... in Words: Tributes
"Jeff Buckley Missing, Presumed Dead," by Bill Flanagan
This interview was originally published by Village Voice, 10 June 1997.
Jeff Buckley, 30, apparently drowned in Memphis last Thursday, May 29.
Buckley had been living in Memphis while preparing to record his second album there. Thursday evening was to have been the first night of run-throughs for the recording. Late in the afternoon one van went off to the airport to collect Buckley's band and bring them to a rehearsal studio. Buckley and a crew member, Keith Foti, went in a second van to meet them. After stopping to eat at a restaurant, they pulled off by the Wolf River, a tributary of the Mississippi.
What followed was not atypical of Buckley's easygoing nature. He and Foti pulled out a guitar and boombox and relaxed. It was very hot, and Buckley, who lately had got in the habit of swimming in the river, jumped in with all his clothes on, including heavy boots. He splashed around for 15 minutes, eventually floating out a little too far. The roadie saw a boat pass behind Buckley, stirring up a wake, another boat coming. He momentarily turned his attention to moving the boombox away from the water; when he looked back, Buckley had disappeared.
One of the many terrible ironies is that Jeff devoted tremendous effort to distancing himself from the cult of fans who turned his father, Tim Buckley, into a tragic romantic figure. Tim, a celebrated singer-songwriter, died of a drug overdose in 1975 at age 28, leaving behind nine albums. Jeff barely knew his father, and was very wary of the misplaced expectations Tim's fans had for him.
From the time that he arrived in New York from California in 1991, Buckley worked hard to slow down the trajectory of his ascent and to make sure that he would have a lifelong career. Buckley's voice synthesized mournful soul music out of bits of Robert Plant, Edith Piaf, Van Morrison, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He moved easily from folk to rock to reggae, making it all feel connected. An immediate local sensation, Buckley walked around the Village broke rather than sign any of the record deals offered to him before he thought he was ready. He played free shows for months at Cafe Sin-é on St. Mark's Place to test himself and learn his craft.
When he finally signed with Columbia in autumn 1992, label chief Don Ienner assured him that he could take his time and make several albums before he'd be expected to start turning a profit. He released a four-song live EP later that year and then his debut album, Grace, in 1993. That album and Buckley's subsequent tours earned him enormous critical acclaim and an international following. Characteristically, he refused to rush into a follow-up.
In February of this year, Buckley introduced a set's worth of new songs at the Knitting Factory. Many were exceptionally good. Lou Reed was in the audience and said he'd like to work with Buckley. Tom Verlaine was also there and signed on to produce his demos. That week David Bowie was quoted in Pulse Magazine calling Grace one of 10 albums he'd bring with him to a desert island, and Jimmy Page was on the cover of Mojo holding up Grace and calling it "the best thing I've heard all year." When all this was mentioned to Buckley he laughed and said yes, he had built a great following among 50-year-old rock stars.
Jeff Buckley was quick, funny, and self-deprecating. He wanted to stick around and become one of those 50-year-old musicians himself. Imagine if Springsteen had died after only recording Greetings from Asbury Park. All of Buckley's best work was in front of him. We had heard just enough to be hungry to see where his talent would take him. It is heartbreaking that we will never know.
©1997 by Village Voice. All rights reserved