The legacy of Jeff Buckley’s amazing Grace, 20 years on
As the only studio album released by the singer in his lifetime, Grace represents all that was lost with Buckley’s tragic early death
Jeff Buckley on stage at Wetlands, New York, in 1994, the year ‘Grace’ was released. Photograph: Steve Eichner/Getty Images
Some albums are born great and some have greatness thrust upon them with time. And some, like Jeff Buckley’s Grace, are a bit of both.
Released 20 years ago this year, and the only studio album completed and released during the singer’s lifetime, Grace was seen at the time as a sign of what was to come from Buckley.
Here was a musician full of potential and promise, one who seemed well equipped to go on to bigger and better things and to write songs every jot as powerful as the covers that gave the album its vivid, distinctive piping and tones.
But it was an album that gained in potency by virtue of what happened in Memphis on May 29th, 1997. The 30-year-old singer was in the city working on his next album, the long-awaited follow-up to Grace. He had spent the previous months there, playing Monday-night shows in a hole-in-the-wall bar called Barrister’s on Jefferson Avenue and recording at the Easley McCain studios.
He had spent time earlier that day in Al Green’s church in the city and shopping for a car. In the evening, Buckley and a friend, Keith Foti, went down to the Wolf river channel of the Mississippi river to watch the sun go down. Buckley decided he wanted to go swimming and waded into the water fully clothed, ignoring the protests of Foti.
Jim Tusant of the Memphis police department noted in the official police report that “a boat came by that was not close but that created some rolling waves. The friend turned to move the music box to keep the waves from hitting it, and after he moved the box, he looked around and didn’t see [Buckley].”
Buckley’s body materialised a few days later, after an extensive search, when a passenger aboard a riverboat spotted it floating near the city’s downtown Beale Street club area.
Legend versus reality
As often happens when a young, charismatic artist dies, Buckley’s legacy became larger after his death. The singer with the beautiful falsetto, which could send both heartbreakers and alt-rock anthems soaring, became a canvas against which many people projected their own thoughts and takes.
From terrible singer-songwriters who misread Buckley as a template for doom and gloom to the never-ending parade of reality music TV shows butchering his version of Hallelujah, it often seems as if Buckley has never quite gone away, even if these versions of what he is supposed to have been often bear little resemblance to the reality.
The record industry, never reticent in sweating the work of an enigmatic, tragic star not around to object to their plans, jumped in with gusto. The list of posthumous collections, live albums and expanded versions grew with every passing year.
From the 1998 album Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, which features demos for the second album that never was, to Complete Live at Sin-é, a scrappy affair featuring a ton of material from those nights at the New York cafe that had previously produced a four-track EP, in 1994, the world was not left wanting for Buckley material.
Flood of material
The problem was that a lot of this posthumous material was just not that good. On the one hand, you can understand the desire to know more about the young man who died with so much spark and promise. But on the other, it’s questionable if the singer himself would have been happy for these scraps and demos to see the light of day. Much of this flood of material from the archives has served to reduce rather than embellish his legacy.
It’s not just Buckley’s work that has been the subject of new life after death. His own life story has received a degree of airbrushing and amplification. He has been the subject of various film projects: Daniel Algrant’s film Greetings from Tim Buckley has already made it to the screen; and a musical, The Last Goodbye, from Michael Kimmel and director Alex Timbers, fused Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with Buckley’s songs.
As with Tupac Shakur, the posthumous myth is often much different to what happened when Buckley was actually still around.
In terms of assessing Buckley’s work, all roads lead to Grace, the document that he gave us in August 1994. He had made various statements of intent before then: he had played in experimental rock combo Gods and Monsters with Gary Lucas, before striking out for solo turns in New York’s cafes and coffee houses, which produced the Live at Sin-é EP. But Grace was the big calling card.
The recording emphasised his vision for emotionally driven rock music with sweeping string arrangements. Aside from some cathartic, lovely original tracks, his debut also featured that mesmeric version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, a beautiful take on Nina Simone’s Lilac Wine, and a stunning ambient, choral version of Benjamin Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol. The album was a sign that Buckley was on the way to much greater things.
Buckley snr The album also contains hints and hues of his own past. He was the son of cult 1960s
troubadour Tim Buckley and Mary Guibert. You could discern a trace of Buckley snr’s esoteric folk-rock in Buckley jnr’s brew of blues, soul, folk and torch songs laced with the robust American guitar sound of the early 1990s.
But he didn’t want to give credit to his father. “There are all of these expectations that come with this ’60s offspring bullshit, but I can’t tell you how little he had to do with my music,” he told Interview magazine in 1994. “I met him one time when I was eight. Other than that, there was nothing. The people who raised me musically are my mother, who is a classically trained pianist, and my stepfather.”
Buckley’s real influences were artists such as Nina Simone, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Patti Smith and Van Morrison (check out his version of The Way Young Lovers Do on the Live at Sin-é EP). These are the singular voices you’ll hear in the fabric of Grace, the singers who framed Buckley’s curiosity about what you could do with a voice that sounded like nothing else around it.
At the time, it was Grace’s cover versions that commanded the most attention. Indeed, you still can’t listen to Corpus Christi Carol and fail to be moved by the spine-tingling mood it creates.
But the tracks that Buckley had a hand in writing, such as Last Goodbye and Mojo Pin, were equally striking. The last repackaged reissue gave us some great extra tracks to get our teeth into, including a mesmerising original in Forget Her and another cover that got the Buckley treatment, Hank Williams’s Lost Highway.
The album’s slew of deeply resonant torch songs still exert a primal power. You get the feeling that Buckley had so many ideas and so little time to make sense of them all. He was both the sensitive solo star emoting songs of heartbreak and soul, and the diva who wanted to adorn and embellish everything with glitter and drama.
Listening to the album now, you wonder what would have happened had he lived. Would the 47-year-old Buckley still be making records as evocative as Grace or would he have run out of steam? At least we might have been spared endless versions of Hallelujah on the telly.
THE WHELAN’S GIGS: JEFF BUCKLEY IN IRELAND
It wasn’t his first Irish performance. Buckley had played a solo show at the same venue in March that year. “That was just him on his own on a Monday night, and it wasn’t packed out,” says venue booker Dave Allen. “It was a great gig, probably better than the later one. He wasn’t very well-known then, but you had these fans acting like groupies afterwards.”
The later show will be marked on Saturday night in Whelan’s, in the form of the Official Jeff Buckley Tribute Night. The night will feature performances by Dave McGuinness (formerly of Lir) and band, who will be joined throughout the night by special guests. All proceeds will go to the Niall Mellon Township Trust.