Few people can have been as affected by the death, twelve years ago now, of Jeff Buckley as Mary Guibert – the mother who raised him after his father Tim Buckley walked out on her and her young son. Her role has continued after his passing, with Guibert acting as the guardian of a talent that had precious time to develop and a legacy that continues to grow. The latest Buckley project is the DVD / CD Grace Around The World, which focuses on previously unreleased live performances circa 1994-95, in concert and television locales ranging from the U.S. and UK, to Germany, Japan and France. State spent some time with Guibert at the recent Dublin launch of the DVD.
Tell us about the new release’¦
The new release is a DVD, the main focus is on the visual. Jeff wasn’t as popular in the United States as he was in Europe. He did quite a bit of television here and turning up for an MTV appearance, or any TV show really, means that you have a really good three camera shoot with great sound so we had a bunch of these VHS tapes and we decided to compile them. As more people left the record company and more turmoil ensued, more people would be cleaning out their closets and more tapes would appear. So we came up with the idea of a visual Grace and set out to find a performance of each song on the album.
The only one we could not find was ‘Corpus Christi Carol’, which I have only heard of him ever performing once, mainly because he already had his solo song – ‘Hallelujah’ was always his solo song – so he wanted his band boys playing most of the time and didn’t want to play a song that was sort of a snorer. So that went out of the repertoire and he replaced it with something different each night, and in this instance we have footage of him in Germany and he was supposed to sing ‘Lilac Wine’ and he changed his mind and he decided to play ‘What Will You Say’, so we have this additional track. The whole thing opens with him being introduced and there is a reference to him being his father’s son and he flicks the bird, because he always hated all these mentions of his father, so we decided to open with that.
As Jeff’s mother, as well as the manager of his estate and legacy, was this a difficult project to undertake? It must be quite painful going through all this material all the time.
It always is. Especially when you’re going through all this footage over and over again to make the decisions; some of his performances are so moving that they could break a stone heart and here I am, the mom. It feels as though your heart’ll break, you just have to leave the room and go somewhere private. Then you go back in because you are working with gentlemen, and they can get a little awkward but they understand and they are compassionate, so when I need to take a moment I just say -excuse me gentlemen’ and I go in the restroom and I bawl like a baby, pull myself back together and I go back in and take up where I left off.
When did you first realise how talented Jeff was?
He sang a lot when he was a little boy and I always thought he had a nice voice. I never wanted him to want to be a performer, absolutely not. What a life, his father’s is no small example of that. Very often that life takes very normal people down very destructive paths. He drew a lot and I had hoped that he would become a graphic artist, but when he asked for a guitar at age fourteen I thought -okay this will be nice for him’, but when he got it he wouldn’t stop practicing. He worked in a record store and he would buy albums of all these amazing jazz guitarists and by about fifteen and a half, he had been listening to this very complex stuff and playing this one album every day. There was this one song he would play all the time, just non-stop, so I walked in one Friday night and I heard it as soon as I walked in the door and I thought -you know what I can’t take this one more minute, I love you son but this has to stop’. I marched down the hallway, opened up his bedroom door and he was sitting on the edge of the bed with his back to me, and he was playing really loud and I went to speak and say -would you’¦’ and as I started talking I looked at the stereo and stopped, the light was not on, he was playing exactly like the master. I shut the door and made my way out and it was at that moment that I thought -oh shit, it’s going to happen.’ Two years later at seventeen and a half he was out on his own and made music his life.
Jeff described himself as a chanteuse, what do you think about that?
He really found a lot of inspiration in some of the best chanteuses, Nina Simone and Judy Garland being two of the best I can think of, because of the soulful way in which they sang. That’s what he wanted to master. And so that’s what he did when he went to New York and started singing in that little Irish coffee house Sin-E, he sang every song he knew, he’d start about nine o’ clock and he wouldn’t stop until about twelve thirty, and then he’d end up washing dishes to help -em out. So he was interested in learning the best way to deliver a song that would make people sit up and listen. In any pub you go into in New York there’s someone singing away in the corner on an acoustic guitar they don’t often get much attention because obviously people are there to socialise. So he found a way to sing that would make people listen and pay attention. I think that’s the sign of a true performer.
