Obituary: Jeff Buckley
His considerable talent and distinctive soprano voice eerily echoed those of his father, the singer Tim Buckley, who died of a drug overdose in 1975. And, in the space of three years and one album, Jeff Buckley attained the cult status his troubled father had taken eight years and as many records to achieve. Yet, though they hardly had a chance to bond (Tim was estranged from Jeff's mother and died at the age of 28, when his son was seven), their tragic destinies mirrored each other.
Born in 1966, Jeffrey Scott Buckley was the result of a short-lived liaison between Tim Buckley and Mary Gulbert. In one of the few interviews Jeff Buckley later gave, he recalled that the couple:
broke up in the early Seventies. I was only about four when my dad left. I was really brought up by my mother and my stepfather. I owe them my most pregnant musical memories. They were together for about four years and the house was full of music. My mum would play piano and cello all the time and my stepdad had great musical taste. I would listen to anything: the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Judy Garland, Robert Johnson, Thelonious Monk, Bartk, Mahler. And I asked a lot of questions. Learning about music seemed effortless. I guess I must have had natural abilities. Looking back, it felt like instinct.
Indeed, at five, the young Buckley had picked up his grandmother's guitar and taught himself to play. In Southern California, he might have felt rootless and restless, but music already seemed to drive him on. Aged 13, Jeff even wrote his first song, "about a break-up with a girlfriend. It was awful."
Having graduated from high school, the teenage Buckley left home, studied at the Los Angeles Musicians' Institute and played in a few rock and reggae bands (including Shinehead). In 1990, he moved to New York and started hanging out on the Lower East Side, forming Gods and Monsters, a short- lived group. He also guested at a Tim Buckley tribute concert where he attracted the attention of the producer Hal Willner.
Buckley only found his forte two years later when he started to perform solo with his electric guitar at coffee houses such as the Fez, Bang On and the Sin-e Cafe, in Greenwich Village. By the time the "Live at Sin- e" EP came out in late 1993, Buckley had evolved an amazing style, blending jazz, folk, rock, classical music, unusual covers (an epic version of Van Morrison's "The Way Young Lovers Do") and French chanson (Edith Piaf's "Je N'en Connais Pas La Fin) to create a fluid hybrid in which both listener and performer could lose themselves. He soon signed to Columbia Records and, fittingly for an exponent of the neo-hippie tendency, set about recording his debut album proper at Bearsville studios, near Woodstock.
Buckley left nothing to chance. Since he'd only been playing with the bassist Mick Grondahl and drummer Matt Johnson for a month, he called upon guests such as the ex- Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas (who'd already helped him shape some of the compositions like "Mojo Fin") and the avant-garde composer Karl Berger who provided unusual, flowing string arrangements. Andy Wallace's production did the rest and, by the end of 1994, rock critics the world over were praising Grace to the heavens.
The soaring, yearning vocals drew comparisons with Robert Plant, Jim Morrison and, predictably, Buckley's father. The puzzling, wide-ranging choice of cover versions (Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", Benjamin Britten's "Corpus Christi Carol", "Lilac Wine", a standard covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Elkie Brooks) was discussed in hushed tones. Having added guitarist Michael Tighe, Buckley toured like there was no tomorrow, appearing at Reading and Glastonbury festivals and winning fans wherever he went. His vulnerable stage presence made girls swoon and he became an unlikely sex-symbol of the alternative music scene.
In 1995, Rolling Stone magazine named him Best New Artist and "Last Goodbye" became an alternative hit on US college radio. Yet, though Grace sold very well in Britain and France, Buckley never really appealed to the MTV generation. This suited him fine as he was keen to explore new musical horizons.
However, following up Grace's early promise proved difficult and Buckley marked time with various limited- edition releases ("Peyote Radio Theatre", among others). Last year, he guested with Jazz Passengers and appeared on Patti Smith's comeback album Gone Again. More recently, he paid tribute to the beat poet Jack Kerouac on Kicks Joy Darkness, a collection of readings which also features REM's Michael Stipe, the Clash's Joe Strummer, the actors Matt Dillon and Johnny Depp and the writer William Burroughs. Last December, internet fans could read a worrying message Buckley had posted on his website. It read: "I'm in the middle of some wild shit now. Please be patient."
Earlier this year, Buckley finally set about recording new songs in Memphis with former Television guitarist Tom Verlaine. But the resulting sessions had left Buckley somewhat frustrated and, having scrapped those and sent his backing musicians home, he was trying new material on his own while considering using the producer Andy Wallace again. There was already talk of a European tour to coincide with the album release in the autumn and Buckley obviously felt under pressure.
On 29 May, Buckley and a friend, Keith Foti, went to downtown Memphis and hung out at the Mud Island Marina with an acoustic guitar and a ghettoblaster. Having played some songs, Buckley decided to go for a swim in the Mississippi. His friend tried to stop him but Buckley jumped in fully clothed and still singing. As a boat passed by and created a large wave, Foti moved the ghettoblaster out of range of the water. When he turned round, Buckley had disappeared from view, probably caught by the undertow in the treacherous river.
Listening to Buckley's recordings again ("Eternal Life", dedicated to a long-lost lover, "Dream Brother", written about the father he didn't know), the sense of foreboding present in the lyrics proves overwhelming, never more so than in "So Real" during which the singer wails, "the nightmare. It sucked me in and pulled me under".
Jeff Buckley was fond of describing his wonderful songs as "dreamlike, coming from your subconscious. You have to let yourself go and it can scar you or destroy you. It's a bit like dying."
Jeffrey Scott Buckley, singer, songwriter, guitarist, organist: born Orange County, California 17 November 1966; died Memphis, Tennessee 29 May 1997.
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