JEFF BUCKLEY’S GRACE: 25 YEARS LATER
Looking back on Grace, it is easy to see why the album was not a hit upon its release. In a time when grunge was king – Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam dominated the rock airwaves – Jeff Buckley’s moody masterpiece didn’t stand a chance.
Not long after its release it did, however, gain a cult following. Perhaps because it’s the only album release in the singer’s short life, it has since become romanticized by writers and indie-rock fans alike. But Grace is more than just a piece of ‘90s mythology: it’s an anomaly. Nearly every song on the album draws influence from various genres, be it folk, jazz, Indian raga, or heavy metal. The fact that Buckley could mold all of these genres and somehow make it work… this is why Grace is a masterpiece.
Born November 17, 1966, to Mary Guibert and folk-singer Tim Buckley, it already seemed like his career path was paved. By the late ‘60s his father had gained success through the counterculture scene. He had a prominent career on Elektra Records until a heroin overdose ended his life in 1975. The younger Buckley never really knew his singer-songwriter father, having only met him once during his short life.
“He split before I was born,” Jeff Buckley said in 1994. “He didn’t really keep in contact with me and my mom, except for one time. He went off and decided to not be a father, it was just me and my mom. Then I saw him once for a week, that was two months before he crashed on heroin.”
Growing up, Jeff was known as Scottie Moorhead after being adopted by his stepfather, Ron Moorhead. Along with his mother and stepfather, the young Buckley and stepbrother Corey were constantly moving around Southern California to what the singer later lamented as “little white-trash towns.” It was this bohemian upbringing that seemed to forge his free-spirited personality and, later, his musical style.
At the age of five, Jeff discovered an old acoustic guitar in his grandmother’s closet and was transfixed. He described the experience of finding it after the release of Grace: “My grandmother had an acoustic guitar, this no-name acoustic guitar, that I think she got in hopes that one of her children would start to play it. But it sat there until they became adults and then I found it.”
His mother had a background in classical music, while his stepfather introduced him to acts like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. It was at the age of 12 that Jeff decided he was going to be a musician. However, it was hard rock acts like Kiss and Led Zeppelin that inspired him to take guitar playing seriously.
“The first album he ever got was Physical Graffiti,” his mother later said. “And he played that until the grooves were gone. Then when he was about 14, for his birthday, he asked for a guitar, a real guitar. And that’s when we all chipped in to get him the Les Paul.”
With his new Gibson Les Paul Custom, Jeff vowed to become a guitar god and soaked up every note from Jimmy Page, Steve Howe, and Alex Lifeson. Playing in various little bands in high school, he was open to every kind of music out there. Whether playing in The Police cover bands or studying jazz-fusion, he had become a complete vessel for music.
After graduating from high school in 1984, he left home for Hollywood in hopes of getting his career started. At a time when hair metal ruled the scene, Jeff’s pure artistic aspirations stood no chance. For the remainder of the ‘80s, he played in various ska and hardcore punk bands with little success.
Wanting to pave his own way and not draw comparisons to his father, he stayed out of the spotlight, preferring to be just the guitar player in his bands.
“I don’t know if he was resisting being a replica of his father,” his mother said. “That might have been something that kept him back from wanting to stand out in front.”
However, in early 1990 he decided to strike out on his own and moved to New York City. When his father’s former manager, Herb Cohen, heard that Tim Buckley’s son was gigging as a solo act, he offered him an opportunity to record a demo album back in Los Angeles.
Listening to the finished four-song demo dubbed Babylon Dungeon Sessions, it’s clear that the young singer was still finding his sound… but the talent was definitely there. These early takes, which included “Last Goodbye” and “Eternal Life,” would later appear on his debut LP.
As much as Buckley resisted being compared to his biological father, it was hard not to, for those who saw and heard him sing. Not only was his haunting vocal style similar, but their physical resemblance was uncanny. When he was offered to appear at a Tim Buckley tribute concert in New York the following year, he even turned it down initially. However, after thinking it over he agreed but insisted he not be billed on the show.
Playing at his father’s memorial show proved a good career move for the young star, as he hooked up with former Captain Beefheart guitarist, Gary Lucas. For the next year, the two artists played together in Gods and Monsters and wrote two tracks that would be included on Grace: “Mojo Pin” and the title track. However, the band’s vibe never felt totally right to Buckley so he again struck out on his own.
“I decided to totally find little places all over the Lower East Side or anywhere in New York and just start playing,” Buckley said. “It was sort of an old-fashioned idea. I wanted to be a singer, a chanteuse.”
Playing in various small clubs with just his Fender Telecaster, he eventually became the main act at Sin-é located in the East Village. It was a tiny hole-in-the-wall gig, but it provided Buckley with the freedom he needed to hone his craft. He began experimenting with covers of Van Morrison, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone, whom he regarded as his primary musical influence at the time.
