A friend recently sent me a link to a very moving first-hand remembrance of Jeff Buckley called “Be Your Husband” from over at PurpleClover.com. The piece stayed with me all day until I recalled an alternative prologue to my novel Beyond the Will of God written a few years before I went to press with it. I decided against this particular prologue because at the time I didn’t want to insult the memory of Jeff. I hope that is not your perception here. I offer it just because I think it’s a great tribute in and of itself, and, in the end, this same spirit finds its way into my novel — a spirit you should not forget.
The Rhythms Fall Slow: On Jeff Buckley and the Eternal Life of Music
On May 29, 1997, exactly 660 days after the day Jerry Garcia died, Jeff Buckley decided to cool off in the Mississippi River on his way to a recording session in Memphis, Tennessee. According to the only eyewitness, Buckley, fully clothed, waded into the Mississippi for a swim right around dusk. He went out to where the water came up to his waist, lay back, began to float and sing at the top of his lungs. The eyewitness, a friend, says that a boat passed by several hundred yards away creating a wake that would possibly splash water on the boom box he and Buckley had carried down to the water’s edge. The friend moved quickly to remove the box from harm’s way, and when he turned back Jeff Buckley had disappeared.
Authorities dragged the river for more than twenty-four hours and found no body. Divers spent the next four days strategically combing the area. Thinking that Buckley might be playing a prank, police also canvassed the area and interviewed people at Jeff’s favorite hangouts. Thousands of people from the East Village to LA and Paris held onto hope until the Memphis police declared him dead five days after he disappeared.
It is surmised that the ever-shifting undertow in the river adjusted itself as the wake of the boat passing by approached. The force of water is an astonishing thing. Memphis was where Elvis died too.
Until Jeff came to the rock scene, no individual had really stretched the boundaries of musical expression very far since Jimi Hendrix. From November 27, 1970 when Hendrix choked to death on his own vomit, to sometime in 1993 when Buckley first took the floor at Sin-e in New York City completely freaking out the crowd of 90 with his vein-popping vocals and the as yet primitive cadences and melodies of his weird, over-the-top, dramatic songs, popular music (maybe all music) had not, since the nascent days of Electric Ladyland Studios, produced two notes connected by anything other than redundant, derivative rhythms and tag-line lyrics.
Yes, besides Hendrix there were Lennon and Morrison and Joplin, and maybe a few others people will argued about for the next several decades. Still living, of course, are Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and King Jones. But once Jimi checked out, everything went dark and cold for most of us. That was around the time The Beatles broke up, too.
Jimi originally carried the fire out of the cave on his own. He’d managed somehow to bring it all the way forward from Robert Johnson. Many people believe that the year for which we have no information in Jimi’s biography was the year he went in search of the crossroads where Johnson supposedly died — Three Forks Road — near Greenwood, Mississippi. Three Forks, it is said, is where Johnson sold his soul to the devil so that he could play the blues better than any other man alive.
Whether the stories about the crossroads are true, the history of rock ‘n’ roll credits Robert Johnson as the first bearer of the fire of pure soul.
Where Johnson got the flames no one knows. But when the crowd at Sin-é first heard Buckley doing “Like Young Lovers Do,” they knew he’d managed to bring that old torch back out again. And they didn’t have time to wonder where he’d gotten it from, or to even compare him to Jimi (which is fruitless, of course), because Jeff Buckley, son of the long dead, tripped-out singer-songwriter Tim Buckley (a guy who may or may not have at least seen the spark that Hendrix was stoking), moved from “Young Lovers” to “Eternal Life” to Jimi’s “Wind Cries Mary” to Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol,” mesmerizing and astounding everyone in the room. He was raw and unpolished, but he was also awake and burning like no one any of the audience had ever seen or heard.
Jeff’s voice was to a certain extent a mix of David Bowie’s and Robert Plant’s. But it was far more dynamic than Bowie’s soulful secret nasal funk – the essence of rock and R&B vocals, actually. Buckley’s was high-pitched and childlike in the same vein as Plant’s, but purer, resonating as uncannily as the strings of Hendrix’s Telecaster. It was informed by the articulation and endless emphasized questioning of Bowie (listen to “The Sky is a Landfill”). But there was so much more to Buckley’s expressiveness than had ever come before. He had Bowie’s cadences and Plant’s timber — that crying rage — but Buckley’s voice was far more than the sum of those two. He could be Van Morrison and Marvin Gaye and Patti Smith and Mick Jagger and even John Lennon when he felt fearless enough. He was doing with voice and lyrics and vocalization what Hendrix was doing with electricity and amplified guitar. Every phrase uttered by Jeff Buckely there at Sin-é that night was a complete surprise. And he was never wrong.
