In the 22 years since he tragically drowned in the Mississippi River at the age of 30, Jeff Buckley has become an ethereal cult figure. The new book Jeff Buckley: His Own Voice offers a rare, intimate glimpse into the late musician’s creative process and personal life. Co-edited by Buckley’s mother Mary Guibert and Rolling Stone senior writer David Browne, the collection features diary entries, handwritten lyrics, and exclusive photographs of his belongings.
“He had an instant mystique,” says Browne, one of the first journalists to profile Buckley in 1993 and who wrote the 2001 biography Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. “You get to hear from him directly about some of his goals and frustrations, and I think [His Own Voice] will enhance his legacy in terms of showing what he put into his art. He only made one album when he was alive [1994’s Grace], and this will show what led up to that, that it wasn’t an overnight situation.”
Walk me through the genesis of the book.
Guibert: The remains as they are were his music and his writing. And they were really part of his processing his own life, very much the same way that I did. I was a massive journal-er. It was my way of putting my confusion on paper and walking away and coming back to clarity. I found it worked, so it was something I passed on. It’s a very tender subject, because those things that were personal and private should remain personal and private. And then people came along, and I found that there were certain individuals who claimed to be the ultimate authority on Jeff, who had their own agenda. And then you go, “Alright, wait a minute. My son was not that person you’re describing.”
So then I found myself saying, so what do I do? Do I write a book and call these people liars? There has to be a way for Jeff to speak for himself. I trusted David so much and I could only do it with someone I trust as much as I do him. He’s so very much about his integrity and the truth; he didn’t pander to me in any way. I think the things that we chose really gave to give the reader and fans what sort of person he was. And I think it’s much more revealing than anything I could have written.
What was the process like?
Browne: The big challenge was that the notebooks weren’t written chronologically. He would start one year, and then put it aside and pick it up two years later. And so it was all out of order. … My concern was, what would this be, exactly? And as I went through, I saw that we could almost turn it into a posthumous memoir, because like, “Oh, he’s writing about his childhood here. Oh, he’s writing about when he moved to L.A. here. Oh, here he’s writing about going to Harlem for the first time, and New York City for the first trip in 1990,” etc.
One of Mary’s desires for the book was it to have an art element, like photograph some of his belongings and intersperse that. All of that, the notebooks and his instruments, his clothes, his paperwork, his record collection, all that is in a storage space in L.A.
What was the storage space like?
Browne: There are all these file cabinets on the walls that you pull open. There’d be one that would have just all of his belongings from when he passed away, his wallet and all this stuff. And then another one would have Manila folders with his phone bills. They kept everything. Another shelf had all his cassettes, his guitars, his harmonium, whatever instruments he had. It’s like a mini museum of Jeff in this storage space.
I think one of the eeriest things in there is the schedule to record his last album [My Sweetheart, the Drunk], which is all laid out when the dates would be, and who was getting paid, and when they were recording it. This was all set to happen after he died. So that’s one of the things I came across in the files and I was like, “Oh man, we have to include this.” It’s really eerie, but also shows how serious they were about finally making that record.
Mary, how did you choose which visual elements to include?
Guibert: I didn’t want it to have the feeling that you were kind of pulling out his underwear drawer. You’re just peering through a partially open door, not so much as the door flung open and walking into too much of an intimate space. So the things were displayed in a way that were not, like, pretending to be in this room or pretending to be in a more personal space. They were more like display for a portrait.
When Kurt Cobain’s journals were published, some Nirvana fans felt they were too personal to be made public. Do you think think this will also be controversial?
Browne: I seem to recall there were probably Kurt Cobain fans who were offended that some of this material was out there and it wasn’t meant to be. There may be an element of that here. From my perspective as his biographer, I felt this material was really important. I saw him as somebody who had the potential to be this really major artist. I mean, he was, but there was so much more he could have done, so to see all the steps that led up to that. To me, he’s kind of an important musical historical figure, and he left behind a lot of writings that I think could help us understand him more.
This book is not start-to-finish letters he wrote to people of a personal nature. There’s also drafts of song lyrics. He didn’t have a computer. It occurred to me later that he would just completely just rewrite all the new lyrics on different pages. And there might be some fans who think that’s intrusive, and he wouldn’t want us to see early drafts of “Dream Brother” or “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” But to me, it’s an important window into his creative process and that’s valuable.
He also describes meeting Bob Dylan backstage.
Browne: A part of that letter was produced in the Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk album in the liner notes, but this is the first time it’s out there completely. It’s really interesting because it was a situation where he was doing a show, just a club gig, and he met Dylan. He was introduced to Dylan backstage at the Supper Club in ’94. And Bob basically was like, “You look like your dad,” which was not the best thing to say, but Jeff worshiped Dylan. And then later on he did an impersonation of that moment at one of his shows, and by coincidence there were a couple of Dylan’s people at the show and they took it as a diss, and supposedly told Dylan, and Jeff was totally mortified and that’s when he wrote that letter and he gave it to the head of Columbia to give to Dylan.
The book also sheds light on Jeff’s relationship with his father, the late musician Tim Buckley.
Browne: There’s an amazing couple of pages from ’95 where he wrote on an airplane about his family history and all his thoughts about Tim Buckley and his family heritage. That’s kind of amazing, because he didn’t really talk about that a lot. Tim basically left Mary right before Jeff was born. He had a lot of issues and he also didn’t want to be compared and called “the son of” and all that. So it was a sore spot for him.
Tim is such an obscure artists these days. Many millennials have never heard of him.
