When faced with tragedy, it’s human nature to use symbolism and significance to help soothe the pain.
Death came swiftly and savagely in the end, without warning, swansong or elegiac last goodbye. Waves of grief ensued, tempered by a strange undercurrent of inevitability, as if the world should be sad but not surprised that such a precious talent had been swept away. For there was always something transient about this musician, a fragile, doe-eyed fawn forever en route to greater things, yet dazzled by the headlights of his own brilliance and desperate to escape the shroud of his father’s dark shadow.
A romantic description perhaps, but Jeffrey Scott Buckley was a very romantic man. Surrendering exquisitely to the moment was his thing, his calling, both privately when fooling around with friends with playful impishness and when mesmerising thousands of spellbound fans on stage, that place where you suspect he felt most at home. And it was the same muse which saw him wade spontaneously into Memphis’s Wolf River, a tributary of the mighty Mississippi, on the evening of May 29, 1997.
The 30-year-old singer-songwriter was enjoying an impromptu dip in the city’s downtown harbour to cool off from the stifling Tennessee heat. So impromptu in fact that, with the exception of a coat which he’d dropped nonchalantly into a bush, he was still fully clothed, sporting heavy combat boots and a t-shirt emblazoned with the legend ‘Altamont’, the word synonymous with violent rock and roll death.
The gathering darkness
He swam leisurely that Thursday night, drifting further and further out into the seemingly placid waterway, crooning Led Zeppelin’s thunderous ode to sexual penetration, Whole Lotta Love. A pounding, blues-influenced rocker that sounds like a generator ramping up its voltage, the Page and Plant classic encapsulated the rough, metallic sound Jeff envisioned for his long-awaited second album, My Sweetheart the Drunk.
The record had suffered a protracted genesis for two years now, stymied by Jeff’s creative inertia, trademark procrastination and maddening perfectionist streak which made him so resistant to definitive versions of anything he’d composed. Sony’s Columbia Records label, which had signed Jeff four years earlier in a million dollar recording deal, was getting twitchy. Questions were being asked by impatient New York music executives, and tensions were rising in what had always been a fractious relationship.
Loneliness, injustice and misery are the emotional palette of the blues, draped mournfully across downbeat chords that speak of wasted potential, and further proof that in moments of destitution and hardship, artistic creativity can flourish.
The musician was feeling the strain; a pressure intensified by accumulating financial woes and recent suspicions he was vulnerable to bipolar disorder. This was the emotional climate in which Jeff embarked on one of those reckless, spur-of-the-moment actions for which he had a reputation. Nevertheless, he swam with growing confidence and detachment in the Wolf’s deceptively tranquil waters, ignoring the pleas of his sole companion, roadie Keith Foti, to swim out of the gathering darkness and come back to shore.
Thousands of feet above, his bandmates were descending to Memphis’s airport, revved up to record the mother of all albums in the birthplace of rock and roll. The migration south was a poignant one, as if its creators had made a conscious decision to go back to their roots and strive for a purer, more authentic sound. The Mississippi delta has long exerted a magnetic pull on musicians and music lovers, seduced by a rich cultural folklore which nourishes and sustains its landscape, much like the famous river which drains and waters the region.
Yet it’s a folklore rooted in despair, a poetry nurtured in pain. The scar of slavery was the original sin which inspired the delta blues, the genre that would spawn the demon seed of rock and roll. The word ‘blues’ takes its etymological origin from the indigo plants of the Deep South slavelands, a bitter flower which can be used medicinally.
And it was in this dark chapter of history that African-Americans composed their own melancholic chants to remedy the soul-crushing labour of the cotton plantations. Loneliness, injustice and misery are the emotional palette of the blues, draped mournfully across downbeat chords that speak of wasted potential, and further proof that in moments of destitution and hardship, artistic creativity can flourish.
Succumbing to impulse
Jeff knew this well. That’s why he’d been living a life of self-imposed solitude and simplicity in a shotgun shack on Memphis’s North Rembert Street. It was a bare, stripped-down existence that must have been a welcome antidote to the pressure cooker lifestyle of New York and the endless distractions and temptations facing one of America’s most fêted young rock stars.
He was in a world of his own, and happy to be so, despite the dark undercurrents gathering below. None more so than in the Wolf River, where he casually backstroked further and further away from Foti, oblivious to warnings about how the animal beneath him could howl. Or the fact that many of his lyrics seem preoccupied with drowning, not least Nightmares by the Sea, a track earmarked for the new album in which the singer ghoulishly invites you to join him under the waves tonight, with all the chilly dread of a damned soul luring you to Hades.
