Jeff Buckley: River's Edge

Remembering the late 'Grace' singer-songwriter

Jeff Buckley Credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns

For Jeff Buckley, it had been an early evening of driving around Memphis, Tenn., in a rented truck with his fellow musician (and roadie) Keith Foti, listening to Foti's mix tape —– Jane's Addiction, Porno for Pyros, the Beatles' "I am the Walrus." Their idea was to eventually go play twin sets of drums at a rehearsal space set aside for Buckley's band, which would be arriving by plane later that very night of Thursday, May 29, to begin recording the follow-up to his first full-length album, Grace. But Buckley couldn't seem to locate the building.

So they drove, recalls the 23-year-old Foti, not stopping to eat or drink, until the idea came: "Why don't we go down by the water?" Around dusk they parked the truck in the nearly empty lot adjoining the Tennessee Welcome Center near the heart of downtown. They brought their boombox down the sloping bank to the shoreline of the Wolf River channel of the Mississippi River.

Within a few minutes, Buckley would be a victim of the river's noted unpredictability –— and his own. Though his friends and the local authorities would spend a long night of fruitless searching, it was presumed that Buckley had drowned. It would be six days before the singer's body was given up by the river, found at the foot of Beale Street —– amid branches and the other debris that typically gathers at a slow-swirling eddy where the channel meets the Mississippi. At the time of his death, Jeff Buckley was six months short of his 31st birthday, and his fans and many critics felt that his promise was as bright as any musician of his generation.

Ten days after Buckley's body has surfaced, his road manager, Gene Bowen, stands by the riverbank. Looking at the muddy rush of water, he asks, "Why would you even put your toe in that? But it's typical Jeff. He was a butterfly, you know? He was just like: 'Go with it.'"

You can't swim in that water

"We used to call it the chute," says Coast Guard Petty Officer H.C. Kilpatrick about the channel, because it carried the eastern fork of the Wolf's flow into the Mississippi. But the Army Corps of Engineers had capped the north end of the chute with an earthen dam, creating a seemingly quiet channel set apart from the Mississippi by a sprawling sandbank known as Mud Island but still fed from the south by the river's waters. "Almost like a backwater," Kilpatrick points out, noting the whirlpool-like eddies where the river rushes around Mud Island, "and definitely having undertows that are way underestimated."

When Buckley entered the water from the trash-strewn bank, he was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and boots. He turned, grinning back at Foti, as he drifted in backward. When he was about knee deep, Foti remembers cautioning him: "You can't swim in that water." As Buckley continued, Foti repeated his caution: "What are you doing, man?" But Buckley smilingly reclined into the slate-gray water, singing the chorus of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" as he backstroked into the channel.

About 100 feet offshore is one of two massive cement pylons that support a monorail bridge to Mud Island. Buckley had just crossed past it in the growing darkness when Foti yelled that a small boat was approaching down the center of the channel, which the corps keeps dredging to a depth of some 9 feet.

"Hey, get out of the way!" yelled Foti, and Buckley did, but very shortly afterward, a larger boat appeared, creating a wake that surged toward the shoreline. Foti turned for just seconds to move the boombox off the flat rock where it sat. When he turned back, he says, "There was no sight of Jeff."

After calling out for Buckley with increasing desperation for several minutes, Foti ran up the bank to the welcome center. There, at a pay phone not far from a statue of Elvis Presley, he called the police at 9:22 p.m. Help arrived quickly, but despite the presence of helicopters, police launches and officers combing the shoreline under emergency lighting ("This place was lit up like Christmas," recalls Bowen), there would be no sight of Buckley until June 4, around 4:30 p.m., when a passenger aboard the riverboat American Queen spotted his body.

