Today marks the anniversary of the passing of Jeff Buckley and we commemorate all of the work he has done and ways he revolutionized the industry.
1993’s Live at Sin-e EP gives the best idea of what Columbia’s A&R; rep must have seen in Buckley at the time. At shows, he was the picture of a high diva: sprawling, boundless and with more than a pinch of self-conscious glitter. However, as he revealed in The Making of Grace, the behind-the-scenes feature that leads off the third disc DVD in Columbia’s new “Legacy” edition reissue of his debut full-length, he needed a band. He already had Grondhal, met drummer Matt Johnson through Grace executive producer Steve Berkowitz, and, midway through recording the album, brought in guitarist Michael Tighe (who eventually contributed “So Real”, to which Buckley added a chorus and put on the record in place of the bluesy “Forget Her”). Producer Andy Wallace speaks on the documentary about his concerns over how much of the record should reflect Buckley’s solo performances, but true to form, the singer wanted it all.
Somehow, despite an overflow of ideas– they needed three different band setups available at all times to accommodate Buckley’s various moods– the record got done. And it was released. And thousands of open-heart romantics heard their ship come in. As it happened, Grace was received with mixed feelings from critics who probably thought they were getting the next great alt-rock savior, and instead felt they’d received dinner theater for the moody crowd. They had a point: For all its swells of emotion and midnight dynamics, Grace was not a record to rally the post-grunge alternation. It made a jazz noise where a rock one was expected and a classical one where a pop one might have sold more records. MTV snagged “Last Goodbye”, Grace‘s most radio-friendly song by a considerable margin, but Buckley was predestined for a cult stardom.
Grace‘s strengths have been well-documented over the years: The flawless choice of cover songs, including the definitive reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (that we learn on the documentary was actually chosen based on John Cale’s 1991 version from the Cohen tributeI’m Your Fan); the mystic, blue textures of “Mojo Pin”, “So Real” and “Dream Brother” that seemed as related to Led Zeppelin as to Scott Walker as to Buckley’s father; Wallace’s sympathetic, intimate production and the band’s equally sensitive following of Buckley’s lead. And of course, he sang the hell out of those songs. His voice turned upward songs that naturally leaned inward; his reading of Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” transformed from misty cocktail lament into transcendental experience, and the unlikely recasting of English composer Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol” into ambient lullaby.
And, as this reissue proves, for every bit of lightning trapped in a jar, Buckley was willing to try his hand at many songs with which he held a weaker grasp. Firstly, he fancied himself a rock star, and the second disc of this set includes endearing, but ultimately inessential readings of the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”, a pretty silly Screamin’ Jay Hawkins impersonation on Leiber & Stoller’s “Alligator Wine”, and a speed-metal take on “Eternal Life”. His version of Big Star’s “Kanga-Roo” nails its weary grandeur, but goes overboard on the ensuing 11-minute jam session, effectively transforming it from intimidating wall of drone into a meandering, albeit unfinished and tentative giant. He sounds best interpreting songs like Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues”, Simone’s “The Other Woman”, and Bob Dylan’s “Mama, You Been On My Mind”, though his own take on the blues– the previously unreleased “Forget Her”– sounds comparatively pedestrian.
So, the question becomes how frustrated you are willing to be with Buckley. His posthumous releases suggest what Grace did: that he was one of the most talented musicians of his generation, while also being one of the most impulsive and, often, maddeningly inconsistent. Is he really being served by the uncovering of outtakes, B-sides and live performances? Fans certainly think so, but I won’t cop to listening very beyond his lone completed record these days. And it bears emphasizing that its rewards have lost nothing in 10 years. Grace remains one of the most engaging, inspired records ever made, and its 10 original songs serve as the best possible portrait of Buckley as a diva, songwriter and artist.
On the evening of May 29, 1997, Buckley’s band flew to Memphis intending to join him in his studio there to work on the newly written material. That same evening, Buckley went swimming in Wolf River Harbor, a slackwater channel of the Mississippi River, while wearing boots, all of his clothing, and singing the chorus of the song “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. Buckley had gone swimming there several times before. A roadie in Buckley’s band, Keith Foti, remained on shore. After moving a radio and guitar out of reach of the wake from a passing tugboat, Foti looked up to see that Buckley had vanished. Despite a determined rescue effort that night, Buckley remained missing. On June 4, two locals spotted his body in the Mississippi River near a riverboat, and it was brought to land.
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