Jeff Buckley’s Grace ... Ten Years Later
People who were close to me in the mid- and late 1990s could hardly have missed how much I raved about the music of Jeff Buckley. No, I never saw him at Sin-é, one of the venues where he began to build his reputation in the early part of the decade. But I was one of his most enthusiastic supporters. Without worshipping him, I nonetheless often found myself proselytizing on his behalf.
It all started in September of 1994, just as I was beginning my dissertation fieldwork. Each week, in addition to spending a few nights in the clubs hearing live jazz performances, I also went to Brooklyn a couple of times to work as an intern for a prominent jazz critic. Among the benefits the job carried was the option to take home the promo copies of new releases that he didn’t like or just didn’t want to keep. The first pile I took home contained, among other things, Blowout Comb, the second Digable Planets album; Stoned and Dethroned by the Jesus and Mary Chain; and Grace, the debut album from Buckley. I picked up the latter as an afterthought, wondering whether the singer was in some way related to Tim Buckley, whose songs I’d heard covered to great effect on releases by This Mortal Coil. It turns out that Jeff was in fact the progeny of Tim, though the two apparently never interacted extensively.
It would take me four weeks to get around to Grace. As I rode a bus to LaGuardia, from where I’d fly to my first Society for Ethnomusicology meeting, I listened to the CD for the first time. And I continually chided myself—on the bus, in the waiting room, on the plane—for having deprived myself of that listening experience for so long. I can’t now enumerate everything that captivated me, but the record just sounded fresh to me. I was amazed that it was on a major label, that it was so non-formulaic, especially for appearing at a time when so-called alternative rock was becoming the most commercially viable music around (and, thus, alternative to what?). This recording didn’t sound like those by the Breeders, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins or any of the other artists whose music was prominent in the MTV rotation then. On my first run through the CD, I had to stop a few times to listen to whole songs or portions of them again. I just needed more time to take in the breathtaking guitar sounds and sonic textures. And to luxuriate in Buckley’s supple voice, one that could communicate tenderness and vulnerability without seeming mannered. In “Last Goodbye,” for example, Buckley’s delivery floored me, especially on the lines “Kiss me, please kiss me / Kiss me out of desire, baby, not consolation.” The way he moved back and forth between his chest voice and his falsetto there powerfully evoked the futility of a moment where one wants one last kiss, one final positive memory. (It could hardly turn out well, but the asker’s emotional state has perhaps clouded his ability to see that.) And when, two tracks later, I heard the shifting time signatures of “So Real” (4+4+4+4+3+3+3+3+2) and Buckley’s virtuosic vocal ad-libs (from 3:20 to the end) I was hooked. In fact, I probably annoyed a few people at the conference that weekend by making them put on my headphones to listen to that track.
What impressed me most about the album as a whole, though, was that it was as perfect a debut as I could imagine. For one thing, it wouldn’t lock Buckley into having to replicate any particular style on subsequent recordings. In addition to his (largely co-authored) rock originals, there were covers of tunes associated with Nina Simone (“Lilac Wine”) and composed by Leonard Cohen (“Hallelujah”) and Benjamin Britten (“Corpus Christi Carol”). My love for the pop covers has waned over time, for neither of them significantly transforms the prior versions on which they are based. If you listen to Nina Simone on After Hours and John Cale on the Leonard Cohen tribute I’m Your Fan, you’ll hear that the only differences are that Buckley essentially substitutes his guitar for piano and, of course, sings with his own voice. The Cohen/Cale cover, however, has some impressive strokes: the guitar sound and figurations, just before the first verse begins, recall the Smiths’ “Back to the Old House”; and, in his own Callas moment, Buckley sustains a single pitch for nearly 25 seconds near the track’s end.
That fall, there were very few recording artists I really wanted to hear live. But, as soon as I learned that Buckley would be playing a show at Irving Plaza in December, I knew I couldn’t miss him. So, I bought three tickets—one for me, one for my friend Sandy who also dug him, and one for my friend Jeff F. who I figured would also love him. Jeff F. went without ever having heard Buckley at all. All three of us loved the show. Absolutely loved it. When the band started one of its encores with a raucous, lengthy jam that eventually morphed into Big Star’s “Kanga Roo,” I realized what it was in Buckley’s music that touched me: he was a kindred spirit—someone whose musical tastes were almost an exact mirror of my own, someone who dug Big Star, Nina Simone, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Smiths, the Cocteau Twins, etc. And he was only a year or two older than me. I figured if we ever met, we’d become fast friends—just as Jeff F. and I had for similar reasons in high school. Jeff F., in fact, borrowed Grace that night and didn’t return it for about four months.
