In belated honor of what would have been Jeff Buckley’s 39th (!!!) birthday on November 17th, I want to do a little featurette for the man who has brought more beauty to my ears and to my life than any other artist in my collection.
Buckley was a beautiful and talented singer-songwriter with a haunting voice, who was hailed by many as the most promising artist of his generation. I remember first hearing Eternal Life on a cassette tape sampler that came with my SPIN Magazine my freshman year of high school (1994). It grew on me and I found the full Grace album in the bargain bin at the Wherehouse (is that how they spelled it? and why was it in the bargain bin?!).
Soon I was in audio love. I remember many nights in high school falling asleep listening to Grace, especially Mojo Pin, which begins with the lyrics, “I’m lyin’ in my bed, blanket is warm, this body will never be safe from harm…” which seemed terribly deep and tragic and meaningful to a 14 year old. There is such immense and almost untouchable beauty in every track on Grace. It is one of The masterpiece albums.
Jeff Buckley drowned in the Mississippi River in May of 1997, right before I graduated high school. I still clearly remember reading the tiny blurb in the newspaper that he was missing after a night swim. He and a friend were listening to a radio on the beach of the river and waded in to cool off, during those nascent days of studio recording for his follow-up to Grace (to be called My Sweetheart The Drunk). Jeff was floating on his back, singing. A boat went by and the wake caused small waves to wash up on shore. His friend was worried about the radio getting wet and he went to move it further up the beach. When he turned back around, Jeff was gone. No sound, no splash. Just pulled under. Part of me has always wondered what he was singing [edit: Whole Lotta Love, Led Zep]. It gives me chills.
His body was recovered a week later at the foot of historic Beale Street, birthplace of the Blues. I remember being so sad that they had to identify his beautiful body by his piercings.
(edit: David Browne tells the story so much better than I do)
I was heartened to find out about the wonderful variety of songs penned by the musical community as tributes to Jeff after his death. I would think that the highest form of compliment that a musician could receive would be to see how he impacted so many others, and how he lives on via their music.
TRIBUTE SONGS FOR JEFF BUCKLEY
A Body Goes Down – Duncan Sheik
This is just beautiful poetry: Once in a while / A man comes along / Even his failures were favorite songs / Oh to have made something so unsurpassed / As certain things fall away / So certain things may last . . . Of course there is grace / And those halos of pain / Maybe he sang what he came here to sing . . . A body goes down /In the Mississippi waters /Weighted by a beauty /Afraid of its light / Notify your holy men / Console your sons and daughters / And tell me one more time / What is just / What is right . . .
And I think that one of the most amazing things about this song is the fact that the music *IS* the Mississippi River. Listen to the dark way it swirls, with an undercurrent. If you close your eyes, you can see water sliding by in the moonlight. It is amazing.
Trying Not to Think About It – Juliana Hatfield
Juliana’s sweet singsong voice pays tribute to her reactions immediately after she heard the news. The two artists were friends, and she once opened for him on tour. The song says, “I want to close my eyes / and sleep for a year / Tell me that it’s only a dream / That it’s a nightmare.” Melodramatic though it is, I felt the same way.
Memphis Skyline – Rufus Wainwright
A lush, piano-based tune with lyrics to give me chills (recurrent theme): “Always hated him for the way he looked / In the gaslight of the morning / Then came hallelujah sounding like Ophelia / for me in my room living…” Such honesty, and I love how for Wainwright the pivotal point was that hearing of Buckley’s ethereal rendition of Hallelujah. From the exhalation that starts the song, the whole recording is spellbinding magic.
Grey Ghost – Mike Doughty
This turn of style for the former frontman of Soul Coughing (“Super Bon Bon” anyone?) is a bit uptempo for the subject matter, I think, but I like the way he hauntingly constructs the night Buckley died. “On the docks in Memphis / with the boombox, nodding out, singing . . . In the trail of the barge and the light upon the brine / He has staked these thoughts and the force is undivided . . . Sleepy-eyed, the man is wading out into the night, singing . . .”
Bandstand in the Sky – Pete Yorn
I’ve updated this from the original version I posted, the Live From New Jersey “good times” rendition. Yorn finally did a nice studio treatment of this song for his newest album Nightcrawler, and it’s more serious and dense than the last. “Come with me to a river I have seen . . .on the way, we can wash off in the stream. Time is waiting for the lightning to arrive, you can take my life but I’ll never die.” I have to say, though, every time he sings the line, “We just made a bad decision, that’s alright,” I wanna yell “No it’s not!”
Valley of Sound – Heather Nova
Nova wrote this after going to a Jeff Buckley show that she says, “moved [her] to tears.” I never did get to see Jeff Buckley live. I did attend a fan gathering at Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco (a spartan church-type building) after his death, and they showed a live performance DVD. Buckley had played that venue when he was alive, and seeing him projected onto a big screen at the front of the room, it was almost like seeing him live if you pretended a bit. I remember the heaviness in the air and the way you could almost feel him, especially during the line in Hallelujah, “Baby I’ve been here before, I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor…”
Wave Goodbye – Chris Cornell
Showing how far-reaching Buckley’s influence was, here we have THE set of pipes from Soundgarden, a quite hard-rockin’ mofo in their day, penning a tune about Jeff. Apparently they were good friends and Cornell wrote this in ’97 after Jeff’s death. This track was on Cornell’s 1999 solo album Euphoria Morning. Cornell says, “Yeah, the lyrics are about Jeff, but obviously it’s also about a death and loss and I was a little scared of that. It’s so straight forward; it’s one of the most straight forward songs I’ve ever written. But there was no other way to do it.”
Memphis – PJ Harvey
Ms. Polly Jean Harvey was friends with Jeff Buckley, and penned this abstract, simple song for him with the refrain, “Oh, what a way to go – you’re peaceful, you’re smiling.” And apparently singing “A Whole Lotta Love,” as I learned from a comment posted to this blog. Thank you to ‘Splean’ for emailing me this track, which appeared as the b-side to the November 2000 single “Good Fortune.”
You Were Right – Badly Drawn Boy
This song isn’t really about Buckley, more of a mention (“And I remember doing nothing on the night Jeff Buckley died”), so it is on the list by generous extension of the rules. It is a great song, though, containing one of my favorite other lyrics, “And songs are never quite the answer, just a soundtrack to a life, that is over all too soon . . .” That is actually an excellent note to end this post on.
Update March 2007 – Since I posted this back in ’05, several of you have written me with additional suggestions for tunes to add to this post. I have not been able to verify directly that all of these songs were intended to relate to Jeff, but they all certainly seem to:
Live In Blue Sparks – Rebecca Moore (Jeff’s love and muse)
Blind River Boy – Amy Correia
Gracing Wolf River – Flecton
To The Sea – Mark Eitzel
Neath the Beeches – The Frames
(UPDATE: the fascinating story of Glen Hansard and Jeff Buckley here)
In A Flash – Ron Sexsmith
Except For The Ghosts – Lisa Germano
…and I have the feeling we’re not done.