As we entered into the city, I opened my eyes for the first time in a long time. The winding fire escapes that all twisted around the buildings gave it a distinctively European feel, while the road signs that hung up above the intersection were plastered in a language that none of us could quite understand.
Our bags were dropped off at the hostel and we immediately went out into the city to explore our new surroundings. Banks of snow covered the walkways, which narrowed our space and meant we shuffled down the streets in neat little pairs. I’d been sick for the last few days, and was chilled to the bone as the wind swept past. It had been around -30 degrees for the last week or so, and Montreal offered no respite from the cold snap we had endured at home.
As we walked the streets I tucked my chin into my coat, and lodged my hands deep into my pockets with the kind of certainty that hinted that they would be lucky to ever come out again. I didn’t care where we went, just as long as we went inside somewhere soon. Eventually, the stubbornness of a few was worn away by the wind and they agreed to duck down into the nearest bar we could find.
It was the type of bar you’d imagine would have thrived during the 1920’s Prohibition era in America- secret and minimal. In fact in many ways it looked like it was transported right out of that time, even down to the decrepit furniture and the severe lack of any lighting fixtures. A layer of dust coated the floor and there was a snooker table positioned near the entrance, but it looked as if it doubled as a driving range for golf during the holiday periods, as large chunks of felt had been dug out of it. The barman was a beast of a man, who cleaned his wine glasses with a tea towel with such disdain that you’d have been forgiven for assuming that the glass had done or said something particularly nasty to him beforehand. But all this wasn’t the first thing I noticed as I pushed open the doors to the bar. It was the music. More specifically it was Jeff Buckley’s song Lover, You Should’ve Come Over that leaked out of the jukebox, that I noticed first.
My friend soon handed me a scotch, because everyone knows if you’re sick you don’t have to buy your own alcohol, and I knocked it back. It’s hard to tell entirely due to the general haziness of memory, but I could have sworn that before the alcohol even touched my lips I had already felt slightly warmer inside. There was something about Buckley’s voice that felt so familiar and comforting in the cold. We were inside a bar, so of course, it was warmer than being out on the streets, but that wasn’t it. There was something else there.
His was a sound built out of dark nights in New York where he held residency in small bars in the East Village, playing to a few music lovers and drunks every week. It was a sound that seemed to wallow in self-reflective pain, yet somehow also felt perfect for warming up a cold evening. The ideal accompaniment to a time where you’re lost, you’re not feeling your best, or you need a little reassurance.
We stayed for hours at the bar; sitting on the faulty stools, trying to avoid eye contact with the barman, and listening to Jeff Buckley light up an otherwise dull room long since he had passed away. Other songs came on after his, but there was a desperate craving to return to his sound at every opportunity. I didn’t have much change but whatever little amount I did have, I spent it all that night playing exclusively Jeff Buckley songs on the jukebox as the crowd of people gradually began to thin.
After we left the bar at sometime early in the morning, we walked home through the empty streets that would normally be so lively. The odd car would pass by, but essentially we were out on our own. We got back to the hostel and I immediately went to bed and put Jeff Buckley’s Grace album on my headphones. As I lay there with a head full of alcohol, and dosed up on an obscene amount of medication, it finally struck me how truly amazing his debut was.
The first few notes of Mojo Pin lull you into a false sense of security before a torrent of drums and guitars pound away as the chorus hits. It’s a serious statement of intent from a man who had a reputation as a sensitive soul. “Born again from the rhythm, screaming down from heaven,” he sings in his trademark trembling falsetto that immediately grasps you and refuses to let go throughout the record.
Last Goodbye is as gut wrenching as it gets- the act of separation laid bare as the track almost dares you to get through it without thinking about all the past loves you’ve had throughout your life. A self-depreciating time travel through all those key moments in the past that have got you to where you are, and makes you wonder how different things could have been.
So Real dips in and out with pulsating tension. The lyrics so evocative you can almost feel the fabric of the city dress and smell the soft scent of perfume as Buckley recounts the woman of his affection in vivid detail.
Then of course there’s Hallelujah, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s track that always features in the list of best cover versions ever. He traded in the electronic sound of the original for an altogether more fragile rendition, which build and builds as Buckley’s soft finger picking of his guitar backs his voice as he walks along the thin line between pleasure and pain. “I used to live alone before I knew you,” delivered with such an intensity that only love could conjure then ultimately fracture.
Perhaps the lyrics that perfectly sum up Grace though is on his cover of Lilac Wine. “I lost myself on a cool dead night, I gave myself in that misty light, was hypnotised by a strange delight.” The words accurately reflecting what it is that is so appealing about Buckley. They capture exactly how you feel when you listen to the record. It conjures images of lonely dark streets where even the street lamps refuse to work, while a figure up ahead edges ever closer on the pavement. You can’t make out the face, but the shadowy image alone sends your mind racing as you fantasise about all the possibilities that the unknown may offer.
The fact that he only completed one full album is still as sad now as it was then. It’s easy to get caught up in the what if’s, but it should be easier still to recognise and enjoy just how good Buckley’s debut album is. While it’s now viewed with a certain mythical sadness, it shouldn’t deter you from the fact that it still remains a rare gem capable of hypnotising you and sending you spiralling back into the pain or comfort of long gone memories.