As the sole album Jeff Buckley completed during his brief lifetime, Grace offers a tantalizing look at the unfulfilled promise of one of the Nineties’ most striking talents. Showcasing the singer-songwriter’s technical virtuosity and soaring multi-octave range, the tracks brim with the fervent energy of a musical polyglot who seemed torn between desires to be a chanteuse or a headbanger. Drawing elements from jazzy torch singers, heavy-metal guitar heroes, poets, punks, and Pakistani Qawwali vocalists, it’s a sound that welcomes all, yet defies definition.
Then again, Buckley was always wary of categorization. In his self-penned press bio, he described himself in the third person as “the warped lovechild of Nina Simone and all four members of Led Zeppelin with the fertilized egg transplanted into the womb of [Edith] Piaf out of which he is borne and left on the street to be tortured by the Bad Brains.” That description works just as well as any. A music lover in the purest sense, he remained fiercely loyal to his muse, wherever it took him. “The best art comes from artists who have an unending, life-or-death urgency to speak their heart,” he once said. “And as those artists grow older, there’s a real serenity to the art, a great relaxation and ease that’s beautiful to watch…That’s what I want. That’s what I call ‘Grace.’”
On the 25th anniversary of the album’s release, and as a new expanded reissue arrives, here are 10 facts you might not know about Jeff Buckley’s classic debut.
1. Buckley got his show-business break at a tribute concert for late singer Tim Buckley, the estranged father he never knew.
Jeff Buckley was haunted by the specter of his father, Tim, the equally uncategorizable singer-songwriter who left his young mother before he was born on November 17th, 1966. “I never knew him,” Buckley told The New York Times in 1993. “I met him once, when I was 8. We went to visit him, and he was working in his room, so I didn’t even get to talk to him. And that was it.” Raised in Southern California, Buckley was known as “Scott Moorhead” for much of his childhood, borrowing his surname from his stepfather. Any hopes for reconciliation with his biological father were dashed two months after their first meeting, when Tim died of a drug overdose in June 1975. Buckley was not invited to his funeral, continuing their estrangement even in death. For the rest of his life, the nature of the loss weighed on Buckley’s spirit. “He really didn’t see himself linked to his father in that way, that somehow he would inherit his father’s lifespan,” his mother Mary Guibert said in the 2002 BBC4 documentary Everybody Here Wants You. “Did we see evidence of him intentionally trying to avoid the very same pitfalls? Absolutely.”
But Buckley had inherited much from his father, including his gift for music. “I was really captured by it — everything about it,” he said in a 1994 promotional video for Grace. “It was my mother, it was my father. It was my plaything, it was my toy. It was the best thing in my life.” He enrolled at the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles to study guitar, and for a time seemed bent on emulating his hero, Jimmy Page, by playing in a string of minimally successful heavy-metal bands. Singing, when he did it at all, was strictly limited to backing vocals.
Despite their shared artistic aspirations, Buckley flatly rejected any comparisons to Tim. “I don’t hate my father, and I don’t resent him existing,” he explained as his fame began to grow. “It’s just something I’ve grown up with all my life — not being part of a life that had so much energy. When you’re a kid people assume you have no mind of your own, which at a very early age I did. It’s my way of resisting people’s singular vision of my music.”
On the opposite coast, plans were afoot to stage a Tim Buckley tribute concert at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn. Since Tim’s obituaries failed to mention Jeff, few realized that the man of honor even had a biological son. Tim’s former manager, Herb Cohen, belatedly informed organizers of the junior Buckley’s existence (and talent), and an invitation was extended for him to perform. At first, he wasn’t sold on the idea. “I know he was suspicious about the show,” producer Hal Willner said in the 2016 documentary You & I. “He wasn’t even sure he wanted to do it, initially.” But Buckley ultimately accepted, sensing that the event would allow him to process his unresolved feelings for his father, and purge the grief that had been festering since he was a boy. “It bothered me that I hadn’t been to his funeral, that I’d never been able to tell him anything,” he told Rolling Stone in 1994. “I used that show to pay my last respects.”
