Incandescent. That word fully describes Jeff Buckley to a T. His meteoric rise to fame was a brilliant flash of light, only to be snuffed out by his apparently accidental drowning at age 30.
Born in Southern California, Jeff spent his early years growing up in Orange County. He began playing guitar at the age of five after discovering an acoustic guitar in his grandmother’s closet. He got his first electric guitar – a Gibson Les Paul – at age 13, after stating he wanted to be a professional musician.
He was brought up around music, with his mother being a classically trained pianist and cellist. His biological father was a singer-songwriter who Jeff only met once. His stepfather was the one who introduced him to Led Zeppelin, Queen, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and Pink Floyd at an early age, cementing Jeff’s love for music. His first album was Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, and he was also a fan of KISS.
After graduation, he moved north to attend The Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, completing a one-year course at age 19. Buckley later told Rolling Stone the school was “the biggest waste of time,” but noted in a separate interview that he appreciated studying music theory there, saying, “I was attracted to really interesting harmonies, stuff that I would hear in Ravel, Ellington, Bartók.”
Buckley spent a decade as a session guitarist in Los Angeles, and in New York City, amassing a following in the early 1990s by playing cover songs at venues in Manhattan’s East Village, gradually focusing more on his own material. During that period, he rebuffed offers from labels until he received one from Columbia through his biological fathers’ agent, Herb Cohen for a three-album, essentially million-dollar deal in October 1992.
Buckley then recruited a band, and recorded what would be his only studio album, Grace. Hespent the next 3 years touring in promotion of that release. His shows attracted a lot of attention from other musicians, like Jimmy Page, Chris Cornell and Chrissy Hynde. Even Bob Dylan proclaimed Buckley “one of the great songwriters of this decade.”
But during this period, Buckley started suffering from burn-out, and reduced his touring schedule. He eventually posted this note to his website, “There was a time in my life not too long ago when I could show up in a cafe and simply do what I do, make music, learn from performing my music, explore what it means to me, i.e., have fun while I irritate and/or entertain an audience who don’t know me or what I am about. In this situation I have that precious and irreplaceable luxury of failure, of risk, of surrender. I worked very hard to get this kind of thing together, this work forum. I loved it and then I missed it when it disappeared. All I am doing is reclaiming it.”
Buckley was also using this break as a creative one to write new material in preparation for his next album, My Sweetheart the Drunk. Interest continued to rise, and on February 4, 1997, Buckley played a short set at The Knitting Factory’s tenth anniversary concert featuring a selection of the new songs: “Jewel Box”, “Morning Theft”, “Everybody Here Wants You”, “The Sky is a Landfill” and “Yard of Blonde Girls” to a very receptive audience, including Lou Reed. Reed was so impressed; he expressed an interest in wanting to work with Buckley.
Buckley decided he wanted to record this album in Memphis, and moved there, renting a house in the area. They recorded the material; however, Buckley was not entirely happy with the results and he sent his band back to New York while he stayed behind to work on the songs. The band was scheduled to return to Memphis for rehearsals and recording sessions on May 29, 1997.
On that very evening, he decided to swim fully clothed in the Wolf River Harbor while friend and roadie, Keith Foti, remained with the guitar and a radio nearby on the shore. After turning away for a minute, Foti turned back to see Buckley had tragically disappeared from view. A rescue effort that night and the morning after by scuba teams and police failed to discover him.
On June 4, passengers on the American Queen riverboat spotted his body in the Wolf River caught in some branches, and he was brought to land. Buckley’s autopsy showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in his system, and the death was ruled an accidental drowning. The official Jeff Buckley website published a statement saying that his death was not mysterious and was not a suicide.
After Buckley’s death, a collection of demo recordings and a full-length album he had been reworking for his second album were released as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, the compilation being overseen by his mother, Mary Guibert, band members, as well as Chris Cornell. Three other albums have also been released posthumously, all recordings of his live shows, including a DVD.
Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of Operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected]