Photo credit: Jeff
Buckley ©Merri Cyr
Although I’m the author of two books, Soul
Companions (2008) and The Dangerous Man (2010), I’ve
always been passionate about music. When I was an art student of about
18, the realisation suddenly dawned on me that even if I listened to different music
every day for the rest of my life, I would never get to hear all of
the music in the world. That bothered me immensely... what if I missed
something important? (Curiously, the same has never occurred to me
about missing books). As the years passed by and I became a
self-proclaimed ‘connoisseur of music’, I had somehow forgotten this and arrogantly assumed that if there was anything worth listening to then I'd definitely know about it. Nothing slipped by me – well...
nothing worth listening to, anyway. How it could have happened that Jeff
Buckley and Grace slipped through the net in 1994, I honestly don’t
understand. My only excuse is that, at the time, I was probably far too busy making music of my own to notice anyone else's!
Jeff went 'missing' (presumed drowned) on May 29th, 1997, on the eve of recording his second album and preparing to greet his band members who were flying into Memphis that very night. The story goes that, on the way to the studio he'd popped down to Wolf River with roadie/hairdresser/musician Keith Foti and had decided to go (fully clothed) into the water, singing Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love. Two boats had passed-by, creating waves, and in the time it took for Foti to move his guitar and ghetto blaster out of harm's way, Jeff had disappeared from sight. Six days later, they pulled his body out of the water. It was June 4th and I was celebrating my 28th birthday, oblivious. Jeff was just two years older than me.
Fast-forward 18 years later (2009), around 3 A.M. I was unable to get to sleep, so I got up and put the kettle on. I’d been regularly jamming with my friend Ben who’d suggested that we cover a song by someone called Jeff Buckley in our live set and he’d lent me the Live at Sin-é (Legacy Edition) CD to check out. The disc was lying around and I still hadn't listened to it. Bleary-eyed and not expecting much, I pushed the ‘bonus video footage’ into the DVD-player and pressed ‘play’...
Ironically, it wasn't his music but his poem New Year’s Eve Prayer that did it for me (if you haven’t heard it before, then here it is);
At that time, I was recovering from a failed marriage where I'd felt I hadn’t been ‘allowed’ to do much of anything, so it had moved me deeply to hear a man say those words. I wrote down Jeff’s poem and stuck it on my wall as a reminder to myself.
I listened to some tracks from Grace and chose Mojo Pin and So Real to cover (being the best suited to my voice)… we jammed them a few times and played them live at a couple of small pubs in the area. Then, later-on that month, I had an interesting dream...
I walked into a small theatre-like venue with a raised stage at one end. Jeff had just finished doing something musical (I got the impression he’d been teaching a class). There were rows of empty seats and I sat down next to him. We talked about many things I don’t remember. He gave me a piece of dark chocolate and I gave him some white chocolate in exchange. I asked him to write something in my notebook and he watched me as I flicked through the pages trying to find some space. He leaned in over my shoulder and started to read and I was embarrassed as it was a mess, but he liked it anyway.
The morning after I had this dream, which was so real (excuse the pun), I went straight to my laptop to find out as much as I could about Jeff; his background and music. I was astonished to find a version of Mojo Pin – one of the songs we'd been practising – referred to as Chocolate Mojo Pin because of the lyrics he sings:"Your love is like sweet black chocolate melting in my back pocket... melting on the tongue of god." It blew me away;
I didn’t know anything about Jeff prior to the dream – that he actually did have a love of notebooks, which happens to be a passion of mine, too (I have several of them on-the-go at once and, yes, every one of them really is a disorganised mess).
The following year, the idea slowly came to me for my third book – to write about the Muse and creative inspiration by interviewing other artists I admire about their own processes. One of the first people I asked to participate was Merri Cyr (merricyr.com), who had taken some superbly iconic photographs of Jeff (including the famous Grace album cover). Through her art, Merri developed a special connection with Jeff and I would like to thank her for sharing some personal insights about that time with me. I won’t say any more until the book is finished and I have no idea when that will be, so we’ll all just have to be patient. All I can say is that it's shaping-up very well and will be worth the wait! One of the most important things I’ve learned about the creative process is to ‘get out of my own way’ and, ultimately, a book about the Muse was always bound to take its own shape. As Jeff put it so eloquently during an interview for Spotlight in 1994;
you make plans for the future –an emotional future with somebody or any future
whatsoever – there’s nothing quite as spectacular as what the future will
provide you... without your ‘help’. What I mean is, when I have an arrangement
in mind or when I have a song, an issue inside – like a song coming out – I
don’t put a result on it. It comes...the emotion has lyrics and a melody and a
background to it and I let it shape itself.
