What follows is a real story, with real people. Everything has been lived, it really happened.
This is one of my stories, for I have plenty to tell. This one is very special for it changed the course of my life.
I want to share this with you.
It’s mid-October 1994. I turned 20 just two months ago and started university, studying English at the prestigious La Sorbonne, well, not so prestigious as my course is in the crummy building that is located at the very North of Paris, in the dodgy area that is Clignancourt. Ah, Clignancourt: its cobbled streets filled with fast-food wrappers, its smells of West and North African spices, its flea market, its wannabe gangsters and its drug dealers. The perfect place to study! It is my first year in Higher Education and I have the delight of working part-time in a greasy cafeteria to finance my studies despite receiving a grant.
The French Grant system is a beautiful thing, very helpful for people, who like me, come from a working-class background. What isn’t so helpful is that the first instalment of said-grant is deposited on one’s account halfway through the year: February! So in the meantime I have to work for a fat, arrogant, sexually harassing manager who thinks he owns the chain of cafeteria (he doesn’t). I buy music magazines regularly: Les Inrockuptibles every Wednesday, a bit intellectually poncey but informative on what’s going on in the “Capitale”, and Rock&Folk, rougher in content and a bit M.O.R. but a good counterbalance to the previous publication. I get the best of both worlds and I’m quite content that way. That month U2 is gracing the cover of R&F and, being a keen listener, I, as usual, pick up a copy from my local newsagent. As a habit I read the article I bought the magazine for first and then flick through it to see if there is anything of interest. Luckily there is: a review of an artist I’d never before heard and who’s being tipped as the next best thing since sliced bread!
The photo isn’t very flattering: the guy is slouching in a huge armchair, sweaty from the gig he’s just played and making a face! He’s into stuff I had never listened to: The Stooges, Alex Chilton, Led Zep, Van Morrison, Captain Beefheart, Charlie Mingus… What? There’s actually some kind of heartfelt music other than the crap we get on the radio? Wait, he knows of Edith Piaf! Interesting… I make a mental note to check his music out. A few days later I’m on my way to my “money-bringer” when I decide to stop at the supermarket for a snack… and a quick browse in the music section. My supermarket is great, it spreads on two floors (three nowadays) and holds everything and anything anyone could ever wish to buy from food to hygiene essentials to electrical goods to tapes and CDs! All of this for a very reasonable price! That guy’s album is in stock and the CD is only a mere 70 francs (about £7) and although I have a CD player at home for some reason I buy the tape.
That reason is my precious-personal-tape-player-that-never-leaves-my-side-not-even-when-I-go-to-bed is, surprise surprise, in my bag! Unfortunately I don’t have any time to listen to any song as I’m about to start my shift, doesn’t matter, I’ve got something to listen to on my walk home. The evening drags on. How is it that people enjoy spending their Thursday evening stuffing their faces with third-rate cheap leftovers in this place rather than go home with their weekly shopping they just bought and cook themselves a lovely dinner with fresh food? Or go to a nice restaurant (notice the keyword here: RESTAURANT, not cafeteria)? Well, as I said: cheap! It’s half past eleven, the place is finally empty and clean, all the “food” back in the fridge, ready for another serving tomorrow (and the day after tomorrow, and the day after…), the crockery is neatly tucked on the shelves (minus the full tray I broke in the middle of the fully-packed “serving room” earlier, that’ll be deducted from my meagre wages, great!), my smelly uniform is back in the locker. I’m ready to go home, headphones on my ears.
I open the back door, start walking, press the play button, and check my watch: it’s exactly midnight. The first track starts: a slow, quiet at first, sound resonates in my ears. I have no idea what I got myself into yet. Then as the music gets louder a wonderfully strong storm breaks into the autumn sky. Ah, brilliant, I’ll get soaked by the time I reach home, the perfect ending to a perfectly dull day! But then the voice soars and I am taken somewhere I’ve never seen before… It usually takes me a little under 15 minutes to get home, that’s when I powerwalk, and I powerwalk everywhere, I’m from the rough suburbs, on the East Side of Paris, where a girl has to check her back every 10 seconds if she wants to stay alive! If you’ve seen La Haine you’ll know what I mean!
