Jeff Buckley: The Tragic Death of The ‘Grace’ Singer

Jeff Buckley

The Tragic Death of Jeff Buckley

On Rock N’ Roll True Stories today they take a look at 90’s musician Jeff Buckley

It’s a voice that was unmistakable and unforgettable. i’m talking of course about musician jeff buckley who only released one studio album during his short lived career. Despite his lack of musical output during his time alive he still managed to garner a cult following, which included some of the biggest names in rock n’ roll.. His death was not your typical rock n’ roll tragedy. There were no drugs, or large amounts of alcohol involved, instead a strange set of circumstances So what happened? Stay tuned to find out.

Buckley came from a musical family with his mother being a classically trained musician while his father was the psychedelic folk singer named Tim Buckley who died at the young age of 28 due to a drug overdose. Jeff was only 8 years old at the time of his father’s death, but he wouldn’t have a close relationship with him. The younger Buckley was only met his father once several months before he his death. And Buckley would tell the new york times in 1993 “I never knew him,. I met him once, when I was 8. We went to visit him, and he was working in his room, so I didn’t even get to talk to him. And that was it.”
Buckley wouldn’t even be invited to his father’s funeral and his mother would claim in a 2002 documentary that her son tried to avoid much of the same pitfalls that ended the life of his biological father.

Known as “Scott Moorhead” for much of his childhood, Jeff borrowed the name from his step father who he was close to.. It’s likely that Moorhead had a bigger influence on Jeff’s career path than his biological father. Moorhead gave Buckley one of his first albums, which was Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. Buckley would tell an interviewer in 1994 reflecting on Led Zeppelin “That was the first voice I really fell in love with. Young Robert Plant back when he sounded like Jeans. He was trying to sound like Howlin’ Wolf, but he didn’t. He sounded like some big fing animal.” he’d say.

In addition to Zeppelin Buckley would also be heavily influenced by Queen, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Kiss and Pink Floyd.

As a child Buckley lived in many places as his family moved around a lot within California with the singer referring to his childhood as “rootless trailer trash’. Buckley would also claim that he never fit in anywhere as a child telling the guardian newspaper in 1994 how his mother was the one pushing for the family to move around saying “We’d spend a few months in some places, longer in others. But we never hung around for long. The best places were also the worst because just as I’d make friends with someone we’d be out of there. I got pretty good at working out who wanted to punch me and who would defend me. I’m an excellent judge of character now. I guess my mother just always wanted to know what was around the next corner.”

Throughout his years in high school, Buckley played in a series of cover bands and soon after graduation he attended the Los Angeles Musicians Institute He would reveal to Rolling Stone magazine in 1994 that while the institute did teach him a lot about music theory, specifically harmonies,, overall he felt the experience was a waste of time. Buckley would spend the next half a decade in LA playing as a session guitarist in a wide variety of bands covering a range of styles including jazz, reggae, and heavy metal, Lacking any real success and growing tired of the LA music scene, Buckley in 1990 moved across the country to New York City where he initially didn’t have a lot of success working as a musician. He would split time between LA and New York from 1990 to 1991 during which he would record a demo tape.
Buckley would make his solo debut at a tribute show to his father in 1991 at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn. Obituaries for his father failed to mention him having a son and those closest to him were shocked to learn he had a child. It would be his father’s former manager who knew about Jeff and invited him at the last minute to partake in the tribute. Initially Jeff was unsure whether to attend, but deciding it would help him have closure he chose to do so telling Rolling Stone “It bothered me that I hadn’t been to his funeral, that I’d never been able to tell him anything, I used that show to pay my last respects. The younger Buckley would perform a cover of his father’s song “i never asked to be your mountain’ which was penned by his Dad as a send off to the family he was abandoning. For Jeff it took on a whole new meaning. and ex-Captian Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas performed with Buckley that night on stage and remembered to NME magazine in in 1998 “Here was this skinny kid with this unearthly voice, just wailing,” “I was next to him playing guitar but I was really just watching the audience, who were really turned on by it…It was electric.” Buckley would perform several more songs that night and that performance would change his life forever. Soon enough everyone wanted to do business with Jeff Buckley. Following that performance Jeff wasn’t sure about his new found path to stardom telling The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1994 “In a way, I sacrificed my anonymity for my father, whereas he sacrificed me for his fame, So I guess I made a mistake.” he’d say

