The Eternal Life of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’

The Eternal Life of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’

Making sense of Jeff Buckley’s death — which occurred in May 1997 while he was swimming in the muddy Mississippi river — is only marginally more challenging than making sense of his life’s work.

While there were far more famous and certainly more successful members of the ill-fated group of musicians that died at 27, there is no one whose talent ceiling was still such an abstract.

Jeff Buckley’s musical gifts were many, and they were still growing exponentially when he died. He released a single studio album, Grace, on August 23, 1994, widely considered one of the most impressive debuts in that or any year. David Bowie once said that, if made to choose just one, Grace would be the album he would take to a desert island.

At its beating heart, Grace is a hopelessly, tragically, but still fetchingly romantic record. It features Buckley repeatedly and ruefully pining away for an off-screen paramour whom he is alternately running toward and away from. It’s sonically heavy and nakedly vulnerable. The word “love” proliferates on Grace, shackled to regret and disillusion. Songs like “Lover You Should Have Come Over,” “Last Goodbye” and “So Real” are its most self-lacerating examples.

It’s an exotic gumbo of Eastern and Western rhythms, with a dizzying number of tempo changes made by an impatient perfectionist with musical ADD. Who else could pull off “Corpus Christie Carol,” an early 16th century lullaby, and the howling “Eternal Life,” which warns against humanity’s erosion. And then cap it off with a solemn version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which has become the song with which he is most closely associated.

Although he was a skilled guitar player and a poetic lyricist, Jeff’s voice was his meal ticket. Multi-octave and feminine one moment, masculine the next; he possessed a delicate instrument that fluttered and swooped, sometimes peering out from behind the instrumentation before becoming fearsome and overwhelming it.

I’ve always felt as if Grace’s original studio mix paved over much of the subtlety Buckley labored to create, but that may just be in my head. Because I had the benefit of hearing the songs grow from live sketches into live songs into the album’s tracks.

In August 1992, I saw Jeff Buckley perform live for the first time and spent the rest of his life trying to shake the feeling that I was seeing something fleeting. I have so many different memories from so many different shows where he made something impossible seem effortless that nights blend into each other.

Buckley’s legendary “Monday Nights” residency at Cafe Sin-e kicked off in ’92, but he quickly began gigging at other places like CBGB, Under Acme, the Knitting Factory, St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn and Maxwell’s in Hoboken. I saw him open for Counting Crows at Wetlands, as grave a decision as that band has ever made.

And over those months in ‘93 and early ‘94 (with my eventual wife and a friend or two), I traveled around downtown New York City watching Jeff perform, sometimes more than once per week.

He settled for a while at Fez, a windowless underground club beneath a Moroccan bar that was hidden in the rear of a restaurant called Time Café on Lafayette Street. It was in this underground lair where I first saw him incorporate a rhythm section and, occasionally, that glitter jacket he wore on the cover of Grace.

Despite the obvious pressure to release an album, Jeff kept those shows loose, too, occasionally playing requests from the audience. Songs like Rush’s “Fly by Night” or the Four Seasons “Oh What a Night” were delivered on the spot. In one evening he would reinterpret Edith Piaf, Van Morrison and Sly Stone.

Just before Grace was released, I interviewed Jeff for a Long Island newspaper called The Island Ear, a gig that paid me zero dollars per year. I pleaded with the editor, a man named Alvin Eng, to make it a cover story, which he did.

But I really just wanted the chance to speak with Jeff. We spent part of one afternoon at the Columbia Records’ offices. He’d seen me at his shows and was himself curious about my interest. I responded honestly: that I was just trying to make sense of what I was seeing. And, to be honest, it was taking a while. He grinned lopsidedly and replied, “Fair enough.”

I probably kept him too long — asking questions about his writing process and non-music endeavors, but also about our mutual love of the Cocteau Twins and his recurring dreams of being slain. I didn’t bring up his famous father Tim Buckley, who he scarcely knew, but with whom he shared an obvious physical resemblance and vocal dexterity. I wish I could say that it hadn’t occurred to me, but really I just didn’t want to spoil what was otherwise a revealing conversation.

The last time I saw Jeff perform was in February ‘97, in the newfangled version of the Knitting Factory, five years to the month after the first time I’d seen him at the original Knitting Factory on Houston Street, a deathtrap of a club if there ever was one.

He played a mixture of old and new songs that he was still tinkering with for what was to be his second album, Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk. Curiously, he closed the show with the Pendulum Girls’ “Yard of Blonde Girls,” reportedly unaware of its significance: the song featured a verse guest-written by the band’s friend, Inger Lorre, about Buckley, with whom she’d had a brief relationship:

It’s in your heart, it’s in your art, your beauty.
Even in this world of lies, there’s purity,
You’ve got innocence in your eyes.
Even in this world of lies, you’re still hopeful.

Three months later, when I heard the news that he’d died, it didn’t really surprise me — I wish I could say it had — although after I absorbed it, I was unwilling to listen to his music for almost two years.

When I picked it back up, I rediscovered an idiosyncratic gem of an album called, appropriately enough, Grace, that truly encapsulates a portrait of the artist as a young man.

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