“Greetings from Tim Buckley” was scheduled for April 26th, 1991. Those in attendance recall the first half being somewhat tedious, as downtown musicians like Richard Hell, Eric Andersen, and the Shams delivered what attendee Nicholas Hill later described to author David Browne as “avant-garde versions of stuff that was avant-garde to begin with. At times it was pretty painful. It was not an easygoing concert.” Then the room went dark as Buckley took the stage, his back turned to the audience at first. Swirls of furiously strummed guitar and shimmering psychedelic swoops echoed across the nave as he launched into “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain,” from 1967’s Hello and Goodbye. It was one of Tim’s most personal songs, a kiss-off to his wife and the infant son he was leaving behind. Buckley sang the tune of his own abandonment, and he gave it all he had. He was paired with former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, who recalls “shock waves” rippling through the crowd as they performed. “Here was this skinny kid with this unearthly voice, just wailing,” Lucas told NME in 1998. “I was next to him playing guitar but I was really just watching the audience, who were really turned on by it…It was electric.”
Midway through the song, a light on the stage was switched on, bathing Buckley in a Christ-like glow and dramatically casting his silhouette onto the back wall. “My god,” he told a friend after the show, “I stepped onstage and they backlit it and it was like the fucking Second Coming.” That’s exactly what it was for many devoted Tim Buckley fans. “Everyone was there to celebrate the music of Tim Buckley, and here was someone who looked like him, sounded like him and had the same vocal range,” Hill told The New York Times. “It was very spooky, but impressive.”
He returned with Lucas and Co. toward the latter half of the evening to perform two more songs, “Sefronia — The King’s Chain” and “Phantasmagoria in Two,” but the finale featured Buckley alone with an acoustic guitar singing “Once I Was,” one of his father’s best known songs. “It was the first song my mother ever played me by Tim,” he told Musician Magazine in 1994. “So I learned it. It was hard to learn it. I couldn’t do a really full version of it at home without crying. I almost cried onstage. I broke a string onstage at the end of that song. They were brand new strings. I was really pissed.” His guitar crippled, he sang the last lines a cappella: “And sometimes I wonder for a while, do you ever remember me?” The words hung in the air like a bruising indictment from a lost child to an absent father. The audience burst into applause.
Buckley’s life was never the same after he stepped off the stage. “Over the course of that one show, he had been accepted by almost every musical grouping in New York,” Willner reflected. “Everyone had just adopted him and it became a natural thing for him to want to come here. It’s like he stepped into a new life.” Local music figures stumbled over each other to stuff their business cards into his pockets, and more than a few women flocked to help dry the tears of this sensitive soul. Within weeks he had settled in New York full time and nurtured relationships that began at St. Ann’s. The performance had put him squarely on the path to stardom, whether he liked it or not. “In a way, I sacrificed my anonymity for my father, whereas he sacrificed me for his fame,” he later told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “So I guess I made a mistake.”
2. The title track was inspired by parting ways with girlfriend Rebecca Moore at the airport.
The genesis of “Grace” can be traced directly two figures Buckley met at the St. Ann’s gig: onetime bandmate Gary Lucas and girlfriend Rebecca Moore. Though his unions with both were not to last, the pair had an enormous impact on his early period in New York and helped set the course for Buckley’s career to follow.
Lucas first composed the instrumental passages to what would become “Grace” and “Mojo Pin” after he recruited Buckley to sing in his raga-rock project Gods and Monsters in the fall of 1991. “I invited him into my group,” Lucas recalled in an interview with Songfacts. “Right away, I thought he could be the great singer I’ve been looking for. He said he would do it, one thing led to another, and he was in. Then I needed to write some music and I came up with ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ as instrumental guitar pieces. [I] sent them to him and …. he had perfect lyrics and a perfect melody for each instrumental.”
In the case of “Grace,” Buckley’s words grew from the sorrow of saying goodbye to Moore one rainy day at the airport. The two had developed an intense bond since their introduction at the rehearsals for the Tim Buckley tribute, where Moore — the daughter of noted avant-garde photographer Peter Moore — was setting up a buffet for the hungry performers. As Buckley flew to California to close out his old life before starting fresh in New York, his thoughts crystallized into song lyrics. “[‘Grace’] is just about life sometimes being so long,” he later explained. “At the time I was anticipating leaving Los Angeles for New York. So I was waiting to go. I’m not afraid to go, I’m not afraid to die, I’m not afraid to go away from this place or from any place, but it just goes so slow. And I had somebody who loved me in New York. A lot. And it was amazing.”