Bowen identified the body, barely recognizable at this stage but bearing Buckley's navel ring with a purple bead and, as the autopsy noted, "green shiny toenail polish on three toenails." The probable cause of death was "drowning," although at press time, the Shelby County medical examiner had not yet completed a toxicology report from blood samples taken before Buckley's body was cremated. Bowen, after closing down the house Buckley had planned to buy on a quiet residential street in Memphis, drove some of the singer's possessions up to New York and carried his ashes to Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert.

Buckley had moved to Memphis to record what would effectively be his second album, though 1994's Grace had been preceded by a well-loved four-song EP, Live at Sin-é, which had introduced the singer in December of 1993. Whether onstage or in the studio, Buckley made intensely personal music, ushering in songs with quavering guitar and moving from whispery, sensitive soliloquies to wailing, drum-thrashed sonic assaults. A natural high tenor with unfailing control of his falsetto, he could move surely through four octaves.

Even though Buckley avoided the guttural rumblings that marked the folk and jazz excursions of his natural father, the much-celebrated '60s singer Tim Buckley, he was constantly being compared to the man whom he met only once, briefly, when Jeff was 8. Two months after that meeting, on June 29, 1975, Tim was dead, at age 28, of an overdose brought on by a combination of heroin, morphine and alcohol.

Tim Buckley left behind nine albums, which portrayed his singular progression from a romantic, visionary folk troubadour (Goodbye and Hello, 1967) to his increasingly jazz-inflected poesy (Starsailor, 1971) to, finally, a randy rocker. The apparitions in his brilliant 1972 album Greetings From L.A. range from post-Vietnam lost soul ("Nighthawkin") to broken-hearted international roué ("Hong Kong Bar"). The elder Buckley never quite became a star, and the few sparing obituaries generally failed to mention his estranged wife, Mary, a classically trained pianist who'd been born in the Panama Canal Zone. Most also failed to mention his son, Jeffrey Scott Buckley.

Life as Scott Moorhead

Jeff Buckley was born in Los Angeles, on Nov. 17, 1966, at a time when his father already had abandoned his mother. Buckley was raised mostly in Orange County, Calif., surrounded, he has said, "by music and marijuana," and kept his belongings in paper bags because of the family's frequent moves. He spent his high school years among kids he referred to as the "Disneyland Nazi youth" of Anaheim, Calif. An elfin, contrary loner, he didn't cherish his yearbook: "I had already drawn trails of blood trickling down the faces of all the popular people, and I just threw it out."

Buckley had been raised as Scott Moorhead –— from his middle name and the surname of his stepfather, auto mechanic Ron Moorhead. Unresolvedly bitter over his natural father's uncaringness, Buckley spoke well of Moorhead –— often noting that his step-dad gave him his first Led Zep album –— and the two stayed in touch even after Ron and Mary split up.

"Jeff and I had a wonderful talk on the telephone a few days prior to the accident," says Moorhead. "He always reassured me that I was his dad and he was my son. Jeff was so happy. He told me he had stopped smoking and stopped eating meat. He was so excited about going into the studio; he felt his voice was the best it had ever been. Nothing in this world will ever take away the hurt in my heart, but the fact that I know my Scotty was so happy and full of joy softens my tears."

Mary Guibert (who appears to be Buckley's sole heir; he left no will) became a remote yet curiously vivid figure in the days after her son's drowning. "It has become apparent to me my son will not be walking out of the river," she said in a press release. "It is now time to make plans to celebrate a life that was golden." In her statement for this article, she said, "The story of my son's life is much bigger and richer than the few years he spent as a recording artist."

Chanteuse with a penis

Jeff Buckley grew up consumed by music, playing in outfits ranging from reggae cover groups to metal bands. Not long after he decided to skip college, he enrolled in Los Angeles' Musicians Institute – — a notorious station of the cross for L.A. hair bands. The music he'd learned from his classically trained mom melded with something much ruder, and Buckley soon bounced between coasts, making demos –— clearly talented but still searching for focus.

