Earlier this month, Jeff Buckley would have turned 45 had he still been alive. A phenomenal talent, with a name like Buckley it was obvious there was an Irish connection there. And, delving into his past, I became aware just how deep his connection with Ireland was — from  gigs at the Trinity Ball years before he was signed  to links with The Commitments, Glen Hansard and Mark Geary. To gauge just how deep his Irish connections were, I  spoke to Geary, the owners of Sin E, Irish promoters who staged his shows here and his mother, Mary Guibert.

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Jeff Buckley and Ireland

Jeff Buckley’s mother, Mary Guibert, carries a shillelagh everywhere she goes. The quaint twisted knobbly stick can be found in the back seat of the car she drives around LA. It’s her weapon of choice. “Jeff brought it back for me after the Trinity Ball in 1992,” she remembers. “I treasure it. Most people in LA carry a gun around with them,” she laughs, “but I’ve got my shillelagh! I just shake it at anyone who bothers me!”

This coming November might have seen Jeff Buckley get a playful whack of that shillelagh. Were he still alive he may have made her laugh as he recalled its purchase whilst celebrating what would have been his 45th birthday. Could have, would have, what might have been.

In hindsight it’s the timing of Jeff Buckley’s death which seems particularly cruel. He was just 30-years-old. Grisly parallels with the death of his father abounded. Tim Buckley, the cult songwriter, was also taken years before his time. An accidental heroin overdose brought him to his grave at just 28-year’s-old. Jeff had met him only once.

While Tim managed to release nine albums in his short career, the extravagantly gifted Jeff had only just begun to record the follow up to Grace, his debut and only completed record.

Released in August 1994, Grace remains a certified modern classic. Full of hope, longing and incomplete beauty, it is a record which has left an indelible print on modern music. Intrinsically beautiful, its influence remains incalculable. Without it we would arguably have never heard of artists such as Anthony and The Johnson’s, Damien Rice or Coldplay.

Unsigned and having never before left the US, let alone performed outside of the country, Buckley arrived in Ireland for the 1992 Trinity Ball.

As a record, Grace too remains indicative of the path Buckley’s record company saw him moving towards. Referred to as a “heritage” artist, Columbia Records viewed Jeff as the completion of a holy trinity at the label. Dylan had passed the torch to Springsteen, and Jeff would in turn lead on from The Boss. Yet all thoughts of that lineage were lifted on May 29th 1997. In a move typical of his impulsive personality, Jeff Buckley waded into Tennessee’s Wolf River. He would swim to the other side. He never made it. That evening he drowned, and Jeff Buckley’s short yet wondrous recording career had come to a premature end.

Five year’s earlier such a career had yet to begin. Yet Jeff Buckley had already made his first trip abroad as a performing artist. Unsigned and having never before left the US, let alone performed outside of the country, Buckley arrived in Ireland for the 1992 Trinity Ball.

“I remember the Trinity Ball gig well because Jeff used to recall it in quite a funny way,” reminisces Mary Guibert. “When he came back from Ireland Jeff acted things out and was quite animated about that particular show, which was one of his earliest. He was so impressed and so enlivened by his visit.

“So he told me about how he flew there for the Trinity Ball and how excited he was to be a part of that, because it was such a lively event, and how warm and pleasant everyone was in greeting him there. It was his first trip to Ireland, and he stayed in someone’s home, either one of the promoters or a friend, I’m not quite sure. But he recalled this story about how he came downstairs for breakfast one morning in this sweet little house and his host turned around to him and said: (adopts Darby O’ Gill Irish accent) ‘Oh Mr Buckley will you be having beer with your corn flakes this morning!’ Because he said, ‘Mom, they drink beer with everything! There’s beer everywhere! They bath in it; they have it on their corn flakes!’

It’s one of the stories I remember best about Jeff because he was so taken by his experience in Dublin.

“He said as the evening went on, the beer drinking at the Trinity Ball went on to massive proportions that he had never witnessed before in his life. At one point he said, he was walking home and there was a row of people in ball gowns and tuxedos bending over a wall. A spontaneous vomitorium as it were! And then laughing! He just thought that this was a magnificent sight, the liveliest bunch of people he’d ever been around. The most tolerant, let and let live people he’d ever met. He really loved that. It’s one of the stories I remember best about Jeff because he was so taken by his experience in Dublin.”

