It was the spring of 1997, and for Jeff Buckley, it had been a late afternoon of cruising around Memphis, Tenn., in a rented truck with his close friend and fellow musician, Keith Foti. Around dusk, they parked in an empty lot near the heart of downtown and, grabbing their boombox, wandered to the shoreline of the Mississippi River. Within a few moments, Jeff would be swallowed alive by the unpredictable waters.
A rare talent who died far too soon, Jeff Buckley remains one of the most enigmatic and ethereal musicians of the ‘90s. He was born with a tender, haunting voice and a slightly anguished yet endearing look in his eyes.
More than two decades after the release of his one and only album, Grace, his lyrics still resonate. Here are the untold stories about the making of the record, with a glimpse into his final days.
The first weeks of Grace’s recording sparked what could only be described as a “volcanic eruption of artistry” in Jeff. The artist played around with a string of different musical arrangements, treating the music studio as an experimental lab. Hundreds of ideas were thrown into the air and tested.
As much as he enjoyed it, Buckley also felt that recording, as opposed to singing live, was an excruciating progress. “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,” he confessed while promoting his album.
Recording Grace was nothing like his early spontaneous gigs in New York.
The Sin-e Irish coffeehouse was a small 50-seat venue in NYC’s East Village, and home to many of Jeff’s first performances in the city. “I went into that cafe because I 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.
His small-scale performances created a buzz that attracted everyone from swooning young groupies to influential record producers. Jeff’s powerful on-stage presence wasn’t something that could pass as simple background music. It was mesmerizing and left you speechless.
Buckley treated the Sin-é like his second home and would come in on nights when he wasn’t performing. “[When] he would need to clear his head, he would kick me out of the way and start washing the dishes,” former waitress Tia Biasi recalled.
Radio host Nicholas Hill mentioned that Buckley would drop by frequently for unscheduled performances. “You never really knew when he would be playing, but he was there a lot, washing dishes, drinking his coffee, doing a gig,” he revealed in the book A Wished-For Song.
The first time Jeff played in New York for a larger audience was at St. Ann’s church. It was a tribute to his musician dad, the late Tim Buckley. What was interesting about the event was that he had never really known his father. He had met him just once at the age of nine.
Yet there he was, singing his heart out to his dad’s music, bringing tears to the eyes of everyone in the audience. Within the course of that one show, Jeff had been accepted by every music group in New York. Influential people shook his hand in admiration and handed him their business cards in the hopes of working with him.
Jeff could put on an incredible show yet still have people come up to him at the end of it and tell him, “I knew your father. He was wonderful.” But those remarks didn’t mean much to Jeff. He barely knew his dad. Tim Buckley had walked out on the family when Jeff was a baby, so hearing people constantly bringing up his name got on his nerves.
“I knew him for nine days. I met him for the first time when I was eight years old over Easter, and he died two months later,” Jeff told NME. “He left my mother when I was six months old. So, I never really knew him at all. We were born with the same parts, but when I sing it’s me.”
The origins of Grace can be traced to two people the singer ran into at his St. Ann’s performance – his Gods and Monster’s bandmate, Gary Lucas, and his girlfriend, Rebecca Moore. While those two relationships didn’t last very long, they both had an incredible impact on his early years in New York.
Gary Lucas was the brilliant mind responsible for the instrumental passages to two of Jeff’s great songs, Grace and Mojo Pin. In the fall of 1991, Lucas sent the music to Jeff, who paired both instrumental demos with beautiful lyrics and a perfect melody.
Buckley found the words to the song Grace after he parted way with his girlfriend Rebecca one gloomy day at the airport. They forged a strong connection ever since their first meeting at the rehearsals for his dad’s tribute, where Rebecca was responsible for setting up a buffet for the performers.
“[Grace is about] not feeling so bad about your own mortality when you have true love,” Jeff revealed. “It’s about not fearing death or fearing any of those countless slings and arrows that you suffer sometimes on this earth, because somebody loves you.”
Andy Wallace, the man who produced Grace, revealed that Jeff didn’t have any band prepared for the recording of his debut album. “The band thing was a total unknown,” he said. “He didn’t have a band.” As to why Buckley struggled to get people on board, he responded:
“Rather than have anybody pick my band, I decided to stall until I found the right people. So, I stalled, and I lied. Nothing was really happening, because I hadn’t found anybody.”
He only sorted out the specifics of his group mere weeks before the recording session.
Bassist Mick Grondahl ran into Jeff Buckley at one of his gigs. Jeff was meandering around the club before the show, humming the song “L.A. Woman,” when Grondahl decided to chime in and sing the last verse. Jeff was pleased that someone had spontaneously joined, so he decided to exchange numbers.
Shortly after, Jeff invited Gorndahl over to his place for a sweet “two o’clock-in-the-morning type” of jam session. A little before dawn, Jeff knew he had found his bassist. “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,” Jeff explained.
