I Can Feel My Time Crawling to A Slow End: Remembering Jeff Buckley

The first Jeff Buckley c.d I bought was the live album, Mystery White Boy. I was 17. It was late 2000. And I think I had just joined Columbia House, and didn’t even bat an eyelash at how many discs I ordered from their full catalog—Portishead, Tricky, PJ Harvey. This is where I started to pile on the credibility to my record collection.

It’s been sixteen years since Jeff Buckley went for a swim in the Wolf River, singing Led Zepplin’s “Whole Lotta Love” as he waded out into the water, and then never came back. Ruled an accidental drowning, Buckley’s body was discovered roughly a week later.

In death, Buckley achieved the fame that he probably never could have done while alive. Backed by a major label (Columbia), Buckley worried over the amount of money he could wind up owing them on his 1994 debut Grace if it didn’t turn a profit, on top of the growing amount invested in the long-delayed follow up. Ten years after Grace, was released, his cover/reinterpretation of Leonhard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” was used in a montage during the season finale of the teen drama “The O.C” introducing his music to a generation that may have been a bit too young to appreciate it the first time around. Four years after that, a contestant on “American Idol” sang the very same song, causing it to hold the number one spot on the iTunes chart—selling 178,00 downloads in a week.

Buckley was, to an extent, haunted by the shadow of his absentee father, Tim, an obscure singer/songwriter from the 1960’s who also never quite achieved success in life, but found his audience nearly 30 years after his death—a heroin overdose at the age of 27. Their parallel lives are well documented in the biography Dream Brother, written by author David Browne.
In 1994, when Grace was released, I was 11. Needless to say, I was not really in the demographic that was out buying Jeff Buckley records. I do seem to remember seeing the video for one of his most identifiable songs “Last Goodbye,” probably in the summer of 1995. And I do remember when the MTV News briefs would come up throughout the day on the channel, back when it played videos, and when one of the new anchors—probably Kurt Loder—announced that Jeff Buckley was missing; later, that he was dead.

I was a senior in high school in late 2000, and I’m not exactly certain what possessed me to buy Mystery White Boy from Columbia House. And it was well into college before I finally got around to listening to Grace and its posthumously released follow up Sketches for My Sweetheart, The Drunk. A large portion of Grace appears within the tracks found on Mystery White Boy—and as they should. It’s a tour document of shows from 1994 through 1995, touring in support of the album, but also playing new songs that would never be properly recorded.  In the studio, Jeff Buckley was a perfectionist. The recording sessions for Grace took exponentially longer than anticipated, and prior to his death, he had scrapped an entire album that was ready to go. Live, however, Buckley was unhinged—the music was raw, on the verge of sloppy but never falling off the cliff, and his voice. My god his voice. His unearthly howl destroying everything in its path. I became so accustomed to hearing the live versions of his better known songs, that by the time I finally heard the studio version of “Last Goodbye,” I was a bit shocked at just how clean (and expensive) it sounded.

Grace is a strangely paced record—hits right up front, slower songs in the middle, grand closing tracks. Sketches—the first disc, anyway, is paced more evenly. Sketches is an interesting glimpse into a potential unrealized—disc one is a completely finished studio album, produced by Tom Verlaine of the progressive rock outfit Television. Dissatisfied with the results, Buckley holed up in Memphis with a four-track recorder, laying down ideas for new songs to record once the rest of his band arrived.

Buckley wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. While courted by Columbia Records, he cut the song “Forget Her” from the final track list of Grace, after executives at the label wanted it as the first single. Similarly, he has reservations about playing the song “Everybody Here Wants You,” from the completed disc of Sketches, because he feared the label would want it as a single. Ironically, once posthumously released, that was the only single released off of the album.
According to Browne’s aforementioned Dream Brother, Buckley was a bit of a womanizer—a trait possibly and unfortunately, passed down from his father. The song “Morning Theft” is allegedly about his brief romance with Cocteau Twins frontwoman Elizabeth Fraiser.

People still obviously care about Buckley’s legacy. A biopic starring Penn Badgley from TV’s “Gossip Girl,” is currently in limited release—the film, Greetings From Tim Buckley document the events leading up to Jeff’s debut performance, at a tribute concert to his late father. Like so many others, Buckley found success in death. Grace has been reissued in countless formats, and various “best of” and “live” compilations pop up every few years as a cash grab for somebody. While there was no mystery surrounding his death—he was clean and sober at the time—Buckley has an air of mystery around him, sixteen years after his death. One officially released album in his lifetime, one posthumously released. More than a flash in the pan, people really believed in Jeff Buckley. And then like that, it was all gone.

This is a song that was never properly recorded. It's always been one of my favorites. Musically, it's so heavy and raw. Lyrically, it's ambiguous and somewhat disconcerting. 

This is another song that was never properly record. It's unhinged, and it's an emotional roller coaster. It's also very personal for me.

As mentioned above, this was a very promising song from the Grace sessions that was left on the cutting room floor to spite Columbia Records. It was later released on a compilation album.

This is, straight up, one of the most powerful things I have ever heard. The recording is absolute shit. It is a bootleg of Jeff's cover of his father's song, "Once I Was" at the Greetings From Tim Buckley concert in 1991. He breaks a string at the end, which is why he finishes unaccompanied.