions, at least not in the case of Buckley. ‘Somebody Jeff ‘s age and
temperament,’ producer Andy Wallace told me with a very significant pause, when
we spoke in 2002, ‘well, there was bound to be plenty of distractions in the
city.’ (Buckley backed this up in The
Making Of Grace
. ‘I’m an easily distracted person,’ he admitted, as Ernie
Fritz’s camera tried to keep up as he wandered along some rustic Woodstock back
road. ‘So this is great.’) Wallace, who’d worked at Bearsville with R.E.M.,
also had more traditional reasons for choosing Bearsville. ‘There’s a real
music history there,’ Wallace said. ‘And the main building is huge; it has two
studios and a residential apartment. Studio A has a huge live room –
airplane-hangar huge. It’s a beautiful sounding room.’ Buckley summed it up
neatly when he sat down, looked around him, uttered a few words to test Studio
A’s acoustics and said, simply: ‘This room is awesome.’

 

Producer Steve Addabbo, who’d recorded a solo Buckley in
New York, wasn’t entirely sure that Bearsville was the right choice. ‘It’s a
very big studio and it can be very impersonal, the room is about 40 by 80 with
this huge ceiling. Very cavernous. It’s on a grand scale and to go up there for
your first record… The thing that is great is that you’re living there all
together. I love that atmosphere, that woodshedding, an isolated, concentrated
environment.’

 

For the band, Bearsville and Woodstock, despite its
distance from New York, was actually a relief after the intense sessions at
Context. This type of cabin fever was far preferable. ‘It was late September,’
said Grondahl, ‘and the leaves were changing, we were living together, getting
to know each other, listening to The Cocteau Twins and whatever music we liked.
And we were sharing time together, which we hadn’t the time to before, when we
were really thrown together. It was good to have a change of scene,’ he added.
‘Going to Bearsville was fantastic.’

 

Buckley, Johnson and Grondahl would record with Wallace on
weekdays, while at the weekends, the producer left Bearsville to see his
family, so they’d either check out their surroundings or return to New York.
‘It was a really fun time,’ said Grondahl. ‘We were trekking around, seeing the
deer walking along the creek. It was quite cosy, a welcome change. It was
perfect for where we were at then: we could focus on the music but we were
close enough to New York to resume our social life.’

 

The ever-savvy Wallace worked hard to create the right
mood in the studio, so he arranged to have several distinctly different
‘set-ups’ available to Buckley at all times. ‘There was a loud, electric
set-up,’ said Steve Berkowitz in The
Making Of Grace
, ‘an acoustic set-up and like a one-person folk club
set-up. And everything was miked.’11 The concept was ideal: Buckley
could either work out songs with the band and Wallace – most of the writing and
arranging took place in Woodstock – or cool off by playing covers and curios,
just as he had at Sin-E. And Buckley’s attitude was definitely anything goes:
one morning Wallace clocked on for duty and Buckley was tearing a hole through
‘Hocus Pocus’, a chaotic collision of yodelling and soloing from Dutch
prog-rockers Focus.

 

All up, Buckley recorded at least an album’s worth of
covers while in Bearsville, including numerous stabs at Dylan’s ‘Mama, You’ve
Been On My Mind’, ‘Just Like A Woman’ and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’, along
with takes on Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (also in several different flavours), Led
Zep’s ‘Night Flight’, the blues chestnuts ‘Parchman Farm Blues’ and ‘Dink’s
Song’, plus his gravel-and-sand assault on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ‘Alligator
Wine’, a rave-up that clearly gave Buckley the chance to blow off any built-up
steam. Most of the covers were done in the morning, before Buckley attempted to
nail vocal takes on the album’s ‘proper’ songs. ‘He’d do that more or less to
warm up and get his voice started,’ said Grondahl. (Or, in the case of
‘Alligator Wine’, discover if it really was possible to cough up a lung while
singing.) ‘He did a lot of covers,’ said Wallace, ‘and a couple of very funny
things, [including] a take of an old Delta blues that had us cracking up.’12 (It wasn’t all laughs in the studio, though; Wallace was nicknamed ‘The Fist’
for his habit of illustrating a point by thumping the console.)

 

A few weeks in, Leah Reid swung by Bearsville, with
director Ernie Fritz and his film crew in tow. As she recalled, her luck was
in: Buckley was attempting to cut definitive vocals for ‘Grace’ and
‘Hallelujah’. ‘It was a good day,’ she laughed. Buckley’s perfectionist streak
was on full display; after swooning and crooning his way through a remarkable
‘Hallelujah’, he turned to the awestruck production crew, who were filming
everything for the Sony EPK, shrugged and said: ‘It was OK.’ Reid laughed it
off as typical Buckley. ‘These guys are blown away and he thought it was OK,’
she said. ‘It was an incredible opportunity to experience him doing that in the
studio but at the same time, with the camera crew there, he felt the presence
of “the machine”. He was very aware. There were uncomfortable moments for him,
where he thought, “Oh, oh, it’s starting.” So it was a day of mixed blessings.
He performed this magical song but then we’d be strapping a microphone on him
so we could walk up this gravel road in Woodstock and do an interview.’

