Photo credit: Jeff
Buckley
©Merri Cyr

Although I’m the author of two books, Soul
Companions
(2008) and The Dangerous Man (2010), I’ve
always been passionate about music. When I was an art student of about
18, the realisation suddenly dawned on me that even if I listened to different music
every day for the rest of my life, I would never get to hear all of
the music in the world
. That bothered me immensely… what if I missed
something important?
(Curiously, the same has never occurred to me
about missing books). As the years passed by and I became a
self-proclaimed ‘connoisseur of music’, I had somehow forgotten this and arrogantly assumed that if there was anything worth listening to then I’d definitely know about it. Nothing slipped by me – well…
nothing worth listening to, anyway. How it could have happened that Jeff
Buckley and Grace slipped through the net in 1994, I honestly don’t
understand. My only excuse is that, at the time, I was probably far too busy making music of my own to notice anyone else’s!

Jeff went ‘missing’ (presumed drowned) on May 29th, 1997, on the eve of recording his second album and preparing to greet his band members who were flying into Memphis that very night. The story goes that, on the way to the studio he’d popped down to Wolf River with roadie/hairdresser/musician Keith Foti and had decided to go (fully clothed) into the water, singing Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. Two boats had passed-by, creating waves, and in the time it took for Foti to move his guitar and ghetto blaster out of harm’s way, Jeff had disappeared from sight. Six days later, they pulled his body out of the water. It was June 4th and I was celebrating my 28th birthday, oblivious. Jeff was just two years older than me.

Fast-forward 18 years later (2009), around 3 A.M. I was unable to get to sleep, so I got up and put the
kettle on. I’d been regularly jamming with my friend Ben who’d suggested that
we cover a song by someone called Jeff Buckley in our live set and he’d lent me
the Live at Siné (Legacy Edition) CD to check out. The disc was lying around and I still hadn’t listened to it.
Bleary-eyed and not expecting much, I pushed the ‘bonus video footage’
into the DVD-player and pressed ‘play’…

Ironically, it wasn’t his music but his poem New Year’s Eve Prayer that did it for me (if you haven’t heard it before, then here it is);
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time, I was recovering from a failed marriage where I’d felt I hadn’t been
‘allowed’ to do much of anything, so it had moved me deeply to hear a man say those
words. I wrote down Jeff’s poem and stuck it on my wall as a reminder to
myself.

I listened to some tracks from Grace and chose Mojo Pin and So Real to cover
(being the best suited to my voice)… we jammed them a few times and played them
live at a couple of small pubs in the area. Then, later-on that month, I had an interesting dream…

I walked into a small theatre-like venue with a raised
stage at one end. Jeff had just finished doing something musical (I
got the impression he’d been teaching a class). There were rows of empty seats and I sat
down next to him. We talked about many things I don’t remember. He gave me a
piece of dark chocolate and I gave him some white chocolate in exchange. I
asked him to write something in my notebook and he watched me as I flicked
through the pages trying to find some space. He leaned in over my shoulder and started to read and I was embarrassed as it was a mess, but he liked it anyway.

The morning after I had this dream, which was so real (excuse the pun), I went straight to my laptop to find out as much as I could
about Jeff; his background and music. I was astonished to find a version of Mojo
Pin
– one of the songs we’d been practising – referred to as Chocolate Mojo Pin because of the lyrics he sings:”Your love is like sweet black chocolate melting in my back pocket… melting on the tongue of god.” It blew me away;


I didn’t know anything about Jeff prior to the
dream… but later found out he actually did have a love of notebooks, which happens to be a passion
of mine, too (I have several of them on-the-go at once and, yes, every one
of them really is a disorganised mess).

The following year, the idea slowly came to me for my third book – to write about the Muse and creative inspiration by interviewing other artists I admire
about their own processes. One of the first people I asked to participate
was Merri Cyr (merricyr.com), who had taken some superbly iconic photographs of Jeff (including the famous Grace album cover).
Through her art, Merri developed a special connection with Jeff and I would
like to thank her for sharing some personal insights about that time with me. I
won’t say any more until the book is finished and I have no idea when that will
be, so we’ll all just have to be patient. All I can say is that it’s shaping-up very well and will be worth the wait! One of the most important things I’ve
learned about the creative process is to ‘get out of my own way’ and,
ultimately, a book about the Muse was always bound to take its own shape. As Jeff put
it so eloquently during an interview for Spotlight in 1994;

“…any time
you make plans for the future –an emotional future with somebody or any future
whatsoever – there’s nothing quite as spectacular as what the future will
provide you… without your ‘help’. What I mean is, when I have an arrangement
in mind or when I have a song, an issue inside – like a song coming out – I
don’t put a result on it. It comes…the emotion has lyrics and a melody and a
background to it and I let it shape itself.

