“I’ve always played in bands – always. I only go out and play solo to make money to pay the phone bill and the rent.” - Jeff Buckley, 1994
Twenty-six year old Jeff Buckley signed to Columbia Records on October 29, 1992. He would record two solo shows the following July and August for his first release, Live At Sin-e, named for the East Village coffee house where these performances were captured and soon after set off for Woodstock, NY to record Grace, his full-length studio debut.
In between, Jeff gigged tirelessly around his adopted hometown of New York City, playing small out-of-the-way bars and coffee shops like Bang On, First Street Café, Tilt, Cornelia Street Café among others. Jeff hoped to make himself visible to other musicians, seeking to attract players who would appreciate what he was doing and want to be part of it.
As he once explained, “I got out of the loop by putting myself in a situation where only musicians who came to my shows and saw me for what I was would approach me.”
Bassist Mick Grondahl was the first to be drawn in. “During the show I noticed the interesting choice of cover songs he was playing,” Mick recalls, “and he played a lot of complex chords, and of course he had that great voice. I was quite impressed and we got to talk later at a party about music. He left an impression.
“In July  he was playing the New Music Seminar at Fez, and I went and stood in line – I didn’t even have any money to get in. Luckily I saw Jeff coming out from behind the curtain while we were waiting to pay. He was singing ‘L.A. Woman’ and I sang the next line. We exchanged numbers, and I went in to see the show and he had evolved even more. He came out and did Nina Simone ‘Be Your Husband.’ We got together at Nightingale’s, played pool, and then jammed back at his apartment.
“About two weeks after he and I started playing together, [drummer] Matt Johnson was the first guy we auditioned and we hit it off really well. Matt remembers Jeff looking at him and smiling and just feeling a connection between all of us. And that first night we played together, within an hour, we wrote ‘Dream Brother.’”
Matt looks back and reflects, “It may be true that few people have the talent that he did, but he didn't seem to believe in any cult of genius or special club for entering the musical space. I think he wanted to see what someone, or anyone, could make.”
“Every guitar idea I put out they would close in on as the music happened,” Jeff recalled about the first time the three made music together.
Grace would be recorded by this trio. After Live At Sin-e was released December ‘93, Jeff toured North American solo for the next two months to support it; he sorely missed his band. When Jeff returned to the East Village that March, they reconvened and added a fourth band member, a good friend, actor and budding guitarist Michael Tighe.
“Michael had never played in a group,” Mick points out. “We auditioned people who played a lot longer, people who had played very complex music, but to Jeff it was more about enthusiasm and potential. We wanted to recruit people who were almost disciples to Jeff’s music. If people were too set in what they were doing there wasn’t this chance to instill the new music that could come from the way that Jeff worked.”
Road Manager Gene Bowen recalls, “Jeff used to call Michael “Chico” and I used to envision Jeff as an old man at the end of his life, just sitting on his back porch with Michael, because they were just so close. There was just such a connection there.”
“First impression?” recounts Tighe, “A cartoon wolf. Playful and silly with eyes of pain and wildness.”
On June 1, the quartet plus Gene clambered aboard an Econoline van packed with instruments and amps and the great adventure began. Tighe remembers, “When I first came up to the Econoline van I felt like I was joining the circus.”
“We loved the van!” reminisces Grondahl. “It was difficult to have six people in there with all the gear, but we were together and we shared the time very intimately: a little too intimately sometimes! We listened to music during the long stretches of driving.”
“The guys all got creative – about halfway through the tour they figured out a way to suspend hammocks from the ceiling of the van over the bench seats,” recounts Bowen. “So one person could lay on the bench seat and another person could lay in the hammock because there was no room in the van at all.”
Their first date was three days later at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey. “They were in the rehearsal space for weeks, and the guy from the studio told me that he hadn’t heard them play a single note off of Grace, “ Bowen remembers. “They were in there just jamming, playing the same riff for hours. Management rented out the club so they could get the feeling of playing on stage – but the club was empty - to get ready for the tour. After the Stone Pony, we played the Red Creek Inn in Rochester and the tickets were $5 each and 32 tickets were sold.”
Of the Rochester show Tighe remarks: “I was so nervous and made some mistakes. I felt like I was giving birth or being born or something like that.”