Buckley’s appearance at the Trinity Ball was one of many random, yet noteworthy, connections he had with Ireland up until his untimely death. He had Irish roots. Tim Buckley Senior, Jeff’s grandfather, was the descendant of a hedge master from Cork. Within the family was a wealth of stories on the Buckley’s ancestral roots, though in the absence of his father, Jeff would have heard little of such stories in growing up.

“It was really on his own, in his twenties when he came into contact with Irish people for himself, that he began to explore that side of his roots,” explains Mary. “For Jeff exploring them sort of explained his way of waxing poetic and seeing things in a particular way. He had a very Irish way of looking at things”

It was unusual circumstances that first brought him into contact with Irish people. Living in LA, and eager to relocate to New York, Jeff spotted an opportunity. The Commitments was about to open in the US, and the producers were looking for musicians to play at premiere parties in LA, Chicago and New York. It was summer 1991, and Jeff was hired as a guitar player and tech to one of the films stars, Glen Hansard of The Frames.

“Me and him just got on so well because he was a Bob Dylan freak and a Van Morrison fan and so was I,” Glen told Hot Press some years ago. “And every night we would just rattle on about Van, we were travelling through America, and when we got to Chicago I remember sitting at the soundcheck with Jeff and I started playing ‘Once I Was’ by Tim Buckley, ’cos I’d just gotten into him at the time. And Jeff was like, ‘He was my da, y’know’. And I looked at him and I was like, ‘No way. Wow. That makes a lot of sense. That’s mental!’ And he says, ‘Well I didn’t really know him that well to be honest, but he was me da… anyway, what was that song you were playing?’ So we sort of left it at that.”

Two years previous he had opened Sin-É, a tiny café in the city’s East Village

The week long tour ended in New York. Jeff had bagged $2,000 and first class air tickets. His final gig with The Commitments took place in The Beacon. Shane Doyle, an Irish emigrant was there. Two years previous he had opened Sin-É, a tiny café in the city’s East Village. Doyle arrived at The Commitments party in the hope of getting the band down to Sin- É.

“I just thought to myself that maybe I should get them down to Sin- É, to play,” says Doyle. “That’s what I did. Whoever was in town, U2, Hothouse Flowers, whoever, I’d try and get them down to Sin-É. It didn’t matter to me that the place was this tiny space. So I went up and eventually got talking to Bronagh Gallagher. She said they’d be up for it and that was that.”

It’s unclear if Jeff had travelled with them to Sin- É. If he had, then this would have been his first introduction to the venue which would come to serve as his public workshop. Some months after The Commitments tour, and now living in New York, Buckley played his first gig in Sin- É.

“He just ambled in and asked for a gig,” says Doyle. “It was easy enough to get a gig that time. So I gave him a shot. He was definitely outstanding. There was no doubt about that. He was way out on his own and I was fortunate enough in that he played there for about a year before the limousines started pulling up with all the record executives.”

Sin-É was the most important step in Buckley’s career. He played there from 1991 right up until its closure in 1995. His first recording for Columbia was an EP recorded in the venue and entitled Live at Sin- É. He adored the place.

“Jeff adored Shane in particular,” says Mary Guibert. “He loved Sin- É and the whole atmosphere of being able to go there and play as long as he wanted to. That was heaven to him. Jeff absolutely found himself when he arrived at Sin- É. If Jeff was a germ than Sin-É was the Petri dish. It was where he was allowed to incubate and expose himself.”

Sin-É was a rough and ready kind of venue. There was no promotion and no set schedule. Jeff was given a Monday night residency though this could be interrupted by whoever was in town. “It was very free flowing in Sin-É,” says Doyle. “You never knew who might show up. Sinead O’Connor, Paul Brady or Shane MacGowan might drop by. You just never knew. Nobody owned a night. It was an incredible place, and totally happening. You know, I myself never wanted to miss a thing. Anyone might show up.”