It was also during this time he joined Gary Lucas band named Gods and Monsters for roughly a year, but it only served as a springboard to pursue a solo career, which he did. Buckley would find a musical retreat in an east village cafe called the Shin-E where he would become a mainstay. When he wasn’t performing at the venue he’d be in the back washing dishes. And as Buckley put on more shows word soon spread about his incredible talent and record labels started sniffing around with major label executives coming in from Midtown, all hoping to sign the future rockstar.
One night in particular saw major industry players in attendance including Clive Davis & Seymour Stein. In late 1992 Buckley would sign to Sony’s Columbia Records with promises of artistic freedom and also taking pride in the fact that he shared the same label as greats including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen..
A year later Columbia Records would issue his first commercial recording, the four-song EP Live at Sin-é. By early 1994 Buckley hit the road for his first solo tour in small venues to support the live album. That following summer of that year Jeff looked to release his debut studio album Grace. Buckley was excited at the prospect of working with a band, revealing in the press kit for Grace “As soon as the EP came out, I was dying to be with a band,” “I was dying for the relationship, for the chemistry. People, the warm bodies. Male or female. Bass, drums, , tuba, anything. Any way that the band would work out.” he’d say
Sessions for Grace began in September of 1993 a month before his EP came out and while the label had a lot riding on his first studio recording, many of the suits at the Columbia started to worry as Buckley hadn’t yet assembled a band weeks prior to hitting the studio. Buckley would tell Juice in 1996. “Rather than have anybody pick my band, I decided to stall until I found the right people,” So I stalled and I lied. Nothing was really happening, because I hadn’t found anybody.” he’d reveal.
Eventually Buckley found his band but he hadn’t yet revealed to them he had signed a deal with Columbia Reords. When his band had finally assembled to rehearse he revealed he had a record deal and recording would start in a few weeks. Producer Andy Wallace remembered the anxiety that set in revealing what the first rehearsals were like saying . “[They would] start a riff that would turn into a jam, eventually abandoning the riff, and it would go on for ten minutes,” “It was interesting, but my first impression was, ‘Wait a minute, I thought you guys were learning songs. We’ve got studio time booked!’”
As the band entered the studio, the recording sessions for Grace were excruciating to say the least. Buckley’s perfectionism saw him experiment with endless arrangements for each song. Buckley even admitted his obsessiveness with making the perfect record while promoting the album saying “The nature of [recording] is excruciating,”. “It’s obsessive because you’re dealing with ultimate things. It’s not like a live show where you play it and it just disappears into the air like smoke. It’s like painting, sound painting. It’s in a crystalized form, so it’s very nerve-wracking: which brain cell do I put down here forever and ever?”
At one point, sessions for the album came to a grinding halt after one reviewer who was writing about his 4 song EP compared Buckley to Michael Bolton who was an artist he detested at the time. The comparison was so shocking, Buckley took several days off from the recording telling an interviewer for Interview magazine “that’s really disgusting!”“The thing is, I’m not taking from that tradition. I don’t want to be black. Michael Bolton desperately wants to be black, black, black. He also sucks.” he’d say
When it came time to rounding out the tracklist for Grace , Buckley didn’t feel like he had enough strong original compositions for the record. The album would feature three covers, which dated back to his club days in New York. Perhaps the most famous cover was his version of leonard cohen’s hallelujah.
Throughout the recording process Buckley seemed to clash with record executives. One song that was slated for the album was titled ‘Forget Her’ a vitriolic and personal song about Buckley’s messy break up with his then girlfriend Rebecca Moore. The label execs heard a huge hit, but at the last minute Buckley pulled the song.The suits at Columbia records were so desperate for the song they took Buckley out to an italian restaurant to plead their case but it fell on deaf ears. On top of that folks at columbia records were dumbfounded by Buckley’s choice for the cover of the album. They thought it made him look like an 80’s popstar and not helping was the flashy jacket he was wearing which he bought from a thrift store. Once again label executives pushed him with alternative cover designs but it again fell on deaf ears.

Grace would explore the themes love, death and pain and he would tell an interviewer in 1994 words that ring true about our busy lives today saying ” the whole world is so anti-life, especially a world ruled by men who don’t want to sit, listen and understand what life is all about. There’s so many countless details to just being alive that just knowing what love is or what pain is or what the reason is or all this amazing wonder and really hard, hard lessons that you’ve really got to be serious about” he’d say.

It would take a long time for the public to catch onto the album, but Buckley quickly won over some high profile fans including Bob Dylan who described him as “one of the great songwriters of this decade” while David Bowie said Grace would be one of his desert island albums. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were also huge fans, with Page claiming it was one of his favorite records of the decade. The album took almost 8 months to make it’s mark when in May of 1995, the single ‘Last Goodbye” got a lot of attention being put into rotation on both MTV and VH1. The album also entered the billboard charts the same month charts at No. 174 and would peak at no. 149. It was also during the same month that people magazine labelled Buckley as one of 100 most beautiful people, something the singer was horrified about. He also had Hollywood come knocking on his door including an offer to appear in a barbara streisand movie, which he would turn down. By 2007 the record sold over 2 million copies just in the US.

By the summer of 1996, Buckley had begun recording demos for his second album, which he intended to call My Sweetheart the Drunk. The recording sessions were held across New York City and Memphis, Tennessee, where Buckley had recently relocated. He wanted to get away from the busyness of New York and retreat somewhere quieter. Then on the night of May 29, 1997, the band had just arrived from New York to record the final studio tracks, And Buckley and his friend stopped by the wolf river. Buckley who was clothed decided to go for a swim. According to a Rolling Stone Magazine article published shortly after his disappearance , it would claim that Buckley was with a friend and they were sitting on the bank of the river listening to a radio.
The singer went into the river clothed even though his friend called out
to him and warned that it could be dangerous. Buckley
then floated on his back and began to sing Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. At that point, a boat came by creating large waves. Fearing the radio would get wet, the
companion got up to move it and when he returned, Buckley had disappeared, according to police.

