The Baptism of Jeff Buckley
I FIRST MET JEFF BUCKLEY THE NIGHT HE DIED, drowned in the thick currents of the Mississippi River where they curl past Memphis. Had the musician been a native of the region, his late night swim into that great river would most appropriately be remembered as a suicide; but since he hailed from a far-off place where the rivers are gentler, it is more difficult to say. The question of that talented musician’s death (whether it was the result of random chance or an act of romantic despair) not long after he had released his critically acclaimed debut album Grace, which won the praise of artists from Jimmy Page to Bob Dylan to Rufus Wainwright, no doubt adds to the mystique of the story – both of the dead man and the living river. On this I will say more later.
I must here admit that I was no fan of the fellow’s music – I found it altogether too breathy and weepy for my taste – but my presence at Barrister’s that evening was no accident. Girls were involved, a brunette (a self-styled socialite and the main organizer of the expedition), and her friend, of porcelain skin and flame-red hair; also a couple of males, whom I of course forget. The short, mid-week road trip to a dodgy bar nurturing a secret talent seemed a modest adventure for an adventure-starved college student.
Barrister’s was all that I had hoped it would be: well off Beale Street, in a deliciously run-down area of Memphis that was appropriately seedy, devoid of all the signs of legitimate life. Its facade was ugly and difficult to find, its interior dark and wreathed in smoke, lit dimly by little red lights that revealed an incomplete renovation that served only to emphasize the vaguely dangerous remains of the original construction.
My party had stationed itself at a small table on the balcony, where we had a bird’s eye view of the modest stage below. As we waited for the appearance of the musician, I consumed a steady stream of Camel Lights and Little Rock Iced Teas – a drink of my own design that I had been promulgating as an emblem of regional pride, consisting of a good shot of Frangelico stirred into a glass of unsweet tea. I was well into my cups and so had barely noticed that the two fairest of our merry band had disappeared.
I was just noticing their absence when they reappeared at the stairwell, first one, then the other, and then, to the remaining party’s surprise, young Mr. Buckley. Our lady made introductions; I recall that our musician was very slight, fine-boned and blond, with a touch of the fey that I was sure must speak of Irish origins. I would later discover that I was at least half right. He also seemed painfully shy; while we made small talk he seemed both genuinely uncomfortable and yet also (for whatever the reason) genuinely interested, perhaps even grateful, to make our acquaintance. I offered him an LR iced tea, explaining to him what it was; he declined. Not out of any unwillingness to try the concoction, he assured me, but on ascetic grounds. Indeed, throughout his performance that evening, I never witnessed him imbibe any beverage save ice water.
This, I think, speaks against the notion that the musician’s faculties were impaired when he ventured into the waters of the Mississippi, and that it was this that caused his death. And there remain still better arguments against this, which I will come to presently.
Only with the call of the stage imminent did polite Mr. Buckley disengage from our party; I raised a glass to him at the table, thinking it was very good of him to come visit us all. I understood what might be his interest in the ladies, and yet he did not mind at all meeting the rest of us. Indeed, as was later indicated (somewhat reluctantly and with bruised feminine pride), that for whatever the reason, it was his idea.
Moments after leaving us the musician had taken his stage, wavering like a pale flame amid the stage lights, shyly introducing himself, as if any present did not know. Then he released his voice and his music.
When I ask others of their recollections of that night, they invariably speak of his renditions (the last) of their favorite songs from Grace, or the tantalizing new music from his upcoming My Sweetheart the Drunk, released posthumously: his performance of “Mojo Pin” or “Lilac Wine.” Most recall the luminous rendition of “Hallelujah,” the hymn brought to fame by Leonard Cohen, and how Buckley had made it into an altogether different thing, how he had made it his own, which I believe is fair to say.
With the exception of “Hallelujah,” I remember none of those songs. As I have said before, I was no real fan of his music. But there was one performance that stood out for me; it was, Buckley explained just before he began, newly written, never before performed – there were moments during the song where I am sure he was composing as he played. It was ethereal, tremulous, on the verge of greatness. It was called “In the Wake.”
What is strange is that I can find no one else who remembers such a song, even among those present that night. I can find no version or sketch of it, even among the voluminous posthumous material released by the corporation that holds the rights to his music. The song, from the gossamer fragments I can retrieve from my memory, was about a river, and about the soul, and about music as the language of both.
The music faded, the lights went down, and we went home. That night (I believe, though I was not there, it would have been at midnight), Jeff Buckley dipped himself into the warm May waters of the Mississippi River, and drowned. A week later, a tourist on a paddlewheel steamboat would spot his body.
The death of Jeff Buckley is thoughtlessly called a tragedy; the word is used only as a bland, postmodern intensifier to describe something very sad. In this case, the needless death of a talented young musician. As mentioned, the mystery remains whether his death was simply an accident, a variance of blind chance, or the romantic act of a desperate suicide.
I believe neither of these possibilities. I do believe, however, that what unfolded that night was indeed a tragedy, but tragedy in the pre-modern, primal, powerful sense of the word.
Jeff Buckley possessed a great spark of musical talent; he nursed the Orphic flame. What is more, he was beginning to understand it; he had made his home on the banks of the river because he recognized, because he could see, how that great father of waters drew and carried (and extinguished) innumerable sparks of flame, ran through the soul of the land and everyone in it. That night the Mississippi, with its every beating syllable, called to his minstrel blood.
The musician knew the danger and the daring of his act. He offered himself freely to the river, not in great despair but in great audacity, to allow the great river to flow through him; had he survived, he would have emerged from the water a giant, ready for greatness, bearing a music for the ages.
As it was, it was he who flowed into the river, the dark and rolling water, to become part of that great conduit he sought to tap.
This much, I think, is obvious; anything more would be speculation. As I have said before, I did not know him. And so I cannot say, not with any great confidence at least, which was the fate he more desired.