Uncut hears the inside story of how a genius singer-songwriter learned his craft
BERKOWITZ: He didn’t play cover songs. He played other people’s compositions and made them his own. He consumed the idea and the feel. He was really a blues singer, I think. He had that religious depth of feeling that blues music has, or that Billie Holiday had. You can hear it on “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin’”, which is just an exquisite performance.
TIGHE: That song was also sung by Ray Charles, and there are some real similarities between Jeff and Ray, in that they were singers and musicians before they were songwriters. It was almost like they did tons of covers in order to get to their own badass songs. With Jeff, there wasn’t much original material at that point.
BERKOWITZ: He had written “Grace” with Gary Lucas, the guitar player in Gods And Monsters, before they split up. All the stuff Gary wrote [on guitar], Jeff was very capable of playing as well, as he did here, with those fast, repetitive riffs.
ADDABBO: He wasn’t confident about his songwriting at all. He relied on his covers; there were very few original compositions played throughout the three days.
BERKOWITZ: We had got to the point in the sessions of, “So, what else have you got?” when I heard him singing, “You and I, you and I.” I said, “What is that, where did that come from?” Click. Record. “Yeah, this was a dream…” and he started telling the story about a gay couple. This was a kind of verboten subject in 1993, but not in Jeff’s world. There are people dying of AIDS all around us in the Village. That was “Dream Of You And I”. It’s almost some kind of healing chant. I thought, ‘This is fantastic, this is going to be an opera,’ but of course, it’s just two minutes of his brain working! We kept thinking we would come back to it one day. We thought there would be many more days. We didn’t think they would get cut short. And he was never one for going backwards.
ABBOTT: Those formative years are all about his influences rather than his songwriting. He listened to so many things and managed to channel them into his talent and eventually come up with something that had his own stamp on it. He was a musical magpie; he could imitate anything. He did a great Robert Plant, which you hear on “Night Flight”. He did a grumpy Leonard Cohen. I remember he did a perfect Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan the night after first hearing him!
LORY: If Jeff met you, he could mimic you within five minutes. He’d do impersonations of Beavis & Butthead on the tour bus, or of record company execs, and it was the same with music. He could pull the soul out of it. Even with the worst rap or country, he’d find the good in it. He was like a sponge. He’d always say, “It’s about the music, stoopid!”
ABBOTT: Music was his language. I can’t remember ever talking with him about much else. He was a big Guinness drinker, and we would meet at a bar called Tom & Jerry’s, which had a great jukebox. He would ask how my daughter was, then it was, ‘Have you heard the new…?’ He sat around playing guitar all day, and listening to records and cassettes. He would devour them.
LORY: He was always playing music. If he wasn’t playing he was listening – or dancing, or singing. That was his escapism. Other people do drugs. He was a music junkie. He was very fun-loving, but there was a vulnerability. He never really had any roots as a child. You could sense his fear, his loneliness, and it made you want to protect him more.
TIGHE: He perhaps became a little bit more withdrawn and melancholy later on, but in ’93 he didn’t come across as a person with a lot of pain. He was overjoyed and hyperactive. He had a lot of Californian punk-rock energy. Super-positive, tons of ideas. I’d come home from high school and he’d be vaulting over the couch with my toddler brother. He’d make these elaborate skits as an answering-machine message for him and his girlfriend, which would include the character of Spinach The Cat. It was this weird story that would last three minutes. He would even call me to do rehearsals: “Do you think I should do the Spinach voice like this…?”