(I'm sorry this is so damn long. I just started writing and it all came out...apparently I had a lot to say!)
Today is a day for both mourning and celebration. It was on this day, May 29, ten years ago, that the world lost one of the most enchanting and powerful voices music has ever known. It was on this day ten years ago that Jeff Buckley lost his life and gained his legacy in the swirling waters of the Wolf River in Memphis, Tennessee.
There is nothing I can possibly say to perfectly articulate my love for this man. I am just a mere mortal, an avid listener who has nothing to attach to Buckley’s music but my own emotions and sentimental attachments. But Jeff - he was a legend even before he died. He seemed to me, an outsider looking in, as an angel unjustly tethered to the earth, possessing a voice and natural talent that could have come from no mere mortal. But he was mortal - a beautiful, charming, passionate young man with a wicked sense of humor and an encyclopedic knowledge of music and an all-consuming love for that music which governed his every waking moment. And today, ten years later, what astonishes me most about Jeff is not his awe-inducing talent, his impeccable beauty, or his legion of dedicated fans, which is expanding every day around the world. It’s the fact that I was only a few blocks away from him when he died….and I didn’t even know who he was at the time.
In the spring of 1997, I was 15 years old and had just finished my freshman year of high school in Columbus, Georgia. For the past year, my divorced mother had rekindled her romance with her old college sweetheart, Shelley (short for Sheldon, which my sister and I never failed to tease him about). Shelley lived in Memphis with his two kids from his first marriage, and when he asked my mother to marry him and she gladly said yes, my sister and I found out we would be moving. My sister, of course, having already left for college and content to be out on her own, was just happy that my mom would be settled with a decent enough man. I, however, was less than thrilled. I had just finished a successful first year of high school. I had made great friends and had become a star of the school’s drama club after starring in the school’s production of the musical Working. My teachers and friends were amazed - That voice came from her?! She’s so quiet in class, I couldn’t believe it!
I gained newfound confidence through my vocal talents and made many new friends as a result, and I was already practicing to audition for music school once I graduated. My future seemed set.
But moving?! I didn’t want to leave my newfound fame and popularity behind. My fears were soon appeased when my mom sweetened the deal with two new pieces of information - first, that I’d have my own room which I could decorate however I liked (my sister and I had been forced to share a tiny room in the house we lived in with my grandmother in Columbus), and second, that I’d be able to attend Memphis’ performing arts high school, Overton High School. Hmmm….maybe Memphis wouldn’t be so bad after all.
So it came to be that my mother and I traveled to Memphis after my school let out for the year to spend the Memorial Day holiday with Shelley and his kids and for me to get acquainted with my new stepsiblings, and more importantly to me, my new digs. I was already picking out wallpaper in my mind.
Shelley’s kids made me nervous - there was Gerri, who was a seventeen-year-old Deadhead with green hair and a nose ring who snuck cigarettes when the grown-ups weren’t looking. She, much like my older sister to me, was extremely protective of her baby brother, 13-year-old Keith, who was a skinny, somewhat shy boy who liked to talk basketball with his dad and stuck close to his sister’s side when they were both in the company of strangers. I tried to bond with him by talking to him about school or music, and once by showing him the picture on the cover of the cheesy teen romance novel I was reading which showed three attractive young girls lounging in bikinis. He just turned up his nose at it and uttered a quiet, “Ewww.” Too early for that, I guess. I didn’t know it then, but this strange and scrawny 13-year-old boy was about to introduce me to not one, but TWO of my musical heroes. I never would have guessed it. Keith was about to change my life.
We spent many days at the new house, lounging around the pool and barbecuing. I was so excited! I had never lived in a house with a pool before, and I had always wanted one! One night, while the grown-ups were downstairs chatting by the pool while the sun went down, I went upstairs to change out of my wet swimsuit and find something good to read in my nice, new bedroom. From down the hall, I heard music coming from Keith’s room. It was dark music, haunting, and almost obscenely sexy. It was a woman singing - “I lost my heart under the bridge to that little girl, so much to me…and now I moan and now I holler.”