Guibert: I’m kind of liking that [laughs]. I will quote Jeff: what he did as a musician stands alone. It was his time and his music and his window in life. What he did as a human being was mortifying and humiliating to Jeff. For nine years that boy lived with a living father who did not send him a single birthday card, a phone call, Christmas card, nothing. And when he died, Jeff was not mentioned in the obituary. So he had stuff to deal with on a personal level. But in terms of comparing himself to his father … he was 10 times the musician. So it’s not fair to compare him to Tim. It’s not.
Browne: One of the tragic things about Jeff’s death is that I think he had just reached a point where nobody was really bringing up Tim Buckley anymore. When Grace came out, there were a lot of those comparisons, and you can’t not mention it was his father. But Grace did well enough, and it was at that point — it was over 20 years since Tim had died. And Tim wasn’t that big to begin with, so I think Jeff was well on his way to being his own person.
It adds the ultimately tragic element. Just when he reaches that point where really nobody’s making those comparisons or bringing up Tim Buckley that much — and Jeff has his own sound and following — is when he dies. It’s a deeply ironic thing, and I think that’s more the case now.
Mary, Jeff’s following seems to grow more and more every year. Why do you think that is?
Guibert: It’s about the fact that we didn’t push Jeff out there and he remained an underground cult favorite. Because if you want it to be really hip, you knew about him. Or some college girl views him as a vetting for dating: “If you don’t know who Jeff Buckley is, I’m not dating you.” It’s more commercial to have not been commercial. You can’t buy that kind of street cred.
How do you think his career would have gone had he lived?
Browne: He went through various different permeations of his music before he moved to New York. And then he started playing at the Sin-é club in 1992 and it was just him and a guitar, which we can hear on the Sin-e EP. He was doing some originals and a lot of covers, and people saw there was a raw talent there, but they didn’t know what it could be. There were at least three record companies who were kind of circling. And each one of those A&R people who I spoke to for my book had a completely different vision as to what he could be.
One thought he could be like a blues person, because he would do the occasional blues song and play slide guitar. And the other person thought he could be more Americana. Another person thought he could be maybe more rock. There were all kinds of ways that he could go. And I think that would’ve been the way his career would have gone had he lived. I could almost see him following the route of like an Elvis Costello, who he also really admired, who, like, every record was a little different. And Elvis will venture into classical or Burt Bacharach, or more rock and he kind of bounces around all these genres and some of them are successful and some aren’t, but he just kind of follows his muse and I can almost see Jeff following that kind of route.
Just the fact that he came to see Grace as being too slick and wanted the second record to be more raw. You could tell he already wasn’t thinking about hit records for the second record. So the way that Jeff wanted to already toy with his sound between the first and the second album, to me, was indicative of what musical path he might take in the future. He wasn’t interested in making Grace 2 and making it more polished and more of a pop crossover or something. He was already thinking, “I want to dismantle this a bit,” and he was listening to indie rock and Polvo, and the Grifters, and things like that. So I think that’s a pretty good indication that he wasn’t going to take any kind of predictable route on this group.
David, you were one of the first journalists to interview him in 1993. What was that like?
Browne: You have to understand, Sin-é was a very mysterious place. They didn’t advertise in like The [Village] Voice. It was a tiny storefront. You had to kind of know about it, and I don’t even think it had a sign over it that said the name at that point. But I started hearing from a couple of people I worked with at Entertainment Weekly, one of them lived right around the corner, and who knew Tim Buckley’s music and she said, like, “I went to see Tim Buckley’s son at this place called Sin-é,” and I’m like, “Tim Buckley had a son who’s old enough to perform? What’s Sin-é?”
I got his phone number from someone, his home number, and I called him, and he’s like, “Well, what section of The New York Times is this for?” And I went, “Well, it’s the Styles section,” which had just started. And he was like, “Nobody reads that section.” I was like, “Well, I know. It’s still the Times.” We met at a place called the Noho Star, which is now gone, and he didn’t show up the first time. So I called him later, and these are pre–cell-phone days. He was like, “Oh, man, I’m so sorry. I totally forgot. Let’s do it tomorrow morning.” So he did show up then. He’s both savvy about the business to know all this stuff about the section of The Times, and also wanted some attention. But he was clearly a little conflicted.
He could be very funny and a little spacey, and like drift into this kind of, “I don’t know where I am in the universe,” kind of talk. And then he could be talking about a Led Zeppelin book, Hammer of the Gods, that he just read, and we were laughing about that. I remember he got a smoothie and offered me a sip of it. But I could tell he was a mysterious guy. Whether it came naturally, how much of it he worked at, it was hard to tell. He was kind of an ethereal kind of guy, but who was also very determined, as I think parts of the book shows, from an early age to really want to try to make it in the business.
Mary, what was Jeff like as a person?
Guibert: God, he was … like hanging out with George Carlin. Constant funny voices, constant jokes. Honestly. I’d be walking down Second Avenue and he suddenly burst into, “I have often walked down the street before …” [sings “On the Street Where You Live”]. And he’s pirouetting around me and hanging onto the lamppost. This is New York. Not a single person looks him in the eye, but he’s been doing this whole dance, this choreography, singing to his mother. He was that kind of guy.
How do you think the book will enhance his legacy?
Browne: You get to hear from him directly about some of his goals and frustrations, and I think it will enhance his legacy in terms of showing what he put into his art. I mean, he only made one album when he was alive, and I think this will show what led up to that, that there wasn’t an overnight situation. He really did work at it for a long time. We see musical notations, how seriously he was taking what he was doing. I think we’ll see more of the creative process that went into that first record and what came afterwards.