The Unmade Star

One of the first major stories published on Jeff Buckley

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-e 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 spiky 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.

Jeffrey Scott Buckley was born in 1966, the same year his father released his first album and also parted ways with his first wife, Mary Guibert. "I never knew him," Jeff Buckley said flatly. "I met him once, when I was 8. We went to visit him, and he was working in his room, so I didn't even get to talk to him. And that was it."

Mr. Buckley grew up with his mother and stepfather, mostly in Southern California, and learned about his father from old friends. "His life was hell," his son said.

Curiously, it was his father's music that made people notice Jeff Buckley. In 1991, he flew to New York to appear at a Tim Buckley tribute concert. "Everyone was there to celebrate the music of Tim Buckley, and here was someone who looked like him, sounded like him and had the same vocal range," said Nicholas Hill, who was at the concert and has since presented Mr. Buckley on his live music show on WFMU-FM. "It was very spooky, but impressive. The buzz was pretty immediate after that."

Mr. Buckley 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-e (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-e.

Shane Doyle, Sin-e'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.

Mr. Buckley's apprenticeship didn't last long. Even though he has no manager -- just a lawyer -- word spread through the music business about the raw talent downtown. Soon, record executives like Clive Davis of Arista were spotted wedged behind Sin-e's chessboard-size tables. Late last year, Mr. Buckley was signed by Sony, which will release an EP, "Live at Sin-e," in mid-November, followed by a full album next year.

With any luck, that EP, recorded this past summer, will make listeners feel as if they're in that 50-person space during one of Mr. Buckley's eccentric shows. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he often starts casually, telling a story about, say, attending a heavy-metal festival, complete with all the mimicry and timing of a standup comic. Then, accompanied by his own electric guitar, he starts singing, and suddenly the pale, thin, wisecracking kid is transformed into a kid possessed.

Singing an a cappella version of the traditional gospel/blues song "Be Your Husband," he dips and gyrates, slapping his palm against his chest for a beat. Even his guitar playing is unpredictable, swerving from a metal riff with clear links to Led Zeppelin to complex, jazz-influenced chord changes, sometimes during the same song.

Tim Buckley had only a cult following and bounced from label to label. Not surprisingly, his son is apprehensive about entering the big-time music business. "I'm convinced part of the reason I got signed is because of who I am," he said with a sigh. "And it makes me sad."

Sony executives declined to comment, saying it was "too early" to discuss Mr. Buckley. But Mr. Doyle said: "He gets nervous when the record company limos pull up outside. Those are never his best gigs."

When asked which musicians have influenced his work, Mr. Buckley cites figures that pre-date 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."

Although Mr. Hill has booked Mr. Buckley on his WFMU show several times, he still doesn't know what to make of him. "He's very enigmatic and mysterious," he said. "It adds to his mystique."

What no one doubts, it seems, is Mr. Buckley's charisma. Just before he left for Woodstock, N.Y., last month to record his first album, Mr. Buckley gave one more show at Sin-e. It was near midnight on a Sunday night; yet, the crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk. Afterward, a dark-haired woman approached him. "You are like a sieve for music," she gushed. "Your soul is beautiful."

Mr. Buckley thanked her and began stuffing his guitar into its canvas case. "I'll never stop playing places like this," he said after she left. "You know when someone puts out an album, and then they start only playing big places? I hope I never end up like that. I love it here."

Source: David Browne - New York Times - October 24, 1993, Section 9, Page 5