Buckley had immense self-confidence, a kind of bad-boy zeal mixed with a natural spieler's stage savvy. He could play, note-perfectly, the '60s and '70s rock that he said had "polluted" his musical training. And he immersed himself, courageously, into anything from Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday (he once called himself "a chanteuse with a penis") to the Bad Brains, Van Morrison and scads of Bob Dylan. He particularly loved Dylan's "If You See Her, Say Hello." At a gathering held at St. Mark's Church in New York 13 days after Buckley's death, many a tear was shed when his musical pal Tom Clarke played "If You See Her." The mythological strands around the singer's death will enforce the true believer's mystical view that Buckley's gift came from "some other place." But his craft actually has roots that are quite straightforwardly traced.

Buckley often cited Led Zeppelin II ("Whole Lotta Love," "Ramble On") as the record that bewitched him into rocking, though he came to favor the more exotic drones and wailing of Zep's Physical Graffiti. "He had the audio equivalent of a photographic memory," recalls Andy Wallace, who produced Grace. "Not only everything from [Charles] Mingus to Sonic Youth, but every verse of 'Yummy, Yummy, Yummy.'"

Buckley's abrupt arrival on the New York art-pop scene came with his invitation to play at a concert tribute to Tim Buckley at St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn on April 26, 1991. Writer Bill Flanagan, an early Buckley adherent, recalls how, just before intermission, during an "at-times tedious" show in which performers played by an altar, "Jeff appeared, in silhouette, and for the first time the stained-glass window was lit up. He strums a guitar and starts singing one of Tim's songs, 'I never asked to be your mountain.'" It was the elder Buckley's autobiographical tale of abandoning his family: "The flying Pisces sails for time and tells me of my child/Wrapped in bitter tales of heartache, he begs for just a smile." His hair then long and curly, Buckley sounded uncannily like his father and evoked "a little bit of a gasp," recalls Flanagan. "At the end of that night, he was surrounded by people handing him their business cards."

It was the start of Buckley's cat-and-mouse game not just with his father's legend but with his own. "He had been in bands in L.A.," says Flanagan. "He'd bumped into Tim Buckley cultists enough to notice he wanted to stay clear of them; he wasn't a novice to any of this."

That night he met lover-to-be Rebecca Moore, who at the time was helping to stage the shows at St. Ann's. The daughter of veteran downtown photographer Peter Moore, who documented the famed '60s performance-art group Fluxus and other avant-garde phenomena, she was a beauty who plugged Buckley into an arty world he hadn't seen. He finally decamped for good from California to be near her. In the inner fold of Grace's sleeve, he acknowledged Rebecca's father: "P., Thank you for her. Thank you for them all. Bless you for us two. Love, Jeff."

"When he got here, at 23 or 24," says New York performance artist Penny Arcade, who was among Buckley's closest friends, "Jeff was coming from pop culture, from cultural amnesia, and all of a sudden he found himself in the middle of a scene steeped in a history of artists working for generations."

After a brief stint in the band Gods and Monsters —– led by Captain Beefheart alumnus Gary Lucas –— Buckley took his craft solo, he said, "to sit still and let the music –— what it sounded like, its philosophy, its needs, its eccentricities —– come to me." He listened repeatedly to such adored musical touchstones as Duke Ellington and Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but on-stage Buckley poured his irrepressible emotionality into covers of pop, rap, folk and even cabaret songs. "Certain emotions," he said, "just take you to the notes —– being furious, heroic, sad, erotic, when rain comes...."

Buckley was quite capable of shedding tears, doing Edith Piaf's "Je N'en Connais Pas la Fin" at Sin-é, but he was even more capable of doing long skeins of stand-up-style banter with the audience. Present at those early shows at the East Village dive were label heads like Arista's Clive Davis and Columbia's Don Ienner. Even though Buckley had virtually nothing but cover tunes to offer them, his gift was so apparent that a quiet bidding war began. He had hooked up with lawyer George Stein for guidance, and, although several labels were willing to cut him a deal with rich signing bonuses and creative control, he settled in at Sony in part because of an empathetic A&R man, Steve Berkowitz –— plus, Buckley had glimpsed a giant photo of the young Dylan in the company's hallway.

