Monday, October 21, 2013

Gary Lucas, Touched by Grace: My Time with Jeff Buckley

Ding-dong! A couple of nights ago my doorbell rang. It was the UPS, delivering a mysterious package. I opened it with some haste. "Oh, good. The publisher sent me a review copy of Gary Lucas's book," I mumbled to myself. I had heard about it. Of course I was and am no stranger to Gary Lucas and his music. I consider him one of the very most important, most innovative guitarists of our era. And the book is about a momentous time in his career--his collaboration with the exceptional vocalist/poetic lyricist and expressionist Jeff Buckley. I was glad to know more of the details since the music had struck a nerve with me.

And so the next day I hunkered down with the book, Touched By Grace: My Time with Jeff Buckley (Jawbone, 317 pp., paperbound). It is a page turner. In two days I was finished reading it, touched by the grace in my own way.

I always knew Gary could write. I knew his background. I had read some of his more casual social media posts and other, more polished, more developed things. But none of that quite prepared me for THIS.

It tells the sort of story legends are made of--only it is a slice of real life, surely not a legend at the core. No. It's too real, too heartbreaking a tale to read for it to be a legend in itself. Yet it tells the tale of an industry that often by definition is in the legend-making business. Jeff Buckley from the start of his public career had a special something about him that made him grist for the legend-maker's mill. But Gary Lucas tells us... the truth about the whole jumping, complex set of events leading to the creation of the legend and in the end gives us a stunningly clear picture of the many contradictions, interdictions and general sweet-fast talking jive behind what ultimately launched Jeff's career and perhaps led him into dangerous psychic territory and destruction in the end.

I am getting ahead of the story though. And this story is as much about Gary and his circumstantial yet fundamental presence within the story as it is about how the musical/starformed Jeff Buckley came to be.

So let's backtrack. It starts with Gary AFTER his seminal association with Captain Beefheart, Gary the talented but under-challenged copywriter for well over a decade at Columbia Records. The music business in that period, at least the major-label part of it, had begun to drift away somewhat from its flirtations with the underground art-rock that had changed the music scene so radically from the later '60s on. There was a kind of rock midlife no-man's land developing, a gradually increasing re-emphasis on the "hits or nothing" perspective of earlier years.

We catch Gary in the middle of the drift, pretty disgusted with his role in the big machine and its increasing tendency to play it safe, 35 years old, knowing in his heart that he needed to play the guitar and make a statement about what rock still was capable of and what it could be. He returns to the guitar with renewed determination, as a solo act playing marvelous near orchestral pedal-enhanced music on the six-string to no small acclaim. He then forms his band Gods and Monsters, which eventually includes a female singer who falls in at first with what Gary is looking for. He quits the copywriting job and gets the attention of the right folks at Columbia, namely Rick Chertoff, and lands a tentative commitment from them to do an album deal.

Yet there was a willful strain in the Gods and Monsters singer at the time, an ambition to take the music in a direction that in the end did not meet with a good deal of enthusiasm from either Gary or the label.

All that leads up to one of those Kis-metic situations that changes everything. An old acquaintance is putting together a Tim Buckley tribute concert. Tim's son Jeff, then completely unknown in music circles, was going to do some singing as part of the events. Would Gary like to get together with Jeff and work up a couple of numbers for the show?

From that very first moment Gary met with Jeff things started falling very much together. At the same time things also began a slow unravelling, began to fall very much apart, but in ways that were not initially apparent. From that first collaborative moment when the two began working out material together it was clear that something momentous was taking shape. Yet the centrifugal-centripetal forces inherent in Jeff Buckley's complex personality would ultimately bring it all to a grinding halt. Gary does a great job portraying Jeff as a bundle of contradictions: vulnerable-ruthless, open-stubborn, somewhat naive, kind and loving, yet easy prey to the temptation to be single-minded, self-destructive, overweeningly ambitious, duplicitous. Jeff's then hidden dark side combined with some music business machinations and the result was far from pretty.

But for a short, wonderful period of time musical magic reigned. Gary tells brilliantly the happy-sad exhilarating-brooding saintly-demonic story of Jeff Buckley the enigma yet perhaps all the more brilliant at times for it, their volatile but hugely kinetic-cathartic mutual musical combustion-collaboration. The music business side as well as the creative side get detailed, pinpoint-brilliant scrutiny from Gary. Perhaps most fascinating is Gary's right-there description of how they worked together, Gary crafting an intricate, musically contentful foundation that Tim then soared over, creating the vocal line-lyrical content that fit perfectly with and extended Gary's initial creative brilliance into a stratospheric zone, the result surely and startlingly transformed into much more than the sum of the two parts.

In the end there was betrayal. Lucas tells it all in a gripping prose chronology that jumps off the pages at you until you cannot stop reading.

And maybe it is the all-too-familiar story of stardom and self-destruction, insightful music brilliance and naive self-delusion, all teaming up to set the tail of the Jeff Buckley comet shooting rapidly and vertically to the heavens only to sputter and do an equally sure decent into nothingness. But it is told with such vivid life as the details unwind unerringly to the heartbreaking denouement, it is no simple, documented story. It does end up having the quality of a legend out of time, though not one the record execs envisioned, surely.

Lucas as he himself implies is someone who feels compelled to built up the truth of the experience in exhilarating and then harrowing detail. And in so doing he creates a hell of a book.

It is a book one does not forget quickly, if at all. You get a planet full of insights on Gary, on Jeff, on the blinding ecstasy of their momentous collaboration and then on the forces that pulled it apart and ultimately led to Jeff's demise. You see the horror of what the music business can be along with the extraordinary highs of musical excellence the two were able to reach, each bringing to the table a special frisson that in combination was otherworldly, exceptional, a model of what such things can be when everything is right.

Brilliant. Moving. A must-read.

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