Last Goodbye: Some Notes on the Death and Legacy of Jeff Buckley | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Last Goodbye: Some Notes on the Death and Legacy of Jeff Buckley

The Alt Rock Icon Drowned in Memphis' Wolf River 25 Years Ago

May 31, 2022
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On Buckley, the Man

A fascinating American pop cultural fable, yet to receive a worthy cinematic adaptation, the life and career of Jeff Buckley is as saturated in fate’s cruel indifference as his music. The son of cult singer/songwriter Tim Buckley (whom Jeff met only once, when he was a child), the younger Buckley rose from what he described as a “rootless trailer trash” upbringing in Southern California to the coveted status of ’90s alt rock idol, synthesizing the spiritual versatility of his vocals and inherent songwriter’s sensibilities with the blood-and-thunder guitar-driven arena rock sound of his generation’s largest acts. After relocating to New York City from California, Buckley (following in the footsteps of his late father) became a prominent presence within the Greenwich Village music scene, performing at legendary venues such as Sin-é, before rising to greater mainstream prominence with the release of his sole studio album Grace in 1994, which remains among the most acclaimed and influential recordings of its decade.

On Grace

On Grace, Buckley refined his unique sound, which, despite countless attempts to emulate, cannot seem to be reproduced. Opening track “Mojo Pin” and album closer “Dream Brother” are both swathed in nocturnal melancholia, the former drenched in the icy sweat of desperation and the latter rich in a certain mercurial wash of fever-dreamt exhaustion, Buckley closing the album on a crestfallen note: “Don’t be like the one who made me so old/Don’t be like the one who left behind his name/‘Cause they’re waiting for you like I waited for mine/And nobody ever came.” Between these two astounding bookends, Buckley’s creative brilliance flourishes, with epic guitar anthem “Grace,” glorious breakup track “Last Goodbye,” and artistic triumph “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” being among his greatest songs. “Last Goodbye” is especially remarkable, its crusading bombast elevating Buckley to golden godhood, tenderly realized lyrics such as, “This is our last embrace/Must I dream and always see your face?/Why can’t we overcome this wall?/Baby, maybe it’s just because I didn’t know you at all” and “You know it makes me so angry because I know that in time/I’ll only make you cry, this is our last goodbye” revealing Buckley as among his generation’s great poets of failed relationships and futile efforts to restore romantic glory. Likewise, “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” intimately explores the ruins of passion, reduced to a funeral in the rain. “Maybe I’m too young,” Buckley contemplates, “to keep good love from going wrong.” This track, perhaps above all else, reveals the best of Buckley’s poetic tendencies, with “My kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder” standing among modern rock’s finest lines. The gritty “So Real” is another standout, with Buckley exposing previously hidden regions of his soul through lines such as, “I never stepped on the cracks/‘Cause I thought I’d hurt my mother”—a stirring confession which could only have come from the son of a single mother. Buckley’s covers of “Lilac Wine,” “Hallelujah” (arguably his most popular recording), and “Corpus Christi Carol” round the album out well, the artist demonstrating to his audience his musical fluency and unique ability to pay tribute while drastically reimagining previously recorded material.

On Buckley, the Myth

Though initially a commercial failure, greeted with mixed reviews upon its release, Grace nevertheless received enthusiastic support from Buckley’s fellow musicians, with Jimmy Page naming it possibly his favorite album of the decade and David Bowie declaring it the greatest ever recorded. A bubbling cauldron of waifish sensitivity and hard-rocking fury, Buckley’s power, in its time, set the artist leagues apart from his contemporaries, garnering him a loyal following, which includes Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Thom Yorke (whose vocals on Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” were allegedly inspired by a Buckley performance), Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Bono, Jimmy Gnecco, and Brad Pitt. He also experienced a brief, and likely one-sided, love-hate rivalry with an up-and-coming Rufus Wainwright, who, despite his initial skepticism toward Buckley’s sound, was quietly enamored with the burgeoning musical titan to such an extent that he later wrote and recorded “Memphis Skyline”—arguably the greatest Buckley eulogy to date—for his own magnum opus Want Two. Indeed, Buckley’s interactions with other artists contributed a great deal to ’90s cultural mythology, his ghost frequently invoked around popular culture’s crackling campfire, sensational and consistently relevant, passed down like a glamorous urban legend to a new generation of innovative admirers, from Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan to Lana Del Rey to Muse.

On His Death

Upon relocating to Memphis, Buckley began working on his sophomore album, to be titled My Sweetheart the Drunk. On May 29, 1997, he went swimming, fully clothed, in the city’s Wolf River and was swept under in the wake of a passing boat. His body was discovered nearly a week later. Having outlived his father by two years, Jeff Buckley was 30 years old at the time of his death.

On Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk

The ultimate tragedy of Buckley’s legacy, however, is the lost potential for creative brilliance revealed on 1998’s posthumous Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, which saw the young musician branching out into various genres and subgenres with which he had only flirted or eschewed entirely on Grace. The misty sensuality of “Everybody Here Wants You”—a major creative achievement on Buckley’s part—echoes the cool passions of the artist’s early soul influences, namely Marvin Gaye, and the foreboding “Nightmares by the Sea” tinkers with possible ’80s gothic rock tendencies. Elsewhere, the furious snarl of “The Sky Is a Landfill” finds Buckley exploring more overtly political territory, suggesting his latent potential as an effective protest songwriter, while the ethereal “Yard of Blonde Girls” remains one of his edgiest rockers. Despite the controversy surrounding its release—Buckley’s skeptical mother, who owns his estate, had to be persuaded by Columbia—Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk was greeted with positive reviews and prompted many critics to reevaluate Buckley’s previous output.

On Buckley, the Myth, Continued

What can be written of Jeff Buckley that has not already been written? One imagines the number of pages devoted to his legacy as being astronomical by this point. He was a heroic songwriter, guitar god, style icon, and reluctant heir to musical royalty. Influenced by a diverse array of figures from modern music’s golden period, he, in turn, inspired an equally diverse array of younger artists still awaiting a true renaissance. What happened to Buckley was a tragedy of rock and roll proportions, and it’s a shame that he never lived to realize just how significant an artist he was, but his legacy leaves the rest of us his very fortunate beneficiaries. Grace is now one of history’s most universally revered rock records, its appeal transcending the boundaries of age, era, and geography, and, likewise, Buckley’s light shines on, eternal life now on his trail.

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