Friday, 19 January 2018

Jeff Buckley and the Tragedy of Unfulfilled Potential

by Cordelia Hobbs

“I just want to have a completely adventurous, passionate, weird life” - Jeff Buckley


He certainly lived up to this self-made, self-fulfilling prophecy. Jeff Buckley made one studio album in his lifetime, entitled “Grace”, but maybe he was best known for his elegiac and deeply emotive cover of Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah”. 

Scott Moorhead, as he was known to his family, always difficulty lived in the shadow of his famous folk-rock father, Tim Buckley, who was absent for virtually all of his life. This angered Buckley; his father had died of a heroin overdose aged just twenty eight, having only met Jeff once a year before his death when Jeff was eight years old. 

Jeff Buckley's real and close parent figure was his step father, Ron Moorhead. Jeff Buckley's talent was ironically spotted at a tribute concert for his father. Wrinkled hippies swooned over his eerily similar vocals. It was as if a ghost of Tim Buckley had come down from heaven to perform one last time via the medium of his son. His music career shot off. Jeff Buckley, as he was now known, spent the early years of the 1990s after college doing covers of all kinds and developing some originals in Manhattan. Most notable were covers of The Smiths and Nina Simone but he explored every corner of music, even indulging in English choral composers such as Benjamin Britten. It is safe to say he appreciated the beauty and intricacy of all music. One recording of a night in open mic cafe, Sin-é, during these early years resulted in a live album, the only other full album we have left except Grace.

Grace may be my favourite album of all time and I’m not alone in this thought. Musical God, David Bowie, named Grace the best album ever made and considered it his only “Desert Island Disc”. I can see why. The album is unbelievably versatile, from the sweet, floating and awe-inspiring soprano notes of “Corpus Christi Carol”, demonstrating Buckley’s superhuman range of nearly four octaves and a tessitura (natural vocal range) alike to opera legend Pavarotti. At the other end of the spectrum we have the gritty, ineffable electric guitar riffs in “So Real”, showing Buckley’s wild and natural virtuosity that was born when he first picked up a guitar aged five and honed in those roadie years before. His most famous recording would have to be a cover of Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah”. Jeff Buckley describes the first time he performed “Hallelujah” at an open mic night as completely spontaneous, learning the chords just before his show. The recording has peaked at certain times after his death, most notably in the UK in 2008 after Alexandra Burke sang the song on the X factor, although it was never quite as popular while he was still alive. When you listen to the record itself, it’s easy to see why it's a hidden gem. Buckley has something haunting and hypnotic about his voice, the intertwined themes of lost love and religion are reborn in Jeff Buckley’s vocals and the meaning of the lyrics are drawn out in a whole new light with every listening. His incredible breath control is demonstrated near the end in which he holds a C note for a full twenty eight seconds with unwavering tone and quality.

This story does not end happily, however. After three years of touring the world with Grace, Jeff needed some time away from his growing fame. He moved to Memphis, Tennessee, got some well-earned rest and worked on his second album My Sweetheart the Drunk. Once he was ready, he drove with a friend back to New York to meet with his beloved band and record the album, brimming with potential. Stopping en-route at the Wolf River channel in the Mississippi river, he waded into the river fully clothed for a swim whilst listening to his idol Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”; he was dragged under the water by the wake of a passing boat and drowned. Helicopters were called that night and a search for any sign of life was made but to no avail. His body was spotted nine days later by a tour boat on June 8th. The story of his death is as stereotypically rock-star as it is tragic, but we will never forget the lost talent and legend of Jeff Buckley. That's why I think he is the greatest artist ever to have lived.

“I don't really need to be remembered. I hope the music's remembered.” - Jeff Buckley

“The most audacious thing I could possibly state in this day and age is that life is worth living. It's worth being bashed against. It's worth getting scarred by. It's worth pouring yourself over every one of it’s coals.” - Jeff Buckley

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