The strong, mutual love between Jeff Buckley and Australia

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As we revisit Jeff Buckley's 1995 Live At The Wireless, we look at his strong bond with Australia.

While in some parts of the world – his native USA among them – Jeff Buckley became a musical hero in the wake of his tragic death, Australia embraced him as a superstar while he was alive.

LISTEN: Jeff Buckley, live from The Phoenician Club in 1995

Jeff Buckley's mother Mary Guibert assured triple j in 1998 that the love we showed Buckley was not only acknowledged but very much reciprocated.

Jeff Buckley Ticket Stub 1996 Enmore

 

"He loved Australia, adored Australia," she said. "It was so exciting for him to be there, the response was that palpable for him.

"He really wasn't ready for the depth of the response. It was really gratifying to him. There's something about the Aussie spirit, that kind of independence, that struck a harmonic note with Jeff. He was always so experimental that he didn't always get that really roaring enthusiastic reception in the US, which was alright with him. He liked just being a songwriter and admired for his singing and having a controlled following rather than some kind of raging success.

"But the genuine nature I think of the [Australian] reception, just the way the fans responded to him in concert, the feeling he would get from the people in that performance experience, which he loved to do in the first place, was really a strong and powerful one. It was good for him."

 

He visited Australia twice in his relatively short career. A short promo tour that saw him in small clubs in Sydney and Melbourne in August and September 1995. Just five months later he had a mammoth theatre tour, selling out some of the biggest rooms around the country, sometimes repeatedly.

The reviews were largely glowing.

"With Jeff’s first tour in 1995, there was a considerable level of excitement and anticipation," triple j Music Director Richard Kingsmill remembers. "Australia had had plenty of time to live with Grace, it had been out for exactly a year before his live show got here.

It was, and still is, as close to a perfect concert I’ve ever seen.

Richard Kingsmill

"Everyone knows now that Grace is a classic. But even after a year of it being out, he was still more a cult artist getting great reviews than he was a superstar. The shows booked in Australia on that first tour were pretty modest size rooms – nothing like the big theatres he played on his follow up tour here in 1996."

Kingsmill remembers the opening show of that first, intimate tour at The Metro in Sydney.

"It’s fair to say the crowd was full of as many local musicians as there were punters," he says.

"As soon as he started playing, and then when he sang, the room was his for the next 90 minutes. It was, and still is, as close to a perfect concert I’ve ever seen. He knew this was an important show and that there was a lot riding on it for his growing popularity here.

"He and his band were on fire that night. All in his camp agreed afterwards it was a good one. For me, when towards the end of the night he started dropping in really challenging covers like Big Star’s 'Kangaroo', it had gone way beyond being just a great gig. It was simply a thrill to be a music fan and there that night to soak it all up."

Wendy Tuohy raved about Buckley's return to Australia, writing for The Age in February 1996.

"A fragile figure with a boy's white arms told us wrenching stories of loss, pain and aching," she wrote.

"He used a musical language so beautiful - and sang at times in a voice as rich but tortured as a male Nina Simone - that the pain became a thing of beauty.

"We do not know the exact origins of Jeff Buckley's intensity, or what causes the compressed tension that sometimes makes him rigid at the microphone, but the ’lots of bad things’ he speaks about to journalists, the ‘lots of irreparable damage... the agony of learning all over again’ certainly came through in his coiled-spring stage presence."

He got a lot of very touching letters from Australian fans which he kept as keepsakes. And he was not a keeper of things.

Mary Guibert, Jeff Buckley's mother

Grace has spent 52 weeks in the ARIA charts since its release, even sitting in the top ten back in 1995. The record only managed 149th spot in his native US, though Buckley's mother believes this was due to his label wanting to build his profile slowly.

"Part of that was by intention, I'm sure," she said. "I've seen the marketing plans all throughout and they were all a very low-key, take it easy, let Jeff develop kind of thing."

There was truly an affinity between the artist and the people of this country. If you ever poured your heart out to Jeff Buckley via fan mail, there's a good chance he took what you wrote to heart.

"He got a lot of fan mail from the Australian fans too," Guibert said. "He got a lot of very touching letters from Australian fans which he kept as keepsakes.

"And he was not a keeper of things. But there were some really powerful letters that he got from some of the Australian fans about how his music touched them. I think that really endeared them to him as well."

Photographer Merri Cyr was a close friend of Buckley's throughout his life and took the iconic photo that adorns Grace's front cover. She also attests to how much the singer loved our country.

"I know Jeff loved Australia, particularly he loved Melbourne," she remembers. "He talked about that quite a bit. Australians really connected with Jeff immediately and embraced him, they loved him.

"I'm glad he got to experience that while he was alive. Not just adulation, but the love."

This excerpt was originally published in 2014 as part of the Jeff Buckley J Files

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