Thirteen years ago tonight, Jeff Buckley waded into the Wolf (or as we in Memphis call it, Mississippi) River and never returned. His body was found a few days later facing Beale Street–a peculiar and tragic end to the Buckley saga. His father, noted folk musician of the sixties Tim Buckley, had died at the age of twenty-eight of a heroin overdose. Jeff barely knew him. And now, thirteen years later, Jeff’s memory and music seems to be even more powerful than when he was alive.I first got into Buckley’s music right before senior year in high school. I was on vacation and had recently bought the Dream Brother biography because of the picture of Jeff on the cover where he looked almost intensely tragic with his big brown eyes and what little knowledge I had of him beyond “Hallelujah.” I thought the premise of the book sounded interesting, if not depressing, (a dual biography on both Jeff and Tim) but the real shocker came when I started reading it.
I remember calling my best friend and almost yelling, “Jeff Buckley lived in Memphis??! And he DROWNED in the Wolf River??!” when I read the first page. It was shocking and almost too coincidental to me that I would randomly pick up a book and one of the most pivotal parts of the biography take place in a city I live in. So flash forward to my vacation and I decided to buy the “So Real: Songs of Jeff Buckley” CD so I could finally listen to the songs and the person I had been reading so much about. I listened to it on the way back to the cabin, it was pitch dark outside, and we were driving along the country side with “Last Goodbye” blaring into my earphones. It made for an almost eerie, ethereal soundtrack for my trip. I was struck and haunted by his voice–unlike any other I had ever heard from a man–and his lyrics which ached in the way he sang them. But because he was dead I almost pushed him out of my brain. It was too saddening to think that such a talent was wasted by one stupid decision to go for a swim in a river where I had known since I was kid you should never go swimming in.
I almost forgot about Buckley until I got to college and realized, once again a little too coincidentally, that I would be living in the dorms right down the street from his house in Memphis. It was strange and a somewhat odd experience to read about certain places and then find yourself thrust into the same environment, and hanging out in the same places. The record shop he frequented while in Memphis was the same one me and my friends would take weekly trips to to find posters for our rooms. The same street he would walk up and down to friends houses was the same one we would walk to have “therapy.” It was strange, but also gave the music and the person a more intimate and human quality to it. I think if I hadn’t lived there I would have never seen Jeff as a real person; just a rock star.
Which brings me to the music: some rock critics have said that Buckley doesn’t deserve the praise and adoration he has received over the years as he died with only one record to his name. Some, like Chuck Klosterman, see it as the best thing that ever happened to him because it took a record that was a little above average and made it seminal. To me, that doesn’t matter. The quantity of records produced has nothing to do with whether he deserves the praise we give him. It was, and still is, the quality that has made him so well-known. Listen to a song like “Corpus Christie Carol” and you will feel the chills with the very first haunting note. Watch any performance of Jeff’s (best bet: What Will You Say from the Grace Around the World DVD) and you will automatically see the almost god-like talent he possessed. Buckley is a legend not just because he died young, but because his talent was unstoppable. There never has and never will be another Buckley.
Buckley’s death did something that in life he wasn’t able to do: it got his name out there. For the three years he was in the public eye, Buckley was still relatively unknown but after his death, the public began to take notice. “Hallelujah” became regarded as almost better than the original, and his mother became hellbent on getting as much of his music out there as was humanly possible. (Which is one of the many reasons we have about ten versions of “Mojo Pin” floating around) And Grace finally was seen as a brilliant record.
The question can still be argued over whether people would love Buckley as much today if he were still alive, but for me it’s a no-brainer: I would be at every one of his local shows, front-row. “Grace” is not a more powerful record to me because the artist is dead. It’s a tragic and hard album to get through sometimes because he’s dead, but it’s not more important. Instead, “Grace” evokes a feeling of being young, being an artist and experiencing life and love for the first time. Listening to “So Real” reminds me of nights I’ve spent on friend’s couches or at dive-bars enjoying being in my twenties. My connection to Jeff and his music have as much to do with a feeling, as his story. And above all, I relate to his story of trying to find himself and trying to forge his own path away from his father. It’s heartbreaking in a way to acknowledge that as soon as Jeff began to understand himself, he was gone.
Jeff was many things–flawed, sensitive, caring, thoughtful, angry, sad, but also…real. There was something extremely authentic about his spirit, and his will to live and understand himself. It’s a journey all of us make in our lives, and it’s terrifying and sad to realize that just as Jeff was beginning to know himself, he died. And if there’s anything we can learn about ourselves from Jeff’s life is that you have to make that journey to find yourself and your heritage, and not run from it as much as it may hurt. It just saddens me that he never got to fully realize the impact he had on others and himself.
I leave you now with the end-quote from my favorite movie “The Virgin Suicides” about the deaths of the Lisbon girls. I found it fitting since it’s how many fans view someone whom they admire passing:
So much has been said about the girls over the years. But we have never found an answer. It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls… but only that we had loved them… and that they hadn’t heard us calling… still do not hear us calling them from out of those rooms… where they went to be alone for all time… and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.