Juliana Hatfield Remembers Jeff Buckley

Juliana Hatfield Remembers Jeff Buckley

I was in my car, stuck in traffic in downtown Boston, when the news came on the radio that Jeff Buckley had died.

My free hand (the one not on the steering wheel) flew up involuntarily to my mouth, as I simultaneously gasped and covered my gasp, as if to stifle the horror I felt. For a few long seconds I couldn’t move. My hand was frozen in place, palm pressed flat and tight over my open mouth.

It was just so shocking and unexpected. He drowned? How?? It was so awful, so unbelievable. But it was right there, on the radio on WBCN, the rock station, in a breaking (but somber) news flash.

I was hemmed in by cars and the light wouldn’t change and it was agony because all I wanted was to rush home to the South End and start calling people (this was before everyone had personal communication devices), friends, to see if everyone else had heard, to find out what the hell had happened, to get the facts, to make contact, to come together — to do something.

When I was finally home I immediately called Todd, my drummer. Todd and I had both grown close to Jeff on a tour that my band and Jeff’s had done together a couple of years earlier in 1995. Todd and I both loved Jeff. We were both probably a little in love with Jeff; I think that everyone one who got to know Jeff fell at least a little bit in love with him.

A few months later, Todd and I were on tour again and we got on a plane to New York City for Jeff’s funeral while the rest of my band and crew set up in Atlanta for our show scheduled for that night. We were cutting it close, but we thought we could do both: attend the memorial and then fly back down to Georgia to play the show. And we would have made it if our return flight hadn’t been delayed by a few hours. We had to cancel the show at the last minute. My booking agent was mad at me for having risked flying up and back to New York on a show day. But Todd and I really wanted to be there. It seemed important.

There was a long line of people stretching down the street to get into St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn. There was a whole lot of love and the service was beautiful and bittersweet and filled with music, but it didn’t resolve anything — didn’t really put anything to rest, didn’t answer the question to the riddle of the “Why?” (and the “Why now?”) of Jeff’s death. Maybe it would’ve made more sense for Todd and me to skip the memorial and instead honor Jeff by just devoting ourselves to putting on — and enjoying — our best possible performance that night in Atlanta. Because that was what Jeff did in his life, he committed to every performance, he made the most of every moment.

Jeff was gifted with a prodigious, supernatural, dazzling talent. He could do so much with his voice and his guitar and the way he wove them together was breathtaking. He was a fan of so much music, so many kinds of music, and he absorbed it all with a quasi-photographic musical memory, integrating all sorts of disparate elements effortlessly. It must have been overwhelming sometimes to have so many options, hard to narrow down what it was he wanted to present to the world. He wasn’t as limited as some of us are, but this freedom, this ability, to do almost anything — it could have been crippling, in a way; if you have fewer options and fewer decisions it means your task is much simpler.

Sometimes Jeff seemed to be trying genres out, trying to figure out what he wanted to be, dipping a toe into a certain musical style one day, into another the next. Sometimes it seemed that with certain choices he made he was trying to prove his punk rock/indie rock bona fides, like when his band would play a version of “Kick out the Jams” that I thought was too self-consciously overwrought. Jeff’s guitar shredding abilities — his real technical skills, and his musical sensitivity and sophistication — were not punk rock at all. With punk rock, the whole idea is that you barely know how to play your instrument. And you do just one thing — the one thing that you can do — over and over again.

Jeff could do so many things. His music was kind of all over the place. It showed off. It was exploratory. Jeff was category-resistant. This bugged some people. Music critic Robert Christgau characterized Jeff — well, his Grace album persona, anyway — as an “a**hole” (a “syncretic” a**hole). “Asshole” was a harsh descriptor, and it hurt Jeff, but Christgau had a point; the adjective fits. (From the O.E.D: “syncretic: aiming at a union or reconciliation of diverse beliefs, practices, or systems.”)

Jeff had star power. He would play it up and play it down. He would wear a grubby, once-white, ill-fitting V-neck T-shirt a lot (the one he wore in the “Last Goodbye” video), as if to resist his own glamorization. But then he also had a sparkly gold jacket (the one he wore in the photo on the album cover of Grace), which he put on in New York for our big show at the Roseland Ballroom.

Todd, my drummer, who had never heard any of Jeff’s music when we did our first show together in Providence, Rhode Island, was blown away that first night by Jeff’s otherworldly solo performance of “Hallelujah.” As Todd watched from the side of the stage, mesmerized, Jeff cocked his head and looked Todd straight in the eyes and proclaimed, “Fuck, I sound good!” It was funny — and it endeared Todd instantly to Jeff — and it was also true.

