Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jeff Buckley: Twelve Years After His Death His Musical Legacy Lives On

Jeff Buckley 1966-1997

Jeff Buckley was the son of American folk rock artist Tim Buckley, although he never really knew his father. Tim Buckley divorced Jeff's mother Mary Guibert and remarried, adopting his new wife's other child and hardly seeing Jeff in the following years to come. After Tim Buckley died of a heroin overdose at the age of 28 in 1975 Jeff was primarily raised by his mother Mary. Despite hardly knowing his father Tim who was a great folk artist in the 1960s, Jeff still had music in his bloodline and grew up in Los Angeles idolizing bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Kiss. Buckley also developed a personal taste for progressive rock bands like Yes and Genesis, and after graduating from high school moved to Hollywood to attend the Musicians Institute. This only lasted a year as Jeff would wind up spending the next six years working in a hotel and playing guitar for various struggling bands.Jeff Buckley's big break didn't come until he moved from Los Angeles to New York and played a tribute concert for his father Tim. The concert was held in Brooklyn on April 26, 1991. Jeff Buckley denied the notion that he was using this opportunity to launch his career although he made a stronger impression than he ever had live at this concert. Buckley later explained his reasoning for playing the concert to Rolling Stone "It wasn't my work, it wasn't my life. But it bothered me that I hadn't been to his funeral, that I'd never been able to tell him anything. I used that show to pay my last respects." The Tim Buckley Tribute concert proved to be Jeff's first step into the music industry that had somehow eluded him for years.

Buckley began playing several clubs in the lower Manhattan and also writing some of his best songs like 'Grace', and "Mojo Pin," that would be released on his first album.
Buckley began performing at a small Irish cafe called The Sin-e in 1992 and made that his main venue, covering a diverse range of artists from Led Zeppelin, to Robert Johnson, and even folkies like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Soon record label executives were lining up outside The Sin-e in limousines on nights Jeff Buckley was playing, hoping they could sign him to a record contract. Eventually Buckley signed with Columbia and began recording his debut album. In the meantime a four song live Jeff Buckley EP was released titled Live At Sin-E, which featured a great cover of Van Morrison's "The Way Young Lovers Do."

Jeff Buckley recruited a good backing band and producer Andy Wallace, (who had produced Nirvana's groundbreaking multi-platinum
Nevermind album), and moved to Woodstock, New York to record Grace, his first studio album. Grace really allowed Jeff Buckley to evoke how well his vocals had developed over the years as he proved he was able to hit several high octaves most singers could only dream of hitting in songs like "Grace" and "So Real." There was so much emotion, love, pain, and vivid memories drenched in songs like "Lover You Should Have Come Over," and "Mojo Pin." Buckley wrote some of his best lyrics in "Lover You Should Have Come Over,"

"When i'm broken down and hungry for your love with no way to feed it. Where are you tonight, child you know how much i need it. Too young to hold on and too old to just break free and run.
Sometimes a man gets carried away, when he feels like he should be having his fun. And much too blind to see the damage he's done. Sometimes a man must awake to find that really, he has no-one."

The song breaks down in a final mournful Buckley chant, "It's never over, my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder. It's never over, all my riches for her smiles when i slept so soft against her. It's never over, all my blood for the sweetness of her laughter. It's never over, she's the tear that hangs inside my soul forever."

As writes on their review of the album
,"Grace is an audacious debut album, filled with sweeping choruses, bombastic arrangements, searching lyrics, and above all, the richly textured voice of Buckley himself, which resembled a cross between Robert Plant, Van Morrison, and his father Tim". Some songs especially towards the latter half of the album like "Dream Brother" and "Eternal Life" sounded like Led Zeppelin but others like "Lilac Wine" sounded like folk music mixed with lounge jazz.

Perhaps the best song on
Grace was the title track itself. The song opens with a great Buckley guitar intro with Jeff singing dreamily "There's the moon asking me to stay long enough for the clouds to fly me away. Well it's my time coming, I'm not afraid to die." As the song builds to a crescendo Buckley wails louder than any other point on the album during the chorus, "And the rain is falling and I believe my time has come. It reminds me of the pain I might leave behind. Wait in the fire." With his voice hitting so many incredible octaves, you don't know where it's going next. "Grace" is one of those songs you can listen to driving late at night on the highway in the pouring rain and it will bring you into another world.

The big single on
Grace was "Last Goodbye," a song Buckley probably wrote about his break up with his girlfriend Rebbecca Moore. The video for the song became a huge hit as did "So Real" which followed soon afterwards. Another song written about Rebbecca Moore, "Forget Her" was one of the best songs Jeff Buckley ever wrote, but for reasons left unknown, when it came down to do the final mix for Grace, Jeff insisted the song be left off the album. It may have been the song was just too personal to him to have other people listen to it, but in terms of quality it would have been right up there with the top songs off of Grace. The chorus features some of Buckley's most heartfelt lyrics, "Don't fool yourself, she was heartache from the moment that you met her. My heart is frozen still as I try to find the will to forget her, somehow.She's somewhere out there now."