Buckley regularly performed “Grace” and “Mojo Pin” during his brief tenure in Gods and Monsters, and took the songs with him following their last gig together in March 1992. He and Lucas remained amicable after the split, and Buckley invited his former guitarist into the studio during sessions for Grace to contribute to the tracks he co-wrote. In the album’s liner notes, Lucas is credited with “magical guitarness.”
3. When Buckley wasn’t polishing his songs at East Village club Sin-é, he was probably in the back, washing dishes.
Shortly after his departure from Gods and Monsters, Buckley made his debut at Sin-é, a non-descript East Village café that would become his home base. He initially stopped by on the advice of Daniel Harnett, an actor friend of Rebecca Moore’s, who talked Buckley up to the club’s owner, an Irish ex-pat named Shane Doyle. “My memory is he just kind of ambled into the place dragging his guitar in the middle of the day with his head half down,” Doyle remembered in You & I. “He handed me this tape with some paper wrapped around it and said he wanted to play.” His first performance went over well enough to earn him a regular slot on Monday nights. Armed with only a blonde Fender telecaster borrowed from St. Ann’s, he unleashed a dizzying array of songs, ranging from tunes associated with Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, and Judy Garland to left-of-center cuts from Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, and Elton John. He also sprinkled punkier tracks from Bad Brains and the MC5 in among his handful of originals. “I became a human jukebox, learning all these songs I’d always known, discovering the basics of what I do,” he told Rolling Stone in 1994.
The scuffed wood floors and chipped brick walls provided a homey, unfussy atmosphere to hone his raw talent. “He did whatever he wanted,” remembered Doyle. “He might play for half an hour. Then he might drink some wine and then get up and he’d play some more. It was his night, that’s the way it was. He was experimenting and it was an opportunity to do that in front of a very friendly audience. And if he if made mistakes, he had fun with that. So the place served him very well in that way.” The sets were so laid back that he occasionally had to compete with the whir of a cappuccino machine, which he’d imitate with good humor and amazing accuracy. Lacking a formal stage, he played in a corner as patrons watched and listened — or didn’t. “I went into those cafes because I also really felt I had to go to an impossibly intimate setting where there’s no escape, where there’s no hiding yourself,” he told Musician Magazine. “If you suck you need work, and if you don’t then you have to work on making magic, and if you make magic then everybody has this great transformative experience. Or at least a good experience. And it wasn’t easy at first. I mean, when I first walked into Sin-é or the Cornelia Street Cafe, people talked their asses off. They didn’t want to hear it.”
When he wasn’t performing, Buckley treated the Sin-é as his own clubhouse. “He would come in at 2 o’clock in the morning. The music would be over and we’d be kind of cleaning up,” remembers former server Tia Biasi in the You & I film. “He would just, you know, need to clear his head and he would kick me out of the way and start washing the dishes. He loved to wash the dishes. We loved to let him wash the dishes.” Nicholas Hill remembers Buckley dropping by frequently for unscheduled sets. “You never really knew when he would be playing, but he was there a lot, washing dishes, drinking his coffee, doing a gig,” he says in the book A Wished-For Song.
The buzz around Buckley continued to escalate as spring turned to summer, and the sidewalk outside of 122 St. Mark’s Place became clogged with people. Soon the streets were equally jammed with limousines ferrying major label executives down from Midtown, all angling for their shot at signing the rising star. On one memorable night, industry titans Clive Davis, Seymour Stein, and Don Ienner all crammed into the tiny venue. Columbia Records A&R man Steve Berkowitz was among the first to witness Buckley’s talent at Sin-é, having been steered into the club by Hal Willner back when Buckley’s crowd consisted of “four or five people, a barista and a scruffy guy in the corner.” Won over by promises of artistic freedom and the prospect of sharing a label with the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Leonard Cohen, Buckley signed with Columbia (owned by Sony) in October 1992. A year later they would issue his first commercial recording, the four-song EP Live at Sin-é, which immortalized the singer’s nights at his beloved venue.
