Jeff Buckley: River’s Edge
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.
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