Jeff Buckley – Mannish Boy, Setting Sun
by Penny Arcade
At Jeff Buckley’s last gig at Barrister’s, a tiny hole in the wall Memphis bar on Monday June 26th, his first words on stage were “Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, he’s fucking dead, the guy from Brainiac is fucking dead. I want this to mean something to every fucking one of you.” He began to play “Terminal Cancer” a song that includes the line “The world has eternal cancer”. “I guess that’s how the guy from Brainiac felt,” he continued as he segued into “Hallelujah” in requiem for Brainiac’s Tim Taylor who had died in a solo car crash. Over the next hour and a half, Jeff joked with the audience, pointing out that there was free red wine at the bar that he had brought in for the audience. “Free,” he said, “that’s spelled f-r-e-e.” He continued with the rest of his set which included “Corpus Christi Carol,” a song he hadn’t performed live in over two years. “Is that how you like your rock heroes – dead?” he demanded.
After the show a fan waiting to have Buckley autograph her copy of “Grace” asked how Taylor had died. “He blew up!,” he shouted as he grabbed a beer bottle off the bar, threw it across the room without breaking it and walked away to the jukebox on the other side of the room. Gayle Kelemen, creator of Jeff’s unofficial web page, who had introduced Jeff to Brainiac’s music and had been previously unaware of Taylor’s death, followed Buckley to the jukebox. “Are you upset about one of your favorite musicians dying?,” he snarled at her. “I hope you are, I hope you are because that’s why I create music.”
On Corpus Christi Thursday May 29th, at approximately 9:22 PM Jeff Buckley stopped creating music in this sphere. Singing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” at the top of his lungs while floating on his back in the muddy waters of the Wolf River, a main tributary to the mighty Mississippi, he slipped away, dragged down under the waters. Arguably one of the most gifted song stylists and vocalists of this or any other era, Jeff had the sensibility of a great rock visionary wedded to a rigorous emotional and societal inquiry. Awing his own generation and in fact any generation of musical aficionado, his vocal intimacy hid little of an artist who lives and explores fear and ecstasy, the fundamental experiences of what it is to be fully human.
Jeff loved, breathed all music. He sought the heart of the song. He covered everything from Nusrat Fat Ali Khan’s “Halka, Halka” to Bob Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina” to Edith Piaf’s “Hymn to Love.” He inhabited Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” so totally, so hypnotically, that the silence during these songs in concert palpitated, his intimacy edged with a humanity that echoed with all the legendary chanteuses, from Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan to Edith Piaf, to Nina Simone, to Nusrat Fat Ali Khan, just some of the stars who made up his personal pantheon of musical heroes and heroines.
Jeff was a fan. The audience breathed with Jeff and held their breath with Jeff. He created that possibility by playing the silence between notes. Like the greatest tragedians, Jeff was a consummate physical comedian with the timing and brilliance of a young Chaplin and those audiences lucky enough to witness his improvisations and eerie gift for mimicry will never forget it. Jeff Buckley appeared out off nowhere to create a stir that moved even the most jaded rock hands to marvel at his talent and beauty of his artistic gifts. At the “Tim Buckley Tribute” organized by the brilliantly eclectic Hal Willner in 1991 at St Ann’s Church, Jeff stunned the audience with the sophistication of his delivery. Willner admits he hadn’t seen or heard Jeff perform previously. “Jeff sang Tim’s “Once I was” and he blew the whole place away,” recalls Willner. Jeff would never sing one of his father’s songs again. “I never got to go to my father’s funeral. It was my way of paying my respect,” Jeff would later state. Tim Buckley remained a stranger to Jeff despite his going out of his way to meet friends of his late father. “Jeff asked me to introduce him to people who had known his father, ” recalled taste maker Danny Fields who had met Tim Buckley in 1966, six months before Jeff’s birth and had gone on to work at Electra Records because of his involvement with the elder Buckley. “We had a luncheon with the people who had been Tim’s New York friends. Jeff asked a lot of questions. He wanted to know what Tim’s politics were, how he thought about things.”
Jeff felt he had laid the question of his father to rest in his own mind. “When were both dead and gone, I hope that both our work will stand respectfully on its own,” was Jeff’s comment on the subject he felt was limited but the media would continue to bring up his father. Every interview or feature would have the now obligatory paragraph about his father’s untimely death at 28 from an accidental drug overdose. Comparisons were frequent, his looks and vocal qualities insured that. After the release of his first album “Grace”, Jeff became more haunted by the media’s appetite for the dead rock star syndrome. Constant speculation was given to Jeff’s own quirky reaction to stardom. Jeff despised the lack of privacy and focus on his personal life and family. “I’m human,” he railed more than once. “I don’t live on the internet or television.”
One of his last songs “The Sky is a Landfill” urged the listener to “turn away from the screen” and to be conscious of being “a slave to the system.” Shortly after the Tim Buckley tribute in 1991, Jeff moved to New York permanently, choosing the bohemian art scene of the Lower East Side of New York City as his home. He was introduced into a sense of historical rebellion against the commercial art and entertainment industry as he was drawn into the world of Rebecca Moore, whose family headed by photographer Peter Moore and his wife Barbara, spanned the current performance art world that Rebecca inhabited back thru the avant-garde multimedia world of NYC’s avant-garde world and the FLUXUS movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Here Jeff found his true artistic home, an antidote to the commercial world of the entertainment industry, whose focus was on process and long term artistic development which largely rejects “product” mentality. Jeff chose this world when he could have chosen the more superficial world of Hollywood and glitz. Jeff identified with many downtown artists tirelessly giving support, money and service to many. It was certainly more common to see Jeff washing dishes at Sine’ after his own show there or crawling onto a stage with a guitar amp and mike cord to rescue a performance from a blown sound system as he did at the “Last Will and Testament of Quentin Crisp” at NYC’s KGB Theatre in November 1996, than to see him the center of attention and adulation anywhere except with his eyes closed singing his heart out on stage. Jeff like many artists before him lived and wrote with the knowledge of his own death. However it is simplistic and erroneous to think that because it was part of his artistic task to explore the fragility and alienation of the human heart and soul, that this exploration belied a perverse morbidity on his part. The dark landscape of the human soul that he traversed was his area of inquiry. It is the job of certain artists to do that for all of humanity.
As an artist in 1997, he carried the history of pop culture on his shoulders by inclination and by inheritance. Jeff was unassuming, modest and caring yet he could be fierce and blunt far past what the over socialized saw as ‘teen angst’. Jeff stood for the big questions not the fast answers. He identified his enemies. He was a man with an urgent mission and his urgency is unmistakable in his music. He could be tormented and restless. Like all visionaries he saw past the dross of everyday mechanics. He wanted to truly live and he wanted that for everyone in the world. Jeff was not content to sit on the sidelines and hope for the best. He wanted and called for a revolution against the banality and narrowness of the media and the entertainment industry and he chose to fight for it in the only place one could fight, on their turf. He reoriented his own generation and fought the cultural amnesia that had been foisted upon them thru the mono-culture of MTV, urging them to explore other music, other art forms, and to fight for their own voice and their own visions.
Sadly, Jeff Buckley’s vision quest ended on a hot humid night in Memphis, Tennessee. Jeff had always sought out the edge of ecstasy much like the transcendent Sufi’s quest for the face of the Beloved in his favorite Qawwali singer Nusrat Fat Ali Khan. In that moment of euphoria and freedom, floating on his back, fully clothed in that Memphis river Jeff Buckley merged with that eternal flow.