Rock Music: Buckley Versus Cobain

Rock Music

Sin-e was the hot New York City (NYC) club where Jeff Buckley played in the early 1990s, but what was the main reason Buckley began helping Sin-e’s employees wash dishes after shows? He did it to avoid schmoozing with the A&R suits, who would dawdle outside the club hoping to run into him. Jeff was wary of the word “manager.”

Rock music biz lawyer George Stein of Columbia Records was hungry to manage Buckley. He arrived one night at Sin-e with a sweet contract package for future rock-star Buckley, who agreed to talk to him. That night, Stein blew the other interested music production companies out of the water. RCA, Sire, and Arisa had the money for developing talent, but they did not offer it to Buckley.

It was back in 1993, and as platinum-saturated as Columbia was, it was hot to prove that it could still draw the latest Dylan–or Bruce “The Boss.” After an ambitious hard sell, Buckley was courted and won by Stein for Columbia, the behemoth, bottom-line, money-driven monster in the music industry.

As one examines the story of Jeff Buckley, readers might wonder what in the world George Stein thought he was doing. How true it was that Columbia, to keep up a magnificent reputation of its glorious past, was in desperate need of a “heritage artist,” a real grass-roots rocker with natural sex appeal who wrote original, admirable stuff. The fact that he was the only son of late 60’s legendary songwriter Tim Buckley made him irresistible, because of his so-called inherited talent. However, it was also true that Buckley, who was then in his mid-twenties, had been correct to doubt the ethics and mechanisms of the music business world, as he tried to avoid a big money contract, including the one he eventually signed with Stein and Columbia. Some places and people are just too confident, too control-oriented, and basically naive to nurture any art–high or low.

Sometimes, it is irresistible for big-shot corporate bigwigs to bark out a big corporate design. They are usually just a group of smart suits who live to manipulate and squeeze for dollars. As Jeff Buckley’s history proves, Columbia producers, managers, and especially lawyer-turned-rock star manager George Stein did not have what it took to properly support and cultivate the sensitive but productive singer-songwriter.

Columbia simply could not keep their hands off the merchandise long enough. For some of the best songwriters and musicians, the longest time on Earth is not nearly long enough. For every wrong move Columbia made along the way, the executives and producers at the company have always maintained five or six excuses for their own actions as they mismanaged Buckley.

Be cautious when some famous, powerful, music business executive is being called on the carpet, and then, all they can do is offer 100 reasons why they did things their way. Buyer beware as they say. There may be broken spirits all around them, artists written off as losers after one CD, balladeers kept under pressure until they pull the trigger, or jump in the river.

These high pressure methods tend to backfire tragically more often than not. You know you are talking to a white-collar who is disguising himself as a cool, art-type when you get the distinct feeling there might be–or should have been–prison in his personal background. That doesn’t mean the guy has ever been convicted. However, it does mean that he is skilled in fabrication and deception that only the brightest cons achieve.

What savvy musician with sizable talent doesn’t suspect this: If it is dressed kind of down, arrives in a limo with a recording contract ready for your signature, has a shiny surface, the shadow of feelers, and a small, brittle soul, might it be a cockroach? It hurts to have to sit down with the insect: “thou hast prepared a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Any artist who’s done that, trying to nibble half-heartedly at the spread, but trying not to look into its beady little eyes, knows the distinctly icky feeling.

An all-telling comparison: Jeff Buckley, who was immediately embraced and sought after by major record labels, who hesitantly signed on with big dog Columbia, sort of resented the fact that he might appeal to Pop Music listeners. He always feared entering the music scene “through the front door” instead of the side or back door. Sure, he needed the time and financial support from his powerful record label Columbia, but he also eschewed any activity that might make him more “mainstream.” He feared correctly.

He was an example of a musician preened and cared for on the inside, ushered in through the gilded front doors, who longed to be perceived as Alternative, as an Outsider with Beat credentials. This was because he was wise enough to know that the most unfettered artists closest to the creative sources always come in from the outside, through the more mysterious, less visible entryways. Buckley hated the idea of doing a music video for MTV, even though his studio pressured him to do so.

On the other hand: there was 21-year-old Kurt Cobain, playing regularly for nothing in the Seattle area, willing to play for nothing, even protesting when a manager offered him close to a $100 because he knew the manager could not afford even that much. Kurt would refuse to take the bigger bucks if he thought it might jeopardize his unnamed band’s ability to play to little crowds of 30 listeners or less. Yet, Cobain wanted desperately to get out a music video of his unnamed band. He was not well-cared for by the industry in the beginning, not under the protective wings of anybody, except his friends in the band and his girlfriend(s).

Both Jeff and Kurt were dead a few years after their first album. Kurt, living on the edge, had no trouble writing songs. Never suffered any sort of writer’s block. He might not have had a ‘fridge and might have gone without grub for a while,’ but he was always creating. He had his fix. It was lowly and self-destructive.

In contrast, Buckley always had it easy, well-cared for by his record label Columbia, but he had considerable trouble writing songs and spent endless hours on very expensive recording studios, fiddling around with recorded material that was not finished enough to use on a CD collection. Whereas Cobain spent a whopping $155 for nine hours in a Seattle recording studio, a really low-down dive, and he and his unnamed group recorded nine songs in nine hours.

There is a certain unadorned place where the most excellent creativity takes place. No matter how hard or how much money a big business spends to try to “create” an authentic grass-roots situation for one of their pampered artists, they will only be creating an imitation of authenticity. Nobody knew it more than an artist like Buckley. He was buttonholed by a synthetic concept.

When Buckley tried to swim, seemingly without a thought of either surviving or drowning, a raging flooded river down in Memphis and washed up dead a day later, it left another rough edge, an unfinished moment in rock music history.

Blog By Holly Hunt

Dream Brother: the Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley, by David Browne. It Books. New York City, NY. 2002
Heavier than Heaven: a Biography, by Charles R. Cross. Hachette Books, NYC: NY. 2002

2 Responses to "Rock Music: Buckley Versus Cobain"

  1. Joseph   March 15, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    Agreed with the above comment. Jeff was a perfectionist and much like many artists, what he did and was satisfied with on Monday was off and ‘bad’ by Tuesday. It’s the mark of a true artist that the art always moves. It’s true he hated the ‘business’ aspect of music, much of it due to a cliché young man’s outlook on the establishment that lead to a certain amount of paranoia. However on a hot day in Memphis, the Wolfe River was enough temptation to do something terribly stupid. It was a terribly moronic mistake made by an otherwise bright kid with huge talent and bigger personality. His own sense of adventure sent him into the river, not lawyers pens.

  2. Greg   March 4, 2015 at 6:23 am

    Kind of a BS article. First, a small detail. I saw JB perform at Sin-é over 30 times and was Jeff’s neighbor in the East Village. It was not a ‘club.’ It was a 6-table cafe the size of a large bedroom. And Buckley hung out and washed dishes long before the suits showed up. He did it because he liked the place, they gave him a break and he had few friends in NYC at the beginning. Second, the suggestion that JB went in the river out of despair or not caring if he lived is rank sensationalism. JB was happy, excited to get back in the studio and optimistic about what would come out of the second try at recording the new album. He swam because he was a spontaneous free spirit who took stupid risks some times, not because of Sony. Finally, Jeff had no trouble writing songs. He did have trouble deciding on arrangements, mostly because he was a perfectionist chasing an artistic ideal. That more than anything held him back. All in all, this article is a masturbatory myth the author wants to tell about Jeff’s destruction at the hands of corporate music, despite the actual facts.

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