After searching for about 10 minutes, the friend called Memphis police who searched the area by helicopter until darkness interrupted their efforts.

Six days would pass before his body was found by a passing riverboat passenger His body ended up getting tangled with some tree branches on the shore.The
medical examiner at the University of Tennessee concluded that there were no drugs in Buckley’s system and that his blood alcohol level was 0.04 milligrams—the equivalent of a glass of wine. The official cause of death was accidental drowning. He would die at the young age of 30.

His friends would have mixed reactions to his deaths, Some of Buckley’s friends refused to believe he had drowned. In fact Jeff was known to disappear for days at a time and some thought he was in hiding to escape the pressures of his follow up record.To some his death didn’t seem like a surprise as Buckley’s girlfriend Joan Wasser remembered “Not too long after we met, he said, ‘You know, I’m going to die young,’” while Buckley’s friend Tammy Shouse would tell Mojo magazine
“I feel like Memphis walked him down the aisle, “Because, he was dreaming about his death and he knew that something was up, and he felt it.” she’d remember.
Speaking to NPR’s radio, Buckleys former manager Dave Lory opened up about the musicians final weeks claiming he was “acting erratic” revealing “He was trying to buy a house that wasn’t for sale,” “He was trying to buy a car that wasn’t for sale. He proposed to Joan [Wasser, Buckley’s girlfriend]. He even applied for a job to be a butterfly keeper at Memphis Zoo – a lot of weird stuff that was uncharacteristic for him. I think it was a yearning to settle down. He wanted a normal life.”
Despite these concerns his bandmates including Michael Tighe believed that Buckley was excited about his follow up album to Grace saying
“He definitely wanted to make a much grittier album than Grace,” “He often would say that he wanted to make music that would scare people. And he was into the idea of dividing his audience. He knew that a lot of his audience wouldn’t like this album and he was energized and excited by that.
The lyrics to his follow up record would also shine a light on his eventual fate with songs like “Nightmare by the sea”, “Witches Rave” and “You and I” with lyrics like Stay with me under these waves tonight / Be free for once in your life tonight while “Nightmare by the Sea” would say… I float just like a bubble headed for a spike while “Witches’ Rave” would feature the lyrics… Ah, the calm below that poisoned river wild.
And Buckley’s manager would reveal how he learned of his client’s death saying: “It was 5:58 – I’ll never forget the time — in the morning,”“I was in Dublin so that meant it must have been almost one AM in New York and midnight in Memphis. I just froze. I thought I was having a dream. I dropped the phone and you don’t know what to do. Thank god there was no internet cos it would have been tweeted off the banks. You just go numb. I was totally numb, no emotion.”
The manager would return to the site of Buckley’s drowning 3 days after the incident took place, before the body had been found on June 4th. He would recall spending the first 15 minutes he was there crying and then the next 15 minutes throwing rocks in the anger
Buckley’s manager would also recount a bizarre experience he had with a psychic outside of london six years after the singer’s death with him claiming him that the psychic told him “A Jeff or a John is trying to get a hold of you, it has something to do with water.” saying
“She told me things only Jeff and I knew,” explaining that he had given the psychic a bracelet of Buckley’s to hold onto. “Towards the end, she said, ‘Is this is his bracelet?’ and I said, ‘Yes’. She said, ‘Well, I don’t know if this makes sense, but he didn’t mean for it to happen, but he didn’t fight it. It’s not your fault. It’s okay to let go.” the psychic would say.
Immediately following Buckley’s death his label Columbia Records called a hastily organized meeting not to mourn the singer but to talk about posthumous releases which angered his manager with him remembering
“I had absolutely no faith in Sony to do the right thing by Jeff,”. “I was furious that this meeting about posthumous releases had been called so soon. I’d had a ton of calls from distressed Sony employees who also thought it was insensitive. I went around as many desks as I could to support those who were in bits over Jeff’s death.”
In the years that followed his death, Buckley’s mother worked with Sony to put out unreleased tracks including 1998’s double disc set Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (1998) and several others in the subsequent year. During a 2002 interview with The Guardian, his mother spoke about managing her son’s legacy saying, “I have to compartmentalize myself quite a bit. There’s the musician side of me, and the businesswoman side – and the mother side of me which never turns off. But the emotions are things I kinda have to set aside. That’s why I take good counsel. I’ve always involved people from Jeff’s band. It makes it a lot easier, especially if there are any critical blows. But the work we’ve done so far has been well received.” So that does it for today’s video thanks for watching and be sure to hit the like and subscribe button. If you guys have suggestions for future topics let me know in the comments section below. Take care.