I was 24 years old and living in a small Chinatown apartment on Mott Street in New York City. During the day, I wrote advertising copy for a small agency owned by the late great Jo Foxworth. (I'm sure you remember my "Dances With Cold Cuts" ad for D'Agostino's, right?) By night, I worked at making a name for myself, plastering the Lower East Side with homemade posters made by my friend Maura, writing songs into the wee hours and playing them to handfuls of people.
Over those years, I saw many shows, and one of the most memorable was one that I had no intention of seeing, one that came to me out of the blue like an unexpected gift.
It was late October 1993 and I had finished playing a late-night set at this tiny venue in the East Village called Sin-é. I had only several months ago dropped off a demo tape (yes, cassette) and felt lucky to have landed my first real gigs in NYC. After I packed up and friends had said their goodbyes, I gave myself a minute to sit alone at a table by the window and have a cup of tea before heading home. At this point it was after midnight and only a few other people were still there. It was quiet, even for a weeknight.
The café door opened and I heard the brief clamor of the street outside and turned to see a slim, handsome guy about my age enter the room. He had dark hair and was bundled up in a wool jacket, carrying a guitar case slung over one shoulder. He made his way to the "stage" (a few feet of floor space at one side of the room) and plugged in his amp without saying a word.
After a quick line check, he stripped off his coat and stood there in jeans, white T-shirt and beaten-up combat boots. I had never seen him before and felt foolish because I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He had a dignity and self-possession about him — a rumpled majesty — and I wondered if it were possible he could sound anywhere near as good as he looked, wearing his electric guitar like a coat of arms.
When he launched into a song recorded by Nina Simone called “Be My Husband," I could barely stay in my seat. He sang quietly at first, his voice snaking into the room and shaking with vibrato, the tone somewhere between Billie Holiday and Robert Plant. He was making a plea to an unfaithful husband, a capella, taking on the woman's point of view. It's a badass song that lays bare the sometimes raw, blind need to be loved and to love, at whatever price. What struck me as much as his voice, was his delivery. He was lost in it, on the verge of being out of control at times, spontaneous and present, taking on the character and telling us the story, giving himself to the song.
“Be my husband, I’ll be your wife,” he sang, stomping his boot intently on the wooden floor, holding his guitar against him. “If you want me to, I’ll cook and sew,” he offered. "Stick to the promise that you made to me.” With sorrow and defiance: "Stay away from that Rosalie." And finally admitting, "You’re the meanest man I’ve ever seen,” coming back each time to pierce the simple heart of it with the refrain: “Oh, Daddy, love me good.”
I felt myself starting to rise out of my seat at the end of it, a genuine standing ovation, but given it was only the end of the first song (and no one else had leapt to their feet), I suppressed my exuberance and sat back down, blinking away tears.
It was this one song, this authentic delivery, that stays etched in my mind. A stranger to me, he had walked in off the street and stirred up in just a few minutes all my longing and loneliness, my desire, weakness and magic power (sorry, I don’t know what else to call it).
It made me want to give myself to music, to love another, to live my life and get lost in it all. It was the kind of performance that makes you want to stop being the audience and get up and do something with your life. The waitress told me he was coming from the studio that night, where he was working on his first album.
"That's Jeff Buckley," she said.
Amy Correia is a singer-songwriter whose latest album “You Go Your Way” can be found on iTunes.