Interviewer: “Are you surprised then, where the music takes you?”
“No – because it’s somewhere recessed. It’s sort of like a storm that you see off in the distance and you know you will get messed-up by the storm... you just sit and wait for it.”
As part of my research into the Muse (my ‘fieldwork’,
as it were), I decided to get some musicians together for a project
called Ah When (a pun on the Welsh word for ‘Muse’; which is Awen).
Usually, songs are composed and structured, endlessly rehearsed, recorded
and produced – then played over (and over) again on the radio and live at gigs,
note-for-note. People only hear the finished result of that process... they
don’t get the opportunity to witness that magical moment when a song is
revealing itself. Instead, our focus would be on ‘catching the idea’; that
magical moment of inspiration.
Inspiration is, without a doubt, the most mysterious and powerful force in the universe and yet nobody usually gives it a second thought! It’s incredibly important because the art we produce defines the culture we live in. Artists need to innovate for humanity to progress. Those in the entertainment industry continue to decide what that future will be based on what sells and so total spontaneity is absent from the music we listen to today, which is extremely highly-produced and perfected for commercial purposes. As Jeff said in an interview with Josh Farrar for DoubleTake magazine in 1996;
“This whole music, socio-fame-oriented culture-continuum... I’ve seen all kinds of sounds come and go. I’ve seen them resurface, and I’m only twenty-nine. That’s got to say something for how blind the whole thing is. I know about the real great bands that nobody knows about, and we all know that that’s where it’s happening. I love Helium. But your average kid has Oasis, and they don’t hear Mary Timony.”
Music is of the moment… it comes from nothing and disappears into nothing. It never ‘belonged’ to anyone in particular. Traditionally, music was composed of shared folk memes, culturally reinterpreted. Songs were learned aurally and orally – or else they were just improvised on-the-spot. This all changed after medieval music-theorist Guido of Arezzo devised a notation system, along with ‘solfège’ (Do-Re-Mi or, rather, Ut-Re-Mi as it was then called) in AD 1025. His method of teaching pitch and sight-singing, made popular by Julie Andrews, is still taught in schools to this day. For the first time in written history, musicians could put their name to (and eventually charge for) their ‘own’ written musical compositions.
So where did this leave improvised music? Having not being written down beforehand, those Jazz ‘improvs’ couldn’t be copyrighted until the first commercial sound-recorders became available in the early 1900s! Notation may well have enabled us to ‘see’ music, but it still had to be played live by musicians in order to be heard. The tremendous impact that sound-recording (both positive and negative) has had on music cannot be underestimated. How wonderful to be able to hear your favourite song with the absence of musicians (let’s face it, they’re never there when you need ‘em!) all by yourself, with nobody watching and whenever you like! On the down-side, the first sound-recorders reduced the length of a song; for early cylinders and discs this was about two minutes, three for later cylinders and then (from 1908) four minutes; for a 10" disc about three minutes; for a 12", just under four minutes at first and, later, slightly more. Songs that were too long had to either be played quicker or had to be cut short. Radio airplay and, later, jukeboxes, ensured its exact repetition, with none of the subtle nuances in mood, tone, length or speed that you’d get with each live performance of it. In time, those who'd previously enjoyed a good ol’ sing-song sat around a piano (most large families usually had a musician or two in them) would gather instead around a little box.
Before the invention of sound-recording, improvisation (or ‘extempore’ in musical terminology) had previously been described in A Dictionary of Music and Musicians in 1879, as;
… the art of playing without premeditation, the conception of the music and its rendering being simultaneous. The power of playing extempore evinces a very high degree of musical cultivation, as well as the possession of great natural gifts. Not only must the faculty of musical invention be present, but there must also be a perfect mastery over all the mechanical difficulties, that the fingers may be able to render instantaneously what the mind conceives, as well as a thorough knowledge of the rules of harmony, counterpoint, and musical form, that the result may be symmetrical and complete… But the practice of publicly extemporising, if not extinct, is now very rare...