Interviewer:
“Are you surprised then, where the music takes you?”

“No –
because it’s somewhere recessed. It’s sort of like a storm that you see off in
the distance and you know you will get messed-up by the storm… you just sit
and wait for it.”

As part of my research into the Muse (my ‘fieldwork’,
as it were), I decided to get some musicians together for a project
called Ah When (a pun on the Welsh word for ‘Muse’; which is Awen).
Usually, songs are composed and structured, endlessly rehearsed, recorded
and produced – then played over (and over) again on the radio and live at gigs,
note-for-note. People only hear the finished result of that process… they
don’t get the opportunity to witness that magical moment when a song is
revealing itself. Instead, our focus would be on ‘catching the idea’; that
magical moment of inspiration.
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Inspiration is, without a doubt, the most mysterious
and powerful force in the universe and yet nobody usually gives it a second
thought! It’s incredibly important because the art we produce defines the
culture we live in. Artists need to innovate for humanity to progress. Those in
the entertainment industry continue to decide what that future will be based on
what sells and so total spontaneity is absent from the music we listen to
today, which is extremely highly-produced and perfected for commercial
purposes. As Jeff said in an interview with Josh Farrar for DoubleTake magazine
in 1996;

“This whole music, socio-fame-oriented
culture-continuum… I’ve seen all kinds of sounds come and go. I’ve seen them
resurface, and I’m only twenty-nine. That’s got to say something for how blind
the whole thing is. I know about the real great bands that nobody knows about,
and we all know that that’s where it’s happening. I love Helium.
But your average kid has Oasis, and they don’t hear Mary Timony.”

Music is of the moment… it comes from nothing and
disappears into nothing. It never ‘belonged’ to anyone in particular.
Traditionally, music was composed of shared folk memes, culturally
reinterpreted. Songs were learned aurally and orally – or else they
were just improvised on-the-spot. This all changed after medieval
music-theorist Guido of Arezzo devised a notation system, along with ‘solfège’
(Do-ReMi or, rather, UtReMi as
it was then called) in AD 1025. His method of teaching pitch and sight-singing,
made popular by Julie Andrews, is still taught in schools to this day. For the
first time in written history, musicians could put their name to (and
eventually charge for) their ‘own’ written musical compositions.

So where did this leave improvised music? Having not
being written down beforehand, those Jazz ‘improvs’ couldn’t be copyrighted
until the first commercial sound-recorders became available in the early 1900s!
Notation may well have enabled us to ‘see’ music, but it still had to be played
live by musicians in order to be heard. The tremendous impact that
sound-recording (both positive and negative) has had on music cannot
be underestimated. How wonderful to be able to hear your favourite song with
the absence of musicians (let’s face it, they’re never there when you need
‘em!) all by yourself, with nobody watching and whenever you like! On the
down-side, the first sound-recorders reduced the length of a song; for early
cylinders and discs this was about two minutes, three for later cylinders and
then (from 1908) four minutes; for a 10″ disc about three minutes; for a
12″, just under four minutes at first and, later, slightly more. Songs
that were too long had to either be played quicker or had to be cut short.
Radio airplay and, later, jukeboxes, ensured its exact repetition,
with none of the subtle nuances in mood, tone, length or speed that you’d get
with each live performance of it. In time, those who’d previously enjoyed a good ol’ sing-song sat around a piano (most large families usually had a
musician or two in them) would gather instead around a little box.

Before the invention of sound-recording, improvisation
(or ‘extempore’ in musical terminology) had previously been described in A
Dictionary of Music and Musicians
in 1879, as;

… the art of playing without premeditation, the
conception of the music and its rendering being simultaneous. The power of
playing extempore evinces a very high degree of musical cultivation, as well as
the possession of great natural gifts. Not only must the faculty of musical
invention be present, but there must also be a perfect mastery over all the
mechanical difficulties, that the fingers may be able to render instantaneously
what the mind conceives, as well as a thorough knowledge of the rules of
harmony, counterpoint, and musical form, that the result may be symmetrical and
complete… But the practice of publicly extemporising, if not extinct, is now
very rare…

… which brings me back to Jeff’s Chocolate introduction
to Mojo Pin. It occurred to me that ‘Dream Jeff’ gave me chocolate to draw my attention
to that particular piece of music (Chocolate Mjo Pin) because, essentially, it’s a beautiful piece of public improvisation.