4. Buckley assembled his band for Grace just weeks before sessions for the album started.
“As soon as the EP came out, I was dying to be with a band,” Buckley said in the electronic press kit for Grace. “I was dying for the relationship, for the chemistry. People, the warm bodies. Male or female. Bass, drums, dulcimer, tuba, anything. Any way that the band would work out.” In typical Buckley fashion, he didn’t sort out the specifics until mere weeks before sessions for his debut album were due to begin in September of 1993. “The band thing was a total unknown,” Grace producer Andy Wallace says in David Browne’s book Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. “He didn’t have a band.” The label suits began to get slightly anxious, and Buckley did everything he could to keep them at bay. “Rather than have anybody pick my band, I decided to stall until I found the right people,” he told Juice in 1996. “So I stalled and I lied. Nothing was really happening, because I hadn’t found anybody.”
He met bassist Mick Grondahl after a gig inside a crypt at Columbia University that summer. “There was a party afterwards and we got to talking about blues music,” Grondahl told Tidal in 2014. “Cut to a few months later and I see [Buckley] is playing the New Music Seminar. Before the show he was meandering ‘round the club and I heard him singing ‘LA Woman’ so I chimed in and sang the last of the verse. He noticed me and we exchanged numbers.” A short time later, Buckley invited Grondahl over to his apartment to jam on what he later described as “two o’clock-in-the-morning type music.” Before dawn, Buckley knew he had his bassist. “I thought, ‘He’s the one!’ He had all the qualities I dug. There are bass players all over the city that can play rings around him in terms of ‘technique,’ but nobody else could ever make the music he makes. And that’s more powerful!”
A few weeks later, drummer Matt Johnson entered Buckley’s orbit through Rebecca Moore. Soon the 22-year-old Texas native had a message on his answering machine from Buckley inviting him to audition at a rehearsal space. “It was the three of us: Micky, Jeff and myself,” Johnson later said in the Making of ‘Grace’ documentary. “We played for about an hour or two and kind of came up with the skeletal structure of ‘Dream Brother’ and just jammed. And at the end of the session he said, “Oh, I want you to play drums with me.’ And that’s kind of where the journey began, pretty much instantly that evening.”
Buckley surprised his new band by revealing that he had a deal with Columbia — and session dates on the very near horizon. “Within a few weeks we were recording a record, so it was very quick, very shocking to go from meeting someone and playing with them to recording in about two or three weeks later,” Johnson later admitted. “It was really scary.” Wallace’s fears were not exactly assuaged when he attended the group’s East Village rehearsals. “[They would] start a riff that would turn into a jam, eventually abandoning the riff, and it would go on for ten minutes,” he says in Dream Brother. “It was interesting, but my first impression was, ‘Wait a minute, I thought you guys were learning songs. We’ve got studio time booked!’”
Just six weeks after their first rehearsal, the trio were due in Bearsville Studios, 90 miles north of Manhattan in the rural artist enclave of Woodstock, New York. They planned to meet at Buckley’s East Village apartment on the morning of September 20th and carpool up together, but apparently they were running behind. “It’s twelve-thirty and nobody in the band is ready, of course,” Buckley groaned on a message left on Moore’s answering machine. The tardy rhythm section eventually arrived, and together they set off on the two-hour trek to Bearsville.
5. Buckley halted the Grace sessions for several days due to an unfortunate comparison to Michael Bolton.
The first weeks of recording ignited what Berkowitz later described as a “volcanic eruption of artistry” from Buckley, who experimented with a seemingly endless number of arrangements for each of his songs. “It was hundreds of ideas and guitar parts and vocal parts and backward parts and extra drum parts,” the A&R chief recalled in 2002. The concept of capturing his creations one time, for the ages, chafed against Buckley’s spontaneous personality and exacerbated his perfectionist tendencies. “The nature of [recording] is excruciating,” he said while promoting the finished product. “It’s obsessive because you’re dealing with ultimate things. It’s not like a live show where you play it and it just disappears into the air like smoke. It’s like painting, sound painting. It’s in a crystalized form, so it’s very nerve-wracking: which brain cell do I put down here forever and ever?”
