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Jeff Buckley: The Eternal Life of Grace

Twenty years after an album's release.

By 8.25.14

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On August 23, 1994, Columbia Records would release Gracethe debut album of Jeff Buckley.

It would prove to be his only fully completed album.

On May 29, 1997, while in the midst of recording his follow up album in Memphis, Buckley disappeared after taking a spontaneous swim fully clothed in the Wolf River. His body was found nearly a week later. An autopsy revealed no drugs and only a nominal amount of alcohol in his system. Buckley was 30 years old.

Aside from the circumstances that led to his sudden demise, his passing was eerie because his father was also a musician who had died young. Tim Buckley, who recorded nine albums between 1966 and 1974, died a musician’s death. The elder Buckley passed away of drug overdose on June 29, 1975 in Los Angeles the night after performing a sold out concert in Dallas. Buckley snorted a mixture of heroin and morphine mistaking it for cocaine. He was 28.

Despite the fact that both Jeff and Tim Buckley died young, father and son hardly knew each other. Tim Buckley jettisoned fatherhood for fame and fortune and left his son in the care of his mother, Mary Guibert. Young Jeff would not see his father again until he was eight years old. Two months after that visit, Tim Buckley was dead. Death would only complicate his feelings towards his father. Known as Scottie Moorhead as a child (Scott was his middle name and Moorhead was his stepfather’s surname), he soon wished to be known as Jeff Buckley. Yet most of his childhood friends had no idea he was the son of a singer despite the fact he set out to become a musician. In his early years, Buckley concentrated on playing lead guitar. It was only on rare occasions would sing back up vocals in the various bands he joined.

But Buckley would inherit his father’s multi-octave vocal range and could not hide it forever. This voice would make its mark when in 1991 he was invited to New York to perform at a tribute concert for Tim Buckley called “Greetings from Tim Buckley.” The younger Buckley performed two of his father’s songs — “I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain” and “Once I Was.” It proved to be the highlight of the evening. Accompanied on guitar by ex-Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, he would promptly recruit him to join his band Gods & Monsters. Buckley would part ways with Lucas after a year. Although Lucas would later re-enter the picture during the recording of Grace (“Mojo Pin” & “Grace”), the split led to Buckley’s big break.

Buckley would land a regular Monday night gig at a small Irish café in the East Village called the Sin-é. In a typical evening, Buckley would mostly perform covers and could easily veer from Bob Dylan to Nina Simone or from Big Star to Edith Piaf or from the MC5 to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and somehow make their songs his own. Soon Buckley began to attract big crowds; crowds too big to accommodate the confines of the Sin-é. Most would have to be content to watch Buckley sing from outside. With all this buzz being generated around Buckley, representatives from record labels began to show up. In October 1992, Buckley would sign with Columbia Records.

It would take nearly two years from the time Buckley signed with Columbia to the release of Grace. Upon its release, its sales would prove disappointing and Grace would only reach 149 on the Billboard Album charts. These figures can be attributed to both Buckley’s reluctance to make music videos and general ambivalence towards promotional campaigns he felt emphasized his appearance rather than his music. It can also be attributed to Columbia Records being unsure how to promote an album that at one moment had Buckley singing in an entirely falsetto voice on Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of “Corpus Christi Carol” and then going all punk on “Eternal Life” in the next. Despite better sales outside the United States, especially in the UK, France, and Australia, Grace was deemed a disappointment. But Columbia was not giving up on Jeff Buckley. They believed Buckley would be recording albums for many years to come.

Sadly, this would not come to pass. A year after his death, Columbia released the two disc Sketches for My Sweetheart The Drunk (originally titled My Sweetheart the Drunk). Although a few of the songs were ready for release (i.e. “The Sky is a Landfill” and “Vancouver”), most of the material was in its embryonic stage. In the years that have followed there have been several releases of Buckley’s live performances and the recordings he did with Gods & Monsters. But it is the grace of Grace that keeps Jeff Buckley’s music going.

In his 2002 book Dream Brother: The Lives & Music of Jeff & Tim Buckley, David Browne describes Grace in this manner. “In an increasingly faster-paced pop environment, Grace was rarity: an album intended to be absorbed over time,” writes Browne. “Everyone knew Grace was not the type of album that would make an instant splash onto pop radio.” This absorption is demonstrated by Daphne A. Brooks, an Assistant Professor of English and African-American Studies at Princeton University. In 2005, Brooks wrote about a book about Grace for Bloomsbury’s acclaimed 33 1/3 Series. Here is her opening paragraph:

It takes exactly nineteen minutes and five seconds to get from 427 1/2 North Orange Grove Avenue in Los Angeles to the lot 3 parking structure on the north side of UCLA’s campus. That’s exactly how deep into Jeff Buckley’s masterfully epic album Grace that I would get every day as I drove that route from January 1995 through September 1996 -- a period that some of us still refer to a the preface-to-the apocalypse in southern California: post-earthquake, post-mud-slide, post-riot, and right smack in the middle of the O.J. ear of malcontent. In those dog days of my urban grad-school experience, I could cut across the west side of the L.A. grid to the currents of Jeff Buckley’s oceanic vocals on Grace while locked in a trance, surfing the insurmountable flow of film studio traffic while riding the crest of that record’s swirling guitars. No other album so intensely capture for me the sound and fury, the stillness and the raucous noise, the surreal as well as the ordinary, everyday contradictions of mid-1990s American culture and the mad genius of left field rock wonder and possibility. As big and wide open as the Pacific Coast freeway, as small and intimate as an East Village flat, Grace was, and still remains upon repeat listens, a beginning and an end, a departure and a return home, a journey outward and a heartbreakingly humble trip to the center of one’s own soul, a prayer and a proclamation, a generous gift and an expression of gratitude.

