There’s something about Jeff Buckley. The difficulty lies with trying to qualify it, let alone describe it. I still remember the first time I encountered him and his music; both struck me with the force of some divine revelation recounted in the New Testament. His imprint burrowed deep; so deep as to be irretractable. I was fifteen, on the verge of my Junior Cert, and only really discovering the golden oasis that was nineties alternative music (the eighties had to wait a bit). The touchstone was Nirvana, of course, after discovering my uncle’s first-edition CD of Nevermind (including a paper cut-out detailing the Nirvana concert at the Point Depot in 1992, which he attended) in my grandfather’s Bob-Dylan-dominating record/CD cabinet.
This was the period in which my own musical conscious gave rise and took flight; or when I began to dispute the inculcated notion of ‘popularity’ (underlaid by commercial success) as the final marker of artistic merit. Hitherto, owing to my parents’ passive indifference when it came to music (and culture, generally), the absence of my well-versed uncle, my early (and foolish) unwillingness to take my grandfather’s musical recommendations, and the unavailability – as-yet – of Spotify (and my non-use of social media), ensured that my ‘musical taste’ was fashioned between the narrow strictures of the UK top 40. Music, for me at fourteen, was ‘pop music’; and ‘pop music’ was commercially acceptable, generally palatable, and essentially ‘musical’: the importance lay with the ‘sound’ or groove of the song more so than its lyrical content. This perception of music, as a background ambiance, and something not worth much more of your time beyond this, was further solidified by my social milieu at school and in Kildare town. In attending a public school and falling-into (out of sheer necessity) its rougher social cohort, my notion of ‘music’ was rarefied. A monotonous, grinding beat constituted ‘good music’; while someone (inaudibly) mumble-rapping along to a similarly contrived rhythm constituted ‘good lyricism’. ‘Classic pop (or pub) songs’, such as a few by Oasis and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (‘the only good rock song’, as one said), were usually afforded a groundless aura: they were played, and listened to, but never listened to, and only ever played. They never experienced and appreciated the song in-itself, but merely subscribed rather the idea of the song, or what it meant to them, without any critical scrutiny. I remember one occasion, around this time, when one of the people I used to hang around with expressed his inability to see the point of reggae music, which was played frequently to complement (and justify) our self-constructed image, to which someone else replied, with total conviction: ‘come on lad, ye have to like that. What sort of a stoner are ye if ye don’t like reggae?’ Such a perception eschews individuality, and this didn’t just stop with music; it extended to clothing, speech, dialect, and thought itself – the possibility of myself as being ‘queer’ never presented itself to me, for I arose from a culture that largely defined itself in hostile opposition to such people, and so entertaining the thought was out-of-question. I began to crack this suffocating ideology around this time but would be too late in breaking resolutely with it, in pursuit of myself – whatever this is (am still searching; but in the process of searching you are nevertheless moving, and therefore somewhere other than you began, which can only be illuminating). Music, in the end, would be one central component in precipitating this departure. And Jeff Buckley would assume the role of primal catalyst.
Everyone knows ‘Hallelujah’ – more probably from direct export to John Cale’s piano version of Cohen’s original rather than Buckley’s soulful rendition – but this one song in itself does not convey the breath of his evocative powers. It’s inclusion on Grace (1994), Buckley’s timeless masterpiece and the only album released before his premature death, was an after-thought, but it is nevertheless the song with which he will be eternally associated. One could only guess what he would feel about this, had he lived (to produce who knows what), but am sure he wouldn’t like it; not least because this one cover-song may eclipse, or drastically rarefy to the point of inspiring indifference towards, his own musical oeuvre. Everyone knows ‘Hallelujah’, as the quintessential Jeff Buckley song, but comparatively few people know and appreciate his own material; both then, in 1994 (when Grace sold poorly), and now, where ‘Hallelujah’ is given precedence.
The ‘death of radio’, and rise of streaming, has driven Buckley’s belated resurgence, and has facilitated a broader recognition of his own material; but he is still yet to cultivate the popular admiration he so obviously deserves. This, however, might be preferable. I like to think of Buckley as a mystical, esoteric resource; one that only a few likeminded people can really recognise as profound and truly appreciate. He’s not for everyone.