Music and tragedy have a long history together. From the ill-fated 27 Club to the plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and Ritchie Valens in 1959, there has always been a tangible connection between remarkable creativity and the possibility of a tragic death. This can manifest itself in a spiral of drugs and alcoholism for some or random, ill-fated occurrences of everyday life for others. But regardless of its cause, the resulting devastation for friends and family and fans can be catastrophic—just look at this past year for instances of how the passing of noted musicians have left painful voids in our lives.
But this pain is even more substantial when a given artist has only just begun to show their talent at the time of their death. This is perfectly exemplified in the brief career and life of acclaimed singer-songwriter and guitarist Jeff Buckley, who himself was the son of famed musician Tim Buckley, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 28 in 1975. Jeff Buckley’s death wasn’t from drugs or alcohol—he drowned while taking a swim, fully clothed, in the Mississippi River one night while waiting for his band to arrive from New York on May 29, 1997.
Born in Orange, California, in 1966, Jeff was the sole son of Mary Guibert and singer Tim Buckley, although he was principally raised by his mother and stepfather, Ron Moorhead, in Southern California alongside his half-brother, Corey. He was known by his family as Scottie Moorhead—a combination of his middle name and his stepfather’s surname. Buckley only met his biological father once, when he was 8 years old, but after Tim Buckley overdosed on heroin, Jeff chose to use both the Buckley name and his given first name of Jeff(rey).
Buckley was brought up around a cross-section of various types of music. His mother was a classically trained cellist and pianist, while his stepfather introduced him to bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Who and Queen. He first started playing guitar when he was 5, after finding an acoustic guitar in his grandmother's closet. He received his first electric one, a black Les Paul, when he was 13 and developed a series of guitar-centric but varied musical influences and interests. After moving to North Hollywood after graduation, he attended the Musicians Institute but considered it "the biggest waste of time."
Over the next few years, Buckley was employed at a hotel and spent time performing with various bands as he worked his way through a handful of genres. He eventually moved to New York City in 1990 but found little in the way of opportunity. After his brief New York sabbatical, Buckley headed back to Los Angeles at the behest of his father's former manager, Herb Cohen. They recorded a four-track demo cassette that they hoped to shop around for a label deal.
After performing at a tribute concert to his father in New York, attention and recognition that had eluded him for so long were suddenly cast upon him—and everyone was taking notice. He made routine trips between LA and New York City, eventually settling into a performance schedule that included regular stops at Sin-é in the East Village and various clubs and cafés across Lower Manhattan. As he began to draw larger and larger crowds, labels approached Buckley about recording his debut record. He signed with Columbia Records and went to work crafting the material that would come to form "Grace," his only official studio release.
Released in 1994, "Grace" isn't just one of the greatest debuts of the '90s—it is one of the greatest records released in the past 25 years. Possessing one of the most affecting and unique voices in music and a knack for lean, gorgeous melodies, Buckley infuses these songs with an emotional intuition that feels almost unbearably intimate at times. His guitar work is simultaneously dense and light, filled with the glittering beauty of a spring morning. His voice is angelic and passionate, the perfect vehicle for this kind of cathartic rock impressionism. It's truly a wonder to witness his voice reach down deep in your chest and tenderly pluck those gossamer heartstrings.
Songs such as "So Real" and "Last Goodbye" present Buckley as one step ahead of the alt-rock mainstream that crowded the radio and television in the first half of the '90s. As far removed from the empty bluster of those around him as you can imagine, he saw music as a way to evolve and release the weight of our experiences without restraint or limitation. And we haven't even gotten to his heartbreaking rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." With a devastating, almost-religious fervor, he imbues Cohen's words with a feral magnetism, and with each passing year, his version reaffirms itself as the kind of once-in-a-lifetime miracle that we rarely hear but can't stop talking about.
"Grace" isn't a marvel of Buckley's genius because of any one given thing—although there are numerous individual moments that would merit that description. No, it is a true revelation because he is so honest and unguarded in his prose and melody. This record still feels like we're intruding upon some beautiful moment frozen in time, a functioning miracle that washes over us in waves of euphoria and tears and love and everything that he was able to give. In the end, we needed him just as much as he needed us, it seems. And when he was taken from us—when that voice was silenced—the world lost a measure of its brilliance. But we have "Grace," and in it, we've been given something sacred and secular, something that was poured out from his lungs and cast into our hearts.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.