Jeff’s vocals are sublime: swooning, operatic and soulful, part Robert Plant Valhallah wail and part amorous, Billie Holiday nightclub chanteuse
Succumbing to impulse, yielding with meditative abandon to his muse, was a pattern which defined Buckley’s brooding, insular performances. His gigs would often digress into prolonged, meandering renditions of his favourite material seemingly on a whim, driven by instinct, resisting structure and expectation. It was a quality which mimicked the vocal acrobatics of Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (below), Jeff’s all-time hero and a maestro of Qawwali, the devotional music of Sufism.
Qawwali songs are characterised by their deep yearning for spiritual transcendence. Building steadily over sustained periods and interspersed with flashes of improvisation, Qawwali’s architecture symbolises the sacred path of the Sufis themselves, who see life as a journey of intense burning which must be endured so they can be consumed in the inferno of Allah’s love. Until then they must ‘wait in the fire’, as Jeff would sing on Grace, the title track of his first and only studio album.
Sensuous rapture and explosive passion are Grace’s primary hues. Jeff’s vocals are sublime: swooning, operatic and soulful, part Robert Plant Valhallah wail and part amorous, Billie Holiday nightclub chanteuse, gliding from volcanic eruptions of blistering emotion to delicate, precise intonations as light and pure as crystal. The extraordinary five-and-a-half octave vocal range was inherited from his father, singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, who died in 1975 from an accidental drug overdose. Frightening musical talent wasn’t the only gift Tim bequeathed his son. Fey good looks, a penchant for risk-taking, abandonment issues, and so many painful, unanswered questions were also Jeff’s birthright.
He’d been swimming in the Wolf for over half an hour when two boats, a tugboat and a barge, sailed towards him in quick succession. The singer manoeuvred around them both and then away from the second boat’s wake, the size of which sent waves rippling all the way to the riverbank where Foti stood. Jeff’s friend moved his stereo away to stop it getting wet. When he turned back, Jeff had vanished, leaving only unsettled water and the tepid mumblings of a harbour at night.
An anthem for doomed youth
People in the Deep South know more than most how water destroys as well as creates, unmakes and makes. And so it would prove again that Spring evening in Memphis, at the spot where the Wolf River is absorbed by the Mississippi. As Jeff slipped beneath the waves, dragged under by the boats’ ferocious, lethal undertow, fact would surrender to fiction, story would be drowned out by speculation, and a musical legend-in-waiting would turn from man to myth, a blank canvas on which devotees could project their dreams.
When faced with tragedy, it’s human nature to tell ourselves stories like this one, loading them with symbolism and significance to help soothe the pain. That’s why so many l. There’s nothing more darkly poetic than an Anthem for Doomed Youth after all, and it’s so much easier to layer suffering with an aesthetic sheen than grapple with the grimy mundanity of the facts. Rivers are dangerous, young men do stupid things and sometimes, shit just happens.
Yearning for a deeper meaning, searching for a better place, is the essence of Jeff Buckley’s music, and the core of his enduring appeal as the sensitive man’s rock star. Call it striving for a state of grace, or nursing a cold and broken hallelujah, his art is the work of a man who couldn’t quite come to terms with the world around him, just as we struggle to come to terms with his death. Why did he behave so recklessly? What could he have gone on to achieve? How can something so brilliant be so cruelly taken away? Why did my father leave me when I needed him most?
To Jeff, music was an end in itself, both a guiding force and a final destination that would shepherd him through life’s interminably painful landscape.
Such questions never will be answered. Much like we’ll never know whether Jeff quickly resigned to his watery fate that night, or fought stubbornly to the end as the Wolf devoured him from within, flooding the respiratory system that had produced such momentous, exquisite sound. We do know his corpse stayed under the water for six days before it resurfaced near Memphis’s iconic Beale Street, the city’s musical heartbeat.
The handsome, dreamboat face was swollen: he was eventually identified by his stomach piercings. He was cremated and the ashes returned to New York, with no second album to speak of, just a sorrowful legacy reverberating with sadness, speculation and the sense of a life which never quite ran its course.
The songs remain though, and the love and devotion burning within them. To Jeff, music was an end in itself, both a guiding force and a final destination that would shepherd him through life’s interminably painful landscape. He wasn’t alone in his quest. This promise of finding inner peace, of transcending the world’s grim vicissitudes, is what inspired the delta bluesmen of the Great Depression, the slaves in the 19th century cotton fields and the mojo which continues to propel the Qawwali singers of Sufism today.
In its purest form, music is a way of bringing harmony to discord, a means of connecting with the world around us, and an expression of that basic human urge to fill the void with something as powerful and simple as love. The desire is a perennial one, awash with both misery and joy, surging forward like the mightiest of rivers and taking you to a better place, somewhere that’s just beyond the horizon yet forever out of reach.
Where it leads is up to you. But there’s enough space for endless personal interpretations, all existing in chorus under a vast indigo sky that’s open, infinite and which echoes with the loudest and most romantic question of them all.
Surely all this must mean something. Shouldn’t it?
jeffbuckley.com The musician’s official website
Grace Official video of the album’s title track
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Profile on BBC Music