Of Wet and Wildness: Remembering Jeff Buckley
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Inversnaid,” 1881
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Even if you don’t know Jeff Buckley’s work, you’ve inevitably heard his enthralling voice. Think “Hallelujah.” There just aren’t many songs like it.
Penned and originally recorded by Leonard Cohen, but derived from a cover by John Cale, Buckley’s definitive and chilling rendition informs his popular perception as if it were his very epitaph, one fittingly writ in water. “He’s always been attracted to poetry and literature that’s big on symbolism, and water and death has always been a subject that he brings together,” recalls Buckley’s mother Mary Guibert in a recent interview with the Irish Times.
In one of music’s most tragic losses, Jeff Buckley took a fateful late-night swim in the Mississippi River on May 27, 1997, while in the process of recording his sophomore album in Memphis. Fully clothed and swallowed in the wake of a passing boat, Buckley drowned without making a sound. His body was found six days later.
In the above excerpt from his poem “Inversnaid,” Hopkins laments for a world devoid of nature’s energy and wonder, as embodied by the “wildness and wet” of a rushing stream. I believe Buckley would have liked the poem. The image communicates an excitement and vitality consistent with his own lust for life, as throughout his own thirty fearless years, he raged on without compromise. Both his music and his character seem to prove as fluid and untamed as water itself, and in going down to the banks of the Mississippi, one must wonder if Buckley did not see himself in its wildness and wet. Moreover, just as the river abruptly took Buckley with such indomitable strength, such is the effect of his music on the listener.
Buckley was swept away by an awesome force as powerful as he.
This story has been told a million times and from a thousand angles. It’s the story of how a self-described piece of “rootless trailer trash” with the voice of an angel beat the odds and grew up to earn the admiration of David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Jimmy Page.
It’s the story of a son striving to escape the shadow of his estranged father, Tim Buckley, a fellow cult musician who abandoned Jeff at birth. It’s the story of a quick-witted performer with a four-octave vocal range (Adele barely covers two, for comparison) obsessively honing his abilities in East Village clubs like Cafe Sin-é before finally taking a record deal. It’s a story of disillusionment with fame, fortune and everything that goes with it, the story of a man willing to reside in a shotgun shack and hitchhike should he need to get around.
It’s the grim story of Jeff Buckley, a man routinely called “the biggest talent who never was.” The details are important, of course, but after so many exhaustive retellings over the years, whether though documentary, biopic, profile or review, I can hardly see the point in exhaustively recounting the intricacies of his path. It’s not particularly difficult to understand Buckley’s romantic appeal, to recognize that he died well before his time and with an immensely promising career immediately ahead.
Buckley once described a musician’s work as “shaping sound to fit a feeling,” and on Grace, his seminal 1994 debut, he demonstrates a mastery of his craft. This is easily confirmed by numbers like the explosive, Zeppelin-esque “Mojo Pin,” the murky, Grunge-induced “So Real” and the irresistibly sexy “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” — even omitting the transcendent, world-conquering perfection that is “Hallelujah.”
“I don’t want to do any more covers,” Buckley said in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone. “It’s good to learn to make things your own, but the education’s over. Grace is putting a lot of things to rest.”
Ironically, covers now make up a majority of his limited catalog, which is largely composed of posthumous live album and compilations. Following the release of Grace, Buckley went out on the road for nearly two straight years before even attempting to record My Sweetheart the Drunk, his unfinished follow-up. Jeff Buckley was a notorious perfectionist, and coupled with his extensive live performances, his obsessive compulsion to exact total creative control over his art explains the devastating shortage of original material. And insensitive though it may sound, this is as much a part of the tragedy felt by his listeners as the actual loss of his life. We simply didn’t get enough time with him. And given the breathtaking majesty of Grace, that’s a tough pill to swallow.
And so Jeff Buckley played and subsequently left behind a lot of covers. Good ones, too. We’re not talking about a random assortment of second-hand songs but a broad and revealing palette filtered through an otherworldly performer, ranging from folk standards and Sufi devotional music known as “Qawwali” to the likes of The Smiths and Sly and the Family Stone. An almost entirely cover-based album like the brand new You & I, released just today, matters to people so much because his borrowed repertoire offers further insight into his intimate person.
Much like Bowie, Buckley intrigues so deeply because he personified the concept of the “total work of art” with his every action and characteristic unified and working in concert to advance his truth. His interviews, rich with media slurring and hobo wisdom like “the only way you know anything is if you taste if for yourself,” reveal a self-aware and entirely seductive artist. And if he now comes across as cliché, it’s only because his is the archetypal “shoulda been” story.
To pigeonhole Jeff Buckley is to attempt to firmly grasp water in one’s hands: it simply cannot be done.
It’s easy enough to get caught up in his legend, in the endless comparisons to his estranged father, in his mythically mesmerizing stage performances, in the tabloid gossip involving Courtney Love, or in the reports of his heroin use. And though it’s easy to speculate as to the genius of the material that could have been, I’d wholly advise against any such pointless behavior. We can romanticize death all we want but the no good dirty truth is that when you die, you’re gone. His was neither a mysterious nor a scandalous death, nor one that he wanted. He wanted to live.
Most of us will never know who Jeff Buckley really was, but through his surviving work and bits of his story we can guess at his essence. Buckley was like the liquid that drowned him: fluid, strong, deep and unexpectedly moving.
Bereft of Jeff, don’t let him be left, long live his music and memory yet.
To read more about Jeff Buckley, check out our 2014 feature story on the 20th anniversary of Grace, featuring a revealing interview with close friend and bandmate Mick Grondahl.
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