Buckley struggled to choose which musical identity to put down on record, but he knew who he definitely didn’t want to be: Michael Bolton. Late in the sessions, Buckley’s delicate self-esteem was dealt a major blow when a review in Newsday unfavorably compared his Live at Sin-é EP to Bolton’s latest album. Yoking the pair together under the banner of “two white vocalists with affecting voices drawn directly from black idioms,” the critic wrote that “both awkwardly reach for a balance of emotion and technique, eventually relying on sheer voice of will, oversinging, flaking out.” The critique sent Buckley into a tailspin, and he reportedly postponed work on Grace for two days. According to producer Andy Wallace, Buckley was “almost apoplectic” over the review. “It stopped him cold,” he says in Dream Brother. “If someone had thought, ‘Who can I use to really get his goat?’ you couldn’t have chosen somebody better than Michael Bolton.” He was still clearly distraught over the comparison a few months later in a Q&A for Interview magazine. “Oh, shit, that’s really disgusting!” he replied when asked about the review. “The thing is, I’m not taking from that tradition. I don’t want to be black. Michael Bolton desperately wants to be black, black, black. He also sucks.”
Years later, when Buckley was living in Memphis to work on his intended follow up to Grace, he purchased a pile of cheap cassette tapes from a street vendor — including several copies of a Michael Bolton album. Berkowitz, who was with him at the time and well aware of his feelings about the singer, was confused. “Do you know how much blank tape is?” Buckley said by way of explanation. “I just got 10 tapes to record on!” When friends combed through Buckley’s demos after his death, they were amused to find his musical sketches interspersed with Bolton’s power ballads.
6. He discovered John Cale’s cover of “Hallelujah” while housesitting for a friend.
Though the original compositions he had were undoubtedly strong, Buckley found that he didn’t possess quite enough to round out an entire album. “He didn’t have enough songs, I don’t think, to really make a 10-song, ‘Jeff Buckley wrote every song’ kind of record,” Johnson says in the Making of ‘Grace’ documentary. “At least he didn’t have enough songs that he liked. He might have had them, but he certainly didn’t pull them out.” To beef up the track list, Buckley went back to his days as a live jukebox at the Sin-é, pulling from his sizable repertoire of tunes written by other artists. “He didn’t play cover songs,” Berkowitz explained in a 2016 interview with Uncut. “He played other people’s compositions and made them his own. He consumed the idea and the feel. He was really a blues singer, I think. He had that religious depth of feeling that blues music has, or that Billie Holiday had.” Grace contains three such songs, expertly curated to display his many musical facets. His take on the jazz standard “Lilac Wine,” first made famous by Eartha Kitt, finds Buckley in full-on chanteuse mode, while his reading of the Benjamin Britten–adapted Middle English hymnal “Corpus Christi Carol” illuminates his own intensely spiritual connection to music. The third, an interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s epic “Hallelujah,” achieved a degree of fame that Buckley could have never predicted.
He first heard the song while housesitting for Janine Nichols, a woman who’d already played a major role in jumpstarting his career. As the program director for St. Ann’s Church, she was largely responsible for his public debut at the Tim Buckley tribute, and even lent the young singer the white Telecaster that would become his trademark instrument. (Buckley thanked her for this in the liner notes to Live at Sin-é.) While staying at Nichols’ apartment in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood to care for her cat, he spotted a copy of the Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan on her shelves and decided to give it a spin. He was immediately struck by John Cale’s reworking of “Hallelujah,” which differed both musically and lyrically from the dirge-like original. Buckley, who was unfamiliar with Cohen’s version, incorporated the song into his sets. “The first time I heard him sing it,” remembered then-Musician Magazine editor Bill Flanagan, “I remember saying to him afterwards, ‘Hey, you did the Leonard Cohen song, that was a good call.’ And he said, ‘I haven’t heard Leonard Cohen’s version. I know it by John Cale.’”
The song would evolve constantly throughout his live performance career. “I thought of Jeff kind of like a jazz musician. Each performance was unique, according to his feelings that day,” Berkowitz says in Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah.’ “He’d play with a different pitch, in a different key. He would play a song with a slide one night, and then maybe never do it again. Feel, performance, emotion is what he was tinkering with. So he kept adding, shaping, reworking ‘Hallelujah.’”