He was more than a talent, he was a New Being. In the three years he performed and recorded, moving us all further and further down the road of sonic possibility, he glided from punk to café songs, to soul, acid rock, grunge, even country, folk and jazz, all in one set – sometimes during one long moment-filled song.
During his short career, he cut one studio album and allowed several CDs to be distributed of his concerts. Everyone who understands creative expression should own all of Jeff Buckley’s output. Grace is the masterpiece. Jeff wasn’t completely satisfied with it, but what did he know? They released an EP of him recorded at Sin-é and a few more four- and five-song CDs collecting both live and studio out-takes.
After his death came Live at the Olympia in Paris where he is mystified by the adoring crowd. An extended Sin-é collection came out after that, complete with goofy little monologues. Grace was re-released on the tenth anniversary of its original release. This new one is a double album along with a DVD of him performing against the wall at Sin-é. Somewhere in there his family also approved the completion and release of Sketches from My Sweetheart the Drunk, the album he was working on when he died. It is clearly an unfinished work, but the musical range and experimentation is profound and frightening. Jeff Buckley was plugged into demons, gods, virgins, warriors, and love. Sketches is a seminal work pointing toward a new musical universe that we will never find.
Jeff Buckley’s body was eventually discovered some seven miles downriver on June 4, 1997 – six days after he allegedly drowned. Officials are unsure how his body could have traveled so far without being spotted. They found no evidence of foul play. Indeed, the coroner very quickly determined the cause of death as a straightforward drowning: “the inhalation of water or another fluid into the lungs and other breathing organs for a sufficient quantity of time so as to starve the blood supply of oxygen.”
Jeff Buckley’s death has been relegated to the pantheon of legends and geniuses leaving this world before their time. The whereabouts of his remains are unknown. The web site Cemsearch.com lists thousands of famous dead people and the final dispositions of their bodies. Buckley’s name is listed but he is one of only a handful with no corresponding references to his final disposition. And his family isn’t talking. But for that matter, no one ever saw Jim Morrison’s body after he died. Lennon and Joplin were both cremated less than 48-hours after they passed away. And half of Garcia’s ashes were spread into the Ganges River while the other half were scattered to winds off the Golden Gate Bridge, although no ever saw the actual ceremony of those dispersements happening either
Indeed, the tradition of not being able to account for our great rebel stars goes back to Jesse James in 1882. In the past seventy years, five different graves from Missouri to Florida have been dug up in search of the famous outlaw’s body. So far, no one has been able to verify that Jesse James is buried in any of the holes designated for him.
After James, Robert Johnson’s death created a mystery as well in the early part of the 20th Century. Just as in the case with Jim Morrison, the coroner’s report on Robert Johnson was issued without anyone ever seeing his corpse. Apparently, a man named Jim Moore signed an affidavit stating that Johnson died of poisoning, which was good enough for the authorities of Greenwood (fifty miles from the Mississippi River and less than two hours south of Memphis). The literal cause of death recorded in the county record was “no doctor.” However, Jim Moore could never be found to verify his signature. There is no record of him anywhere – written or otherwise.
So Jeff Buckley’s unfortunate death, infused as well with elements of the odd, is in keeping with the circumstances of his equals and peers.
On top of all these anomalies is the little known fact that a reporter named Frank Harris interviewed Jeff Buckley just hours before the drowning. Harris, it seems, also interviewed Jerry Garcia over breakfast at Shady Knoll, the exclusive Northern California de-tox center for celebrities, on the morning before Garcia died of heart failure. Frank Harris wasn’t old enough to interview John Lennon, Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison when they died.
It is virtually impossible to establish whether there is a connection here. It is also highly unlikely that there would be a media conspiracy against these people. But the fact remains that there are numerous coincidences surrounding the deaths of many cultural icons who left us before their time. These coincidences may be nothing but fortuitous circumstance laced with legend. Or, perhaps, they point to some hidden truth about the modern human condition.
Some people say the brightest candles burn out the fastest. Perhaps.
Some people say the personalities and artists we revere the most have willfully escaped us all and are having the time of their lives bouncing around the globe as regular folk –- especially Elvis Presley and Princess Diana. Perhaps.
Or maybe there’s something about life when you go all the way into it, when you really delve into the Pure Soul of Being, when you kneel and touch the face of what is absolutely real –- the way we know all of these people have done –- all of which very naturally and obviously leads you right into the hands of darkness and out the other side into death and whatever is beyond where we are now. Perhaps.
If you’re intrigued, consider checking out Beyond the Will of God at pretty much any major book site online. Amazon and Barnes & Noble both provide the electronic and the paperbound editions. You can also buy it directly from me as an e-book through the Tomely site, referenced at the top of the right frame here. Read the latest review of Beyond the Will of God as well, “Going, Going, Gone.”
This post is adapted from the original Tumblr version at “Hari’s In the Back”