Here is how you write about missing an artist for twenty years:
In May 1997, we heard rumors. We called from pay phones scattered throughout the East Village to get our messages: “Did you hear?” We heard each other say, “Jeff is strong.” For three days, we were in limbo. We heard a musician tell another regular from the Sin-é, “You know Jeff, he probably got tempted by a good meal, and he’s off lounging on a lawn chair in someone’s backyard.” And then, “How could that have happened?” Boots and undercurrents and waves knocked him under and wouldn’t let go.
Just like all of us.
We have his voice, and the climb of his songs, and where they leave to find you again.
When I write about the early ’90s East Village, it’s like opening and closing doors rapidly, like blinking, like creating a film from photographs. When you’re not from N.Y.C. and you move here to live, you’re after a dream you can’t always quite name.
Sit on a bench in Tompkins Square Park until, if you’re lucky, you imagine hearing how the beats and melodies spiraling out of Sin-é, the Living Room, Fez Under Time Café, Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Tonic, the Bottom Line, CBGBs, the Pink Pony, Other Music, and Tower Records sunk into the ground here. You can definitely hear the music moving towards you from Arlene’s, Irving Plaza, the Mercury Lounge, Scratchers. Under these trees, and the length of their elegant branches, this is the central heartbeat. The songs mingle—layering, collapsing, re-arranging—informing the mood and the way we walk and talk together. Even with these venues gone, traces of how they held voices and songs circulate.
We were in the East Village for the music, for dance, for creativity. We were there for late night talks after shows at the cube at Astor Place. We’d put our hands on one of its corners to push it: to move our own minds into a refreshed perspective. We let the city revolve our cells.
The first time I heard Jeff play at Sin-é, I remember three or four people in the room. One minute we were seated separately at tables with cups of coffee and the next, we were all hands on deck in a storm on high seas. Jeff was the captain making the storm and leading us through.
You tell me how that happened, this sudden journey he created for us to disappear into.
Standing at the microphone, he released his head, threw it forward with his mouth open, teeth exposed. This high-pitched cry, both held within and barely contained by his mouth, unleashed. Like it had always been there, and finally asked to be revealed. Jeff was there to find something, to call it to surface, to sing his way forward through that cry. This cry he imagined also calling him—the guitar holding ground.
I think I was holding my breath.
In 1993, four songs launched a career out of his first recorded album, Live at Sin-é. My loud whoop, learned from imitating the dancers in my West African classes at Fareta, is the last sound recorded from the audience. The first time I heard myself on that record, I almost fell over.
Jeff played inside the songs, alive with the music, and brought them more to life. People sometimes remember covers of his songs more than they connect with the originals.
What I can tell you from that night is that there was an air of concentration, a re-tuning of vibrations in that familiar room that moved his work and performance from a neighborhood gig into another form. Here was something that would mark forever his days at the Sin-é. A moment before his life changed, again. It’s not like you make a record like Live at Sin-é and then continue to play only there. We were suddenly part of that trajectory molded from outside his own resources.
Another thing about that night: the clapping between songs was punctuation. A lull where we could move to mark the in-between together.
I think of him when the train stops at Union Square on a Friday, 6:00 p.m., and there’s a band playing. How it pulls at you to run up the crowded mountain of stairs to explode and decompose yourself in their planet. The drummer throws his stick up in the air; it twirls, and he catches it in time to pound out the next beat. Jeff would have loved it.
He’s inspiring, twenty years after his death. And this is how I am writing about Jeff. He filled his aloneness with beautiful things. I think we waited for him to play out of his mind, so we could leave ours, and go someplace better.