Jeff Buckley [1966-1997]
Jeff Buckley was born in California’s Orange County in 1966 and died in a tragic drowning accident in Memphis on May 29, 1997. He had emerged in New York City’s avant-garde club scene in the 1990’s as one of the most remarkable musical artists of his generation, acclaimed by audiences, critics, and fellow musicians alike. His first commercial recording, the four-song EP Live At Sin-é, was released in December 1993 on Columbia Records. The EP captured Buckley, accompanying himself on electric guitar, in a tiny coffeehouse in New York’s East Village, the neighborhood he’d made his home.
By the time of the EP’s release during the fall of 1993, Buckley had already entered the studio with Mick Grondahl (bass), Matt Johnson (drummer), and producer Andy Wallace and recorded seven original songs (including “Grace” and “Last Goodbye”) and three covers (among them Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol”) that comprised his debut album Grace. Guitarist Michael Tighe became a permanent member of Jeff Buckley’s ensemble and went on to co-write and perform on Grace’s “So Real” just prior to the release of the album.
Buckley and his band had recorded intermittently — with Tom Verlaine as producer — during Summer/Fall 1996 and early winter 1997 in New York and in February 1997 in Memphis. After the conclusion of those sessions, Jeff sent the band back to New York while, during March and April 1997, he remained in Memphis and continued to craft his work-in-progress, making various four-track home recordings of songs to present to his bandmates. Some of these were revisions of the songs recorded with Verlaine, some were brand new compositions, and some were surprising cover versions. The new lineup debuted Buckley’s new songs at Barrister’s in Memphis on February 12 and 13. Beginning March 31, Jeff began a series of regularly scheduled Monday night solo performances at Barrister’s. His last show there was on Monday, May 26, 1997. The night Buckley died, he was on his way to meet his band to begin three weeks of rehearsals for my sweetheart, the drunk; producer Andy Wallace, who’d helmed the boards on Grace, was to join them in Memphis in late June to record his new album.
On the evening of his death, Buckley’s band flew to Memphis intending to join him in his studio there to work on the newly-written material. That same evening, Buckley went swimming in Wolf River Harbor, a slackwater channel of the Mississippi River, while wearing boots, all of his clothing, and singing the chorus of the song “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. Buckley had gone swimming there several times before. A roadie in Buckley’s band, Keith Foti, remained on shore. After moving a radio and guitar out of reach of the wake from a passing tugboat, Foti looked up to see that Buckley had vanished. Despite a determined rescue effort that night, Buckley remained missing. On June 4, his body was spotted by a tourist on a riverboat and was brought to land.
An autopsy to clarify the cause of Buckley’s death showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in his system and the death was ruled as an accidental drowning. In order to clarify the situation of his death, this statement was released from the Buckley estate:
Jeff Buckley’s death was not “mysterious,” related to drugs, alcohol, or suicide. We have a police report, a medical examiner’s report, and an eye witness to prove that it was an accidental drowning, and that Mr. Buckley was in a good frame of mind prior to the accident.
An ardent enthusiast for a myriad of musical forms, Jeff Buckley was an early champion among young American musicians for the work of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the world’s foremost Qawwali (the music of the Sufis) singer. Buckley conducted an extensive interview with Nusrat in Interview magazine (January 1996) and wrote the liner notes Nusrat’s The Supreme Collection album, released on Mercator/Caroline records in August 1997. On May 9, 2000, Columbia Records released Jeff Buckley-Mystery White Boy, an album of live performances, and Jeff Buckley-Live In Chicago, a full-length concert (available on DVD or VHS) recorded live at The Cabaret Metro in Chicago on May 13, 1995, in the midst of Jeff’s “Mystery White Boy” tour.
