Jeff Buckley was haunted by comparisons to his famous father Tim, a father he never knew as anything more than a voice on a record, a voice often very similar to his own, and who he only met once.
Raised as Scottie Moorhead in Orange County, he didn’t reinvent himself as Jeff Buckley until after his father’s death. Tim Buckley died in 1975 aged just 28.
Far from building a career on his famous name, the young Jeff worked for many years as a guitarist and backing singer, making his own way and his own success.
Eventually he arrived in New York as a singer-songwriter, playing cafes and bars and building a name for himself. His reputation earned him recording contract and a band, and work began on forming his one completed studio album Grace, released in 1995.
Grace made a slow start, but soon became a critical success. Jeff and his band embarked on a long tour to promote the record, and it slowly crept its way into the charts. The quality shone through from the start, helped by radio-friendly first single Last Goodbye and several TV appearances that gave him the opportunity to showcase his unique voice in an acoustic setting.
Work was underway on the second studio album, which was later released unfinished as Sketches for My Sweetheart The Drunk, when Jeff walked into the Mississippi River on May 29th 1997 for an impromptu evening swim and never resurfaced.
Swept under by strong currents, his body was found days later. His death was ruled an accident with no suspicious circumstances. At 30, he had outlived his father by only 2 years.
It was the end of a bright career that blazed like a firework, fizzling out at its highest point.
The work that was released after his death was arguably his best. Posthumous singles Everybody Here Wants You and Forget Her show an increasing musical maturity, and a confidence and richness to his vocals that he was still developing during the Grace years.
His legacy has been long-lasting, mainly among his peers. Jeff’s vocal style can still be heard every day in the multitudes of lead singers that have been influenced by him. Many bands today would not even exist if their members hadn’t listened to Grace as teenagers and decided to start a group. I hear songs all the time that I think of as ‘Jeff songs’ and wonder how he would have put his own original spin on them.
His songs hinted at hidden depths, doomed love, smoky New York bars and rainy mornings, but there was no sign of that in the real Jeff. He was sweet, goofy, fun, a sunny California boy with unruly hair and a beatnik spirit, a boy who carried his talent gently and humbly and without arrogance.
Jeff’s career was too short to truly let his incandescent light shine. It is unlikely he’ll ever be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, no matter how many times he tops ‘best ever’ lists, and many youngsters have never even heard of him, although they know his emulators well.
There have been some collectors editions and other early recordings released in recent years, but he wasn’t around long enough to ensure a stead stream of records to keep him in the public consciousness. It would be awful for him to fade into history as just another dead rock star, someone whose work becomes forgotten as years go by.
Jeff was an original, a wonderful singer who could leap from banshee shrieks to soulful whispers within the same breath.
He sang of broken hearts, ghosts and eternal sadness, but in reality there was nothing to indicate he was racing towards an early death.
What he leaves behind, he leaves in our hearts, in our memories, and in the music that carries us through the dark hours of the night. That is something that will never die.