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Tied for First: ‘If You Knew’ by Jeff Buckley

The perfect soundtrack to a cold, rainy winter’s day

Jeff Buckley's 1993 recording of "If You Knew," live at Sin-é in New York, is the best song of all time.
Jeff Buckley's 1993 recording of "If You Knew," live at Sin-é in New York, is the best song of all time.

It’s been raining recently. Lots of grey, lots of splash. In the past few weeks, I’ve done what any other rational twenty-something would do in these conditions — listen to sad music without feeling remorseful about my actions. It’s because it’s raining, okay? But in this drizzle-laden stupor, I quickly re-discovered a hidden gem — one of the uncut variety. It’s “If You Knew,” live, by Jeff Buckley, off of his “Live at Sin-é - Legacy Edition” album recorded in 1993. And it’s the best song of all time.

For context — this “Live at Sin-é” album is pretty tight, tubular, terrific. Sin-é was a small coffee shop in New York City, East Village. It was this teensy tiny venue where young, aspiring New York musicians could come and showcase their talents. The last rendition of the original Sin-é shop closed in 2007, but its legacy lives on here with Jeff Buckley. At the time of recording, Buckley was a relatively unknown artist, mostly recognized as the son of folk-legend Tim Buckley. Jeff, however, wanted to pave the way for his own legacy — a legacy removed from the father he barely knew. He would begin this legacy at Sin-é.

The set-up at this coffee shop was, well, a coffee shop. The stage wasn’t even a stage — it was just a space against the wall where the waitstaff cleared tables out of the way. So when I first listened to the album, I was astonished — it sounds like Jeff Buckley’s performance took place in Luray Caverns. Or like, I don’t know, inside a sinkhole. It sounds immense, important, gripping and immediate. It’s a voluntary moment of solitary confinement for your ears for about 4 minutes or so. It encases the listener in feeling. But mostly, it stirs. This song literally made me buy a Fender Telecaster — Buckley’s electric guitar of choice. You think I’m kidding? I wish I was. This song, this album — they’re just that good. 

Buckley, at this point in his musical canon, had amassed a small following, mostly from fans of his performances at Sin-é. They knew what to expect when he performed — some haunting falsettos, some shredding on a Telecaster, some original material and some covers. On this special summer’s night in 1993, the crowd was special enough to bare witness to a cover of legendary proportions — Nina Simone’s “If You Knew.”

Hats off to Simone for an absolutely impeccable original rendition. Goodness, this song is something. Reading the lyrics off a piece of paper might leave you partially shaken, but overall OK. But by golly goodness, the vocal performance can have you from zero-to-fetal in 2.5 seconds. Missing someone and longing for their presence can’t always be said eloquently, even if you might want to say it eloquently. In longing and absence, sometimes there’s complexity in simplicity. Simone’s delivery is wrought with a passionate fire — a short and flickering flame that burns hot at its center. She gets it. 

So thank you, Nina Simone. The original version is spectacular and without a doubt deserves its own article. But here we are, going with the lanky Cali boy over the high priestess of soul. It’ll make sense when you listen to the song because the feeling lingers with you. Buckley gets it too. 

It’s actually shocking to imagine that there are people just sitting in a coffee shop. Just casually sipping on their spiced lattes — or whatever people in New York drank in the ‘90s — listening to this angelic serenade. If I were there, I would no doubt have to take a breather outside after that out-of-body experience and pinch my skin to see if I’m still there. The lyrics, the performance, Buckley’s tear-drop croon, the gently twanging guitar — they all metamorphosize into a really somber, grayscale butterfly. It hurts. He hurts. He might as well be weeping like a little baby into the microphone — but weeping in a poignant, emotionally-mature manner. 

What is so incredibly compelling about this live performance is you hear absolute radio silence in the background — no clinking, no clanking, no footsteps, no tea cups clattering, no silverware. They’re in a coffee shop, with so many available stimuli, and yet all you can hear in the background is the reverb of the Telecaster’s amplifier. The first thing you hear from the crowd after the performance is over, after some time where the air sits still, is a man. A man who so eloquently, with simplistic poise, says — “Yeah.” Imagine being so dumbfounded by a performance that all you can muster up in response is a quick, airy, “yeah.” It seems like this mystery yes man gets it too. 

Listen to this song when it rains. Listen when you miss someone. Listen when you kick up puddles on a spring morning. Listen to pay attention and to reflect. But whatever you do, for your own well-being, do not listen when you’re actually already sad. It’s just the rain, I promise. I get it too. 


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