The slower covers off
Grace were also big highlights on the album. Buckley's cover of Nina Simone's "Lilac Wine," makes you feel tipsy just listening to Jeff's amazing voice harmonizing "Lilac wine is sweet and heady, like my love. Lilac wine, I feel unsteady, like my love." "Hallelujah," the best Leonard Cohen cover ever recorded by an artist, was also featured on Grace. The song wasn't immediately noticed when the album was released as it was overshadowed by some of the other great songs but over time it has come to be renowned as possibly the best song on Grace. In fact in 2008 over eleven years after Jeff Buckley's death the song reached number one on I Tunes which made it the first number one Billboard single for Buckley.

Grace started out selling slow because the songs on the album didn't generate all that much airplay despite extremely positive reviews. The album eventually did go Gold in the U.S. in 2002 but that was already five years after Buckley's passing. Grace was most popular is Australia where it sold six million copies and also had a good review in The Sydney Morning Herald. The article stated, "Grace is a romantic masterpiece and a pivotal, defining work." Even some musicians that Buckley idolized were throwing big compliments at him, as Led Zeppelin's guitarist Jimmy Page claimed Grace was his favorite album of the 1990s. David Bowie said it would be one of the ten albums he would bring to a deserted island, while Bob Dylan proclaimed "Jeff Buckley is one of the greatest songwriters of the decade," during an interview with The Village Voice. Eventually Grace was ranked at #303 on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums Of All Time list.

Buckley during the recordings of Grace

Buckley spent the next year and half touring multiple countries in support of his album. The first half of the tour was in the U.S. and called The Peyote Radio Theater Tour. Next Buckley would also prove successful going on the road in other countries like the U.K., France, Australia, Japan, and Canada. While in France Buckley played what he would consider one of his finest concerts at the Paris Olympia, which would be made available in 2001 as a live album titled
Live a L' Olympia. When Buckley toured both Sydney and Melbourne in Australia he called this half of the tour Mystery White Boy and had most of his shows recorded for yet another live album.

After the long tour finally ended Buckley began writing songs for his much anticipated second album which he planned to call
Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk. Buckley began working with producer Tom Verlaine in Manhattan but not much materialized in the sessions. Buckley wrote a few new solid songs, "The Sky Is A Landfill," "Everybody Here Wants You,"and "Yard Of Blonde Girls," which he debuted live at a concert in New York City. Soon though it was clear Buckley was dissatisfied with some of the recordings he had made as he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and fired Verlaine as his producer, while re-hiring Andy Wallace who had produced Grace. He had scheduled his band to do more recordings on May 29, 1997 in Memphis and had his band fly in from New York. The night his band flew in to Memphis Jeff Buckley decided to go swimming in the Wolf River Harbor, (which is a channel of the Mississippi River), with all his clothing on including a pair of heavy boots, and singing Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." One of Buckley's roadies Keith Fotti was on the shore while Buckley was swimming and reports that Buckley just disappeared under water. A Police search was issued that night but Buckley remained missing. On June 4, a tourist spotted his body washed ashore, Jeff was dead at age 30, just two years older than his father Tim had been when he died. It was a tragic end to such a promising musical talent as one can only imagine how many more classic Jeff Buckley albums could have been released in the last twelve years since his passing. The autopsy taken to clarify the cause of Buckley's death proved he had taken no drugs on the night he drowned. A statement was eventually released from the Jeff Buckley estate saying, "Jeff Buckley's death was not "mysterious," related to drugs, alcohol, or suicide. We have a police report, a medical examiner's report, and an eye witness to prove that it was an accidental drowning, and that Mr. Buckley was in a good frame of mind prior to the accident."

Whatever truly happened to Jeff Buckley that night nobody will ever really know. It's hard to believe anybody in their right frame of mind would go swimming in the Mississippi river with boots on and fully clothed without thinking they are risking their lives. Jeff will always be remembered for the beautiful music he wrote and the wonderful harmonies he sang. Since his death
Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk has been released and is a double album. Songs like "Opened Once" and "Nightmares By The Sea" provide a haunting ending to Buckley's songwriting career that was cut so tragically short. While it is not as strong an album as Grace, one must remember it still wasn't finished at the time of Buckley's death and if given more time it could have catapulted him even further into the realm of super-stardom. Jeff may not have liked more of the fame though that would have surely come to him as he preferred playing in small cafes like The Sin-e much more than big venues.

Jeff Buckley posing with his acoustic guitar

" Just like the ocean, always in love with the moon. It's overflowing now, inside you. We fly right over the minds of so many in pain. We are the smile of light that brings them rain. In the half light where we both stand. In the half light, you saw me as I am. I am a railroad track abandoned with the sunset. Forgetting I ever happened. That I ever happened."
-Jeff Buckley "Opened Once"


  1. love him as much as his daddy! i gotta get me a copy of Grace, i've wanted to for a while. "hallelujah" is amazing... gets me every time.