When I toured with Jeff, his star was rising and the buzz was building. People were discovering Grace’s mysterious, confident charm, falling for it — falling hard. I could feel the momentum as we traveled. I could feel the force of the energy of the world spinning around him, and him trying deliberately to stay centered, grounded.

Jeff would sometimes joke about his growing stardom, to lighten the load of it, maybe. But at the same time there was a gravity and a sense that his charismatic power (musically and otherwise) was not something to be squandered or misused — he accepted it and respected it although it must have been a burden, all the passion he inspired, all the projection onto him, people wanting access to him, wanting pieces of him, of his time, and all the expectation and pressure to deliver a second album that was as magical and accomplished and ambitious and  weird and wonderful and unique as Grace.Grace was all those things and more. It was (is) serious, playful, puzzling, exotic, traditional, quiet, loud, clean, dirty, pretentious, humble, curious, beautiful, sad, happy, challenging, rewarding— as was Jeff. But what people who didn’t know Jeff personally might not know about him was that he was funny.

I remember him in his candy-pink “TAKE THAT” T-shirt on a hot summer day as we walked up 2nd Avenue together. Both the ’90’s boy band logo-endorsement and the putatively girlie hue of the shirt took the piss right out of it all — of himself, of pop stardom. But it also celebrated it and paid tribute.

Jeff did hilarious, spot-on impressions of other singers. He did a great Chris Cornell; if you closed your eyes you could almost believe that Chris was in the room. He also did a word-for-word astoundingly perfect imitation of Bad Brains’ HR doing all of “I Against I.” Jeff could mimic female singers, too. It was uncanny. And loving, and admiring — all of his vocal impersonations were done in homage and appreciation rather than meanness or mocking.

It was all about inclusion — and sharing. His gifts, his music, the things he liked, his time. Jeff was a model for savoring it all, being fully in every moment, rather than off to the side, just observing or thinking about it. Each show he did was like a ceremony of sharing, a sacred ritual, an active meditation of mindfulness, but also fun. Every night as I watched from the wings and listened to him sing and play I knew, in those moments, that I was a lucky person. He was fully immersed in every second of every song, but also fully connected to the audience.

One night a woman down up in front fainted and as she was lifted and carried off and away between songs Jeff said sweetly into the microphone, eyes following the girl without judgment, “Oh, honey” with such low-key compassion and acceptance, like this was all part of the experience, it was all part of it, was all OK, whatever happened, however things unfolded. Everything was all right.

Sometimes Jeff would come on stage during my set and sing with me on one of my songs. One night, (in Boston) at the end of the song, he dove into the crowd. He surfed the crowd for a while, peoples’ hands passing him around on his back above their heads, until he landed again on his feet on the stage. When we were all back up in the dressing room, Jeff realized that someone in the audience had stolen his wallet out of his pocket. He went straight over to the payphone by the bathroom and set about cancelling all his credit cards. He was so human in that moment. He wasn’t the supernaturally gifted Jeff Buckley, but rather a guy who had been made vulnerable by his act of faith (stage-diving), and who then dealt with the consequences matter-of-factly.

Part of what was so heartbreaking about Jeff’s early death was that he seemed determined not to end up like his father, Tim Buckley, who had died young (at twenty-eight, of a drug overdose). It wasn’t something Jeff really talked about, but you could sense that there was some recognition or pull that Jeff felt toward some darkness, some dark legacy. And that he was going to shape and drive his fate away from that, to somewhere less tragic and more self-determined. (In fact he did outlive his father by a couple of years, age-wise.) Even though Jeff never knew his dad and met him only once as a boy, when he took his birth father’s last name and went public as an artist it was an acknowledgment of that connection. Being bound to his dad seemed a source of both pain and pride.

When Jeff dove into the crowd at the end of my set at the Avalon club in Boston, it was a moment of letting go, and of pleasure and enjoyment. He trusted that the crowd would hold him up and eventually deliver him back onto the stage, and they did. When he went into the river in Memphis, singing (“Whole Lotta Love”), he most likely did it with the same happiness, freedom and faith — faith that the water would hold him up and that eventually he’d make his way back onto the shore. He didn’t foresee anyone stealing his wallet out of his back pocket in Boston or being pulled down by an undertow in Memphis. These are chances we all take every minute of every day. We never know what’s going to happen. So we might as well savor every blessed minute. Jeff seemed to understand this. The way he lived and played was an example of this idea.

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