That night I reach home about an hour after leaving work and completely soaked and to this day I still wonder how I made it back as I have no recollection of walking! I return to the supermarket the next day and purchase the album again, this time on CD so I can have the pleasure of listening to the whole thing without any interruption! I also check when the artist is next playing Paris: I’ve just missed him by a month, when he played a tiny venue I don’t even know about but he will be coming back in February. Right then, one ticket please. I ask friends at uni if they’ve heard about him and the answer is the same every time: nope… I’ll go by myself then.
11th February 1995: I am bored to death with my life, I quit my cafeteria job within a month of working there, university isn’t getting me anywhere, I love the English language but keep thinking I’d get so much more by living abroad then “training” to be a language teacher in France (that seems the only option for everyone on my course). I have been dreaming about England since my first trip there, I was 4 years old and that was my last holiday with my both parents (they divorced the next year, whether or not that’s related, I have no idea, your guess is as good as mine). I’m meeting a uni friend at noon but am running late and by the time I get there she’s gone. My fault! Oh well, I’ll hang around, I’m not far from the venue where that guy with the big voice is playing tonight. I’ve got six hours to kill and a good book (so good I can’t even remember which one it is now!). I walk around the area, not far from Bastille, come back on my steps and settle on the step outside the venue entrance. I’m cold, I have no money for a cup of coffee (my grant still hasn’t materialised) and I wish I had found a friend to come with me so that at least the hours waiting for the gig could be spent chatting.
A tall blonde woman comes out of the venue and throws me a look, just a glance, smirking. She probably thinks I’m a groupie! Make it an intellectual one then as I’m plunged in my reading! Or maybe she is one and she’s been up to something? Wait, she goes back in… second serving? No, she works there, she tells me as she’s coming back out. We start a conversation, I suspect she’s trying to check me out, just in case I’m some psycho! Within 20 minutes she asks if I want to go in as it’s rather cold outside and meet the band. Come again? That’s not what I’m here for, I don’t want to disturb. That’s no bother, she guarantees me, the soundcheck hasn’t started yet. So I grab my book and my bag and accept her invitation, I can do with warming up. I enter the hall, walk through the double doors and then… I can’t see where I’m stepping as the room is plunged in black compared to the daylight I just left. As I stop to let my eyes get used to the darkness the woman turns around to me and, whilst pointing at the stage, says “The band’s over there, go talk to them then.” I freeze, I believe my level of English is fairly good but my confidence isn’t and I can’t bring myself to walk across the empty room to casually chat with strangers like we’ve know each other for years. I do not have that sort of boldness! The blonde then announces: “I’ll go and get the singer for you!” and before I have time to protest and walk back outside she’s gone! What the hell did I get myself into? I don’t know this bloke, I like his music and all, but I have no idea what to say to him…
As my stomach is increasingly forming into a ball of nerves a man approaches me, hands in his pockets, greasy hair, smile on his face. “Bonjour, ca va?”
My eyes almost pop out of their sockets: “Vous parlez francais?”
“No I don’t””Oh, well, I can speak English”
“Hello, I’m Jeff” “My name’s Celine”
“Nice to meet you Celine”
I don’t yet know it but I’m on first name term with someone who will become a cult legend. I don’t know quite why but I have brought with me a picture of Jeff standing underneath a billboard with Angelyne on it, looking like he’s praying to the iconic big-breasted Californian blonde. I thought it was a funny shot and produce said picture from my bag. Jeff is also very amused and we start chatting until the soundcheck starts, three hours later! Although the first article I read about him mentioned his famous father I have no clue who Tim is or Jeff’s relationship, or lack thereof, is (or as I found out was). Still we talk about him, and his father, his family, me, my father, my family, anything and everything. The venue is playing Henri Salvador, a singer my own grandfather enjoys listening to and who has hilarious lyrics if you understand French but Jeff suddenly rises from his seat, intent on changing it to something he wants me to hear.
And THIS is my being introduced to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I’m blown away! A lot of Jeff’s fans got turned to NFAK from reading here or there of Jeff’s liking the now late Pakistani singer but how many of them actually discovered him through Jeff himself? I’m not bragging here, it’s just that twelve years on from this meeting and ten years after his passing, I’m still wondering how it happened that I, a common girl from the Parisian suburbs, got to encounter such a character…
We laughed a lot on that day: we went outside for a bit as the roadies were being quite raucous at some point and we couldn’t hear each other talk. A man was standing by the entrance with a camera and took a picture of Jeff and me in the street. I made a joke that the picture would be in the tabloids the next day: Jeff Buckley and his French girlfriend! Thankfully that didn’t happen!