Several weeks later, drummer Matt Johnson entered the picture thanks to Rebecca Moore. Johnson said he had received a message on his answering machine from Jeff calling him to audition for the band. “It was the three of us – Mick [Gorndahl], Jeff and myself,” Matt revealed in the Making of Grace documentary.
The three played for about an hour or so, and as they went along, they came up with the skeletal structure of the song Dream Brother. By the end of the jam session, Jeff told Johnson, “Oh, I want you to play drums with me.” And that’s how their journey as a band began.
Buckley had a hard time choosing which musical identity he wanted to adopt for his first record. But he knew who he certainly didn’t want to be – Michael Bolton. Jeff’s self-confidence was completely shaken after reading an unfavorable review in Newsday, where they compared his live performance at Sin-é to one of Bolton’s albums.
The critic paired Bolton and Buckley together and wrote: “They both awkwardly reach for a balance of emotion and technique, eventually relying on sheer voice of will, over singing, flaking out.” Jeff never fully got over the comparison. He said in an interview months later, “Oh, shit, that’s really disgusting!”
While house-sitting for Janine Nichols (the program director for the Tim Buckley tribute at St. Ann’s church), Jeff stumbled upon a copy of a Leonard Cohen tribute album on one of her shelves. He gave it a listen and was instantly struck by John Cale’s interpretation of Hallelujah.
Jeff took Cale’s version and made it his own. “Feel, performance, emotion is what he was tinkering with. So, he kept adding, shaping, reworking Hallelujah,” Steve Berkowitz noted. Today, it’s considered one of his most memorable songs with over 150 million streams on Spotify.
There was never any question as to whether Hallelujah was good enough to enter the album. Nearly every person who heard it said it was magical, special, and rightfully deserved a spot on the track list. But one Rolling Stone critic had a different opinion.
Music journalist Stephanie Zacharek wrote 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.” But Jeff was never trying to sound as battered as Leonard Cohen, he was trying to bring himself into the lyrics.
Even though Jeff had recorded a lot of songs, he kept many of them hidden in drawers because he felt they weren’t good enough to be on the record. Without enough material to fill an entire album, he searched for existing songs he could make his own.
“He didn’t play cover songs,” producer Steve Berkowitz told Uncut. “Jeff played other people’s compositions and made them his own. He consumed the idea and the feel.” His album contains three incredible new compositions:
Lilac Wine, originally sung by Eartha Kitt.
Corpus Christi Carol, by Benjamin Britten.
And his epic rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
Days before his sessions were scheduled to end, Jeff told producer Andy Wallace that there was a new song he wanted to add titled Forget Her. Inspired by his rocky relationship with Rebecca Moore, Jeff delivered the lyrics to Forget Her in such a moving way that Wallace was left speechless the first time he heard it.
As Buckley sang of the woman who was “heartbreak from the moment he met her,” Andy Wallace heard something more than his painful tale. He heard the album’s next new hit. The track was marked as a potential single but was later removed in favor of the single So Real.
Jeff’s decision to remove Forget Her and place So Real on the album was controversial. “Obviously, I didn’t share Jeff’s feeling,” producer Steve Berkowitz informed. He believed Forget Her was way more relatable and would be able to tug on the heartstrings of a larger mass of people.
Some say the reason for Jeff’s swap was because he didn’t want to release a song about Moore, while others claim that he was repulsed by it because it had an obvious “chart-friendly” feel to it. Despite the pressure coming from the record label, Jeff shut everyone up by saying during one dinner, “If I hear the song again, I’m going to throw up.”
Apart from the surprising song swap, Jeff surprised the label heads with his choice of cover portrait. The photo was taken by Merri Cyr and shows Jeff in a trance-like state with his eyes either looking down or closed, holding a vintage microphone and dressed in a sequined jacket.
They shot the picture at a weird-looking loft where Jeff had arrived with a bag full of clothes. He emptied the content all over the huge bed in the room and carefully selected his pick. He surprised everyone by choosing what Cyr described as a “Judy Garland glitter jacket.”
Executives back at Columbia HQ weren’t too happy with Jeff’s cover shot. They were weirded out by his gloomy lack of eye contact and showy attire. Jeff mentioned in several interviews that he didn’t want to come off as a pretty boy, so everyone found it odd that he would choose that specific photo.
“He looks like a f**ing lounge singer!” head of Sony, Don Ienner, exclaimed when he first saw the photo. Executives tried to steer him away from the flashy cover but, as with his song swap, Jeff stood his ground and debated the label for weeks until he got his way.
Jeff’s relationship with his pretty boy looks always bothered him, believing they were a distraction from his talent. But no matter how much he tried to shy away from it, he was still undeniably handsome. The singer was teased by his friends after People Magazine put him on their 1995 list of the “50 Most Beautiful People.”
