Radio 4's The Grace of Jeff Buckley: Poignant memories of rock idol who spawned monsters


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The Independent Culture

If you gave me a quid for every wet-behind-the-ears, acoustic guitar-wielding nitwit claiming Jeff Buckley as their musical hero, I could have built my own recording empire by now.

Buckley, an undeniably brilliant singer and songwriter whose premature death in 1997 in a swimming accident increased his mythology, has certainly spawned some monsters (hello Ed!) though perhaps we shouldn't hold that against him.

Radio 4's The Grace of Jeff Buckley wisely didn't dwell on what might have been, nor on the hordes of Buckley pretenders currently hypnotising the nation's teens. Instead, it focused on the musician's first visit to London 20 years ago, when he was a barely known singer-songwriter with pretty cheekbones and an unusually high vocal register.

The hype machine had already cranked into action back in the US, where the fascination with Buckley was inflamed by his surname (he was the son of the folk-rock legend Tim Buckley, whom he only met once). Here, though, he was still unknown, able to walk the streets unpestered, and play tiny shows in basement bars and small country pubs without causing a riot.

This narrator-less programme was a scrapbook of memories shared by those who encountered him during this British sojourn. It was terrific, rich in detail and shot through with a melancholy of what would come later.

A booking agent, Emma Banks, described taking Buckley out to dinner ("He ate duck"), organising his gig schedule and recording a promotional interview with him that never saw the light of day, in the same besotted tones in which you might describe a love affair, which in some ways it was.

The American photographer Kevin Westerberg was similarly smitten: ""I developed man-love for him quite quickly," he recalled. "There was something so perfectly structured about his face." In the case of Steve Abbott, owner of Big Cat records, it was his infant daughter who became infatuated as Buckley entertained her with impressions of Disney characters and brought up her on stage.

More gems were unearthed from the trip, including a forgotten Greater London Radio session, which was almost scuppered when the presenter trailed the programme as featuring an interview with "Tim Buckley's son". The normally even-tempered Jeff, who was listening in a car half a mile down the road, apparently kicked the radio so hard that the front fell off.

Once in the studio he proceeded to deliver a version of "Grace" that was entirely fuelled by fury. "Something happened on the way," Buckley murmured when asked if his performances were always that intense.

The Radio 4 documentary didn't have the space to play it in its heart-stopping entirety but fortunately Cerys Matthews did on her 6Music show on Sunday. Listening to it, I shed a little tear, not just at the song, which was devastatingly good, but at the injustice that Buckley is no more and yet Ed Sheeran continues to make records.

Luckily, London's Tin Pan Alley: Danny Baker's Musical History on Radio 2 gave us reason to be proud of our heritage as the presenter took a stroll down Denmark Street, home of assorted bars, basements and backrooms where rock history was made.

With the help of assorted musicians, from Glen Matlock to Bill Wyman, Baker told of the publishing empires, the design companies, the studios and the retail outlets that operated from this small stretch of Soho. Baker was funny and knowledgeable as ever but the finest line belonged to Matlock who, surveying his old studio, drawled, "Still got a rat problem, I see".