Mick continues, “I remember thinking that for people seeing us for the first time, it might be a bit off-putting. It was so different; Jeff’s voice, the style, the way the shows were organized… because we didn’t have a set list, we worked on the spot. We were asking something of the audience, which was patience because we wanted to make each show unique. They were intrigued of course by Jeff’s humor and the mystique that he could project, but mainly his voice and guitar were so stunning.”
Once these U.S. dates ended, the group went immediately to Europe for a month-long tour which kicked off in Dublin on the day Grace was released, August 23. Weeks after these shows were finished, the band toured America again. “There was a real momentum after that first U.S. tour,” Bowen recollects. “When we got to Europe we were in an actual tour bus.”
They spent the rest of the year on this American tour and were filmed performing “Lover You Should Have Come Over” for Chicago’s JBTV and “Dream Brother” at New Orleans’ Howlin’ Wolf club.
By the time they got back to Europe, Grace had achieved significant success and there were TV appearances to attend to on top of touring. The band filmed a potent “Grace” for The BBC’s “The Late Show” in London shortly after arriving. They performed “So Real,” “Mojo Pin,” and “What Will You Say” in Frankfurt, Germany on the “Aus Dem Sudbahnof” program a month later.
In between, they’d flown to Japan to do club dates and Jeff turned in a stunning solo rendition of “Hallelujah” for MTV Japan. Before heading home, they appeared on England’s “MTV’s Most Wanted” playing “Eternal Life,” “Last Goodbye” and “Vancouver.”
“Traditionally, I think European audiences are more forgiving and more open,” Mick muses. “It doesn’t need to be the buzz of the week to give it a chance. I personally felt like there was more acceptance. By that point, we had started to come together more as a band, so we had more to offer the audience. They were much more keen on us being on TV in Europe than in America. They wanted to capture it even through there wasn’t a lot of hype behind it – they recognized it as something important.”
That Spring, the band headlined over Soul Coughing, then opened for Juliana Hatfield across North America, and spent Summer appeared at a series of European festivals including Glastonbury, Roskilde and Eurockeenes in France, where a tender version “Lilac Wine” was lensed. The Grace World Tour ended in September in Australia and the group settled down to write material for their next album collaboratively.
Buckley’s connection to his bandmates had become so strong that he thought of working under a band name. Mick states, “I proposed the name ‘Two Ninas’ and Jeff liked it a lot, but people were against using another name because the ‘Jeff Buckley’ name was so well known. Jeff liked the idea of band name and that was the closest we ever came.”
Looking back on their time together, Mick says, “Jeff was just a great guy and we all just loved spending time with him. He was really there for us as a leader.”
The band played a final Australian tour early the following year in Australia, after which Matt Johnson left the group. With Parker Kindred on drums they gave one last performance February 11, 1997 in New York, after which Jeff moved to Memphis, TN. Having tried his best to write songs as collaborations with the rest of the band, he decided to go it alone to polish the songs he’d be writing himself since recording Grace.
Jeff Buckley died in Memphis on the evening of May 29, 1997 of an accidental drowning.
“Artists just need to shut the fuck up and listen to what exactly is coming from inside. You just have to find exactly what you should be doing, and if you didn’t have that thing, you would die. Perish, slowly or quickly, violently or like a chump. And every choice is made from that. I have to do this, I’m made to do this. I can’t do anything else. I tried. I don’t really feel fulfilled any other way. Maybe when I get older, it will change. I’m sure it will.” - Jeff Buckley, 1994
- Howard Wuelfing , with Amy Yates Wuelfing
(Jeff Buckley quotes from previously unpublished interview material from February 24, 1994 by Amy Yates Wuelfing.)
Gene Bowen: Founded Road Recovery, dedicated to helping young people battle addiction by harnessing the influence of entertainment industry professionals who have confronted similar crises and now wish to share their experience and knowledge.
Mick Grondahl: Lives in Copenhagen, Sweden with his wife and daughter and continues to play music.
Matt Johnson: Plays music both as a solo artist and with other artists such as Rufus Wainwright.
Parker Kindred: Continues to play music working with numerous artists, including Antony and the Johnsons.
Michael Tighe: Lives in New York City and is currently working with a New York band, "The Tiggers."
interviews conducted by Amy Wuelfing; narrative written by Howard Wuelfing, editted by Amy Wuelfing