17 November 2008

Remembering Jeff Buckley

Today would have been his birthday.

I originally posted the following blog on my myspace page on 13 January 2007. It's about meeting and spending a few hours chatting with Jeff when I was 17.

Lest anyone think from my last blog that I think all musicians are trouble, I thought I'd write about one who is somewhat responsible for who I am and what I do now. Jeff Buckley. It is partly because of him that I am living in Portland and still taking photos, among other things. This isn't one of those "that song changed my life" stories. I actually met the man and spent several hours with him.

My older brother, Victor, was the editor of a music 'zine for over ten years. Growing up, I always got to hear music that was outside of the mainstream and usually before it was ever publicly released. In December of 1993 he passed along to me an E.P. titled Live At Siné. It was the most incredible thing I'd ever heard, so beautiful and haunting. I'd never heard a voice quite like that. I was enamoured with that voice and those four songs.

In April or May of 1994, my brother received an advance copy of Grace and gave it to me. Oh, and the news that Jeff was going to play in Portland in July. I begged him to take me to the show. He did better. He arranged to do an interview and got a photo pass for me.

The night before the show, he told me he didn't want to do the interview, that I would be doing it. Ack! I had never done an interview and, well, this was Jeff Buckley. I was just hoping I wouldn't make a total ass of myself. Victor told me I'd have about 15 minutes to talk to him.

The next morning, I put on my best lacy bra (for confidence, as well as lift) and headed off to Portland. We pulled up to La Luna, just as a white van pulled up. I hopped out of the car, notebook and tape recorder in hand. The main door was locked. A young guy in a pink button-down shirt, docker shorts and penny loafers hopped out of the van and looked as lost as I was. I was skeptical but told him I was there to interview Jeff Buckley. He made a face and said nastily "So you're the one we had to rush down here for". This bodes well, I thought to myself.
I followed him around to the back and we went into the green room where he asked me to wait. After about 10 minutes, he walked back in looking annoyed "Well, are you coming?" he said. I followed him into the main stage area where there were several guys milling about and unloading gear. "Here she is" he announced. "This is Jeff" he said, motioning to a rather short, scruffy looking young guy in a plaid flannel.

"Hiya!" I shook his hand and introduced myself. "Hiya!" he repeated. I was at a bit of a loss. An older gentleman in a suit walked over. "Did you say Juliana?" He actually pronounced it properly, the Spanish pronounciation. "I'm Steve Berkowitz", as in Steve Berkowitz, head of AR for Sony. He'd flown in from NY to see Jeff's show. It turned out his wife's name was also Juliana and she was from Bogotá, Colombia. The ice broken, I got introduced to the rest of the band. Mr. Personality turned out to be Gene Bowen, Jeff's tour manager.
Everyone dispersed and Jeff and I sat on the couch in the green room...for a second. It was miserably hot and anyone who ever spent any time in that green room can back me up on this...it smelled. It reeked of stale cigarette smoke and beer and who-knows-what-else on the best of days. I followed him through the place, on a quest for a fan and some incense. We chit-chatted along the way. In true Juliana fashion I made my first of several oh-so-tactful comments. "My brother's friends met you in NY and said you were pretty pretentious". I never did have that filter. He turned and looked at me for a moment with a raised eyebrow. "You just don't seem all that pretentious" I added. He looked somewhat mollified, then said "tell them I said 'fuck you'. No don't tell them I said that. What kind of an insult is 'fuck you'? Tell them I said 'may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpit hairs'. Now there's an insult!" and smiled.
He finally found some incense and sent Gene to track down a fan and we settled onto the couch again to do the interview. That was where my life changed.
I was aware that time was ticking. "Don't you have another interview to do?" I knew there was a reporter from a Japanese magazine waiting to talk to him. "Yes. No. it could happen at any time. But stay, hang out, I'm not going anywhere." We had exhausted my interview questions quickly and I was completely unprepared beyond that and told him so.
"What do you do? You look like an artist" he mused. I told him about my dreams of pursuing photography. I was turning 18 in a month, had just graduated from high school and my parents were pressuring me to pick a 'real career' and I was unsure of what to do. "Fuck 'em. Follow your dream, follow your photography. Move out. Why don't you move here? Portland seems like a really cool city." So here I am.

I spent about 2 hours with him that afternoon and we talked about all sorts of stuff, from music and spirituality to t.v. and toe jam. We shared a beer, because Gene wouldn't bring me one of my own. Jeff told me about his Panamanian grandmother and how she would sing to him. He sang me one of her Spanish lullabies, softly, almost under his breath, then got embarassed. At one point he got called away to do a sound check. He insisted that I stay, that he'd only be a few minutes. After sitting in the green room by myself for a bit, I decided I had better say goodbye until the show.
I found him sitting on the stairs, looking distraught. "Are you, ok?" I asked as I sat next to him. He and the band had gone to some music store downtown earlier and he'd bought a new effects pedal. When they unloaded everything at the venue, Michael, his guitarist, had snapped it up and Jeff had said something nasty to him. He was filled with remorse and shame for being selfish. " Well, you apologized, yeah?" I asked. He nodded. "Well, he's your friend, I'm sure it's alright.." He seemed to feel better and we talked some more. At this point my brother came huffing and puffing up the stairs. Oops. He'd been waiting for me outside the whole time, thinking I'd be out in 20 minutes. He was not amused. Jeff diffused the situation. He was pretty charming and my brother soon forgot his anger talking about his 'zine.
When I returned later that evening for the show, Gene saw the camera and asked me what I thought I was doing. There had been some mis-communication regarding the photo pass. Steve overheard, walked over and put his arm around my shoulder. "Of course she can shoot!". Gene shot me a murderous look. The gracious Mr. Berkowitz walked me over to the door girl to get my hand stamped "This young lady is my personal guest. She's going to be taking photos tonight" he told her. I realized then that it was also a 21+ show. Sometimes it pays to be Colombian.
It was pretty early and Jeff wouldn't be playing for at least another hour and a half, so I wandered around looking for someplace to pass the time. I made my way downstairs to the café and there was Jeff again. He invited me to pull up a stool next to him. I asked what he was drinking. "A mocha. Caffeine, it's my first drug of choice. Do you like them?" I'd never had one. He seemed almost offended at the thought. "You have to try one, do you want one? My treat.." And Jeff Buckley bought me my first mocha. Gene came in at some point to have me sign a release for the photos. "You know you would never have been able to shoot if Steve wasn't here tonight.." he pointed out. That guy just had a chip on his shoulder.
Other than that, we passed the time in pleasant conversation. In the course of our talks he also changed my entire outlook on spirituality and what it means to be a spiritual person. I consider him one of my first spiritual teachers. He asked if I considered myself a very spiritual person. Until then I had the mistaken impression that religion equaled spirituality. I had turned my back on Catholicism when I was 9. My mother was fond of saying I didn't even believe in the food I ate.
"Have you ever had an orgasm?" Jeff asked me. Gulp. "What?" He repeated his question, then seeing my embarassment, continued "that moment when you have an orgasm , or see a beautiful sunset , or hear a beautiful piece of music.. that's spiritual, that's spirituality. There's a word in Urdu, the language of Pakistan, it has no translation in English , but it means 'knowledge gained not by ordinary means'.. anything that moves you like that, that's spirituality." It was like a light bulb went on in my head and in my heart. It was on that day that I learned that I was indeed a spiritual person, I had been so moved, even if it wasn't by the means that my upbringing had taught me.
It was an exciting night. I had a lot to think about. The show was amazing. I was listening to his beautiful voice and taking photos, pausing once in a while to take it all in.
After the show, Jeff and I were talking again and an older man walked up and told Jeff he'd enjoyed the music---that he'd been a big fan of his father's (Tim Buckley). Uh-oh. The rep at the label had said "Whatever you do, do not mention his father".
His smile faded "Well you'd know more about him than I would" he snapped and stormed off.

I hadn't had a chance to say goodbye. My brother walked in at that point and I managed to catch Jeff's eye and waved from across the room. He walked over and put his arm around my shoulders and said to my brother "You have an awesome step-sister". We hugged goodbye. I promised to go see him again in November.

It never happened. I was so excited to be living in Portland then, and had been taking photos. I wanted to thank him, but my friend flaked on me and I never made it to the show. Jeff played one more show in Portland after that and I've already written about how that turned out. I still have the photos and a tape of part of our conversation. I also have a beautifully autographed CD--- he tried to write me something in Spanish. "How do you say beautiful in Spanish?" he asked me.
The more intangible gifts are the most precious to me, though. I won't say that he put me on my current path, but he certainly gave me the gentle nudge I needed to start walking it, for which I am ever grateful.

All Content Copyright 2008, Juliana Tobón. All Rights Reserved


  1. Thank you Juliana for sharing this with me... I was never fortunate enough to see Jeff in concert, but I still remember the first time I heard his voice, the first time I saw him on tv and worst of all, the day he died. Reading this is a little more insight into someone that inspired and touched my heart. Its nice to see someone who got to be personally inspired share their story with those of us who werent as fortunate. <3

  2. Thanks Juliana, i enjoyed hearing of your time with Jeff through your well spoken words :)

  3. It is so amazing story! I really love it! Jeff was extremely spiritual person. I'd never met him but when I'm listening his beautiful voice, reading such a stories I feel I miss him so much. His lyrics were so emotional! Thanks for sharing!

  4. I was at that show, you probably saw me. There was only about twenty people there, including Jeff and the band. I had written a review of Grace for PDXS but they didn't publish it. As I recall, the show came within a couple months of Grace's release. When I bought the CD at MM on Burnside, they asked me if I wanted to register for a drawing that Sony was putting on and I said yeah, OK. I never heard about the in store- so I missed that. I probably bought the only copy of Grace sold in Portland before his show, because I won the drawing. I remember getting to La Luna and finding the big room completely dark. I was informed that Buckley's gig was going to be upstairs? What's upstairs? Basically, a living room with some furniture they found in the alley. The opening act was a female artist whose name escapes me. I didn't watch it. The room was packed for her and when her set was done, virtually everybody left, including a guy who lived down the hall from me. I begged him to stay, but he had a date with a calamari salad- oh man. I remember standing there with about ten other concertgoers when Buckley walked in dressed in what looked to be a woman's vintage beaver overcoat, knit hat & mittens and a muffler. He, went over to the patch of linoleum floor where the band was set up, stripped off his wraps, laying them on the floor, got out his guitar and away we went. Mojo Pin and everything off Grace I think. I actually cried a couple times.

    1. Anonymous, so awesome! Thank you Julia for letting me time travel with you as well as Anonymous. I'd love to see that drawing you won. :)

  5. Hi thanks so much for sharing! I was wondering if you could post or send me the link to your other story about seeing him? I'd love to read it!


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