* Addendum: After I finished writing this article, I posted a link to it in the Official Jeff Buckley Facebook group… and noticed that someone had posted a quote from Jeff on my birthday, June 4th:
Remember… ‘public extemporising’ was already rare in 1879, let alone in 1995! Jeff
loved doing it, but the record company didn’t approve. A Sony executive in the audience
at one of his gigs was allegedly most displeased with his half-hour-long improvised encores (jamming on Big Star’s Kanga Roo) and had afterwards sent Jeff a stern memo not to play it, claiming he was ‘failing to do justice to himself as an entertainer’.

During Jeff’s final days in Memphis (from December 1996), he had begun to improvise in small cafes and bars like he did before he became signed to his record label (he called this his ‘Phantom Solo Tour’) – it was just Jeff and his guitar, with the freedom
to play whatever he wanted – often anonymously under a variety of pseudonyms, such as: ‘The Crackrobats‘, ‘Possessed by Elves‘, ‘Father Demo‘, ‘Smackrobiotic‘, ‘The Halfspeeds‘, ‘Crit-Club‘, ‘Topless America‘, ‘Martha
& the Nicotines
‘, and ‘A Puppet Show Named Julio‘. He posted a message to his fans online that Christmas to explain;

“The question is, “Why did he tour and not tell us where
he was playing? Why why why?”
And the answer is this: There
was a time in my life not too long ago when I could show up in a cafe and
simply do what I do – make music, learn from performing my music, explore what
it means to me, i.e. have fun while I irritate and/or entertain an audience
who doesn’t know me or what I am about. In this situation I have that precious
and irreplaceable luxury of failure, of risk, of surrender. I worked very hard
to get this kind of thing together, this work forum. I loved it then and missed
it when it disappeared. All I am doing is reclaiming it. Don’t worry about the
phantom solo tours, they are simply my way of survival and my own method of
self-assessment and recreation. If they don’t happen… nothing else can. I can
at least be all alone with nothing to help me, save myself. Real men maintain
their freedom to suck eggs, my dear.”

Some devoted fans travelled from overseas just to come to these solo gigs… and what did they do?! They heckled him all night to play his
‘hits’!!!
(He told them to “Ssh!” and asked them to be patient, promising he’d play their requests later, in return – which he did.) People just didn’t appreciate how
unique a gift he was giving them… the chance to experience a song revealing
itself. Instead, they wanted to hear what they were able to listen to any day of the week at home, on their CD-players.

In an interview with writer and film-maker Jessica
Hundley, just six months before Jeff died, he said;

“It’s strange how all this is happening because I
never, ever gave a demo to anyone. I never shopped a deal and I never brought
my work to anyone ‘official’. It would have been wrong somehow… wrong for the
music. It needs to have a real sacred setting for people to understand it.
You’ve got to start things off with friends who are like-minded or even
strangers that are like-minded. Sending your music to established artists or
labels or magazines, I mean there is something to be said for tenacity, for
trying to pursue recognition that way, but it just doesn’t make sense for the
best work. And if you do make an amazing work, it’s sometimes not the best way
to be heard. You have to get on a sacred space, like a stage, and do your
testifying that way.”

Jeff is an inspiration to me… a kind of mentor in my
writing this book about the Muse (and I hadn’t even thought of it that way
until I typed those words, but that’s how it is, even if that does sound a bit
weird. Apparently, his influence still ‘reverberates’ through time and space).
There are just certain ‘things’ in the world, as well as places and eras in
history, that we’re drawn to, as well as people to which or whom we feel
‘kindred’, with no rhyme nor reason for it. Like me, Jeff had a philosophia, which
means ‘love of wisdom’ (it’s where the word ‘philosophy’ comes from). The
artist has to wonder, at some point, what it’s all about and it’s obvious that
he was someone who had definitely thought about it. Really thought
about it. In his own words (from Much Music interview, 1994);

“People who talk poetically, or act and express are
totally devalued. Just like women are devalued and their femininity…
everything that brings the flow, the understanding, the intuition – not like
knowing facts, but understanding things ‘just somehow’. That’s…
extremely devalued. It’s the seat of all art – it’s the seat of all artistic
expression.”

He was talking about the Muses… and he was totally right.

~ Karen

* To be kept updated about the
progress and release date of my book, e-mail: muse@arcconvention.org with the subject:
MUSE BOOK.