... which brings me back to Jeff’s Chocolate introduction
to Mojo Pin. It occurred to me that ‘Dream Jeff’ gave me chocolate to draw my attention
to that particular piece of music (Chocolate Mjo Pin) because, essentially, it’s a beautiful piece of public improvisation.
* Addendum: After I finished writing this article, I posted a link to it in the Official Jeff Buckley Facebook group... and noticed that someone had posted a quote from Jeff on my birthday, June 4th:
Remember... ‘public extemporising’ was already rare in 1879, let alone in 1995! Jeff loved doing it, but the record company didn’t approve. A Sony executive in the audience at one of his gigs was allegedly most displeased with his half-hour-long improvised encores (jamming on Big Star's Kanga Roo) and had afterwards sent Jeff a stern memo not to play it, claiming he was 'failing to do justice to himself as an entertainer'.
During Jeff’s final days in Memphis (from December 1996), he had begun to improvise in small cafes and bars like he did before he became signed to his record label (he called this his 'Phantom Solo Tour') - it was just Jeff and his guitar, with the freedom to play whatever he wanted - often anonymously under a variety of pseudonyms, such as: 'The Crackrobats', 'Possessed by Elves', 'Father Demo', 'Smackrobiotic', 'The Halfspeeds', 'Crit-Club', 'Topless America', 'Martha & the Nicotines', and 'A Puppet Show Named Julio'. He posted a message to his fans online that Christmas to explain;
"The question is, "Why did he tour and not tell us where he was playing? Why why why?" And the answer is this: There was a time in my life not too long ago when I could show up in a cafe and simply do what I do - make music, learn from performing my music, explore what it means to me, i.e. have fun while I irritate and/or entertain an audience who doesn't know me or what I am about. In this situation I have that precious and irreplaceable luxury of failure, of risk, of surrender. I worked very hard to get this kind of thing together, this work forum. I loved it then and missed it when it disappeared. All I am doing is reclaiming it. Don't worry about the phantom solo tours, they are simply my way of survival and my own method of self-assessment and recreation. If they don't happen... nothing else can. I can at least be all alone with nothing to help me, save myself. Real men maintain their freedom to suck eggs, my dear."
Some devoted fans travelled from overseas just to come to these solo gigs… and what did they do?! They heckled him all night to play his ‘hits’!!! (He told them to “Ssh!” and asked them to be patient, promising he’d play their requests later, in return - which he did.) People just didn’t appreciate how unique a gift he was giving them… the chance to experience a song revealing itself. Instead, they wanted to hear what they were able to listen to any day of the week at home, on their CD-players.
In an interview with writer and film-maker Jessica Hundley, just six months before Jeff died, he said;
“It’s strange how all this is happening because I never, ever gave a demo to anyone. I never shopped a deal and I never brought my work to anyone ‘official’. It would have been wrong somehow… wrong for the music. It needs to have a real sacred setting for people to understand it. You’ve got to start things off with friends who are like-minded or even strangers that are like-minded. Sending your music to established artists or labels or magazines, I mean there is something to be said for tenacity, for trying to pursue recognition that way, but it just doesn’t make sense for the best work. And if you do make an amazing work, it’s sometimes not the best way to be heard. You have to get on a sacred space, like a stage, and do your testifying that way.”
Jeff is an inspiration to me… a kind of mentor in my writing this book about the Muse (and I hadn’t even thought of it that way until I typed those words, but that’s how it is, even if that does sound a bit weird. Apparently, his influence still ‘reverberates’ through time and space). There are just certain ‘things’ in the world, as well as places and eras in history, that we’re drawn to, as well as people to which or whom we feel ‘kindred’, with no rhyme nor reason for it. Like me, Jeff had a philosophia, which means ‘love of wisdom’ (it’s where the word ‘philosophy’ comes from). The artist has to wonder, at some point, what it’s all about and it’s obvious that he was someone who had definitely thought about it. Really thought about it. In his own words (from Much Music interview, 1994);
"People who talk poetically, or act and express are totally devalued. Just like women are devalued and their femininity... everything that brings the flow, the understanding, the intuition – not like knowing facts, but understanding things ‘just somehow’. That’s… extremely devalued. It’s the seat of all art – it’s the seat of all artistic expression."
... and he was totally right.
*Ah When’s forthcoming debut album, entitled The Underlying Nature of Themes will feature the very best of our musings to-date and will be free to download for all those who buy my book, The Muse. To be kept updated about the progress and release date of both, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject: MUSE BOOK.