In the late 90s when I lived in a flat on Ponsonby Road I received a call from a guy in the UK who was writing a book on the life of Jeff Buckley. He asked me if I could give him the dirt on the Australian tour he did.
I said “ there is no dirt?” - and even if there was, I wasn’t about to talk about my experience with a total stranger. He was a little miffed that I had nothing really to say that would give him anything that anyone else hadn’t thought of before and in all truth I really only knew Jeff Buckley for a nano-second in the scheme of things. But I do have a personal story and an experience that no one else would have had with him and that is what I am writing about today.
When I lived in Melbourne I had a super-lovely flatmate, Janet Dawes, who worked at Festival Records. She had amazing taste in music and was always introducing me to new acts and giving me CDs to listen to.
One night she came home with Jeff Buckley’s Grace. He was a little-known musician from the States but Janet said “This guy is going to be huge” and after my first listen I knew she was right.
Around that time I released my album Tremble and things were going quite well for me. I was very excited about the possibilities now I had a new album.
A few months later I learned that Jeff Buckley was going to tour Australia and my then manager, Steve Morice, asked my record company if I could do the support for him. Because he was such a great unknown at that time, I lucked in and secured support slots in Melbourne and Sydney.
The first gig was in Melbourne.
It was a smaller pub venue but a total full house, and it was very exciting knowing I was going to meet a songwriter who I really admired.
I met Jeff and his band at the sound check and - because Jeff was not well known that week and because no one knew just how big he was going to become by the next week - we all just hung out and it was very a jovial and easy time. My band had access to the back stage area and after we sound-checked we looked forward to the show.
That show was the first time I had ever been to a pub gig in either NZ or Australia when the audience was totally quiet. Not one person said a word as soon as Jeff played the first note on his guitar and until the end of that concert there were no sounds, not one beer was poured, not one glass was clinked. He had everyone in that bar totally mesmerised for the entire show. And his band were amazing. To this day it is still the best music event I have ever been to. Nothing has ever come close to transporting me to where his music took me that night. It was musical heaven.
So we all hung out back stage before and after the show and nothing out of the ordinary happened. It was a bunch of musos getting ready to perform and go on stage. We all got on very well and we partook in the customary whisky drinking that seemed to happen whenever I was at a gig in those days. Backstage is a place where not a lot is said but a lot of talking about nothing goes on.
Some of the things Jeff and I talked about were about song writing. He told me that he didn’t believe he was a great songwriter yet. He said that he often found he had writers block and never really knew if his songs were any good. I asked him if he was joking, because I thought he was an outstanding writer, but he said that was how he felt about it. He told me that he enjoyed my set and he particularly liked Manic (is a state of mind) and so I showed him how to play the intro riff on the guitar. He said he might cover it one day and I thought that would be cool.
It was a great night and we said our goodbyes until we met again at the Sydney show.
Somehow, although not surprisingly, between Melbourne and Sydney *The Tipping Point happened. That great moment when an artist starts connecting with an audience and suddenly everyone understands the music and they all want to be a part of it. It has never been my experience, but seeing just a fraction of the ‘star’ power that Jeff acquired suddenly was enough to make me realise that it would be quite a life changing prospect.
At the Sydney gig a few days later the Australian roadies would not let my band sound-check even though there was time, so I had to go on solo. They wouldn’t even let me play with a guitarist... that is how mean spirited those ‘wankers’ were – but they were adamant I did it alone or not at all. Jeff was very upset for me and my band but there wasn’t really anything he could do as he arrived just as I was about to go on.
I played my tunes and the audience responded really well but they weren’t there to see me – they were there to see Jeff Buckley and I understood that.
This time back stage it was a different story and to put it into context, one gig no one was that interested in coming back stage and then suddenly whammo people kept trying to get in and say hello. Record company executives coming back stage to fawn over him and young women desperate for him to notice. We laughed. We laughed so much at the sycophantic swirl. Jeff told me he hated what was happening and didn’t enjoy all the attention. He said his record company were a bunch of tossers and he loathed the industry. Someone from my record company said “Hey Jan – didn’t realise you played the guitar and wrote your songs as well – you were actually OK” and Jeff said “Wow you have your work cut out for you” And we laughed some more. His manager cleared everyone out of the room before he went on stage.
I felt we were kindred spirits when it came to how we felt about what we did. We sort of knew we were OK but neither of us was really confidant or at ease with our craft.
I appreciated that funny back stage time with him. As a woman in an industry where there was little respect for the female artist it was refreshing to be someone who I could just be a musical friend with. He treated me as a fellow artist like the rest of my band and I was for that time just one of the boys.
Of course he blew everyone away with that show and from then on his star just exploded in Australasia. People loved him and I know he still influences many young singers and songwriters today.
He said he would love to tour with me and that he was coming back to Australia really soon but by that time he was massive and I wasn’t so some other artists were chosen for the Australian leg. But true to his word, I did play with him when he came to New Zealand (1996, 9th of February, St James, Auckland) and that was a really good gig for me.
He was a little battle weary by the time he got back to New Zealand. We didn’t have a chance to just sit and chew the fat like we did at the last shows. Because my confidence was waning and my album was just not taking off, I felt like a bit of a loser and didn’t want to go out and show him around Auckland like I said I would. I just went home.
That was probably one of the last international supports I ever did and Jeff died a few months later. But I will be for ever be grateful for that small piece of time I got to spend with one of my favourite songwriters ever.
And that is my wee story about Jeff Buckley and Me.
Recommended Reading; *The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell