April 25, 2005

Jeff Buckley is on my mind for the first time in a while. His "legend" has come a long way since... before he died, even. He went from being a famous guy to a famous dead guy who left behind only an album and an EP, to a famous dead guy with a tell-all bio and several post-mortem releases through which his mother exploited his tragedy by revealing his most rare and intimate butt-scratchings to an ever-decreasingly interested world. Fans who'd loved Grace started to move away from the fold, leaving Buckley's oeuvre there for the stronger-stomached and less jaded (or more jaded) to pick away at.

Which, in 2005 amounts to this: If you like Buckley, people will assure you you've been scammed, hoodwinked. He was just another twentysomething pothead slumming in New York, stealing Dalai Lama calendars from East West Books, flirting with every piece of flaxen-haired NYU shiksa pussy that dropped a quarter in his guitar case. (Yeah, well, welcome to the history of folksingers.)

When I was in college I bought into all that sexy-shabby-chic-bohemian shit. Not the mysticism so much, but definitely the New York bits. Hell, I still get excited when city kids make good! But yes, I understood where in space and time the dude was coming from, and I'm sure that accounted for a good 50 percent of why I loved Grace.

There is a lot to be said for context -- music would seem so much worse without it. The easy thing here is to map out where things went over the 11 years since Grace came out:

-the mutation of anti-folk (Beck) into nu-freakfolk (Devendra)
-the coffeehouse balladeers embraced by the Starbucks/NPR taste-police axis (first it was Jewel and Duncan Sheik, now it's Norah Jones and Nellie Mackay)
-the way sensitive-guy-music-for-guys would split off into nu-metal and emo during the later '90s, determining whether you were an Iron John tears-on-the-football type or a sniveling girly man (both genres are one lateral move away from the pigfuck/Albini/Chunklet ethos)
-the bridge from "alternative" as an eminent pop-culture crush to alternative as part of pop culture's quotidian subconscious (more watered-down but more omnipresent) to the taken-for-granted quotidian alternative segueing into pop-qua-pop (Smash Mouth/Sugar Ray/Meredith Brooks -> Britney Spears/boy bands/Natalie Imbruglia)

But what was going on in the early '90s that led up to Grace? Except for "grunge, duh," no one has anything relevant to say on this issue. In 1994 people were more interested in comparing Jeff to obvious '60s touchstones like Tim Buckley and Nina Simone and an assortment of "unclassifiables" from the past, but just as Nevermind and Ten have different production values than the ones we choose to remember, Grace's production has a particular sound that died along with it when the musical style itself started to take off. '94 was the very ass-end of shoegaze and swirly guitars and the rotting corpse of Madchester, the thing that American radio used to call "modern rock" and what alternative sounded like for a good while before grunge and the big chordy indie guitar bands took over the scene.

Also, '80s baby-boomer mania didn't officially end until about '93; if you turned on a classic-rock station you'd hear CLASSIC ROCK, the old cartoony monolithic kind, Zeppelin and Aerosmith and the Doors. They played newer, new wavier stuff too, but not as often as they do now that the demographic has changed. And there are so many new markets out there now, and so much accessibility to what commercial radio isn't offering, that it's probably unusual for a young person to have a meaningful relationship with his nightly Get the Led Out block (as Buckley obviously did). I'm sure it gave him ample opportunity to discover prog -- boy-music if ever boy-music there wuz.

Buckley was 100 percent boy; don't let the press release fool you. Grace's great dichotomy is how this publically "sensitive" dude, this coffeehouse dude who'd been groomed to interpret Leonard Cohen and Benjamin Britten, really wanted to be back home shredding "Missisippi Queen" into a four-track.

In the late '80s and early '90s there were the nascent burblings of a full-on rockabilly revival -- Social Distortion and the Reverend Horton Heat were big cult acts, the Cramps were still at it, and Rocket From the Crypt were getting into it. The cover of Grace is an homage to the young Elvis -- vintage microphone, gelled hair, wife-beater, snarl. This probably has less to do with an affinity for Elvis than it does Buckley's enthusiasm for Southern California punk. (Again, that schism: SoCal skate-trash meets NYC art-fag.)

And so, 1994. Grace is a history of the prior five years and a prediction of the next five. Best music appreciation textbook ever.


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