 

Another Bearsville drop-in was guitarist Gary Lucas.
Buckley, in another demonstration of his almost over-powering sense of loyalty,
invited his former bandmate to place his avant-garde stamp on ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo
Pin’, despite the messy falling out they’d had at the end of Gods And Monsters.
(Admittedly, Lucas co-wrote both songs, so there was also some payback
involved.) While Lucas was in the studio, Buckley began working on the vocals
for the album’s title track. ‘He came out of the booth with this sheepish,
little boy look, like “Did I do good?”‘ Lucas recalled. ‘He knew it was fucking
great.’13*

 

* King Buzzo, of psychedelic grunge band the Melvins,
became an unlikely friend of Buckley’s when he dropped by the studio.

 

Karl Berger, an acclaimed Woodstock-based jazz composer,
arranger, pianist and vibraphonist, also dropped by, adding sweeping string
arrangements to several Grace tracks.
Buckley was in awe of the 58-year-old peer and pal of jazzman Ornette Coleman,
whose greying temples and glasses suggested a college professor rather than a
jazz great. As Buckley declared, ‘It’s like having a regal visitation, having
someone arrange for strings. He can do, you know, a chord progression with
strings that makes [a song] completely different. It was a really great treat.’14

 

The recording of ‘Mojo Pin’, which came about three weeks
into the sessions, was a key moment for Buckley and the band: it finally seemed
that, after a few hit-and-miss weeks, some sonic sparks had started to fly. But
this discovery didn’t come to them in the studio; instead, it sunk in as they
motored around Woodstock in a rented van, listening closely to a cassette
(their preferred method of reviewing works-in-progress). ‘It was such a
privilege,’ Grondahl said, ‘because you could drive around listening to it in
such a precise, acute way. You could just hear it so much better – it was a really
good gauge of what the song was doing, whether it needed anything more.’
Grondahl recalled how they felt that ‘Mojo Pin’ – which was cut in one take –
‘was the point when all of a sudden things turned into something more. Before
that it was coming along, but now you could hear a certain potential for how
other songs could be defined.’ Steve Berkowitz agreed. He was amazed how this
song that stretched to almost five minutes felt anything but drawn out. It was
almost Dylan-esque.

 

Speaking in Everybody
Here Wants You
, Berkowitz felt that this was really the leaping-off point
for the making of Grace (although
Grondahl felt that Berkowitz was exaggerating when I repeated the following
statement to him). ‘This volcanic eruption of artistry came booming out of him,
that was just wild,’ said Berkowitz, with the type of fervour usually reserved
for political rallies. ‘It was hundreds of ideas, guitar parts, vocal parts,
backwards parts, extra drum parts and tablas – baboom!’15

 

Drummer Johnson didn’t share Berkowitz’s unbridled
enthusiasm, as he admitted in the same documentary. ‘As I was playing I was
thinking, this is so over-the-top, this has got to be sucking. Then I’d listen
back and think, this is kind of garish, that voice going up really high like
that at the end, dragging along with this outro, with these descending chords
and this high vibrato on the voice. Then I went, no, this is really great.’16 ‘Mojo Pin’ may have been a
major moment for Grondahl, but Johnson felt that ‘Dream Brother’, even in its
vocal-less, lyric-less form, was his personal turning point. ‘I thought it’d
never make the record,’ he confessed. ‘It was this droney, Eastern thing, like
a backing music for a mantra or some big Led Zeppelin thing. When he came up
with that melody, I heard it over the headphones and I thought it was amazing,
so beautiful. I never would have thought of that melody in a million years.’17

 

Five weeks in, though, as the Grace sessions drew to a close, something unspoken lingered in the
air at Woodstock:
Buckley simply didn’t have sufficient material to fill an album; certainly not
enough originals, anyway. (By this stage they’d recorded ‘Mojo Pin’, ‘Grace’,
‘Last Goodbye’, ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’, ‘Eternal Life’ and ‘Forget
Her’, which failed to make the final cut.) As Johnson reflected, ‘We didn’t
have enough songs to make a, you know, “Jeff Buckley wrote every song kind of
record”. At least he didn’t have enough songs that he liked. He might have had
them but he didn’t pull them out.’18

 

Buckley’s stump-speech, when the album was finally done,
was that he decided to include the numerous covers – ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Corpus
Christi Carol’ and ‘Lilac Wine’ – in a concerted attempt to ‘link this album to
my past’. While there’s little doubt that Columbia always intended for some
Sin-E era songs to make the record, the reality was more likely that Buckley
was either reluctant to unveil any new songs he had – or possibly he had
nothing left, just as Johnson suggested. The mixture of his stifling creative
inertia, and relentless perfectionism, which would really come into full view a
couple of years later when attempting a follow-up to Grace, was obviously a problem for Buckley as early as 1993. Lee
Underwood believed that Jeff suffered a sort of ‘neurotic inner division’ when
he wrote; in short, he feared being compared to his father. Underwood wrote
about this in private notes for his book Blue
Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered
. ‘It seems to me that if Jeff paid his
respects to Tim and did it honestly, opened his arms to Tim, embraced Tim with
love and acceptance and appreciation, that he would heal this terrible wound
that is dividing him and setting him at war – not against Tim – but against
himself. If he does acknowledge his biological and musical influences, he reunites
himself with his father, stops alienating everyone who liked Tim, and, most
importantly, frees himself from this rather sad, self-destructive, neurotic
inner division.’19 (Underwood, nonetheless, remains a huge admirer
of Buckley’s work, praising his voice, ‘his intensity’ and his ‘improvisational
courage’. ‘He’s not getting all this recognition for nothing,’ he wrote while
Buckley was still alive. ‘He’s a first-rate contemporary artist and deserves
every ounce of respect and appreciation he receives from audiences and the
press.’)