Following the release of Grace on August 23, 1994, Jeff and his group spent much of 1994-1996 performing around the world on the Unknown, Mystery White Boy, and Hard Luck tours. Jeff Buckley-Mystery White Boy brings together, for the first time, some of the high points of those shows. Produced by Michael Tighe (guitarist for Jeff’s band throughout their international touring and the recording of Grace) and Mary Guibert (Jeff’s mother) and Jeff Buckley-Mystery White Boy provides an evocative cross-section of Jeff’s repertoire: previously-unreleased Buckley compositions, electrifying live interpretations of songs from Grace, and obscure and marvelous cover choices. The recordings heard on Jeff Buckley-Mystery White Boy have been hand-picked from scores of concert tapes by Mary Guibert and the members of Jeff’s band who played such a large role in helping Jeff realize his musical vision.
After Buckley’s death, a collection of demo recordings and a full-length album he had been reworking for his second album were released as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk—the compilation being overseen by his mother, Mary Guibert, band members and old friend Michael J. Clouse, as well as Chris Cornell. The album achieved gold sales in Australia in 1998. Three other albums composed of live recordings have also been released, along with a live DVD of a performance in Chicago. A previously unreleased 1992 recording of “I Shall Be Released“, sung by Buckley over the phone on live radio, was released on the album For New Orleans.
Since his death, Buckley has been the subject of numerous documentaries: Fall in Light, a 1999 production for French TV, Goodbye and Hello, a program about Buckley and his father produced for Netherlands TV in 2000 and Everybody Here Wants You, a documentary made in 2002 by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). An hour long documentary about Buckley called Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley has been shown at various film festivals to critical acclaim. The film was released worldwide in 2009 by Sony BMG Legacy as part of the Grace Around The World Deluxe Edition. In the spring of 2009 it was revealed that Ryan Jaffe, best known for scripting the movie The Rocker, had replaced Brian Jun as screenwriter. Orion Williams is also set to co-produce the film with Michelle Sy. A separate project involving the book Dream Brother was allegedly cancelled.
Buckley’s premature death inspired many artists he knew or influenced to write songs in tribute to the late singer: PJ Harvey knew him personally and in the song “Memphis”, she takes lines from a song on his unfinished album, “Morning Theft”, and in her own words reflects on Buckley’s death: “In Memphis…die suddenly, at a wonderful age, we’re ready to go“.
Rufus Wainwright, whose career had barely started when he met Buckley, wrote “Memphis Skyline” in tribute to him, singing “then came hallelujah sounding like Ophelia, for me in my room living, turn back and you will stay, under the Memphis Skyline“.
Steve Adey wrote a song tribute entitled “Mississippi” on his 2006 album All Things Real. The song contains the lyrics “Until the morning thief steals the humming of the Lord” – a reference to Buckley’s song “Morning Theft”.
Willie Nile’s On The Road To Calvary from his 1999 album Beautiful Wreck Of The World was written as a tribute to Buckley.
Thom Yorke, the singer of English alternative rock band Radiohead, saw Jeff Buckley live during the recording sessions of the band’s second album, “The Bends“. He claimed that Buckley’s performance had a direct impact on his vocal delivery in “Fake Plastic Trees“.
Matt Bellamy, the lead singer of british rock band Muse, has been strongly influenced by Jeff Buckley´s music and singing. especially in Bellamy´s early music, Jeff Buckley´s influence can be heard very strongly.
2007 marked the 10th anniversary of Jeff Buckley’s death. His life and music were celebrated globally in May and June of that year with tributes in Australia, Canada, England, France, Iceland, Israel, Ireland, Macedonia, Portugal and the U.S.
Many of Buckley’s family members attended the various tribute concerts across the globe, some of which they helped organize. There are three annual Jeff Buckley tribute events: the Chicago based Uncommon Ground, featuring a three day concert schedule, An Evening With Jeff Buckley, an annual New York City tribute and the Australian based Fall In Light. The latter event is run by the Fall In Light Foundation which in addition to the concerts runs a “Guitars for Schools” program. The name of the foundation is taken from the lyrics of Buckley’s “New Year’s Prayer”.