Buckley frequently revisited the song during sessions for Grace, recording more than 20 takes as he sought to match the phrasing and nuances that he heard in his head. “There was never any question about this one going on the album,” Andy Wallace told Light. “It was something special. It had a magic to it, and that was there from the beginning.” The finished version was assembled from numerous recordings stitched together into what many feel is the definitive rendition of “Hallelujah.” Today it stands as Buckley’s signature song, with over 161 million streams on Spotify. (The runner up, “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” has an eighth of that figure.) But not everyone was impressed. In Rolling Stone’s review of Grace, critic Stephanie Zacharek writes that “the young Buckley’s vocals don’t always stand up: He doesn’t sound battered or desperate enough to carry off Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’”
7. He removed the raw breakup track “Forget Her” out of respect for his ex, subbing in “So Real” at the last minute.
Just days before the Bearsville sessions were scheduled to end, Buckley informed Andy Wallace that he had a new song he wanted to flesh out. The musicians worked up a quick arrangement and laid down a backing track more or less on the spot. The moody midtempo passage left Wallace and Berkowitz floored. “They’re into their first verse and I’m like, ‘Andy, are you recording this?’ And he says, ‘Yes!’” Berkowitz later told Browne. “We were both stunned. The song ended and we were like ‘Where did that come from? What was that?” Even though he claimed that the lyrics weren’t finished, Buckley was persuaded to take a shot at the vocals. The words that spewed out of his mouth were uncharacteristically blunt and overflowing with venom as he sang of a woman who was “heartbreak the moment that you met her.” Taken at face value, it seemed to be cathartic response to his rapidly disintegrating relationship with Rebecca Moore. But label execs heard something more than the raw pain of their new signee — they heard a hit. The track made early test pressings of the album, and was earmarked to be a potential single, but something about it didn’t sit well with the rest of the band.
Still, Grace appeared fully complete in the winter of 1994 when Buckley began looking for an additional guitarist to thicken the sound of his musical trio. He eventually tapped Michael Tighe, a friend of Moore’s who had far more training as an actor than as a musician. The 21-year-old had barely played outside of the odd high-school jam session and didn’t even own a guitar strap when he first sat down to audition for the role. “He had never been in a band before, and hadn’t even been in a garage band, or anything,” Buckley told Juice in 1996. “He’d just gotten together with directors in plays. So he had a very, very different idea about music — very different.”
At their first rehearsal, Tighe started playing a descending chord progression that caught Buckley’s attention. “It was disjointed and it wasn’t together, and it wasn’t anything,” he remembered. “I made it a song. If I didn’t come along, it would have just been a blob.” A few weeks later in the spring, when the band gathered in the studio to record B sides for the proposed album singles, Buckley decided to finish off this new composition. With the backing track complete, he took a walk around the block to finish the words that would become “So Real.” Much like “Forget Her,” it came quickly. “That one I produced live — all one moment,” Buckley told Juice. “[We recorded] the vocal in the first take, all in one take. It was three o’clock in the morning.” He and Tighe gleefully listened to the completed track in the cab ride home as the sun rose over Manhattan. “He got really excited and was like, ‘Oh, my record is saved because I have this song “So Real” now,’” Johnson recalled. “He was very excited about that, and he felt that it tipped the balance of that record to the favorable side of the spectrum, aesthetically.”
Buckley’s decision to swap “Forget Her” for “So Real” caused more than one Columbia executive to blow their stack. “Obviously I did not share Jeff’s feeling,” says Berkowitz in Dream Brother. “I thought [“Forget Her”] was the song the largest mass of people would be able to identify with.” Buckley’s precise rationale for dumping “Forget Her” remains unclear to this day. Some believe he felt that the song was too personal and he didn’t want to air his dirty laundry about Moore, whom he still loved and respected. Others say he was repulsed by the song specifically because it sounded so chart-friendly. Label chiefs tried to argue their point over an Italian dinner at an Upper West Side restaurant, but Buckley was adamant. “If I hear the song again I’m going to throw up,” he told them. The matter was dropped for good.