He was so embarrassed by the article that he ran away from any fan who wanted him to sign it. “I’m not an actor, I’m not a model, why do I have to waste time on that,” he used to say. “That’s gonna get in the way of my real important purpose in life, music. Music for the people.’”
Even though Jeff’s album didn’t top the charts when it was released in 1994, it still earned serious acclaim from a few of the most respected musicians in rock history. David Bowie said that the album is one he would take with him to a deserted island, and Paul McCartney went backstage to meet the young artist after seeing him perform at the Roseland Ballroom.
Bob Dylan also discussed Buckley’s talent by naming him “one of the greatest songwriters of the decade.” Jeff managed to influence many other contemporary artists, including Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who said that hearing Buckley’s falsettos made him realize that you could sing high-pitched without sounding silly.
The most meaningful comment came from Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Page called Buckley “the best technical singer that had surfaced in two decades. He admitted that he used to play Grace constantly, and the more he listened to the whole record, the more he appreciated Jeff’s outstanding talent.
Robert Plant recalled attending one of Buckley’s concerts in the mid- ‘90s, describing it as “mind-altering, with such spectacular singing and so much conviction.” When the three musicians met face to face, Jeff cried. Meeting the “godfathers” of his music was everything he had ever wished for.
After spending most of 1995 touring the world promoting Grace, Buckley began to work on his second album titled, My Sweetheart the Drunk. He moved away from New York and decided to record the album in Memphis, Tennessee, at Easley McCain Recording.
As much as the recording of Grace was strenuous, the making of his second album was a lot worse. Buckley’s perfectionism kept him seriously dissatisfied by the results of the recording. He tried to find a bit more clearance by recording several demos on his own without the band by his side.
Jeff’s former manager Dave Lory informed NPR that the musician had been acting a bit strange two weeks before his drowning. “He was trying to buy a house that wasn’t for sale,” Lory mentioned. “He was trying to buy a car that wasn’t for sale. He proposed to Joan (his then-girlfriend) and even applied for a job as a butterfly keeper at the Memphis Zoo.”
According to Lory, it looked like all Jeff was yearning for before his death was to settle down. He just wanted a normal, quiet life. Sadly, he would die before he would ever hit any of those “normal” human milestones like marriage or kids.
On May 29, 1997, Buckley went for a spontaneous dip in the Mississippi River. According to police reports, Jeff was sitting on the riverbank with a friend, Keith Foti, listening to music on the radio. Jeff then dived in and started paddling away, with Keith calling out to him and warning him it could be dangerous.
Buckley flipped around to float on his back and belted out Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love as he gleefully took in the evening summer sky. But his harmonious singing was swallowed by a boat that came out of the blue and created large waves. Keith scrambled away from the bank to prevent the boombox from getting wet, but when he turned around, Jeff was nowhere to be seen.
After about 10 minutes of desperate cries, Keith called the Memphis police, who began to scan the area with a helicopter until the sunset interrupted their rescue attempts. The next morning, a scuba team continued the search, but to no avail.
As the hours went by, things were looking grimmer and grimmer. Everyone knew there was hardly any chance that Jeff was still alive. On June 4th, a few days after his disappearance, the search came to an end after passengers on a riverboat spotted his body caught in some branches in the Wolf River.
Two weeks after discovering his body, the medical examiner at the University of Tennessee reported that Jeff came out negative for any drug use and that his blood alcohol level was nothing serious – 0.04 milligrams, which is more or less the equivalent of one glass of wine.
With that in mind, police closed the case and announced that the cause of death was accidental drowning. While Jeff’s friends and family struggled to accept his fate, they all agreed that jumping into the river spontaneously was surely something he would do.
Through the years, people have pointed at several disturbing facts that might hint at a planned suicide. For example, two days before his drowning, he went on an unusual “telephone spree,” calling his old friends, people he hadn’t spoken to in ages. People suspected it might have been his way of tying up loose ends.
Jeff had phoned his girlfriend Joan Wasser to share the news that he had been recently diagnosed as bipolar. Moreover, he left a message to his ex-girlfriend, Rebecca Moore, saying, “Think of me and smile. I’m gonna work my ass off, baby… I’ll see you on the other side.” Finally, his friend Tammy Shouse shared that Jeff told her he was suffering from recurring dreams of his own death.
With the ghost of his dad shadowing him, many people believed that Jeff had been abusing drugs, specifically heroin, the drug that claimed his father’s life. But sources close to Jeff have argued that he has never been hooked on the substance. The artist once confidently mentioned in an interview, “Drugs are like Vegas: The house always wins.”
“Jeff was obviously not an addict,” his friend, Keith Foti, claimed. Moreover, Jeff had always told his close friends and family that he would never end up like his old man.