If Brooks associates Grace with driving her car in Los Angeles circa 1995-96, I associate it with my old apartment in a five story walk-up on Hemenway Street in Boston in the summer of 2001. It was my second year in Boston and not long after my arrival I became immersed in the music of Tim Buckley and decided I wanted to become more familiar with his son’s material. At the time, I had a roommate named Lianne. We hadn’t been getting along and not helping matters was that our musical tastes were very different. I was into Eric Burdon and Otis Redding. She was into Madonna and Roxette. But in Jeff Buckley we were able to find some common ground. But the more I would play Grace, the better we got along. It wasn’t the only reason our relationship improved, but it was a significant factor.

One evening after coming home from work, I found a message from Lianne on the whiteboard on the fridge. It read: “Jeff Buckley: Live in Chicago”. She bought me the DVD from a 1995 concert he performed in Chicago. I joined Lianne and her boyfriend Mike and watched the concert. It would be something we did repeatedly over that summer. At summer’s end, Lianne would move out and travel through Europe. Lianne and Mike had decided to go their separate ways and did so amicably. But as Neil Sedaka famously sung, “Breaking up is hard to do.” For Mike, Buckley’s “Last Goodbye” had a special resonance.

While I associate Grace with the summer of 2001, many people associate it with a catastrophic event that occurred on a sunny Tuesday morning that September. In the days following the attacks of September 11, 2001, people naturally sought comfort and solace. For many it would be found in the music of Jeff Buckley. To be precise, it would be found in one song — “Hallelujah.”

Originally recorded by Leonard Cohen in 1984, it was one of three cover songs Buckley would record on Grace. (The others were “Corpus Christi Carol” and “Lilac Wine” by James Shelton). As he did with the other covers he performed at the Sin-é, Buckley made “Hallelujah” his own. Despite Cohen’s stature as a poet and songwriter, Buckley’s recording is the definitive version. It is Buckley’s rendition of “Hallelujah” which brought comfort to people in the days following the 9/11 attacks after it was aired on hourly basis on VH1. In his 2012 book, The Holy or The Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & The Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah, Alan Light observes: 

Heard against the horrifying, bewildering, inspiring footage of the rubble, of the rescue workers and the vigils, of the tears and rage, the yearning physicality of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” had precisely the necessary tone for the moment — the feelings of love and loss, of mystic confusion that didn’t surrender to despair.

That necessary tone would be struck again on April 20, 2013 when “Hallelujah” was played at Fenway Park prior to the first home game of the Boston Red Sox since the Boston Marathon bombings and the day after surviving bomber was captured.

It is Buckley’s rendition of “Hallelujah” which has been recorded by numerous artists not to mention sung by performers at many an open mike night all over the world. After it was covered on American Idol by Jason Castro in 2008, Buckley’s version hit number one on Billboard’s U.S. Digital Singles chart. Across the pond later that same year, Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” hit number two on the British pop charts after Alexandra Burke’s cover of “Hallelujah” which she performed on X-Factor had hit number one. A remarkable feat for a song that had been recorded nearly 15 years earlier. This past April, the Library of Congress announced that “Hallelujah” would be preserved in the National Recording Registry. Here’s Light shedding some further light:

If Leonard Cohen was the author of “Hallelujah” and John Cale was its editor, Jeff Buckley was the song’s ultimate performer. A decade after its original recording , the song had found its defining voice, and the Grace recording would essentially become the version against which future versions would be measured.

While “Hallelujah” is Jeff Buckley’s most popular song, my favorite song on Grace is “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”. In fact, it is the ringtone on my cell. Its opening notes may have a cheerful tone, but it is a lament for a lost love who he has driven away with his excessive emotional exuberance:

Sometimes a man gets carried away, when he feels like he should be having his fun
And much too blind to see the damage he’s done
Sometimes a man must awake to find that really, he has no-one

I don’t think of Grace as an album that defined the 1990s. To the extent that any piece of music can define a decade, Nevermind by Nirvana or Pearl Jam’s 10 are far more representative of the decade than Grace. As David Browne puts it in Dream Brother, “There was a feeding frenzy to sign acts, but the demand was for ersatz Kurt Cobains and pseudo Eddie Vedders, not sentimental-sounding kids with crystalline voices, no band, and a repertoire dating back nearly fifty years.” Could anyone imagine Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder have dared to record a song sung by Nina Simone on their debut album? The saving grace of Grace was that it stood apart from everything else around it just as Buckley would stand in concert stage right while his band was stationed stage left.

Browne further notes in Dream Brother that Grace was but one of hundreds of albums released on August 23, 1994. Between them, Columbia and Epic Records accounted for 51 of these releases. I believe it is safe to say that most of the albums released on that day has been forgotten. This isn’t to say that all of those albums deserved that fate. There might be some hidden gems among them. Following the poor sales in the first year of its release Grace could have very easily been tossed onto that ash heap never to have a second life.

Instead Grace has become one of those must have albums which I have seen in many a CD collection. Grace continues to be absorbed by its listeners 20 years after it first saw the light of day. It is certainly true that some of this owes to the sudden demise of Jeff Buckley who had yet to reach his prime. But the endurance of Grace owes far more to life of its music than to the death of the artist. In twenty years’ time, Grace will continue to be absorbed by its listeners. I dare say that Grace will have an “Eternal Life.”

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.