Oh, will I ever learn?”
Ten years ago tomorrow (May 29, 1997) Jeff Buckley decided to go for a swim in the Wolf River, laid on his back and began floating while he sang “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. Quickly, stealthily, and tragically the currents sucked him in and pulled him under.
Ten years ago Wednesday I was sitting at the kitchen table in my parents’ house in California reading the morning newspaper and probably having coffee, getting ready for one of my last few weeks of my senior year before graduating high school. Stuck at the very bottom of a sidebar with mundane news briefs of the day was this short blurb saying that folk-rock singer Jeff Buckley had been reported missing following a swim.
Such a small news bit; such a huge crashing sound in my ears. I remember exclaiming out loud, and calling my mom over; I had been deeply in love with his music for a year or so at that point, and felt this crazy urge to get on a plane and help the search efforts, or at the very least I wanted more information, something more to go on that just “he’s missing.” Today I could probably clickety-click to a live streaming news feed from the muddy banks, but then all I had to go on was a half-inch of sterile newsprint.
My answers came a few days later when his beautiful body showed up bloated and bruised in the waters at the foot of historic Beale Street in Memphis.
The story was over. The one finished album, the masterpiece, would have to be enough.
I wonder what ground he would have travelled, and what he would have created had he lived. By all accounts, Jeff’s musical creativity was unbounded, and I’ve heard for myself the joy in his voice when he was doing what he was manically driven to do: create, perform, create.
In retrospect, Jeff is not the kind of artist I would have thought to fall in love with. At that time in my life, I was all about brooding, rocking, loud music. I guess Grace had enough of that to entice me in (through songs like “Eternal Life”) and then, like the nectar at the bottom of a venus flytrap, I was ensnared, but happily.
In searching through my old news clippings for this post, I found an old press release with a listing of tour dates from 1994. He came through San Francisco on November 20. I wonder what else I was doing that night, my sophomore year of high school. Maybe I just place him higher on a pedestal than I should because I’ve built up in my mind what it would have been like to see him live, breathless, glowing. But maybe not.
Jeff is quoted in that press release as saying, “I’m really into flying. I don’t care about being a gospel singer or a blues singer per se, but elements of that music are keys to my subconscious. When I sing something like that–if I do it right–it’s like a weird snake that will get in you and unlock something. If I wasn’t able to do this, I think I would really lay down and die.
“Music comes from a very primal, twisted place. When a person sings, their body, their mouth, their eyes, their words, their voice says all these unspeakable things that you really can’t explain but that mean something anyway. People are completely transformed when they sing; people look like that when they sing or when they make love. But it’s a weird thing–at the end of the night I feel strange, because I feel I’ve told everybody all my secrets.”
Those ‘secrets’ of his still affect me more powerfully than almost any other artist with that soaring, gorgeous, fearless, devastating voice.
I miss you, Jeff.
Lover You Should Have Come Over (alternate version)
From the Eternal Life single
I Know It’s Over (Smiths cover) – Jeff Buckley
from the so-called “Garbage Can Tape,” circa 1993
Satisfied Mind – Jeff Buckley
TRIBUTES: There are a wide variety of tribute events taking place for Jeff. His website lists ones upcoming in Hollywood, London, Louisiana, Iceland, Georgia, Macedonia, Boston, Dublin, Melbourne, and Paris. The Uncommon Grounds Chicago event is scheduled for November. I went to one in San Francisco at Noe Valley Ministry several years back, and it was surprisingly transcendent.
Related posts (all links reupped where needed):
The story behind Jeff covering Dylan
Tribute songs penned about Jeff
Jeff Buckley and Aimee Mann
Rarities from NYC
Jeff channels his father
Video: Jeff singing Satisfied Mind
Some live covers from Jeff