Alas, even if it might somehow have been possible, my chance to meet Buckley never came. On 29 May 1997, as I was packing to leave New York, he was in Memphis waiting for his bandmates to arrive by plane so that they could re-record his follow-up to Grace. Buckley and his friend Keith Foti parked a van near the edge of the Mississippi to play guitar and hang before going to the airport. A fully dressed Buckley waded out into the muddy water and started swimming on his back, singing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” at the top of his lungs. A passing speedboat created some major waves, forcing a cautious Foti to turn away to move a boombox and their guitars back from the water’s edge. When Foti turned again toward the river, he saw no sign of Buckley. At first he thought he was the victim of a practical joke. It turns out he wasn’t. A search that night was unsuccessful, and, six days later, Buckley’s body washed up downriver. (A fuller account can be found in Fred Schruers’ 7 August 1997 Rolling Stone article “River’s Edge”; if you’re an RS subscriber, you can read it here).
Over the years, I’ve constantly returned to and found many things to love about this record in terms of production, songwriting and performance (though Buckley wasn’t always the best lyricist). I fondly remember one night in the summer of 1996 when I was suffering from serious writer’s block. The thing that brought me back to myself was plugging in my battered Fender Duosonic and learning to play “Lover, You Should Have Come Over.” It’s one of the most solid things Buckley ever did (two tracks from his abortive follow-up, “Everybody Here Wants You” and “Opened Once” are just as good).
I’ve also tried to share Buckley’s music with as many people as possible, literally giving away copies of Grace to friends who took to it and then buying another copy for myself. (While it’s not really intentional, I have to admit that I almost always have two copies of the CD on my shelves.) Though I’ve been glad for the opportunity to hear more of his work since 1994, on, for example, the expanded release of Live at Sin-é or the version of the second album that was released as Sketches for My Sweetheart, the Drunk, I hope Mary Guibert, his mother and the executor of his estate, is done fulfilling his contractual obligations to Sony. Some of the decisions she has made since his death regarding what material to release have struck me as being in bad taste. On the second disc of Sweetheart…, for example, she and the label chose to include raw home demos that I doubt Buckley would ever have wanted to have released. More shocking is the inclusion of “Forget Her” on the Legacy Edition reissue of Grace, released a couple of weeks ago to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the album’s original appearance. I first learned of the song in 2000 or so, when a fan wrote a letter to Mary’s Mailbag in the Jeff Buckley International Newsletter asking whether the song would ever be issued. In her reply, Guibert wrote that her son had very personal reasons for leaving that song off the final release of Grace (replacing it with “So Real”) and that she wanted to respect his wishes by not making it officially available. Given that history, I was dismayed to see the song included on the reissue, along with a video created from old footage. The explanation given is vague and skirts the issue Guibert herself raised a few years ago:
In the years since Jeff’s passing, the song has taken on legendary proportion, with musicians and fans all over the world passing around copies, sussing out the words and chords to the song. The thought of the performance only existing as a poor quality bootleg was unsettling to me, and to those who were closest to Jeff. Something this beautiful shouldn’t be treated this way.
To me, that seems a weak justification. Anyone who really wanted to hear the song could find a low-quality, bootlegged mp3 if s/he searched hard enough. And anyone else could do without ever hearing it. It is an absolutely gorgeous song, but given a choice between 1) hearing the bootleg and thinking Guibert had honored what she described as her son’s wishes and 2) seeing the song released (inducement for long-term fans to buy the reissue?), I would have gone with the former….
Buckley surely made some great music in his lifetime, and perhaps had much more ahead of him. But, as much as I have wanted to hear more over the years, I could be content with my imagination. I don’t think fans have the “right” to hear everything that happened when he was in front of a microphone. Grace and Live at Sin-é are enough. Go buy them, and hear for yourself….
Postscript: I now know why I had something against Stephen Thomas Erlewine at AMG (see the 29 May 2004 George Michael entry): his brief review of Grace seems mean, particularly because he dismissively uses words and phrases like “bombastic” and “merely promising” to describe the music and glosses the CD as “a Led Zeppelin album written by an ambitious folkie with a fondness for lounge jazz.” Ouch!