Jeff Buckley - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
The wheels of his band’s plane had just hit the tarmac when Jeff Buckley went wading into Memphis’s Wolf River never to return. Ten years after his death by accidental drowning the legacy of Jeff Buckley remains profound yet enigmatic. He tapped into almost every facet of music and culled them together into his own ethereal design. Whether they were his original compositions or reworked covers, Buckley’s songs dripped with a thick mysterious beauty only he was able to capture. His cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” remains the most recognized rendition ever recorded. In the end, the inimitable Jeff Buckley became the one thing he never wanted to be—a cultural icon.
The enduring power of the Jeff Buckley legacy stems from several factors. He was the son of chameleonic folk/free jazz musician Tim Buckley, who also died at a young age. He was a paradox in that he was simultaneously introverted and gregarious, both coveting and ultimately shunning the spotlight of fame. Though his output was minimal—Buckley only completed one studio album—he was a prolific songwriter who left behind hundreds of songs recorded live or as demos. During his lifetime he was hailed as an artist’s artist by the likes of David Bowie, Lou Reed, and U2—but only in death did he become a world wide icon.
Jeffrey Scott Buckley was born in Anaheim, California on November 17, 1966. He was the only son from his mother’s first marriage to musician Tim Buckley. Tim was a restless spirit and an absentee father—he only saw his son a handful of times before dying of a drug overdose in 1975. Much to the younger Buckley’s chagrin, there would be constant comparisons made between Jeff’s music and Tim’s, even though their musical styles were radically different.
Buckley was raised in Orange County under the name “Scotty Moorhead” by his classically trained pianist/cellist mother, Mary Guibert, and stepfather, Ron Moorhead. Moorhead got Buckley into Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin as a young boy, and the first album he ever owned was Physical Graffiti. It’s believed that Buckley grew up with very limited knowledge of his paternal father, and didn’t even know his own first name was Jeff until he discovered it written on his birth certificate. Buckley would find his lifelong companion at the age of six when he stumbled across an acoustic guitar in his grandmother’s closet. He would rarely be without a guitar from that point forward. By age 12 he had his first electric, an imitation Les Paul, and it was around that time that he decided to be a musician.
After graduating from high school, Buckley attended the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California, and began going by his real name, Jeff. After dropping out of the institute—later citing the experience as a “waste of time”—he worked in a hotel for the next six years while playing with one struggling band after another. Although he would later be known for his astounding vocal prowess, Buckley rarely sang publicly during his earlier years. Instead, he played guitar in a wide array of bands—everything from heavy metal bands to jazz combos—and sang back-up. He even accompanied reggae artist, Shinehead, as a touring guitarist.
Near the end of his Hollywood period his father’s erstwhile manager, Herb Cohen, approached the younger Buckley about recording a demo of original songs. Buckley recorded four songs, which included early versions of the classics “Eternal Life” and “Last Goodbye”—although on the demo the latter song was credited as “Unforgiven.” Nothing much came from the tape other than the experience, and in 1990 Jeff moved to New York City to pursue a solo career. The New York period was remarkably more fruitful. He was inspired by the likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Robert Johnson, and his big coming out was a show-stealing performance at tribute concert for his father called “Greetings from Tim Buckley” at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn during the spring of 1991. The event would be one of the few times Buckley performed any of his father’s songs. In fact, most of Jeff Buckley’s career was spent distancing himself from his father’s image rather than celebrating it.
The next few months after that performance Buckley spent performing solo shows at coffeehouses and small clubs around the city, but it was a small Irish café called Sin-é that would become his home. He quickly scored the weekly Monday night slot playing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan covers and a few originals like “Mojo Pin” and “Grace,” the latter which he’d written with avant-garde guitarist Gary Lucas for a short-lived stint in Lucas’ band, Gods and Monsters. Armed with just an electric guitar and a microphone stand, the Sin-é gigs showcased Buckley in the raw, and word spread. Every week more people began showing up to see him perform, and when the line began snaking around the block to get in, record label executives soon followed. Sony would put out a four-song EP called Live From Sin-é in 1993, which featured an inspired rendition of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do.” Buckley eventually signed to Columbia Records and immediately set to work on his debut album, Grace (1994 Columbia).
Bassist Mick Grondahl and drummer Matt Johnson followed Buckley into Bearsville Studios in upstate New York to record the majority of his debut solo album, with producer Andy Wallace behind the scenes. Upon Buckley’s return to New York City, a second guitarist, Michael Tighe, joined the band. It was Tighe that co-wrote the last-minute future single, “So Real.” When it was released in 1994, Grace almost immediately became a critical darling, but the album’s dark ethereal overtones didn’t fit into a musical landscape still dominated by grunge. Though it was slow to catch on in American, the album was popular in Europe and Australia. Undaunted, Buckley launched his first tour with a full band in August of that year, which he dubbed “The Peyote Radio Theatre Tour.” It would be the first of several tours across the world for Buckley, as he was on the road for nearly two years.
In 1995 Buckley played the Paris Olympia, a venue made famous by French chanteuse—and Buckley’s heroine—Edith Piaf. He would later describe the experience as the best show he had ever played. Live at L’Olympia (2001 Sony International) would be released posthumously as a document of the event.
Upon returning to America, Buckley decided to relocate to Memphis, Tennessee to begin working on his much-anticipated sophomore effort. Tentatively titled My Sweetheart, the Drunk, the album would be an uphill creative battle for Buckley. The first sessions were recorded with producer and former television frontman, Tom Verlaine. Dissatisfied with the results, Buckley scrapped those sessions and started from scratch, recording demos of new material in his Memphis cottage. Later that spring, Buckley informed his band that he was ready to start recording a second session in Memphis. Just as the band’s plane was landing in Memphis, Buckley went for the fateful swim, fully clothed, in the Wolf River. He was 30 years old when he died. Unfortunately for fans, the new and reworked material for his ideal vision of My Sweetheart, the Drunk went with him. The Verlaine sessions along with a second disc of demos was released as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (Columbia) in 1998.
Since Jeff Buckley’s tragic death, his family estate, led by his mother Mary, have posthumously released a live album, Mystery White Boy: Live 95-96 (2000, Columbia); a singles collection, The Grace EP’s (2002 Sony); and a best of collection, So Real: Songs of Jeff Buckley (2007 Columbia/Legacy). Buckley has sold more albums in death than he ever sold in his lifetime. His music continues to inspire both music lovers and musicians alike, and he remains one of rock music’s greatest tragedies.