Jeff Buckley

... in Words: Tributes

"Jeff Buckley 1966-1997," by Bert van de Kamp

This interview was originally published by OOR, 14 June 1997, pp 48-53.

Special thanks to Maarten for the translation (from Dutch) and transcription of this article.

        Well it's my time coming, I'm not afraid to die...

        You walked into the water, singing. You still had on your clothes: a white T-shirt with black sleeves, brown trousers and black shoes. What possessed you that night in Memphis? What were you singing Jeff Buckley?

        -- by: Bert van de Kamp

        Rock & roll city, Memphis, is located at the Mississippi shore. At Mud Island it changes its name into the Wolf River. Right there, next to the yacht basin, singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley and a friend of his, Keith Foti, are looking at the water. They have a guitar and a radio with them. They are listening, they are singing. Suddenly Jeff gets up and walks towards the water. He walks into the water, still wearing his clothes. While laughing and singing loudly he stays in the water for 15 minutes. A boat passes by which produces a strong undercurrent. His friend shouts he should get back, although at the time no immediate danger threatens. Foti picks up the radio and the guitar and takes them out of the reach of the waves. When he looks back at the water, Jeff is gone. After searching for ten minutes, his friend gives up searching and warns the local police, who arrive very quickly at the scene with a group of divers. After several hours the search is postponed due to the heavy rainfall. Early next morning the search continues. Without result. Jeff Buckley, 30, is missing, presumed dead.

        Jeff was in Memphis to record his eagerly awaited second album in the Easely Studio's. The recording was still in the pre-production phase, as the official recordings would not start until June. At night he could often be found at Barrister's where he got on stage several times to sing. The record which was scheduled for release this year would not arrive until early '98. Even though, according to insiders, he had recorded some 25 songs, Jeff told his management over and over again he needed more time. Intended producers like Tom Verlaine were no option for the job, due to the constant delay and Jeff had decided in the meantime to work yet again with Andy Wallace, with whom he had already recorded his debut album Grace, which instantaneously had made him well-known and -loved all over the world.

        The pressure to deliver yet another masterpiece must have been very high. Pressure from the record company, from his fans, but certainly also from himself. "I am glad so many people appreciate this album," he told me back in '94, "but I know I can do better."

        Jeff demanded a lot from life, but also from himself. He was often downbeat. He once took an overdose of hash in Amsterdam and woke up very ill next morning. "It is very hard not to give in to ones negative feelings. Life is a complete chaos."

        Jeff also had some difficulties with the fact that he was the son of a famous father. It were mostly journalist who reminded him of that fact. His father, singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, died in 1975 aged 28 due to the combination of alcohol and heroin (which he mistakenly thought was coke). Tim Buckley was a typical cult-hero: hardly known by the general public, but adored by a select group of admirers. In this respect, Jeff did not need to fear his fans, because most of them were too young to remember his father.

        Family circumstances also were a reason why Jeff did not want to talk about his father. He was only 6 months old when his parents decided to split up and he spent a week with his father during the Easter holidays when he was 8 years old. Two months later he passed away. Jeff had a much closer bond with his mother and his stepfather, who defined his musical tastes to a great extent. Nevertheless the similarities as for voice, singing and writing style between Tim and Jeff are evident. Blood is thicker than water. Jeff has been on this planet only two years longer than Tim. Talk about destiny.

        "I'm going through a rather hectic period at the moment.." This ominous Christmas message to his fans, which was released by the Internet site of his record company, makes one wonder. Buckley was described as an eccentric person who enjoyed mysteries, according to a journalist from Memphis, and he implied hereby that it should not be deemed impossible that it was all a great disappearing trick like [a trick of] Rimbaud or Ambrose Bierce. But that was also said about Jim Morrison's death. The fact is that Jeff was very receptive towards the supernatural. "Music is mysticism," he once said, "It was not meant to sell Pepsi." And about his love for traditional [folk] music he said: "It contains just enough earth and just enough heaven." He was proud to have Irish blood running through his veins: "My voice is very similar to [that of] an Irish tenor."

        Jeff grew up in southern California with the music of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. In the eighties he discovered The Smiths, who he idolized passionately. He once resolved: "If I ever start a rock band I want to try to approach that level." Jeff later on covered the Smiths song "I know it's over" a few times. He also enjoyed to sing Bob Dylan songs, from whom he once said: "After I met him, I could just as well go (back) into therapy immediately." On his album Grace he covered Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," "Lilac Wine" (which he knew from Nina Simone's rendition) and the classical "Corpus Christi Carol" by Benjamin Britten. On behalf of the Interview Magazine he spoke to another musical hero, the Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, about whose music he wrote: "The music rises high above everything, it is healing and penetrating, it rips open the sky and it slowly reveals the shining face of the Beloved. I am not kidding and this isn't poetry or critical exaggeration." To Jeff Buckley good music was sacred.

