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By (May 1, 2009) No Comment

The name Jeff Buckley conjures up grand ideas, stories of a rising star cut down in his prime, a cultural phenomenon revolving around a single groundbreaking release. Buckley has become to music what James Dean was to film – a man, larger than life, who was destined for greatness, only for fate to wrest him away too soon. The tale of a star with a famously absent father who also died too young, too soon, has become part of pop lore, projecting a portrait of anguish. Buckley’s life – and death – have created his image as a musician, surrounding him with an intricately woven cloak of wonder that he certainly never wished upon himself. The truth is that in making the legend bigger than the man we are losing one of modern music’s greatest legacies.

I remember the first time I heard Jeff Buckley, about six years ago. I didn’t know anything about him, and it was only at the insistence of a friend that I gave him a chance. It was the haunting “Dream Brother”, the final track on Grace, the only studio album Buckley ever released. A few solitary notes were closely followed by a gradual crescendo; guitars and drums layered over one another. But it was his voice that instantly opened me to new appreciations. I had never heard such an easy versatility. A seamless transition from note to note across a four-octave range was an improbable feat that Buckley made sound both effortless and raw. The music would be soft, a breathy whisper, then shift in a split second to a piercingly high pitch. The musical prowess amazed me, but what captured my fancy then – and still hasn’t left my mind – was the unearthly, haunting quality of Buckley’s music. It was evident in both his lyrics and his melodies. His music, which reveals so much about Buckley himself, is filled with an unusual dreamy hypnotism, cathartic explosions and everything in between. He created a unique sound, defying any and all attempts to classify or categorize him and his music. Friends, family, colleagues and band members have all dwelt on one thing – the unpredictable, reckless nature of both the man and the music.

The estranged son of Tim Buckley, a well-known singer-songwriter in his own right in the 60’s, Jeff Buckley, born Jeffrey Scott Buckley, never knew his father. Tim Buckley left his wife, Mary Guibert, before Jeff was even born – a fact that Jeff never stopped resenting. “Mary Guibert and Tim Buckley got married in ’66,” he wrote in an unsent letter from 1990, ” …. I was expected. He went to N.Y. for some gigs some time later and decided not to be a husband anymore. They were both eighteen or so, what the hey….”

Losing his father to a preoccupation with fame and fortune molded his own attitude towards art and music in an unmistakable way. In an effort to distance himself from his father and his father’s habits and choices, Jeff stayed away from drugs and drink, more than would be expected from a young man who just wanted to “rock hard.” More importantly, however, he stayed away from allowing his music to become a facade, anything more than a sincere and honest expression of sentiments essential to him, to who he was.

He was always quick to preemptively inform potential interviewers that he knew little about his father and was not interested in discussing the matter. Ironically, his musical career was launched after a performance at a Tim Buckley tribute concert. He later said in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer in reference to that day, “In a way, I sacrificed my anonymity for my father, whereas he sacrificed me for his fame. So I guess I made a mistake.”

In conversations with his father’s friends, Jeff learned that he and his father shared some unusual influences, most notably the French chanteuse Edith Piaf. Even in our information-heavy age, an artist whose influences ranged from French chanson to Pakistani devotional music, Led Zeppelin and Nina Simone is extraordinarily rare, and yet they all went into creating Jeff Buckley’s work.

Jeff’s music, as Live at Sin-e bears witness, is remarkable and different from the prevailing musical atmosphere of the time in precisely this way – the sheer breadth of his musical influences and inspirations. Buckley had a particularly noteworthy association with the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a qawwali singer in the Islamic Sufi tradition. In fact, he often referred to Khan as his “Elvis”, covering his songs in concert and identifying with the ecstasy characteristically associated with Sufi music. Interestingly, although Khan’s music is deeply religious, and revolves around a sense of submission and surrender to the Divine, Buckley’s approach to music is not so different, despite its secular nature. I was particularly struck by Buckley’s rendition of “Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai”, released on the Live at Sin-e album. Having been a fan of Khan’s music before I had even heard of Buckley, I was interested in hearing how a young man from the United States would manage to sing devotional music in Urdu, the language spoken in Pakistan. Amazingly, in spite of the fact that he garbles half of the words, the spirit was exactly the same as what I heard in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s version. He achieved the same essential purpose of losing himself in the music and taking the audience with him.

