Is it an addiction? This wanting more.
On the drive to and fro, I listened to a difficult disc, My Sweetheart the Drunk, by Jeff Buckley. It is a series of song “sketches” released posthumously after the singer-songwriter’s death from drowning at age 30, in 1997. He was a Southern Californian living in Memphis, working on only his second studio album. According to Wikipedia, he drowned “during a spontaneous evening swim – fully clothed – in the Wolf River.” His mother, Mary Guibert, together with his band and producer, put the unfinished tracts together under the title Buckley had already picked, My Sweetheart the Drunk.
Guibert and others close to the singer said he was not depressed, he was excited about his music, that it was totally in character for him to jump in the water with his boots on. But I always thought, given his dark lyrics and minor chords – and his lineage – that he likely walked into the river with the intention, or at least the possibility, of not coming back.
It made for a kind of awful symmetry. His father was Tim Buckley, a troubled poet/troubadour who died of an overdose in 1975 when he was 28 and Jeff was 9.
He didn’t know his father; they met only once when Jeff was 8. But he surely knew his father’s music. They sounded at times on their respective records like the same haunted man: the high, clear tenor, aching, passionate, angry, pleading to the point, sometimes, of screaming out their pain.
I bought, and still own and play, Tim Buckley’s 1967 LP Goodbye and Hello. It still sings to me of the insanity of war (“No Man Can Find the War”). Of the overwrought heartache of first love (“Once I Was”). The manic, hallucinatory “Pleasant Street” couldn’t be more clearly about the relief offered by heroin: “You don’t remember what to say/You don’t remember what to do/You don’t remember which way to go/You don’t remember who to choose/You wheel, you steal, you feel, you kneel down . . . down . . . down.”
I saw Tim Buckley at a little club in Huntington Beach while I was in college, in 1968. Dangerously skinny, with a beautiful face under a curly, white-man ’fro, his right hand on the big 12-string guitar flailed so fast it was a blur. But he seemed otherwise completely out of it. He didn’t relate to the audience. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t sing the gorgeous love songs from Goodbye and Hello. He did sing “Pleasant Street,” harder and more thrillingly than on the album.
I learn from the Internet now that following his early successes he became “staunchly uncooperative with the press.” He was “standoffish” on the Tonight Show. He rebelled against the commercial. His music became more and more experimental, more archly personal. He “persevered on a course that alienated many of his fans as he became less and less accessible to audiences.”
When he died, a friend said, “It wasn’t expected [he had been clean for a time] but it was like watching a movie, and that was its natural ending.”
Jeff, like his father rail thin and handsome in a moody, haggard way, wowed audiences with his vocal power and layers of feeling. His soaring cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on the 1994 album Grace (“Well I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord”) introduced him to a worldwide semi-fame. As far as anybody knows, he only covered his father’s songs once, at a Tim Buckley tribute concert. Jeff said at the time that because he had missed his father’s funeral he wanted to pay homage. But just the one time; he was musically his own man.
Jeff’s mother Mary decided to place Jeff’s live cover of “Satisfied Mind” (by Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes, 1955) as the final song on My Sweetheart the Drunk to make clear, she said, the distinction between her son and her son’s father. Never mind the risky behavior, or the song titles – “Nightmares by the Sea,” “Murder Suicide Meteor Slave,” “I Know We Could be So Happy Baby (If We Wanted to Be)” – Jeff was not unhappy: “One thing’s for certain, when it comes my time/I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind.”
But I’m not so sure. I think he wanted more.