“I want to be ripped apart by music. I want it to be something that feeds and replenishes, or that totally sucks the life out of you. I want to be dashed against the rocks.”
– Jeff Buckley
He stands beneath a street lamp on the cracked pavement of life, electric guitar in hand, singing as the light fades into dusk. He watches birds fly across the pink sky above city power lines, his voice straining out broken cries of reality under immense skyscraper gloom. His voice glides up and down in ethereal passion; his eyes follow summer birds into dreams of rapture as they glide away into visions of spring’s promise and reunited love.
To enter the world of Jeff Buckley’s music is to step into a vortex where emotional pain collides with spiritual transcendence. Listening to his catalog is an exhausting and cathartic journey. An intense and emotional singer, he was serious about the experience his music provided to both himself and his fans – in one interview he claimed that the act of singing changed the shape of the bones in his face.
Actor Brad Pitt attempted to make a movie about him. Popular musicians of the time revered him; they stood completely still, mouths open, envious of his otherworldly talent. I’ve followed many musicians, but Jeff Buckley is the only singer who I can honestly describe as holy or beatific.
“Asleep in the sand with the ocean washing over”
Jeff Buckley drowned in a Tennessee river in 1997. His tragic death is impossible to separate from his legacy; his death fuels his legend in part because his songs are peppered with potent images of water and drowning. A singer who naturally harnessed mystery in his songs ultimately added to his own mystique by way of his death. Images of the ocean, falling rain, and references to drowning emerge within many of his songs.
His death wasn’t a suicide. The official story is that he and a roadie were heading to the studio to begin sessions on a new record when Buckley, spontaneously inspired, decided to go for a swim before the session. He instructed the driver to pull off to the side of the river, and the rest is history. He waded too far out into the river, against cautious pleadings from his companion, and disappeared. He was taken by the undertow of a passing tugboat.
Jeff Buckley’s debut album, Grace, is full of metaphysical imagery; waiting inside the fire of passion, rain, wind and storms, and the ocean. The sonic elements of the album, including Buckley’s magnificent voice, drive the lyrics forward with a force that adds emphasis to the stormy emotional themes. It’s difficult to avoid connecting the album’s weather-associated themes and physical elements to the way in which Buckley passed away. In an interview, he reported that he experienced vivid dreams and suffered from occasional nightmares. One can’t help wondering if he predicted his own death in a dream.
“Mojo Pin” from Grace is the height of Buckley’s sweeping passion, one of the most powerful songs in his catalog. Listeners are pulled into the vision of a shimmering beach; a brilliant sun at high noon shining on water between flashes of cloud breaks, oysters in the sand, surf crashing, and sea creatures bowing and praying to the power of love. An image of a beautiful woman with black hair is traced in the passing clouds. The palpable, yearning heartbreak of this song will induce immediate chills in any listener. The long and languid notes that Buckley sings in the introduction glide you through the sky, above the earth, and back down through snow drifts on a pond.
On the surface, Buckley was a Torch singer. He viewed himself as a “male chanteuse”. It was a role he played well, as demonstrated on his excellent live album, Live at Sin-e. But the power of Grace and his posthumous album, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, illustrate that Buckley was far more than just a male chanteuse.
The music on Grace and Sweetheart contain elements of pop, torch, soul, and touches of grunge rock. On Grace, these genres are blended seamlessly to create a sensual realm; a world that shifts between darkness and light. The album leans toward danger, but strains to find a balance in redemption.
Apart from being a technically proficient singer with a 4 octave range, Buckley was a highly skilled guitar player. Live at Sin-e is one of the most intimate albums that I have experienced, demonstrating his raw guitar and vocal skills. Buckley performed alone in a small coffee house in New York City. The album is so sonically rich, covers such a diverse range of material, and is so layered with emotional content that it’s easy to forget that this is just one man with a guitar.
Buckley’s cover of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” from Live at Sin-e is a perfect example of his ability to take well-established classic songs and drive them into a completely new sonic world.
Van Morrison’s original song is a quaint portrait of jazz whimsy; cool hipster kids hanging out in the city’s dark night, rapping poetry. Buckley’s version takes you directly into the misty garden scene, right out to the dock, gazing at the ferries and the blue sky beyond. You can feel the nostalgia as though his memory were yours. Buckley does that – he makes the song his life, and his life becomes your own.
A Jeff Buckley bio would not be complete without an honorable mention of his father, 1960’s folk singer Tim Buckley. Tim was equally talented in a different way. The two men have vastly different musical styles, yet what they share in common is an intimate approach to music, and a wild, god-like level of talent.
Tim’s background in folk music naturally meant that his style was earthier, less sweeping and physical than Jeff’s. Tim was more than just a simple folk singer, however. Like Jeff, his music spanned several genres and he never fit comfortably into one musical category. As with his son, hearing Tim’s music is a journey into the heart of the man, unhindered by any wall or defense.
Tim Buckley also died young, when Jeff was just a little boy. Tim was absent during most of Jeff’s childhood, a fact which Jeff often dismissed as irrelevant in interviews. However, he references the pain of rejection related to his father’s absence in a few songs, most notably the song “What Will You Say?”
In the song, Jeff references his own future death and asks Tim, “Father, do you hear me? Do you know me? Do you even care? What will you say when you see my face?” In one of Tim’s songs, he also conveys regret about his absence as a father. It’s unspeakably sad to think that father and son talked to each other in songs, but never had the chance to speak face to face.
In a way, that unspeakable sadness – that loss that we all experience eventually in some way – is the key to the power in Jeff Buckley’s music. The music is a celebration of existence; an embrace of all the forces behind and within life, including the inevitability of lost love and the loss of life itself. The power of Buckley’s music can perhaps be summarized best by lyrics in the most popular and well-known song that he covered:
“And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah
It’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”
-Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah