Story by Abigail:
One day in 1994, when I was about 16, an older lad I’d never seen before knocked on our front door and asked my mum if he could be my friend.
I overheard him explaining to her that he’d seen me around wearing an REM t-shirt. He said that no else he knew was into music, let alone ‘proper’ music and could he come in.
Rather surprisingly, my mum said yes. The Boy (gangly, spotty, massive bobbing Adam’s apple) and I had an awkward chat.
He told me he had a very expensive record player in his bedroom that brought music to life in a way that had to be heard to be believed. (That ol’ chestnut.) Intrigued, I went round to his house a few days later and he played me some tunes.
At 19 he seemed much older than me, but still lived with his parents.
His bedroom was absolutely tiny and dominated by that poster you used to see everywhere of Zappa having a shit. First (presumably to warm me up), he played me Kristin Hersh and Michael Stipe’s ‘Your Ghost’ and yes! There it was! A timpani – rich and round - that I’d never really noticed before.
We talked about the Velvets and Neil Young, but then he pulled out an album I knew nothing about: Blue Afternoon by Tim Buckley. He put the needle down onto ‘Chase the Blues Away’ with great ceremony. The track was so spacious and quietening, I drifted away, mesmerised. Unfortunately, The Boy mistook my Buckley-related rapture for something else and promptly asked if could kiss me. Wearied by the inevitability of it all, I said ‘not today’ and went on my way.
A short time after that I started reading reports of the emergence of Jeff Buckley – Tim’s even more beautiful son whose voice also spanned an impossible number of octaves. I couldn’t wait to hear his stuff.
Around August that same year I spotted an advert for ‘Grace’ in the music press. I remember walking to the bus stop on the sun-drenched morning of its release. At this time in my life it seemed terribly important to buy an album on the day of release (I would often bunk off school to do this), as though the musician in question would somehow know if you were late. Chart positions obsessed me.
So, off I went to Action Records (Preston), where I meekly asked Gordon, the owner, if I could have a listen to ‘Grace’. Now Gordon was cast very much in the mould of your average independent record shop proprietor: a grouchy, middle-aged, wild-haired Scot who did not enjoy turning off what he was listening to to put something on for a customer. ‘Are ye definitely gonna buy something?’ he growled.
Seconds later, the opening bars of ‘Mojo Pin’ filled the shop and that was it: sold. I can picture this scene now with great clarity. So many memories fall away. What makes us hang on to some moments and not others?
(Note: it didn’t take me long to morph into a kind of mini-Gordon myself, when a few weeks later I got my first job in a record shop.)
The following March (1995) I went see to Jeff perform at MDH. It was all so easy. By this stage I’d moved out of my parents’ house. Gone were the days of buttering up my cranky dad for months on end in order to secure a lift from Preston to the Manchester. With the time of the last Blackpool North inked on the back of my hand, I set off, with my sister, to the station, lightheaded with anticipation (and Diamond White, probably).
We found a spot on the front row with no hassle – we could hardly believe it - and settled in to watch support band Drugstore. Towards the end of their set they welcomed a ‘guest drummer’ onstage. It was Jeff Buckley– bare chested with wet hair and a towel around his neck, as though he’d just stepped out of the shower, or the boxing ring. Much wibbling ensued. Drugstore rounded off with Portishead’s ‘Glory Box’, which went down well, and then it was time for the main event.
The gig was intense in a way that is hard to put into words. Something deep passed between band and crowd. Jeff was aggressive, sexual, spiritual. The band was much heavier live than on record.
About half way into the set Jeff shouted something along the lines of ‘Fuckin’ bitch! I knew she was after blood!’ before screaming into his cover of ‘Kick Out The Jams’. I suspected the outburst was in reference to an interview he’d done earlier in the day during which yet another journo had questioned him about his dad – a subject he was notoriously sensitive about. *
The gig remains one of the best and most bewitching I’ve ever witnessed. The feeling is indelible, although weirdly, my only strong visual memory is of Jeff behind the drum kit.
On May 29 1997 Jeff drowned whilst arsing about in Wolf River Harbor – a slack water channel of the Mississippi River. Apparently he jumped in for a swim fully clothed (including boots) whilst hollering ‘Whole Lotta Love’.
I found out about his death whilst mooching through the Sunday paper in the rehearsal rooms I was working in at the time. It was an inch-long column deep inside the Guardian. I was shocked and angry. The fucking waste. Jeff didn’t get an RIP cover on NME or Melody Maker. Details and coverage were scant. The was no internet then for his death to reverberate around ad nauseum. It was a whimper, not a bang. All of this made the loss feel more personal.
Since then, ‘Grace’ has become one of the most celebrated debuts in rock history. (But don’t let this put you off.) Jeff’s prowess as a live performer has been captured and shared on over fifty bootlegs and a couple of official releases. I’m sure it was his version of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ that spurned a thousand toe-curling imitations, rather than the (still lovely) original.
But for a short time it felt like this Mystery White Boy was all mine. ‘Asleep in the sand with the ocean washing over…’
*(You can listen to an excellent Radio 4 documentary about Jeff below. The story centres on his first radio interview in the UK where excessive focus was place on his estranged father and he kicked off mightily.)
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