 

The closest that Buckley ever came to addressing this
turmoil was when he referred to the overall album as ‘an elegy, sort of a
child’s coffin… full of past ghosts, exorcised in song’.20-22 Certainly none of his bandmates were bold – or tacky – enough to ask about the
impact, positive or otherwise, his father had on his work. ‘I had the suspicion
that to talk about that would have been bad taste,’ Grondahl figured. ‘I
wouldn’t feel inclined to go up to Ziggy Marley and go, “Rastaman Vibration is the greatest album”.’ A few years later,
though, Buckley did sit down with Grondahl and talk through his ‘father
issues’. ‘He forgave his father and didn’t want to hold this anger, this
weight, against him,’ Grondahl told me. ‘He was very sincere about that.’
Grondahl wasn’t so sure that Buckley had resolved his concerns with his mother,
however. ‘I feel like he still had some difficulty with her, right up until he
passed away.’

 

***

 

Though still a song or two shy of a completed album, the
Bearsville sessions had been rewarding enough for Buckley and his new band, as
they packed away their gear in late October and returned to the city. Wallace
had added the necessary brawn and brain to Buckley’s originals, especially the
emphatic ‘Eternal Life’, at the same time keeping most of his covers in a
relatively pristine state. Meanwhile, back at Black Rock, Sony boss Don Ienner
was impressed by the rough mixes being sent down from Woodstock. ‘He was always
supportive of Jeff,’ said Leah Reid, ‘but that’s when he sensed there was a
commercial potential. It was a genius move to get Andy Wallace for that record.
So it was at that point that Donny got vocal. It was one of those things that
people sensed; he’d mention Jeff ‘s name in a meeting and you’d go, “That’s who
he likes.” Once Donny was in, everyone wanted a piece of it.’

 

Not everyone at Columbia HQ shared this opinion, though.
Mike Webb, who’d listen to the rough mixes with Berkowitz, could see what
Wallace was doing with Buckley’s songs: he was giving them a radio-friendly
sheen. The first thing he and Berkowitz heard were rough tapes of Buckley
playing solo, followed by basic band recordings, ‘and that was great stuff.
Then we heard the Andy Wallace mixes and we went… hmmm. He clogged the sound right into the middle [of the mix], for
radio. What I heard before was much bigger and better than what Andy did.’ He
cited the removal of a guitar part from ‘Eternal Life’ as one example of
Wallace’s sonic intervention. ‘Andy should not have done what he did,’ Webb
said. (He nominated Daniel Lanois or Hal Willner as producers who might have
done a better job. ‘Jeff needed someone very creative, someone who could make
sure the tape was rolling and then encourage him: “Go for it! Go for it!” ‘)

 

Buckley, Grondahl and Johnson had clearly formed a bond
during the past few months; while they weren’t necessarily ready for group
hugs, there was a chemistry building between them that would truly come to
fruition once they took this album on the road (with the addition of guitarist
Michael Tighe, who’d soon get on board). But all this was still some way in the
future: right now, Buckley had to journey back to his past and start talking up
Live At Sin-E. He was also about to
have an uncomfortable encounter with his biggest idol of all, Bob Dylan, in a
poorly handled reminder that he may not have been Sony’s golden-haired boy
after all.

 

[Photo Credit: Merri
Cyr/courtesy Backbeat Books]

 

Notes:

1. Berkowitz, Steve: Liner notes, Live At Sin-E, Legacy Edition, 2003 Columbia Records

2. Fritz, Ernie: Columbia Records: Grace EPK

3. See note 2

4. Keleman, Gayle: Mick Grondahl interview, www.jeffbuckley.com, November 2, 1995

5. Perret, Philippe: Get Your Soul Out, Les Inrockuptibles

6. Diehl, Matt: The Son Also Rises… Rolling Stone, October 20, 1994

7. See note 2

8. See note 4

9. See note 2

10. See note 2

11. See note 2

12. Irvin, Jim: It’s Never Over, Mojo, August 1997

13. See note 12

14. See note 2

15. BBC2 Everybody
Here Wants You
documentary

16. See note 15

17. See note 15

18. See note 2

19. Underwood, Lee: Blue
Melody: Tim Buckley Remembered
, Backbeat Books, 2002

20. Smith, Andrew: His Father’s Son, The Sunday Times, June 8, 1997

21. Creswell, Toby: Grace Under Fire, Juice, February 1996

22. www.jeffbuckley.com

 

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