8. Record company execs feared the album cover made him look like Eighties New Waver Adam Ant.
In addition to the “Forget Her”/ ”So Real” switch, label heads were also dismayed by Buckley’s choice of cover portrait. Shot by Merri Cyr, Buckley’s photographer friend who had also provided the visuals for Live at Sin-é, the image depicted the singer in an almost trance-like state: eyes soulfully closed, clutching a vintage microphone, and clad in a women’s sequined jacket. Buckley had showed up at Arcadia Studios in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the last weeks of 1993 clutching a duffle bag stuffed with clothes. “We shot it in this loft belonging to my friend Billy,” Cyr recalls in Jeff Buckley: From Hallelujah to the Last Goodbye. “The loft had weird architecture, vaulted ceilings, and a lot of natural light in the stairwells, which was beautiful. Billy had made a small stage area inside the loft; he actually did little events there with cabaret acts. Jeff had brought this duffle bag full of his clothes, all smashed in there, none of them pressed or even clean. There was a giant bed and Jeff just emptied the bag onto it, spread his clothes all over the bed. I selected items from what he’d brought to go with each setup.”
For one, he chose the garish jacket, which he’d recently obtained from a local thrift store. “I called that his Judy Garland glitter jacket, this junk store jacket, all sparkling [and] his hair was all sort of boofed up,” Cyr told author Jeff Apter. “There was one point where he was eating this banana and I went, ‘OK, it’s sort of Sid Vicious meets Leonard Cohen meets Elvis, or something like that.’ Even the one where he’s looking so broody is from a comic series of pictures; he was just fucking around, you know?” The soon-to-be-famous image captures Buckley listening to a playback of “Dream Brother” on cassette.
Months later, Columbia staffer Leah Reid visited Buckley on tour in Philadelphia with potential cover designs. “There was one I thought was really cool, a shot of him reflected in a broken mirror,” she says in From Hallelujah to the Last Goodbye. “There was the one of him sitting in the park … ; there was a shot of him under a table covered in clocks, writing in a book, and the broken mirror shot. And he looked straight at the one that became the cover and said, ‘This is the one. I love this one because I’m listening to music.’ He loved the look on his face, listening to music and at peace.”
The shot was not well received by execs at Columbia HQ, who were miffed by the lack of eye contact and deeply confused by his ostentatious attire. “Jeff was quite vocal about not coming across as a pretty boy,” Steve Berkowitz told David Browne. “When I saw the cover I said, ‘Oh, come on, you don’t mean this one? This is exactly what he said he didn’t want!’” Cyr, on the other hand, felt that the shot captured the “split personality” at the base of Buckley’s complex psyche. “He wanted to be on this major label and get all this worldwide exposure, but he wanted to act like he was on an indie label. I think he envied that freedom he had in the beginning at Sin-é, where he wasn’t being judged by this specific point of view.”
Whatever the case, Sony head Don Ienner was not pleased, apparently shouting “He looks like a fuckin’ lounge singer!” upon seeing the photo. “The sparkly jacket sent a different message than we wanted,” he explained in Dream Brother. “It was a little flashy, we thought, compared to the earthiness of Sin-é. We tried to steer him away from it.” Others felt it made him look less like Judy Garland, and more like a certain Eighties New Wave star. “Some people thought he looked too much like Adam Ant,” says Reid. “That came up all the time.” Buckley continued to debate the label for days (“It was like pulling teeth,” says his co-manager George Stein) until he finally won the point.
9. Buckley’s music career was nearly derailed when he was offered a role in the Barbra Streisand movie The Mirror Has Two Faces — and a K-Mart ad.
Buckley always had an uneasy relationship with his matinee-idol looks, believing them to be a distraction from his music. Friends teased him mercilessly when People Magazine declared him one of its “50 Most Beautiful People” in 1995. Deeply embarrassed, he once defaced the article when a fan asked him to autograph it. But early in his career he attempted to supplement his meager income from the Sin-é gigs with tentative forays into acting, even auditioning to play a twentysomething shopper in a K-Mart advertisement. He didn’t get the role, but the following year he was approached by the Gap to appear in a new ad campaign. Buckley didn’t even consider it, perhaps in part because he’d been unjustly fired by Banana Republic (a clothing outlet owned by the Gap) years earlier.
