Thursday, May 31, 2007

Lament for a Genius - (Jeff Buckley - Live at the Green Mill)

My friend Sheila over at The Sheila Variations had a great memorial post to Jeff Buckley the great rock troubadour, who died ten years ago, remembering a concert she and I attended together at the Green Mill in Chicago. Not only the best live performance I've ever attended -period - but most influential one for me as a an acting teacher and director. My memory of that great evening was that it started with a depressed woman with very talented hair singing songs of doom to open the show. Every bit of her exuded gloom - her diction was depressed, her outfit was depressed, never mind the songs. She invited JB up on stage to do the final song with her. He reluctantly gave up his position at the bar where he'd been drinking a too much tequila, still in his overcoat, slunk up to the stage, and sat on the floor with his back to us so that she would have the limelight for the end of her set.

When JB and his band got up on stage they tuned and suddenly photographers were everywhere, shooting pictures which made Buckley very self conscious. I should just say that I'm going to take the liberty of imagining some of the thing's Buckley thought, and I could be way off. The tour was for the release of his then new album - Grace. He riffed vocally for a while with no words - just 'ah' - until they stopped taking pictures, he seemed to hate the photographs, The first several songs he could not find his footing, he would sing a piece from the album and would feel it was lifeless and just moan to us "God this sucks. I'm so sorry. I wish I could give you all your money back." It was agonizing to watch. He was a performer that was all about being with the music at this one moment in time that would never come again. His tour was about publicity and performing the same pieces over and over again like he did on the recording, but because he'd said some stupid thing to Rolling Stone or MTV - some really influential media outlet in music they threatened would cost him any future publicity- he was kicking himselft and censoring himself and just couldn't get past it. He was not meeting his own standards. He apologized after every one of the first few songs and then, I believe it was on Leonard Cohen's Halleluiah, he started the song and then quieted the band and began riffing a capella - I believe it was on the line "it's a cold and it's a broken Halleluiah" - I think he just couldn't stand not being with the music any more. He improvised for at least five or ten minutes on that phrase until he finally found his way to the moment he was in - disappointed in himself, in the conflict created by career and art, in love with the music, and finding that new moment in a song he's performed 100 times. I've always thought that that was the job of the artist - not just a live performer, but a painter or a writer too. It's the part of the work that is hardest in some ways. I'm obsessed with artists' creative processes, how we awaken ourselves to the moment we're in rather that the moment we think we should be in - because of our artists' expertise - about the right words or the prettiest notes - we get sidetracked and start trying to get out of the lousy moment we're in (which is the actual pay dirt) and instead get to some "better" thing we think should be there to make the song or the character or the sentence good, right, funny, brilliant - or in some way appealing to our vanity. That struggle is a tough one - it's a daily war for an artist - and the thing that always amazed me was that he fought that battle right in front of us. When I think of the really great performers I've seen - Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in concert (Alex Ross at The Rest is Noise who always has great writing on music, has some excellent posts on Hunt Lieberson), Kim Stanley on film, Billy Crudup in Waking the Dead, Geraldine Page in almost anything at all - that's what they all do. It's an act of courage really - to strive to be your imperfect self in front of everyone.

The rest of Buckley's concert was like being under a spell. It's sad that there is not more music to be heard from him, more of that haunting voice, great taste in songs (he sang Pink Floyd like Rock ballads, Edith Piaf, Benjamin Britten - stupendous stuff), and that we can't see him continue to wage that battle. I'm sure it would have been beautiful.

And what is more fitting than having him sing his own lament (let's see if I can figure out how to post this recording and slide show). Hah! I've succeeded, it's above. "Remember me, but ah, forget my fate." How apt.


Anonymous said...

Jeff Buckley is the greatest artist of the century. He had a voice which had the strength, passion and clarity to sing anything. His gift gives music which every time heard is more powerful more soulful. His wisdom of life and music could paint any picture in every color and reach deeply into the soul of the listener.
His loss is profound and sad beyond words. Sad too that he wasn't with people who could really take care of him so he could be well, and probably still be with us.

Anonymous said...

I saw both both of those GM shows and unfortunately 9actually fortunately) accompanied Jeff on that shot binge as I arrived early that afternoon at the Mill. Seemed like a real good guy...I ran into him the next year prior to the Metro show and gave him the business about not doing too many shots tonight. He laughed and he remembered me. If you listen closely to that DVD right at the beginning, I teased him again about too much tequila...

Anonymous said...

Glad I found your piece, as it brought back wonderful memories. Jeff played the Green Mill on November 8 and 9, 1994, and I was at one of the shows. I can't recall which night, but it was amazing. I thanked Jeff afterwards for soothing my soul, as I'd recently lost my grandfather, and listening to JB's music helped me through it. He talked with me for a few minutes after the show. Jeff was an amazing performer, and a great listener, too. Plus, he took my band's sticker and put it in his wallet. A year or so later, I was also at the Metro show, and he and the band were fantastic.