So I stayed. I watched as a skinny guy with a passing resemblance to James Dean stepped on stage. He had dirty brown hair and he wore a full-length feather overcoat like something you'd find at an old lady's garage sale. He plugged his electric guitar into an amp with a "Kiss" sticker across the back. The surrounding crowd was oblivious...loud, rude, immersed in their cocktails and movie industry blathering.
The performer began tuning his guitar and testing the microphone with high-pitched squeals and sighs. Then something amazing happened. The singer's atonal sounds morphed into a soft falsetto backed by the slow build of a dreamy guitar riff. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the crowd became silent and turned toward stage. They had no choice. They were magnetized, lifted, pulled toward this compelling force.
Then came the opening lyrics sung with the voice of an angel: "I'm lying in my bed, the blanket is warm, this body will never be safe from harm." The next hour passed like a blur. The music blended Jimmy Paige inspired electric guitar with soft soulful ballads reminiscent of Marvin Gaye. Between songs, the performer cracked jokes about his days of starvation living in Hollywood and how there was a period in the music industry when "Paul Williams was God."
My headache vanished. My throat seemed to clear. By the time the set ended with a majestic cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," I felt transformed. I sat in silence, my skin covered with goose bumps. Women crowded the state to get closer to the performer. Men simply stared, trying to process what they just experienced.
Jeff Buckley was a musical virtuoso. He wielded his Fender Stratocaster guitar like a gunfighter brandishing a pistol. His music was an amalgam of his favorite performers: Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, Pakistani legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. He covered performers as varied as Edith Piaf, Jimi Hendrix and Nina Simone.
Buckley was born into music. His father, whom he met only once, was Tim Buckley, the revered 60's folk musician who died of a drug overdose at age 28. His mother, Mary Guibert, was a classically trained pianist and cellist. He was born in Southern California and began playing guitar at age five. He played in his high school jazz band and developed an early affinity for the progressive rock sounds of Genesis, Yes and Rush. He studied music at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood then moved to New York City in 1990. He toured with several struggling bands and experimented on his own with jazz, blues, punk rock, funk and R&B.
In April, 1991, Buckley made his public singing debut at a tribute concert for his father called "Greetings From Tim Buckley." He performed four of his father's songs including "I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain," a song Tim Buckley wrote about infant Jeff and his mother. The performance made a strong impression and became a springboard for Jeff's career.
Buckley began building a following at small clubs throughout Lower Manhattan. He gained a regular Monday spot at an Irish cafe in the East Village called Sin-E. Slowly, his reputation spread. Crowds became larger and record company executives took notice. In 1992, Buckley signed a deal with Columbia Records. Two years later, he release his first album Grace. In 1996, the album went Gold.
Buckley's shows attracted fans such as Chrissie Hynde, Chris Cornell, Lou Reed and The Edge. Bob Dylan called Buckley "one of the great songwriters of the decade." David Bowie said Grace was an album he'd take with him to a desert island. Rolling Stone called Buckley's rendition of "Hallelujah" one of "the 500 greatest songs of all time."
Buckley toured the world, preferring intimate clubs to large venues. He disliked self-promotion and bristled when people referred to him as "Tim Buckley's son." In 1996, he began writing songs for his second studio album My Sweetheart The Drunk.
Buckley chose to record the album in Memphis, Tennessee. On the night of May 29, 1997, his band flew to Memphis to join him. That same night, Buckley jumped in to Wolf River Harbor, a water channel of the Mississippi River. He was fully clothed, including his boots, and he was singing Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" at the top of his lungs. A river tugboat passed creating a wake that pulled Buckley beneath the water. A roadie in the band, Keith Foti, was standing on shore. He realized Buckley had vanished. A search and rescue effort was launched. Buckley remained missing for several days. His body was finally found down river on June 4. An autopsy showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in his system. His death was ruled an "accidental drowning."
Fans around the world united in grief. Several musicians wrote tribute songs. These included "Teardrop" by Elizabeth Fraser, "Memphis" by PJ Harvey, "Grey Ghost" by Mike Doughty and "Memphis Skyline" by Rufus Wainwright. Columbia Records released the demo recordings for My Sweetheart The Drunk. They followed this up with several live recordings. Buckley had been poised for super stardom. His legacy grew after his passing.
I was blessed to see Jeff perform twice in Los Angeles. My wife and I fell in love listening to his music. On the day we learned he was missing, we walked around in a stupor as if we had lost a family member. Seventeen years later, it's still hard to believe he's gone. Jeff Buckley was a comet blazing across our musical skies, burning out far too soon. He will always be missed. (4" x 6", black ink print)