Buckley’s rendition of all kinds of music, his own compositions as well as reworkings of everything from French chanson and ballad to hard, unencumbered rock, has one thing in common – a musical integrity and an elegance so seldom heard in modern music. Whether recording in a studio, buoyed by support from his band, or playing alone on a small café stage in New York City with just his guitar for company, Buckley exuded a deep-seated loyalty to his art, never allowing a desire for fame or success within the industry to come between him and his music.

Buckley’s first recording was a four-track EP, Live at Sin-e, a compilation of numerous performances at a small coffee shop in the East Village, New York City. This recording put him on the musical map in 1993. When listening to these early recordings, juxtaposed with the later recordings, and even with versions of the same songs performed on the Mystery White Boy tour, the listener finds that their intimacy remains intact. Whether on live recordings or on Grace, a studio album, the listener still feels present, inches away from witnessing the burning ardor that Buckley and his music embody. Some of the more famous of his songs, like “Dream Brother,” “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” and “Last Goodbye” have been recorded time and again, no two recordings sounding the same. What has stayed the same throughout, however, is Buckley’s presence in the here and now of the music, letting all else fall away. Regardless of how many times Buckley had previously performed the song, he sang with a passion that could only come from an artist throwing himself headlong into his music, unaware of everything around him.

His first – and tragically, only – studio album, Grace, was released in August 1994, and was not an instant success. However, Grace had quite an impact in a much less tangible way. What sets it apart from anything else I have ever heard – other than an apparent lack of technical coherence – is its utter honesty.

Even though the tracks were carefully planned and created with the help of a very meticulously selected band, a sense of immediacy and transparency permeates every note that Buckley and his band sang or played. Of the ten tracks on the album, seven were original compositions and three were covers, each one stylistically disconnected from the previous one. In spite of the musical discontinuity, however, Grace creates a complete, if unusual, listening experience. Ideas of forgiveness, penitence, and absolution abound throughout the album. Buckley’s minimal concern for structure adds to the odd yet comforting feeling of Grace. Each track represents an intrepid vocal adventure.

After several worldwide tours to promote Grace, Buckley began work on another album, My Sweetheart, the Drunk, but it was never to be finished as he wanted it. After first recording the album, Buckley was not happy with the results and decided to start over – a classic example of his perfectionism. He planned a rerecording in Memphis, Tennessee, and on May 29, 1997, while waiting for the rest of the band to arrive, Buckley and his tour manager Gene Bowen set off on a small trip down to the Wolf River, a tributary of the Mississippi. Buckley decided to take a quick dip in the river and slowly started to swim further out into the water, where a deceptive undertow from a passing tugboat pulled him under. His body was found six days later. David Browne wrote in his Buckley biography, Dream Brother,

Everyone was struck by two details. After six days in the water, Jeff’s body had surfaced mere hours after his closest friends had left town…. Also, he had drifted up not at the precise place he had drowned,… but at the slope of Beale Street, a symbol of both Memphis’s cultural heritage and American music. It felt like the final verse of a long and darkly poetic folk song.

What has made Live at Sin-e, Grace, Sketches for My Sweetheart, the Drunk (and the numerous other live recordings that have been released since his death) so captivating is that the music is evocative without subscribing to a stereotypical young rocker’s angst. Buckley, through rock, R&B, folk, jazz, ballad, and other music that defies all categorization, touched on subjects including social commentary (“The Sky is a Landfill”), love (“Everybody Here Wants You”), mortality (“Eternal Life”)and philosophy (“Satisfied Mind”). Piercing the romantic aura of his youth and early death is this single unifying feature, the fervent, impassioned way he sang and played. It is largely this quality that has made him such an alluring enigma to many music lovers.