He had no time for any kind of God like status

Amongst the many Irish emigrants who hung out around Sin-É’s chess board like coffee tables was a nineteen-year old Mark Geary. His brother Karl helped run the place along with Doyle.

“The first night I arrived in New York I headed straight for Sin- É,” remembers Geary. “It was also the first time I met Jeff. I remember lots about that first night” he recalls fondly. “I arrived at Sin-É fresh off the plane and with no idea what was going to happen next. Jeff Buckley happened to be playing that night. He was resident there on Monday nights. So as I sat down, caught up with the brother I hadn’t seen in five years and Jeff began to play. The first thing that struck me was his voice, his phrasing and his wit. He was mind blowing. Absolutely stunning. It had such an impact on me. When he finished I was introduced to him, and pretty much for the next couple of months I watched him every time he played. We began to hang out and we became friends.”

Geary and Buckley hung out a lot in Sin- É. Doyle remembers them hardly being out of the place. “People have tended to put this fallen angel label on him, this star who died too young, what a talent he was and what he could have been and whatever,” says Geary, “but he never seemed like that. He never seemed that troubled. I remember him as having this incredible wit, that’s the thing I remember the most. He was a great story teller and incredibly fanatical about music. He had no time for any kind of God like status, and was very irreverent when it came to people who fawned over him. He was very dismissive of it; very Irish I have to say. I think that was half the reason why Sin-E was kind of the place he gravitated towards because he could be treated like a normal human being.”

“He loved that aspect about Sin-E where by he was simply treated as Jeff who would come in and play music,” adds Mary. “Though he was well loved, nobody treated him as if he was above putting on an apron and scrubbing down the sink. That was the whole theme of the career part of his musical career, the management part. You could see the heal marks for miles when his management and record label, wanted him to do something that was status quo or mainstream orientated. It was all about Jeff keeping it real and not allowing success, as it were, turn him into something he didn’t want to be.”

Somewhere around this time success came knocking. The first hint of it was the Trinity Ball. Neither Doyle nor Guibert or too sure how Jeff came to be invited to play, though it doubtless had a Sin- É connection. On his return from Dublin, limousines began to pull up outside Doyle’s tiny café. They would arrive on Monday nights to catch Jeff’s performance. “They were always his worst shows,” remembers Doyle. “It might have been nerves or it might have been an unwillingness to impress them” he adds.

By October 1992 he had signed to Columbia. The following year he released the Live at Sin- É EP to little fan fare. A tour followed in spring of 1994 bringing with it a return to Dublin.

“I remember the groupies hanging around the dressing room,” laughs Dave Allen, the then venue manager at Whelan’s in Dublin when Jeff Buckley first arrived on Monday the 14th of March 1994. “It was just him on electric guitar the first time he came in. He didn’t have the band at that time,’ says Allen. “At the time of the first gig, he filled the down stairs part of Whelan’s. The groupies were a surprise. He wouldn’t have been all that well known at that stage and yet he definitely had a lot of female admirers should we say. That could have just come from the show. They must have been bowled over, and they weren’t young either!”

Mark Geary also recalls this show. “I was still in New York at the time, so I obviously wasn’t there but I know that Hot Press did a little article about him. I vividly remember that. Somebody had ordered Hot Press into Sin-E and I remember Jeff, when he returned, being really anxious about the review. I think he went into the toilet with it and had a little peep and then let me see it as well. He gave a shit about what people thought of him, and he gave a shit about how his gigs were received or whatever.”

By this stage the recording of Grace had been completed. On August 23rd 1994, Jeff Buckley made his second last visit to Ireland. His final visit would be an uneventful gig at the Tivoli theatre four months later. August 23rd however was special. “I remember little about that night except it was the night Grace was released,” says Allen. “Katell Keineg did a song with him that night and the place was packed. I remember she had to walk over the tables to get to the stage.”

Mary Guibert knows little of that show. “For Jeff to be in Ireland on the day that Grace was released was just, in a very strange way, very prophetic I think. There couldn’t have been a more significant place for him to be, truly. The ancestral eyes were upon him truly. What a lovely thing.”

Originally published in The Irish Independent, 2007
Published in The Irish Post, 2013
© Steve Cummins.