Like Father, Like Son?

jeff buckleyJeff started his career dismissing the influence of father Tim.
But David Browne discovers they were inextricably linked.

Is this goin to be about my father? Because I never knew him.” It was one of the first things Jeff Buckley said to me after we took our seats on opposite sides of a small table in a downtown New York restaurant. We were breakfasting together on a September morning in 1993, although it wasn’t a purely social encounter. I had already seen him perform at Sin-e, a small East Village coffeehouse, and had been captivated by his expansive voice and elastic repertoire. Now, this soft-spoken 26-year-old with short, spiky hair and a red T-shirt was sitting across from me, instantly on his guard. Although his query about his father was surprisingly direct, I understood his concern. I told Jeff that no, the article I was writing for the New York Times wasn’t about Tim but about the buzz that had been building around Jeff since he had left his native Orange County, California, and moved to New York City nearly two years before. Now he had signed a supposedly enviable contract with Columbia Records, was about to begin recording his first album and was bein touted as a next-big-something.
I did ask him a few questions about his family and upbringing; the topic was unavoidable. He expressed disdain for the way his absentee father had run his career but admired some of his albums, particularly Starsailor, the wild-eyed 1971 tapestry many considered Tim’s masterpiece. Speaking of his own music and plans for the future, Jeff was the definition of enigmatic: cocky one moment (“I’m doing this for me – there are no rules or precedents for what I’m doing”), unsure the next (“I’m sick of the world… I’m trying to stay alive”). When, 90 minutes later, he slouched away with a wounded-deer gaze, I was more puzzled than I’d been when I arrived.

He played Sin-e a few days later, and afterwards, as he forlornly stuffed his electric guitar into a black plastic case, I asked if he had a few minutes to talk. Gently but firmly, he shook his head; he seemed emotionally and physically spent. I looked around the club awkwardly, and when I turned back, he was gone.

The next morning, Jeff left for Woodstock to begin recording his first album. When the result, Grace, was released almost a year later it portended a limitless future. On May 29, 1997, those hopes vanished forever in the waters of Memphis, when Jeff drowned six months after turning 30. By that time, three years had passed since that debut album, and he had been on the verge of finally recording its follow-up after several abortive attempts with producer Tom Verlaine. It was never to be, but something striking has happened since. Grace had not been a massive commercial hit in either the US or UK, but its influence has loomed larger than any chart placing could indicate. That ethereal sound and desolate-angel voice has seeped into bands like Travis and Radiohead and is heard in singer-songwriters like Duncan Sheik. Since his death, Jeff has been the subject of songs by Sheik, Chris Cornell, Hole, Aimee Mann, PJ Harvey, and Juliana Hatfield.

Still, my mysterious first encounter with him lingered: who was he, and how did he leave such an impression after only one album and an EP? For the last three years, I’ve searched for those answers while researching and writing his biography. That journey took me to the suburbs of Orange County, to the low-rent Hollywood apartments where he scuffled in the late ’80s, and to the church where he watched rehearsals for the 1991 Tim Buckley tribute concert, where he made his true New York performance debut. I wandered through the Memphis cottage where he spent his last two and a half months and visited the banks of the Wolf River, where my sneakers sank in mud when I tried to step where he had begun wading. These journeys also led me deeper into Tim Buckley’s world.

Jeff ‘s ambivalence about any connection with his father was understandable; the hurt of abandonment, of knowing his father had adopted another son (from Tim’s second marriage), was etched in his face and words. Yet from his journals and talking with associates, it was apparent that Tim had left a larger footprint on Jeff ‘s soul than anyone had imagined. Jeff ‘s world view reflected his deep knowledge of Tim’s life, music, and career train-wreck. Hence Tim’s story had to be explored in full: how else could one explain Jeff stating, in an interview at age 16, that he didn’t want to land a record deal right away because the only place to go from there was down?

My search for Tim Buckley, included talks with friends, lovers, musicians, producers, and record company employees scattered from Oregon to Arkansas to Mexico. I read letters to friends and unearthed the military records of his father – a mysterious, disturbed character who left his son feeling unloved. As I read through the police reports of Tim’s death, the elements of this separate story became part of the epic, expanding from one man’s life to a sprawling saga that began in 19th century Ireland (the Buckleys) and Panama (the Guiberts), wound through twists and turns in the music business from the ’60s to the ’90s,ending on a damp 1997 night in Memphis.

Jeff ‘s legacy now expands with Mystery White Boy as Tim returns to the racks via a career overview on Rhino and reissues of out-of-print albums like Blue Afternoon and Starsailor and a tribute album. Poignantly, we find ourselves in something close to Jeff’s shoes. Just as he never knew his father yet was affected by him, we never truly knew Jeff yet his impact lingers to this day.

– David Browne
MOJO 79 – June 2000