Buckley's debut EP had primed the pump, and when Grace came out, in August of 1994, it was welcomed not just by his eager cult but by some 250,000 others ("The Last Goodbye" stayed near the top of Billboard's Modern Rock chart for 19 weeks). With the band he'd recruited for the studio –— drummer Matt Johnson, bassist Mick Grondahl and, just in time for the last album cut, guitarist Michael Tighe –— Buckley hit the road for the better part of two years, crisscrossing the United States and Europe (where, at Paris' Olympia Theater, fans ripped his shirt off his back) and also breaking big in Australia.

The road, and the demands of minor but intense rock stardom, undid the romance with Moore. Joan Wasser, violinist and vocalist with Buckley's sometime support act the Dambuilders, became a frequent companion. So he toured on, playing quirky club gigs and giving fervid interviews: "My personal aesthetic is to be affected directly by everything about what you're seeing.... I don't mind being dashed on the rocks.... My most base act of defiance is to live a long time and still rock."

He'd survived past 28, the year of Tim Buckley's sudden end, but had grown plenty sick of the questions about and the comparisons with his father. "I remember," recalls producer Wallace, "him telling me how the one time that he met his father, it was a relatively negative interaction where he sort of felt like his father just wasn't that interested in Jeff. That's a tough thing to have happen —– that [and the comparisons] combined just make it a very, very raw nerve."

I'll never end up like my old man

After nearly three years on the road, Buckley halted. Management told him to take some time off, then woodshed and write songs. No pressure —– just that dreaded second album. His downtown friends felt the tension: "He was on edge in terms of being completely afraid to make a second album," says a friend Nicholas Hill, a record producer and alternative-radio DJ, who heard Buckley's frustration come out as anger against the label. "I would always yell back at him, 'You consciously made a decision to go with the biggest record company you could find.'"

"Last fall," says Penny Arcade, who shared a psychoanalyst with Buckley, "he called me late one night, and I went and met him. He was really going through a lot of changes about the new album, feeling a lot of pressure. He just had his 30th birthday. He was pretty upset, pretty shaky, and he said, 'I just want to be as good as my father.' And I said, 'Well, you've got a problem, because your father made nine albums before he was 28.... Just by virtue of the way the music industry is today, you couldn't make that many records.... [But] he wasn't at all about, you know, being the guy with dark glasses in the convertible breezing down La Brea Boulevard. That wasn't his vision.

"Jeff has been going through turbulence ever since he was born," Arcade continues. "He was in a very rigorous personal inquiry of what it was to live in America at this point in history. I'm playing a tape now of one of his unreleased songs, 'The Sky Is a Landfill.' Before he died he called me from Memphis, and we spoke for three hours. I told him that that song would be the 'Stairway to Heaven' of his generation."

With the public ghost of his father (and a glimmer of Jim Morrison, who died at age 27) shadowing him, it was often rumored that Buckley had been abusing drugs, notably heroin. Gossip, about which Buckley vented his disgust in these pages, had him playing romantic games with Courtney Love and Holemate Melissa Auf Der Maur. But one source deep in the Love/Hole camp maintains that Buckley's smack use was "common knowledge." The source, however, never saw it. Another musician who is a veteran of such scenes said that Buckley's behavior at a particular after-show party was, to his eyes, blatantly junked out. Yet a good dozen friends and colleagues who saw Buckley regularly in recent years insist he was either categorically clean or, at most, may have merely experimented with drugs. "If you're an addict, you're an addict," says Keith Foti, who quit substance abuse two years ago, "and if you're not, you're not. Jeff obviously was not."

"It just wasn't around," says Bowen, who kicked five years ago. "My drug of choice was heroin —– that's what took me down, and that's what took his father down. And he always said, 'I'll never end up like my old man.'" Buckley was the age his father died at when he said in an interview that "drugs are like Vegas: The house always wins."