I was enthralled - I sat outside his door, listening quietly. I had never heard a voice like that before….so dark, so painful, so RAW. I had to hear more.
I peeked my head around Keith’s door to find him sorting through a pile of baseball cards next to his stereo. He looked up at me for only a second and then returned to his task. “Who is that?” I asked. He looked up at me tentatively and gestured over to the stereo. “It’s PJ Harvey.” “Wow,” I said, “I’ve never heard anything like that before.”
He got up now, encouraged by my interest in his music. “You like it? Yeah, she’s really cool. She sounds a little like Courtney Love at times, I think.” I didn’t agree with that at all, but I let it slide. This PJ woman was NOTHING like Courtney - in a good way.
“Where did you hear about her?” I was curious to know where such a shy and strange young boy acquired such spectacular taste.
“There’s a radio station here that plays her a lot. They play a lot of stuff like that - Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Hole, Smashing Pumpkins. You like Smashing Pumpkins?” He pointed at the poster of Billy Corgan’s gleaming bald head glaring down from the wall over his bed.
“Sure. I loved Siamese Dream
, but I can’t get into the new record that much.”
“No, it’s really good! I love them.”
I was pleased with this exchange. Finally, my future stepbrother and I had something to bond over. When I had first tried to talk music with him, I hadn’t expected he would bring up the same kind of artists I had been listening to. I expected his taste to be more, well, juvenile. I seriously underestimated the kid. At first it seemed odd to me - a 13-year-old boy more enthralled by PJ Harvey than the Spice Girls. It became clear to me that this kid was special. His musical taste was clearly run more by his intellect than his hormones, and I greatly appreciated that.
The next day was a Friday, May 30. We drove around town, looking for a nice place to have lunch. (Barbecue again? I thought. I was getting sick of the smell. But when in Rome…) Gerri was off with her scary friends probably doing scary things, and Keith and I were once again stuck together with my mom and Shelley. We sat in the backseat together and Keith told his dad to put on his radio station - the one he had told me about! So as we drove, my mom and Shelley talked about unimportant things, while Keith and I listened to the radio and talked about the MOST important thing - the music.
There was a break in the music - although this was clearly a radio station with alternative leanings, they still had to break for commercials and little snippets of news every once in a while. I turned to my mother, ignoring the DJ’s announcements, to ask if we could have something other than barbecue every once in a while. I was trying to start trouble. My mother and I playfully argued about our food preferences for a while, and I heard the name “Jeff Buckley” mentioned over the radio. I paid it no attention. I knew he was a singer, a rather good-looking one at that, but I had only heard one song of his and couldn’t have remembered it if you put a gun to my head. I settled back into my seat and turned to Keith. He had gotten quiet and a bit pale. I figured it was best to just leave him alone. Something had clearly upset him.
Throughout the entire lunch, Keith remained silent, picking at his food and avoiding our attempts to make conversation. As soon as we got home, he went straight up to his room and shut the door. I wondered if I had missed something….did they say something important on the news that I had missed? What was going on?
My curiosity led me to his door. I knocked quietly, worried he would get angry at my intrusion. But instead he muttered, “Come in.” I opened the door and found him sitting in the exact same spot he had been the night before, his stereo blasting a beautiful tune, this time with a man’s voice singing. Except this man wasn’t singing like a man - he sang like a woman, all beauty and flourish and romance. “Baby I’ve been here before…I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor, you know I used to live alone before I knew you…Hallelujah, hallelujah.”
I could tell this man on the stereo was not the kind of man you dare interrupt, so I stood still and peaceful in Keith’s room, waiting for the song to end.
When the song was over, Keith pushed the stop button on his stereo. “Who is that?” I asked. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s Jeff Buckley.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of him!”
I almost laughed, it was such an unexpected thing to hear. “What?”
“He’s dead. He went swimming in the river last night, just a few blocks from here, actually, and they think he drowned. He’s dead.”
“Are you serious?”