But we had a good laugh about that! Then a group of fans attending the gig arrived and literally jumped on Jeff. Some could not speak very good English and Jeff turned to me for translation.
The French looked at me like I was some sort of alien and started questioning who I was in relation to their idol! NO, I AM NOT HIS GIRLFRIEND! I translate to Jeff and again we fall about laughing! Jeff went to the tourbus to pick up some photos taken in New Orleans, where he is sitting on the floor with a glass of wine, and proceeded to sign them for the fans.
I stood back, fairly amused, as I am thinking I don’t need an autograph, I’ve just spent a few hours with someone really charming and that’s all I needed on that day.
A roadie then steps outside and calls for Jeff: the soundcheck is about to commence. Jeff turns to me and excuses himself: work calls! I stay outside, hoping the fans are not going to grill me. Luckily they don’t, their eyes are sending green messages to me and we keep our distance. Half an hour later though, Jeff pops back out and calls my name. He wants to give me something: his autographed photo. I protest, saying that’s not what I came here for but get the picture shoved into my hands. I thank him nevertheless and he runs back in. What possessed him to take time to do that, I’ll never know. I look at the picture and it reads:
The fans gather round me to have a look and are horrified to see that they only got a signature,
not a “full” novel! I’m floating on air, I have been given wings, I AM an angel!
I come back home that night and cannot stop my flow as I tell my mother about my eventful day. We’re sharing a room at that point (don’t ask, small flat!) and as it is Saturday there is no worry about going to bed early because of work the next day.
I cannot believe what just happened and that night it takes me ages to fall asleep.
The next time I see Jeff is five months later. The venue has changed, he is now playing the world-famous Olympia, which he’s well excited about as one of his idols, Edith Piaf, frequently performed here. He liked her so much he covered one of her songs “Je N’en Connais Pas La Fin” (I Don’t Know The End Of It).
The pressure runs high as Jeff has by now become a hot thing, the “must-see” artist of the year. Still he takes some time to take me backstage before the gig for another chat. He also makes sure that I’m coming back the next evening, I only bought a ticket for one night, limited student funds remember?!
That’s no problem, he assures me, you’ll have a free ticket waiting for you at the ticket office (and a VIP pass as I found out the next day).
The gigs were outstanding, the venue scorching and my fellow French people on fire! It is such a difficult thing to try and describe the feeling and atmosphere of a live experience to anyone who hasn’t witnessed Jeff playing, especially those two performances.
They were the talk of the town around Paris for a long time.
I was given a white rose on that second night.
I still have it, dried and preciously kept in a wooden heart-shaped box.
29th May 1997: it’s four in the afternoon, I’m about to start my shift (I am now a part-time
playworker) and I have 20 minutes to spare. I call one of my friends, she’s got MTV at home, for a chat. As soon as she hears my voice she asks if I’ve heard the news. “What news?” I ask. I don’t know why but I suddenly have a very strange and unpleasant feeling. “Jeff’s missing” she says.
I’ve been given a huge punch in the stomach. My head has been crushed under a meteorite. I know I will not see Jeff again. I can’t explain it but I know. I stumble onto a chair just before I pass out (I suffer from syncope and faint when stressed and/or emotional). My friend is obviously very scared and when I come back to my senses she’s screaming down the phone. I reassure her and promise to call her back when I’ve finished my shift. I’m in a daze and need to pull myself together in order to function around the children I’m employed to look after.
I listen to the radio, like I usually do every evening. It’s a music program, showcasing new and classic music, presented by a much-revered DJ called Bernard Lenoir. His Black sessions are renowned and he confirms that Buckley has disappeared after a swim in the Mississippi River, in Memphis. His body will be discovered several days later. It’s over. The world has lost a brilliant musician and a sparkling soul.
And like so many others, who witnessed the intensity of the live shows, the beauty of the recording that is “Grace”, those who are still discovering Jeff’s talent on a daily basis, I’m still grieving.