"Music is my mother...and my father...it is my work and my rest...my blood...my compass...my love." It’s the sort of quote that would make many a performer sound like a pretentious twat. Jeff Buckley however actually meant it. Serious about music, earnest in the extreme (so much so he could come across as deathly dull on occasion), and deeply immersed in his art. You only need listen to the primal emoting found on tracks like ‘Grace’ - the sort of heartfelt deep soul performance that vocal gymnasts like Mariah Carey could only dream of delivering – to realise here was a performer that really did ‘mean it maaaan’.
Grace and Danger
Spending the first half of his career playing down the legacy of his esteemed genes (his father was singer songwriter Tim), and the latter half desperately trying to fully realise the sounds whirling around in his head, Jeff Buckley’s was never going to be an easy or straightforward music career beginning playing with several LA jazz and funk bands, as well as with US reggae star Shinehead. Moving to New York he then formed Gods & Monsters with guitarist Gary Lucas before going solo and playing around the clubs and coffeehouses of New York, building an impressive following in the process. He then signed a record deal with Columbia Records and released the Live at Sin-e EP (93), which received many good reviews and introduced the world (well the small part of the world that actually heard it first time around) to his prodigious talents. However it was his full-length debut proper, Grace (94 – for full review see below) which cemented his reputation as a genuinely astonishing vocalist, thought provoking songwriter and wild interpreter of other peoples songs. Grace made many of the year-end ‘Best of 1994’ lists and earned him a belated alternative hit in the US ‘Last Goodbye’ in the spring of 1995.
Having toured, talked to the press and pressed innumerable acres of flesh to the point of distraction promoting his breakthrough album, Buckley then stepped back from the spotlight whilst he began work on his follow-up, provisionally titled My Sweetheart, the Drunk. The demos were originally worked up with the help of legendary Television main-man Tom Verlaine, but these recordings failed to produce the necessary results prompting Buckley to scrap everything and begin again from scratch, finally surfacing once again in Memphis during the late spring of 1997 to restart the recording process.
Mystery White Boy
On the night of May 29, 1997 the 30-year old decided to go swimming in the Mississippi river at Mud Island Harbour, wading into the murky waters fully clothed and within minutes had disappeared beneath the waters. A search was undertaken and lasted long into the following day, but he was gone and his body was found weeks later (June 04) floating near one of the original homes of blues music, Beale Street.
A collection of unreleased recordings, Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk), followed in 1998, and a live album, Mystery White Boy, two years later but these were nothing but old news and works in progress (although both releases were well intentioned and sensitively handled). Jeff Buckley never did reach anything like his full potential – even whilst creating his best work he was still constantly searching for a muse that was entirely his own - and in the end that is the real tragedy.
Grace – Legacy Edition
Having secured any number of influential ears with his solo work - and work with Gary Lucas - Grace was Jeff Buckley’s ‘band’ album. Tiring of the loneliness of solo performance Buckley was desperate to work with a real band, not just backing musicians, and in Mick Grondahl, Matt Johnson and Michael Tighe he had found that band. This is where it all came right – this extended Legacy Edition helping to flesh out the story with numerous unreleased tracks, videos and a documentary DVD. It’s not perfect, producer Steve Berkowitz admits he found it hellishly difficult to keep Buckley pointed in the same direction for any length of time, but it’s still a tremendous piece of work, and as a signpost to what could have been…? Sadly we’ll now never know.