“I couldn’t awake from the nightmare It sucked me in and pulled me under pulled me under Oh, that was so real …” - Jeff Buckley (“So Real”) -
Those lines take on a haunting, horrific nature now. It’s as if some two or three years ago Jeff Buckley wrote his own epitaph: now they echo a sad, painful, farewell.
Jeff Buckley, 30-year-old genius of a singer/songwriter/guitarist, and son of the great and legendary Tim Buckley - a father whose shadow haunted, taunted and perhaps, ultimately, consumed him - is dead, drowned in an offshoot of the mighty Mississippi River in Memphis. The last time he was seen alive he was swimming on his back, fully clothed, singing. Perhaps, that is the memory those who loved his music, his astonishing songs and incredible, incendiary voice - so like that of his father - should cherish.
What to say then of a man claimed so young, who left just one album, an EP and a bunch of singles, and guest appearance tracks, yet was already considered one of the potential greats of his times. Perhaps, that although he always spoke so much of living, of the need to live life at its fullest, to smash the culture of anti-life as he saw much of society, government and authoritarianism as representing, Buckley was as close to death as he was life. He walked such a fine line.
A product of the Greenwich Village folkie and bohemian circuit, Buckley lived on the frontline, choosing to mix it amongst the communes and squats where he found what he called the last real writers, artists, expressionists; people he could relate to, people unafraid of society’s mores and dictates, willing to take a chance.
Over 1994 and 1995 I spoke to him twice. Each time we spoke mostly of life, what he saw around him, the injustices, the fear, the laws that repelled him, the death of Western civilization, the loss of spirituality, the problems he had coming to terms with the modern world and those in silent power, and, sometimes, the shadow of Tim, the father he hardly knew who died when he was just eight.
Tim Buckley knew no limitations; for him, songs were a springboard for risk-tasking, for delving into the dark side of man’s nature and the indefinable nature of the spirit. Tim only knew that once he found the edge, he had to go over it. And through a series of extraordinary albums that tested the limitations of jazz, folk and rock and his own free-form fusion of the elements he took those who listened with him. On June 25, 1975, at the age of 28, Tim Buckley was dead from an accidental drug overdose.
Today, he is revered as a true great, a man capable of charging songs with an emotional depth few have ever reached or dared to try and find: it was a trait that somehow passed itself onto Jeff, even though he was forever trying not to admit it.
One stinking hot LA morning when the temperature had already soared past the older 100 degree mark, Buckley who had been talking with more and more literalness for half-an-hour suddenly said, “All this stuff about my Dad, I never knew him, really. It’s so hard to live with. I’m Jeff not Tim. Do you think what they say is true?”
The question never got answered. How could you tell him, yes, he was so much his father’s son. The way he sang, that extraordinary multi-octave voice, the jaggedness of his music, his willingness to throw it into free-form chaos, to bend between genres, and the passion and the scary, fractured, hanging on and yelling out emotion that flew effortlessly in unforgettable codas that spanned much more than words can ever transmit in songs such as “Grace” and “So Real”.
No, Jeff Buckley could never be told that, it didn’t seem right. He so much just wanted to be Jeff Buckley, and he so badly wanted to change the world. Instead we talked about how LA’s city fathers owned a tank, about the ‘no smoking in certain public places’ law, about how he didn’t want to write the second album the record company or anybody else wanted him to write and how he would write the songs that he felt, no matter what anybody thought. To Jeff, it was all part of beating and breaking the system. The streets romanced him and the edge scared him - there he was different from his dad. He already feared what he might find out and he already feared what he might become.
Somewhere towards the end of the conversation, he spoke of insanity - he saw it all around - and how he feared that he too would become insane. Yet, you sensed there was something driving him on, something terribly urgent and restless within him. He could, easily, have taken the soft option; given the music industry, the public, what they wanted - whatever that was. But it would have been a defeat Jeff Buckley could never have lived with and so he went on, taking a very long time to write his second album, which he was finally just about to go into the studio and record.
Buckley was due to begin working up material for his long-awaited sophomore effort at Memphis’s Easily Studios on Thursday, the day he disappeared. Former Television leader Tom Verlaine was originally down to produce the project, but that partnership was scrapped in March when Buckley decided he needed more time to come up with material for the album. Recording with Andy Wallace - who produced Buckley’s phenomenal debut - was scheduled to begin at the end of June. The not-yet-titled album was set for early 1998 release.
Although Buckley already had more than two-dozen songs finished, he wanted to spend the next month preparing himself for the production of the album. Buckley most recently appeared on a track featuring Inger Lorre on Rykodisc’s Jack Kerouac tribute, 'Kicks Joy Darkness’. He was also going to contribute a song to Hal Willner’s forthcoming Edgar Allan Poe tribute alongside Lou Reed, Diamanda Galas and Leonard Cohen; and was to appear on the 'First Love, Last Rites’ soundtrack.
The facts then as they are: On the night of Thursday, May 29, Buckley was hanging out with a friend at the Mud Island Harbor marina, half a mile inland off the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee. He and the friend were listening to a stereo and playing a guitar when Buckley waded, fully clothed, waist-high into the water. He started singing and laid back on the water, when a boat went by causing waves to come in to the shore.
The friend on shore turned his back to move the stereo away from the incoming waves and when he turned around, he couldn’t see Buckley. After a 10-minute search, the friend called local police. The Memphis police department began dragging the waters that night and continued to do so - weather permitting - for the five following days. They also checked on the chance of him having wandered out the water. Friends were contacted and people in the area of the marina questioned. They came up with nothing. Jeff Buckley simply vanished.
Finally, the news came through at about 7pm on June 4: the body of Jeff Buckley had been found. Police said that a passenger on the American Queen river boat spotted the body at the foot of the city’s famous Beale Street. The body had a pierced navel - like Jeff’s - and was in the same clothes he was described as wearing when he disappeared. His body was subsequently identified by friends and taken to the local morgue awaiting an autopsy. The waiting was over and the tears could finally flow unchecked for a beautiful spirit, tragically gone.
And so we have lost another young genius, and another man who saw perhaps too much, too soon. Worst of all, we’ll never know what Jeff Buckley was thinking, what those 20-plus songs contained, where he would have taken that unshakeable faith and idealism.
Some interviews you remember. And I remember that last one, so well, too well. His voice is still as clear as if it that interview was yesterday; its nuances, its pain, its anger, its frustration and its love. Jeff Buckley could never hide how human he really was.
Ironically, but fittingly, the words that best fit this tragedy are Patti Smith’s in “Beneath The Southern Cross” from “Gone Again”, her stunning comeback album of last year, and one of two tracks on which Buckley appeared, his voice soaring ethereal like some ghostly angel calling from the infinite beyond. It seemed right he should sing with this woman who has known more tragedy than most. They were like spirits. “Gone Again” celebrated life after death and a great spirit; the honesty of loss; an enduring love.
Jeff understood all those qualities and now in their light we should remember this blazing light shaded far, far, too early.
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