As his star began to rise after he signed to Columbia, more lucrative offers began to come his way. According to co-manager Dave Lory, Buckley was asked to play the role of “the student” in the 1996 Barbra Streisand film The Mirror Has Two Faces. “He got offered that role and that was one of many,” Lory says in A Wished-For Song. “He turned down a lot of money to write the theme song for a Quentin Tarantino film.” Jack Bookbinder, another member of Buckley’s management team, says the singer had good instincts about which projects would move him closer to his ultimate creative goals. “He’d reject nine out of 10 offers, things that’d make him a lot of money. Like the Prada shoot, things like that, and movie roles like The Mirror Has Two Faces. ‘Look, I’m a musician,’ is what he’d say. ‘I’m not an actor, I’m not a model, why do I have to waste time on that, that’s gonna get in the way of my real important purpose in life, music. Music for the people.’”
10. Grace got the attention of Buckley’s musical hero Jimmy Page, who took Robert Plant to see him perform.
Though it didn’t top the charts upon its release in August 1994, Grace earned acclaim from some of the most respected names in rock. David Bowie, speaking to Pulse, cited the disc as one he’d take with him to a desert island, and Paul McCartney popped backstage to say hello after Buckley’s show at New York’s Roseland Ballroom. Bono declared the singer “a pure drop in an ocean of noise” in the U2 fan mag Propaganda, and later dedicated numerous shows on the PopMart tour to the late singer. Buckley’s influence also extended to contemporaries like Thom Yorke, who recorded his stunning vocal for The Bends track “Fake Plastic Trees” after witnessing Buckley perform at the Garage in London. (“It made [Thom] realize you could sing in a falsetto without sounding dripping,” Radiohead producer John Leckie later observed.) “Even Bob Dylan, in an interview with a French magazine, named Jeff as one of the great songwriters of this decade,” his mother proudly told NOW Magazine in the weeks after his death.
But the most meaningful praise came from Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, whose work with Led Zeppelin formed the bedrock of Buckley’s musical appreciation. His passion for rock was ignited when his stepfather Ron Moorhead gave him a copy of Physical Graffiti as a child, and the rest of the Zep canon quickly followed. “He told us the story of how he would drive around in his mother’s boyfriend’s van,” Katheryn Grimm, who played with Buckley in his early band Group Therapy, recalls in the documentary Jeff Buckley: Fall in Light. “It had big speakers in the back and he would lie on the platform … and Led Zeppelin would be playing at full blast. He thinks that how he got so good at playing those songs, because he just heard them so many times he just absorbed them.” Another early collaborator, Michael Clouse, remembers asking Buckley about his professional five-year plan. “He said, ‘I want to make an album that makes people forget about Led Zeppelin II.’”
Page was equally taken with Buckley’s work, later calling him the best technical singer that had appeared in two decades. “I started to play Grace constantly,” he said in a 2002 BBC documentary. “And the more I listened to the album, the more I appreciated of Jeff’s talents and Jeff’s total ability — to which he was just a wizard. It was close to being my favorite album of the decade.” While touring as Page and Plant in the mid-Nineties, the two rock superstars attended one of Buckley’s concerts. “We actually made a point of going to hear him play and it was absolutely scary,” Page continued. “One of the things that was a little frightening was that I was convinced that he probably did things in tunings and he didn’t. He was doing things in standard tuning. I thought, ‘Oh gee, he really is clever, isn’t he?’ He quite clearly had his feet on the ground and his imagination was flying; flying way, way out there, beyond, beyond.” Plant recalled the performance as “mind-altering” in a 2010 interview with Q-TV. “Spectacular singing, and so much conviction.”
Buckley and Plant first crossed paths in person at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner, leaving the younger singer so overcome with emotion that he left soon after. He was similarly stunned when he met Page around the same time. “Jeff told me they cried,” friend Chris Dowd told Uncut in 2015. “They actually cried when they met each other. Jimmy heard himself in Jeff, and Jeff was meeting his idol. Jimmy Page was the godfather of Jeff’s music. A lot of people thought Tim [Buckley] was the influence on Jeff, but it was really Zeppelin.”
Buckley gleefully belted “Whole Lotta Love” as he paddled fully clothed across the Wolf River on the night of May 29th, 1997. Floating on his back and taking in the evening summer sky, he spent his last moments alive joyously celebrating the music that had provided his creative spark. “If that’s not a state of grace,” his mother later reflected, “I don’t know what is.”