The Buckleys’ motives were the antithesis of a record business built on verifiable goals. Their music was a journey without a destination. No wonder its allure endures.
Two singers who died young and relatively unknown — Jeff Buckley and his estranged father, Tim Buckley — are the subjects of a new book and are cited by countless performers as inspirations. Tim Buckley’s career is chronicled comprehensively for the first time on a new two-CD anthology, while the keepers of Jeff Buckley’s estate have more than doubled his recorded output since his 1997 death.
The Buckleys have never been more popular, their artistry as singers and songwriters never more respected. What’s going on here? Is this another case of death as the ultimate career-enhancing move, another sorry example of tragedy creating its own cult of hero worship, as was the case with pop-culture icons from the Doors’ Jim Morrison to rapper Tupac Shakur?
Not quite. Unlike Shakur, Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley and others who have been milked for nostalgia and revenue long after their premature deaths, the Buckleys were not established stars when they died. They were intensely introspective lyricists and gifted singers, blessed with multi-octave ranges that held more than a hint of feminine delicacy and otherworldly power. They also were boyishly handsome, broodingly intense human beings who performed as though they were channeling their innermost secrets, doubts and desires without shame or censorship. Both appeared enraptured when on stage, in the grip of something or someone outside themselves, empowered to attempt the impossible even if it meant looking foolish, or worse.
In his most famous song, “Song to the Siren,” Tim Buckley anguished over a desire so deep it could drive a man to his death: “Now my foolish boat is leaning/Broken lovelorn on your rocks.” The imagery in that line was echoed in an interview with his son more than two decades later. “I want to be ripped apart by music,” Jeff Buckley said in 1994.
“I want it to be something that feeds and replenishes, or that totally sucks the life out of you. I want to be dashed against the rocks.”
Tim and Jeff Buckley both crashed before they had an opportunity to fulfill their promise. Tim Buckley died in 1975 of a heroin overdose; he was 28 and had recorded nine albums, none of which had spent any significant time on the pop charts. He wasn’t even deemed worthy of a review in the leading rock publication of the era, Rolling Stone magazine, until his last album. Jeff Buckley was 30 in 1997 when he drowned in the Mississippi River near Memphis while preparing to record what would have been only his second album. His first album, “Grace,” released in 1994, was a modest cult favorite, selling 180,000 copies — about an average week’s work for ‘N Sync — and leaving him millions of dollars in debt to his Columbia Records label for recording, video, promotional and touring costs.
Yet more than a decade ago, three of Tim Buckley’s songs were covered on albums by the ultra-hip chamber-pop ensemble This Mortal Coil, introducing him to a new generation of listeners. Now it’s possible to trace a straight line from Tim’s searching brand of folk-soul through the work of Patti Smith, U2, Radiohead and the Verve’s former singer Richard Ashcroft, whose latest album (“Alone With Everybody”) is rife with Buckley-isms.
Since his death, Jeff Buckley has directly inspired songs or entire albums by a bevy of artists, among them Hole’s Courtney Love (“Boys on the Radio”), former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell (“Wave Goodbye”), Juliana Hatfield (“Trying Not to Think About It”), Aimee Mann (“Just Like Anyone”) and Duncan Sheik (“A Body Goes Down”).
U2 closed many of its 1997 stadium concerts by dedicating songs to Buckley, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have sung his praises, recognizing in Buckley’s soft-to-loud blend of acoustic pastoralism and electric shriekback echoes of their own work in Led Zeppelin.
But it’s on a legion of younger performers that Jeff Buckley has had the most profound impact. Philadelphia boho-rock trio Maggi, Pierce and E.J. dedicates their fourth album, “For” (EMP Records), to “the life and music of Jeff Buckley,” and Canadian-Portuguese singer Nelly Furtado says it was “Grace” that inspired her free-flowing vocals on her acclaimed debut album, “Whoah, Nelly!” (Dreamworks).
Singer-songwriter James Gnecco and his band Ours, a recent signing by high-profile talent scout Michael Goldstone (Rage Against the Machine), is indebted to Jeff Buckley’s sound on its debut album, “Distorted Lullabies” (Dreamworks). And a batch of new British bands suggests more than passing interest in the late singer’s career; Coldplay’s “Shiver,” with its swooping vocals, sounds like a lost track from Buckley’s final sessions.
To those who never saw the Buckleys perform, the level of worship might seem out of whack with the music they left behind. “Morning Glory: The Tim Buckley Anthology” (Rhino), a new two-CD retrospective, tries to make sense of the singer’s career, but it’s a thankless task. Buckley never stayed in one place for long, the restlessness of his artistic muse leading him from quaint folk ditties that sound almost Elizabethan in their formality to howling, sadomasochistic R&B fantasies. In between these sometimes embarrassing extremes, Buckley found his most profound voice in a stripped-down acoustic-jazz setting akin to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.” Like Morrison, Buckley discovered in the elasticity of these arrangements a perfect complement to the rollercoaster emotions contained in his voice, which deepens on a live version of “Phantasmagoria in Two” and breaks into joyous scatting and near-yodeling on live takes for “I’ve Been Out Walking” and “Troubadour.”
Concert performances brought out the best — and worst — in Jeff Buckley, though unlike his father (who worked with such accomplished musicians as the guitarist John Underwood and bassists John Miller and John Balkin) the younger singer never found a band versatile enough to do his vision justice. Jeff Buckley was never more persuasive than when accompanied only by his electric guitar at the Uncommon Ground coffee shop in Wrigleyville on a winter’s night in 1994. His voice breaking into androgynous squeals and erotic moans, Buckley brought a hymn-like beauty to songs associated with Edith Piaf and Leonard Cohen.
A few months later, Buckley was melting down on stage at the Green Mill, after a drinking binge precipitated by a quarrel with his record company. The incident is examined in David Browne’s meticulously researched dual biography, “Dream Brother: The Lives & Music of Jeff & Tim Buckley” (Harper Collins; $25), which ties together the lives of two men who barely knew each other but who suffered much the same fate at the hands of an uncomprehending record industry.
Jeff Buckley typically avoided talking about his estranged father (Tim Buckley was divorced from his Jeff’s mother, Mary Guibert, when Jeff was still an infant). But “Dream Brother” suggests that he began to empathize with Tim Buckley’s relentless record-company struggles as similar pressures came to bear in Jeff’s life. Tim Buckley was never in the good graces of record executives for very long, in part because he never settled on an immediately accessible direction for his career, preferring to see his art not in terms of a linear path but as an ever-changing kaleidoscope of colors and possibilities.
Jeff Buckley’s sole studio release, “Grace,” suggests that he shared at least some of that philosophy; its ecstatic eclecticism points his career in a half-dozen directions at once. But by mid-1997, Buckley had already aborted sessions for a follow-up album and was struggling to find a new direction; his band had just flown into Memphis to work on the singer’s demo tapes when he drowned. The unfinished music from that period has since been released as “Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk” (Columbia), and it’s a difficult listen for the uninitiated, like overhearing one of the voices in an intensely private phone conversation — powerful, self-indulgent and, with a few exceptions, lacking in the immediacy that distinguished “Grace.”
Judged purely on the studio recordings they left behind, Jeff and Tim Buckley were works in progress, artists still searching for their identity in a music-business not known for indulging the whims of mavericks. But their best music has a rapturousness lacking in much of today’s product-pushing industry, a sense of risk that flirts with melodrama while chasing transcendence, and a soul-baring beauty that makes even their most abject failures seem somehow noble. The Buckleys’ motives were the antithesis of a record business built on verifiable goals. Their music was a journey without a destination. No wonder its allure endures.