        He who takes his music so seriously is an easy target to cynics and other mockers. "All I can do is to write songs and whether people want to hear them is up to them and not to me. I realize that, as a listener, you have to invest something to get out of my songs what is in them and I do not know how many people are prepared to do just that. I do not think I can save the world. I look at the world and conclude it does not want to be saved. People want to be controlled. At my concerts you can do whatever you want to. You don't have to listen, you can have a beer if you're fed up (with the concert). I do not have the intention to be crucified."

        He also sang with just as much passion about women: "lots of songs about chicks, I almost forgot... life, chicks, hooks." Girls who wrote to him often received a personal answer. Sensuality always fascinated him. As a notorious 'pretty boy' he need not complain about special female attention.

        "I'm a romanticist," he once told me in confidence. "Not in a nostalgic sense nor in a psychotic sense, but just someone he carries romanticism in his heart. It has to do with hope, on the one hand, and a sleazy kind of cynicism on the other. I love reality for what it is, but also the reality as it should be: without human blood flowing through African rivers, without the mentally ill who are condemned to a life on the streets. I still take the world as it is, with all its misery, diseases, villains, heroes and saints. I do not want to live in another era. Hippies are boring and nostalgia is just fun for a short while. I do not like to fantasize, but I do like daydreaming. I do no build castles in the air."

        About the hippie-generation to which his daddy Tim belonged (Goodbye and Hello, 1967) he had the following remark to add: "The heroes of the sixties saw a war going on in front of their very eyes of which they did not want to be a part. They were relatively innocent in that aspect. It kept the generation going without being part of reality. Reality to them meant: liars and cheaters on one side and idealists on the other. Uncle Sam was traded for Jimi Hendrix. That bipartition is not so apparent anymore. America is incomplete. The war rages on the inside. It has come closer. It has been relocated from Vietnam to certain streets in the big cities. There is an incredible amount of violence on the streets. We are all totally messed up."

        Jeff did not have an optimistic view of life. He was a dreamer and a realist at the same time. Music was his most important way to express (and release) himself. He saw it as a kind of primal force. "My view of the world fuels my work. We live in a disposable culture full of garbage. I accept I am a part of it. It has produced me. I benefit from it. I hate it. I eat it. Music is not an instrument to change things. Music isn't art. Music is a natural force like the wind or the ocean. Music is everywhere, regardless of what we do. The rhythm of our heart, the blood sighing through the ears, a kiss, a kick in the butt, it is all music. The way people talk. People who grew up by the sea are very different from people from the inland, because they have been exposed to different music. Artists have a sixth sense for that, but it isn't art. What people call art is based on the opinions of a small group of persons, who very often make mistakes."

        Whether [one calls it] art or not, what Jeff did with his voice and music was beautiful. Often uncannily beautiful. Almost not of this earth. "Eternal life is now on my trail," he sang. Prophetic words, one could say. But the truth does not dawn [on me]. Only questions remain. Why Jeff, why, why?

        The Christmas message that Jeff Buckley sent to his fans through the Internet at Christmas 1996:

Hi. Buckley again.

The question is, "Why did he tour and not tell us where he was playing? Why why why?"

And the answer is this: There was a time in my life not too long ago when I could show up in a cafe and simply do what I do, make music, learn from performing my music, explore what it means to me, i.e.- have fun while I irritate and/or entertain an audience who doesn't know me or what I am about. In this situation I have that precious and irreplaceable luxury of failure, of risk, of surrender. I worked very hard to get this kind of thing together, this work forum. I loved it then and missed it when it disappeared. All I am doing is reclaiming it. Don't worry about the phantom solo tours, they are simply my way of survival and my own method of self-assessment and recreation. If they don't happen...nothing else can. I can at least be all alone with nothing to help me, save myself. Real men maintain their freedom to suck eggs, my dear.

I'm in the middle of some wild shit right now...please be patient, I'm coming soon to a cardboard display case near you and I'm coming out of my hole and we'll make bonfires out of ticketstubs come the summer.

Merry Christmas all and a kiss for your New Year's headache.


        The latest facts:

        On Monday, 2 June, four days after Jeff had gone missing, his record company Columbia issued a statement confirming the disappearance. "Close friends and advisors believe he has drowned," according to the message. Jeff's mother Mary is quoted: "It has become apparent that my son will not be walking out of the river. We have to make plans to commemorate a life that was golden." A memorial service will be organized. Memphis authorities believe the singers' body has been sucked into the deep water by a undercurrent, caused by boats passing by.

        Another two days later, on Wednesday afternoon 4 June, passengers of the riverboat American Queen drew the crew's attention to a floating object near the southside of Mud Island. A few crew members started searching using a rubber boat and took the lifeless singer's body to the shore at 4.30 P.M. local time. The identification took place by a friend and the official confirmation of Buckley's passing was announced worldwide. Although drowning is the obvious cause of death, an autopsy will be performed. Most musicians Buckley worked with in Memphis are too upset to give any comment. Mike Glenn, the proprietor of Barrister's, where Buckley performed every Monday, says: "This is a terrible loss for the entire music scene, not just in Memphis, but in the whole world. It is incredible how many lives he touched during the time he was were."

        Buckley was working on his new album in Memphis which had the provisional title: "My sweetheart the drunk." (BvdK)

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