In May 1997, fully clothed and singing Led Zeppelin, Jeff Buckley walked into the Mississippi River and never returned. On this day, the world lost one of the most talented artists it was ever lucky enough to catch a glimpse of.
‘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.’
There is something hauntingly beautiful about the life and work of Buckley. He has been a cited influence of artists such as Thom Yorke, Sia, Chris Marten and Adele. When Brad Pitt heard Grace, he became obsessed, vying for the rights to tell Buckley’s story through film for years. He was admired by Patti Smith and Jimmy Page. Rolling Stone placed him as number 39 on a list of all-time greatest singers.
Jeff Buckley was the son of singer Tim Buckley and pianist Mary Guibert. Inheriting his musical talent early, he fast became a skilled guitarist. After a decade of being a session guitarist though, his vocal talent could no longer be ignored. Buckley studied the albums of his father (who had by now passed away at 28 from a heroin overdose), started training his voice, and began to to craft his own work.
‘Words are beautiful but restricted. They’re very masculine, with a compact frame. But voice is over the dark, the place where there’s nothing to hang on: it comes from a part of yourself that simply knows, expresses itself, and is.’
He started playing at a small bar in New York called Sin’e, until word of his spellbinding performances spread, and he was quickly signed to Columbia. It was here that he recorded his first live EP.
In September 1993 Buckley began recording Grace, which was released the following year. Of the album he said;
‘Grace is uh, it’s basically a death prayer, not something of sorrow, but of just casting away any fear of death. No relief will come, you really just have to stew in your life, until it’s time to go. But sometimes somebody else has faith and we can do wonders.’
Despite initial mediocre sales, the album has gradually attained both critical acclaim and commercial success. It is considered by some (including David Bowie), one of the greatest albums of all time.
Similarly, Buckley’s cult following has slowly and organically grown over the decades, something his mother says he would likely have appreciated; ‘there was always something a little melancholy about Jeff’s observation of the world.’ Fame for fame’s sake was never a motivating factor. Rather, taking note of his father’s life, Buckley faced a constant tension between commerce and artistic expression.
‘When I say Romantic, I mean a sensibility that sees everything, and has to express everything, and still doesn’t know what the fuck it is, it hurts that bad. It just madly tries to speak whatever it feels, and that can mean vast things. That sort of mentality can turn a sun-kissed orange into a flaming meteorite, and make it sound like that in a song.’
On May 29th, 1997, Buckley’s band was set to arrive and meet him in Memphis, to work on a new album. Yet, before this could happen, Buckley and roadie Keith Foti, visited Wolf River Harbour. Buckley waded into the water, clothed and wearing boots, singing the chorus of Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin. At one point, a large wave endangered their radio on the shore, causing Foti to place it elsewhere. Turning back shortly after, he saw that Buckley had disappeared.
A terrible thunderstorm ensued, and following unsuccessful search attempts, Jeff Buckley’s body was found a few days later. He was only thirty years old.
Now two decades later, Buckley’s music remains as entrancing as ever. Grace is an album that most definitely rewards repeat listening. Posthumously released live recordings also immortalise the passion, talent, and pure soul of Jeff Buckley – a magic that will live on through his music forever.
‘I don’t really want to be remembered, I just hope the music is remembered.’