Was it worrying when he went off to New York on his own?
Oh very much so, very much so, I was always worried, it can be a very dangerous place but he was now in a circle of people that were very artistic, he used to say that they were intoxicated with their own eccentricity. I thought that was a good place for him because he never felt like he fitted in anywhere in his life, so when he plunked himself in the middle of Greenwich Village with all the kooks all of a sudden he was very normal so I felt good about that side of things. The worry came when I thought about him being signed to a record label, then he is contractually obligated to work his ass off, and we used to discuss how he could control the outcome of his career, and he would say -well I’m gonna be very small it’s gonna be very manageable’, and I said -really? Well we’ll see how that works out. But if people fall in love with you, you can’t stop them from making you famous and not letting you walk down the street without signing an autograph, you can’t control that.’
What is your funniest memory of Jeff?
He loved to make people laugh so he would often do silly things like stick French fries up his nose or talk in different voices, he would recite entire Warner Brothers cartoons, and he liked to sing songs in the voice of Elmer Fudd, -memowieees’¦’ One of my favourite memories is of walking down St. Mark’s place and burst into song singing ‘On The Street Where You Live’ from My Fair Lady and was dancing around me and tipping his hat and swinging around the lampposts like Fred Astaire and not a single person looked in our direction, New York was so’¦eyes straight ahead, busy, busy, busy.
May we ask briefly about Tim, because Jeff didn’t grow up with the surname Buckley, he adopted it himself at some point’¦
Tim and I were high school sweethearts, I was seventeen and he was eighteen, and this was before the pill and before the sexual revolution and in those days if you got pregnant, hell if you missed a period, you got married. And I had a miscarriage within three months of our wedding and then about six months after that I got pregnant with Jeff, and by the time I was five months pregnant he was gone. He had left for New York to go on tour and never returned home.
Well that’s quite selfish’¦
Yeah and even more selfish was that I knew he was gone and I had known he was going to go and be famous and have his career so I wrote him a letter and said -I’m fine, I’m going to look after my baby and we’ll be here whenever you want to see us.’ And that little boy went nine years of his life without a single indication that that man wanted anything to do with him. When he was about two and a half I fell in love and re-married and those two loved each other very, very much, they absolutely adored each other. When it came to registering for school and kindergarten because Ron was the only father he knew he said he wanted to be called Moorhead, because this was the seventies and families generally all had the same surname and it was that of the father or stepfather.
So when Jeff was nine (Ron and I had broken up by this point), there was a notice in the local paper and there was to be a one time performance by Tim and I took Jeff to see him and he ended up spending a couple of days with his Dad, during Easter vacation, as I wouldn’t have him miss school. The following June 28th he was gone. That was an accidental death, Tim was not a heroin addict, although he did do cocaine. He’d had a fight with his drug dealer over money that was owed and the drug dealer said -well here, here’s what I owe you’, and reached into his bag and gave him a bindle. He had given him the wrong bag and instead of giving him an eighth of cocaine he gave him an eighth of heroin and Tim out of vengeance for the guy said -oh that’s nothing’ and snorted the whole lot and threw the bindle at the guy, and little did he know he had just taken an overdose of heroin. Because he was so drunk when his friends came to get him they took him upstairs and just put him to bed, and he stopped breathing.
I had to tell little Jeff, who had just met his father for the first time. So when he went back to school after that summer he said I want to be called Jeff Buckley now, I want to go by my real name. He said something quite profound for a nine year old child, he said -it’ll just go back to being like it was before, I will know that he’s out there but I have no way of talking to him’. I do think that if Tim had lived things would have been different. If he lived now he would know that he didn’t have to be so hard on himself. In that last meeting we had with Tim he said -the best thing for him is for me not to be there. I was just afraid I would be as bad a father as mine was’. I said to him -there’s worse things than not having a father and that’s having a father who beats you or mistreats you or doesn’t talk to you.’ So his heart was still hard but I think he’d have come around, I really do.
Grace Around The World is out now on Sony Music.