Buckley's friends and collaborators tell the full story of his rise
Live At Sin-é was released in America in November ’93. But Columbia’s counterparts at Sony in London declined to follow suit, feeling the EP had no commercial potential. Instead it was given a UK release by Big Cat, which had signed a licensing deal with Columbia. The next step was to bring Buckley over to promote it. “We knew he was very good live – that’s how he was sold to us by the American company,” says Luc Vergier, a Frenchman who ran Columbia’s marketing in London. “We decided to put him on the road, on his own, for a short tour.”
Buckley arrived in the second week of March ’94 with his Telecaster and Fender amp. He played in Sheffield, flew to Dublin and then hit London for a series of gigs that are still spoken of in hallowed terms 19 years later. On one particular Friday night, he gave a three-hour performance in two different venues, beginning at Bunjies, the folk café, where he handed everyone a flower with mock solemnity as they took their seats. When Bunjies closed, Buckley led the audience (still with their flowers) to the nearby 12 Bar Club where he played for a further 90 minutes. He took requests, accepted a joint and sang until he almost collapsed off the stage. “Live At Sin-é came out on the Monday,” recalls Abbott, “and sold nearly 6,000 on the first day. The word of mouth from those two gigs was crazy.”
Buckley returned to the UK in August with his band. Five days after Grace was released, they played the Reading Festival in a mid-afternoon slot beneath Cud and Echobelly. In hindsight, their lowly billing symbolises the size of the mountain Buckley still had to climb, and the extent to which Grace would struggle to assert its identity – let alone its audacity – in the year of Parklife, Alice In Chains and Hootie & The Blowfish. There was a unspoken subtext to the ensuing 21-month tour: Columbia’s abiding disappointment with Grace’s sales in America.
“It never broke in an immediate way, the way other bands’ records did,” Mick Grondahl told Uncut. “It grew. To us, that was the point. We didn’t want to do something fashionable. We wanted to do something that had a nice feel to it. Feel was the key word. Never mind that it was this style or that style. It was more about, how does it feel? How does it touch you?”
One man who loved Grace was Jimmy Page. There was arguably no-one whose opinion Buckley valued more. He’d sung Zeppelin songs at Sin-é. He’d amused Tony Maimone at Gods And Monsters rehearsals by thumping out “When The Levee Breaks” on the drums. Buckley’s music on Grace, and in his band’s live shows, embraced androgynous vocals, ’70s rock, power chords and heroic drumming. One might even say there was a transference of Zeppelin energy taking place, a blessing or endorsement from afar, from the older men to the young. When Page and Buckley met, it was clear they understood each other on a profound level.
“Jeff told me they cried,” says Chris Dowd. “They actually cried when they met each other. Jimmy heard himself in Jeff, and Jeff was meeting his idol. Jimmy Page was the godfather of Jeff’s music. A lot of people thought Tim was the influence on Jeff, but it was really Zeppelin. He could play all the parts on all the songs. John Paul Jones’ basslines. Page’s guitar parts. The synthesiser intro on ‘In The Light’ – he could play it on guitar and it would sound just like it. And then he would get on the fucking drums and exactly mimic John Bonham.”
Perhaps Page also recognised in Buckley – whom he considered the greatest singer to have emerged in 20 years – a rare courage, an elemental intrepid streak, a fearlessness and a gung-ho spirit that allowed him to reach heights of expression that many of his ’90s contemporaries were too self-conscious to risk or too uninspired to imagine. In that sense, Buckley was a true son of Zeppelin. Matt Johnson, in a comment that is all the more poignant given the circumstances of Buckley’s death, remembers him as an adventurer in music and in life – a man “well suited to jumping into raw experience – unprotected, raw experience. He seemed to have a quicksilver flexibility and an ability to adjust.”
Since the day his body was found in the Mississippi River in June 1997, appreciation of Buckley has soared (“Grace was way more successful posthumously,” Johnson notes) and in many people’s eyes he’s become the timeless heritage artist that Columbia believed they’d signed in 1992. Others feel he was only just finding his feet. “It would have been amazing to hear his fourth or fifth album,” says Brenda Kahn. “I don’t think his music had been totally fleshed out yet.” Hal Willner thinks about that fifth album, too. What conceivable directions would Buckley’s voice and guitar have taken?
“I have to say he’s still hard for a lot of people to listen to,” Willner continues. “His mom, Mary, got me to edit together some tapes that he made in his early New York days. The stuff with Gary. And what was interesting about those tapes – what was really heartbreaking – was hearing him sing the way he sang when he came to New York. He changed it later… became less studied. But it’s hard to listen to it. It’s too sad.”
Buckley left his New York home on June 1, 1994 to tour Grace in America. “Keep the next year free,” the band were advised by George Stein, Buckley’s lawyer-manager, a comment they would later laugh about. First France became enchanted with them (two tours in ’95) and then Britain wanted them back. And even when they’d toured America twice, three times, and been to Japan, there was always Australia waiting in the distance.
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