Sadly, while he didn’t die of drugs, he still ended up somewhat like his dad, both dead at a shockingly young age.
Joan Wasser, the woman Jeff had proposed to a few days before his death, revealed that the singer had told her, not long after they met, that he had a feeling he would die young. Even though he knew he had a lot more to bring into the music industry, he couldn’t shake off that eerie sensation that his life was coming to an end.
Recurring dreams of his death haunted him for several weeks before he drowned. “I feel like Memphis walked him down the aisle,” Jeff’s friend, Tammy Shouse, disclosed in an interview with MOJO Magazine: “He was dreaming about his death and he knew that something was up, and he felt it.”
In the months before his death, Jeff reportedly spent a lot of time alone in his home in Memphis, recording demos and struggling to perfect his songs. Unfortunately, a lot of his work has never been released, and not even his closest colleagues have been able to lay their hands his last works of art.
He tried to live a quiet life, one that was worlds apart from the hustle and bustle of New York’s busy streets. So, he moved into a small cottage where he let the grass in his front yard grow wild. His neighbors reported that he would lie down on his lawn and spend hours in the afternoon looking up at the sky, contemplating his life.
Jeff often defined himself as a “basic, working-class, white boy with no culture or class.” He was raised by a single mother who moved around a lot due the constantly changing job market, but while the scenery changed incessantly, there was one thing that always managed to ground him – music.
Music was everywhere around the house. Whenever Jeff would hear his mom play the piano, he would drop everything to sit by her side. He loved the gentle sound of her playing and would often request specific songs. But because he didn’t know the names to all of the tunes, he would give each one a special made-up name, like “the one that sounds like raindrops.”
Jeff Buckley had been raised as Scott Moorhead, a combination of his middle name and his stepfather, Ron Moorhead’s surname. Jeff found solace in Ron, who provided him with the care and love that his biological father, Tim, never managed to offer.
“Jeff and I had a wonderful talk on the telephone a few days prior to the accident,” Moorhead told the Rolling Stone. In their last conversation, Jeff had told Moorhead that he was excited to go back to the studio and that he felt his voice was “the best it had ever been.”
At only eight years old, Jeff Buckley knew perfectly well he wanted to become a musician. This realization was both a curse and a blessing, because from a very young age, he felt somewhat on his own. He wasn’t into sports, or girls, or going to the beach. He preferred to lose himself in the instruments he played and in the songs he wrote.
He started playing the guitar at the age of five after discovering an acoustic one in his grandma’s closet. Seeing how much he loved to play, his family chipped in together a few years later to buy him first real guitar which they gifted him for Christmas.
Instead of going to college, Jeff attended the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood. Surprisingly, he told Rolling Stone that his one-year course in L.A. was “the biggest waste of time.” While he appreciated studying music theory and all that jazz, what Jeff really longed for was experience.
If you’ve listened to his music, you can feel how emotionally charged his voice was. That kind of sentiment can’t be taught, it’s something you achieve through life experiences.
So, in 1990, Jeff packed his bags and swapped his home state of California for the busy, artsy streets of New York City.
Jeff’s open-mindedness was what made his music so wonderful. His musical taste was extremely diverse, covering anything from heavy metal to opera. Growing up, he would drive around with his mom and her boyfriend in their van, playing Led Zeppelin on full blast.
Lying in the back of the car and having Zeppelin’s songs play repeatedly had a significant influence on the aspiring musician. He found answers in Led Zeppelin’s lyrics and made it a goal to create music that would inspire people in the same way.
Radio host Nicholas Hill once called Jeff during an episode of his show The Music Faucet, requesting he sing something. Jeff was as spontaneous as a man could possibly be, so he gladly agreed to it. He sang and gracefully played the harmonica to Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released.
His random phone performance should have been just a neat little gig, but, instead, his cover became an actual hit. His fantastic rendition of Bob Dylan’s single expresses just how humorous, easy-going, and unpredictable Jeff truly was.
After his death, Jeff’s mom began working with Columbia Records on posthumous releases. The first was his album, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (1998), a double-disc set featuring several unfinished singles that the singer had recently recorded.
In 2003, another two-disc set was released. This time, it included his live performances at his favorite spot, the Sin-é café. “The work we’ve done so far has been well received,” his mom, Mary Guibert, proudly told The Guardian.
Jeff was offered plenty of lucrative roles and projects, including roles in films and even writing the theme song to one of Quentin Tarantino’s films. Incredibly, Buckley was never blinded by money, and he turned down a lot of cash again and again just to keep doing what he intended to do in the first place – music.
“He’d reject nine out of 10 offers, things that’d make him a lot of money,” Jack Bookbinder, one of Jeff’s close managers revealed. “Like the Prada shoot, things like that, and movie roles like The Mirror Has Two Faces.”