“Jesus.” I had nothing else to say, and neither did Keith. What did we know about death? Two kids, barely teenagers, who were still struggling just to LIVE. Death wasn’t something we could fathom yet. We just stood there, some heavy, awkward cloud hanging over us in Keith’s tiny attic bedroom. He pressed play on the stereo again, and the first chords of “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” cut through the silence. We listened to the entire song, then the rest of the album, then Keith pressed repeat and we listened to Grace
all the way through. By the time it was over, I was living in a new world.
My mom and I left Memphis two days later. She still had a job back in Columbus to get to, and I had a lot of laying around and listening to music to do. They still hadn’t found Jeff’s body. As my mom and I drove home on the freeway, it was raining. I was sprawled in the backseat, headphones on, Jeff’s voice singing to me for the entire drive. Keith had copied Grace
and two PJ Harvey records onto cassettes for me. I figured I had a lifetime to listen to PJ. Jeff needed my immediate attention.
A few days later, after I had headed to the record store to buy my own copy of Grace
, they found Jeff’s body in Memphis, floating peacefully down the Mississippi River. He was thirty years old, and Grace
was his only completed album. I listened to it for weeks after, memorizing every lyric, studying the pictures of him in the liner notes….such a beautiful man, it almost hurt to look at him. No one that beautiful and talented should die so young. I would get chills when I listened to “Hallelujah” and heard that beautiful breath he takes in the first few seconds of the song. That part still gives me chills today.
In retrospect, I feel blessed that I was in Memphis when Jeff died. When I think about it now, it comforts me. I realize that I breathed the same air Jeff was breathing on the last night he was alive. I wonder if our cars had ever passed each other on the road. I wonder just how close I had actually gotten to the living, breathing Jeff Buckley, because now the dead, spectral Jeff Buckley is the only one I have. It also amazes me that the day before Jeff drowned was the day I discovered PJ Harvey, and that the first song I ever heard of hers was “Down By the Water.” In hindsight, there’s no better foreshadowing than that.
A few months after Jeff died, my mom and Shelley called off their engagement, for reasons I’m still unsure of. No more moving to Memphis, no more performing arts high school, nothing. I never saw or spoke to Keith again. But whenever I listen to Jeff, I remember him. Today I still have a lot of thoughts about Jeff Buckley. I regret never having seen him live, but I also harbor a secret fantasy that when I die and go to heaven, I will be greeted by Jeff singing “Satisfied Mind” just for me at the pearly gates. Sometimes I actually think it’s better that he died so young - if he had lived to see the rise of Britney Spears-and-TRL-obsessed music fans that defined the late ‘90s, it surely would have taken its toll on someone as sensitive as him. And maybe he never would have topped an album like Grace
, which will forever be his crowning achievement. If you’re going to die and only leave behind one finished album, that’s the one you want to leave behind.
All I know now is that, although he may be dead, to his fans, Jeff Buckley is still very much alive. His music is not just music - it’s a voice and a spirit that beats in each of our hearts, that runs through our veins, that helps each and every one of us who is touched by it to live our lives with a bit more passion and romance than we might otherwise have had. Whenever I listen to Jeff now, I feel like he’s in the room with me - like there’s some spirit that possesses my body for the span of a song. The hairs on my arms stand up and I feel some warm sense of comfort wrap around me like some great invisible hug. I’ve talked to other Buckley fans who’ve told me they experience the same feeling. I’m not sure if we’re all just crazy, or there’s just something about Jeff that will never die. I think it’s the latter.Jeff Buckley
THE JEFF BUCKLEY MEMORIAL PLAYLIST (compiled by me)A Body Goes Down
- Duncan SheikBlind River Boy
- Amy CorreiaEternal Flame
- Joan as Police WomanFlushed Chest
- Joan as Police WomanMemphis Skyline
- Rufus WainwrightValley of Sound
- Heather NovaWave Goodbye
- Chris CornellTrying Not to Think About It
- Juliana HatfieldMemphis
- PJ HarveyIf There Is A Chance
- The CardigansHallelujah
- Brandi CarlileMorning Theft
- Stephen Fretwell