Buckley held to a sincerity that made his music so immediate; he didn’t subscribe to the mass-manufactured appeal of the rock star. Devotees and casual listeners alike will attest to the unusual nature and unique approach of Buckley’s artistic endeavors; it is a quality to be appreciated and respected. But Buckley himself never looked for a grandiose image, and actually shied away from it quite a bit. In fact, after the tours to promote Grace, he went on a “phantom solo tour” under different aliases, laying claim to a past where all that existed was his music and himself, an elemental identity.

He defended his actions to his bemused fans on his website:

There was a time in my life not too long ago when I could show up in a cafe and simply do what I do, make music, learn from performing my music, explore what it means to me, i.e., have fun while I irritate and/or entertain an audience who don’t know me or what I am about. In this situation I have that precious and irreplaceable luxury of failure, of risk, of surrender. I worked very hard to get this kind of thing together, this work forum. I loved it and then I missed it when it disappeared. All I am doing is reclaiming it.

That attitude of taking musical risks and surrendering to the art itself is something that is immediately noticeable on listening to Buckley’s music, and is what puts him in an artistic league of his own.

The passion of Buckley’s music and the fervor with which he played and sang lives on in the zeal of his fans. The song that best serves as an indicator of the hold that Buckley’s music has had on the public would probably be his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” A deeply haunting song originally written with 80 verses, Buckley’s version has been included in soundtracks for numerous television shows and movies. The most well-known version of the song is on the album Grace. Recently, “Hallelujah” created a new buzz in the music world, when British X Factor winner Alexandra Burke released her own version of the song, intending to top the UK singles chart as the number one Christmas single. Buckley’s fans retaliated by publicizing and campaigning to promote his version, which ultimately reached #2 in spite of not being re-released. For one song to carry that kind of power among masses of people truly speaks to the impact of the man who performed it.

His music has inspired an innumerable following, as devoted as a cult to the music and the man. Numerous tribute concerts are organised every year in his honor and in his memory, and there are countless fan groups dedicated to Buckley. Several biographies have been written about him, the definitive one being Dream Brother by David Browne, written in 2001, which drew on over 100 interviews with family, friends and colleagues who knew Jeff and Tim Buckley. The latest biography to be released is A Pure Drop, by Jeff Apter, in February 2009. A documentary film called Amazing Grace has been making the rounds in independent film festivals across America. Rumours abound that a biopic, Mystery White Boy, is in the works, but no definitive plans have officially made public.

Jeff Buckley’s body of work is extremely limited, yet the reach of his musical influence and impact is truly impressive. I have heard several musicians as well as music lovers wonder aloud how rock and roll and the music scene may have been different today if Buckley had lived on and his music had been allowed to evolve. The fact that Buckley and his music were lost to future generations after only a few recordings contributes to his exceptional presence in the world of modern music. Perhaps he would have changed everything we know and believe about music and art, and perhaps not. Perhaps he has had more of an impact because he only had a few short years. Knowing that there will be no more music from him makes the music lover frantically search for meaning in what is already there.

Buckley has redefined – or maybe brought back a lost view of – what being a musician truly means. He has become relevant, looming as an artist of vision and immense integrity, uncommon in today’s music scene.

In the end, however, more than complicated philosophies and sweeping successes, Jeff Buckley and his music evoke a keen recognition of humanness and its fragility. The story of Jeff Buckley is not that he wrote and performed his music as an abandoned son, or that his music has become the phenomenon that it is because he went for a swim and never returned. The true story is what he told in his lyrics, snippets of a deep, provocative and thoughtful personality; it is the ardent sincerity in his voice when music took hold of him. I wish I could have seen him in concert, just once. In spite of never having seen him while he was alive, I feel a keen sense of loss, of having lost a friend, a true testament to the candor of his music. Twelve years after his death, I can still close my eyes and listen to “Dream Brother,” and experience something transcendent. It is a precious opportunity to remember and celebrate a genuine artist. And when I listen to his voice, I hear true grace.

Nivedita Gunturi, a Texas native and graduate in English from Tufts University, is currently a third year medical student in Chennai, India. Her poetry has been published in Check the Rhyme, an Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees. She is a founding member of Sangam India, a non-profit organization working for urban slum development and rehabilitation.

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