The singer would make knowledgeably sardonic references to drugs, as in his description of Grace's "Mojo Pin" in a 1994 interview: "Plainly speaking... it's a euphemism for a dropper full of smack that you shoot in your arm." In any event, despite early reports mistakenly saying that the autopsy itself had scotched the drug rumors, final confirmation that Buckley died clean was still pending the Memphis medical examiner's toxicology report, not completed as of a month after his death. (The ME is Dr. Jerry Francisco, who controversially ruled that Elvis Presley's body had shown "no evidence of any abnormal illegal-drug use" when Presley died, in August 1977.)

Bowen insists that there were no drugs present on the night of Buckley's death. "The police grilled us," he says, "and we handed over the keys to the truck and said, 'Have fun —– we have nothing to hide.'"

He just wanted to go in

In Memphis, Buckley apparently spent much of his time alone in his house, laying down demos and struggling to get his songs perfected. (One standout cut was called "Nightmares by the Sea.") Both Buckley and punk legend Tom Verlaine had guested on Patti Smith's Gone Again, and from their acquaintanceship emerged two sets of sessions: first in Manhattan, in the summer of '96; and later in Memphis.

None of Buckley's closest colleagues and confidants admits to hearing the results, which now, sadly, are the major part of the recorded legacy. What did result is a ripe fondness for Memphis, home to Buckley's old pals the Grifters (especially leadman Dave Shouse and his wife, Tammy). When the sessions were done, Buckley stayed, moving from dreary corporate apartments to a small, funky cottage on a quiet midtown street where he let the grass grow wild and set up shop: a front room for his four-track, a pair of spare bedrooms in the back for the band when it would arrive. Buckley had a regular Monday night gig at a hole-in-the-wall club called Barrister's. With the band due in, he was eager to begin recording. "Everything's in black and white now," he told Bowen. "The band's coming down, and then... and then we'll have color."

He'd vowed to get a car but was getting around by bicycle and the kindness of not-quite strangers. Music writer Robert Gordon had met Buckley at Easley Studios during the Verlaine sessions; Buckley's cottage was Gordon's find, on the street where he and his wife, Tara, lived. "If you've moved somewhere by yourself, you know it's a time to shed an old skin," says Gordon. "I think he came here to woodshed." But Buckley would come to dinner at the Gordon's house wearing suspenders and green sharkskin; he'd sing to their newborn and drink his big coffees: "He had this energy inside of him, this excitement about everything. That vitality came out in his music. That he wanted to get into the river was totally characteristic; what my wife says is true –— the thing that killed him is also what made him who he was. Most people talk about the river, but they don't go to it."

Andria Lisle, a Memphis record-store manager who lived around the corner from Buckley and became a steady, platonic companion during the singer's five months in Memphis, remembers him as existing there "like a kitten that would go from house to house, and everyone would do for him. He'd just show up and then go to the next house and get fed there, too. He lived for the moment —– spontaneous, very flirtatious, full of whimsy, mischievous. But he knew he was so blessed, and he was so committed to life."

Lisle went with him to Al Green's church. Afterward, Buckley ate two massive soul-food platters while the restaurant staff watched. The last time she saw Buckley was about 7:30 on the night he died. "Jeff and Keith [Foti] drove up, and Jeff was so excited," Lisle recalls. "He'd gone to open a bank account, to get a car; he was going to buy the house he was living in, and he was walking on air about his boys coming in. We'd planned to go to a casino, but he wanted to go play the drums."

Instead, he went to the river. Standing above the channel 10 days later, Gene Bowen considers it all: "The objective originally was just to go down there and —– you know, the sun was setting; it's beautiful here, with the breeze —– and play some music and sing. And then he just wanted to go in."

"He was unpredictable," says Keith Foti. "That was the beauty about Jeff. Every moment was an expression."