After creating a buzz, he was discovered by Steve Berkowitz, A&R Executive at Sony/Columbia Records, and signed a three-album deal with them in October 1992. “It went from Jeff making coffee to a sea of limousines out front,” Berkowitz said.
To fill the void between the initial contract and Buckley’s debut album, they released the EP Live at Sin-é in November 1993 which perfectly captures his sound at the time.
Though his unique sound came from the fact that he was a solo act, Buckley desperately craved the feeling of a band and slowly began to piece one together.
“There’s nothing like a band,” Buckley said during the recording of Grace. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a solo artist – Van Morrison – those albums like Astral Weeks. That was a great ensemble, it was great. All of my favourite music has been made by bands, but I was signed as a solo artist. I don’t know, we’ll have to work on that. We’ll have to see where that goes but I really can’t stand being alone all the time.”
After finding bassist Mick Grøndahl and drummer Matt Johnson, the trio headed up to Woodstock, New York to begin working on his debut LP where they laboured furiously with producer Andy Wallace.
“Jeff was a hard guy to pin down schedule-wise,” said Wallace. “He was always onto something new and his mind was always clicking onto something new, which was brilliant and great. But it was an important aspect of getting the record accomplished to keep him focused on what we were dealing with.”
Despite the lack of material the trio went in to work on, Buckley’s constant experimentation kept the short song list fresh, and each song had its own personality.
Buckley invited Gary Lucas to play on both “Mojo Pin” and “Grace,” and experimental composer Karl Berger to provide lush string arrangements.
Closer to the end of the recording process, second guitarist Michael Tighe was added to the lineup. Tighe was instrumental in helping finish the album and co-wrote what would be the album’s third single “So Real” – a song Buckley felt would help balance the music on the album.
While Buckley was firm about doing a band-orientated record, he did include some solo recorded material that included covers of “Lilac Wine,” “Corpus Christi Carol,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
After all the material had been laid out in the studio, Buckley and Wallace sat down and mixed the tracks for months upon months. Buckley, ever the perfectionist, would not release the album unless he was satisfied with every single note.
Finally, on August 23, 1994, Grace was released on Columbia Records. The album, while a critical success, failed commercially and peaked at 149 on Billboard’s Top 200. It was, however, ranked by Mojo as the number one album of the year in ‘94. Buckley, while ever the critical darling, would struggle to find massive commercial success during his lifetime.
From the opening of “Mojo Pin” with his soft arpeggiating guitar and Nina Simone-like vocals, it is clear that this is a different kind of album. The songs, in short, are of pop structure but with his jazz-like vocals and genre-spanning style these tracks are taken to another level. Songs like “Last Goodbye” and “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” were miles away from anything that rock or pop audiences were looking for at the time. It’s hard to imagine hardcore grungers jamming to the Indian-flavored “Dream Brother” or the Nina Simone cover, “Lilac Wine”
Grace, while only consisting of 10 tracks, may be the best thing to come out in the ‘90s. Its seamless blend of musical genres is something that no other artist has done quite as well before or since. While perhaps not as culturally important as Nirvana’s Nevermind, it is equally as important from a musically historic standpoint. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has claimed that Grace was the inspiration for “Fake Plastic Trees.”
Following the release of the album, Buckley embarked on a world tour that lasted until May 1996. He jumped into the studio shortly after but ran into trouble quickly. His lack of focus, that producer Tom Verlaine could not control, extended the sessions into the following spring.
While still trying to finish up his sophomore LP, Buckley went swimming in Wolf River Harbor, a channel of the Mississippi River in Memphis. He was clowning around the water, singing Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” After being passed by a tugboat, Buckley vanished. His body surfaced six days later on June 4. He was only 30 years old.
Ironically Buckley’s best-known track is his cover of “Hallelujah,” which was finally released as a single in 2007. The following year it was performed on American Idol by contestant Jason Castro, and Buckley’s version shot to the number one spot on Billboard’s digital single chart.
The song has since been used by dozens of television shows, and in April 2013 was played at Fenway Park in honor of the Boston Marathon bombing victims before a Red Sox game.
Like most great works of art, Grace was never appreciated in its own time. Over the years itcontinued to find an audience, but the build-up was slow. It wasn’t until well after Buckley’s tragic drowning in 1997 that his talent was realized by the mainstream. Grace finally hit Gold record status in 2002, eight years after its initial release and four years after the singer’s death.
“It’s such an eclectic album,” said guitarist Michael Tighe. “He had such a short recording career, it’s great that there is that album that shows so many different sides of him musically.”
In 2006 Mojo named Grace the “Number One Modern Rock Classic of All-Time”. It was ranked by Rolling Stone at 304 on their “500 Greatest Albums of All-Time”.
Both ex-Led Zeppelin members Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have spoken very highly of the record, the latter later saying that it was his “favourite of the decade.” Both Bob Dylan and Thom Yorke have stated their extreme admiration for Buckley’s music.
On April 2, 2014, nearly 20 years after the release of Grace it was announced that Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” would be inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
“What do I want people to get from the music?” Buckley asked in 1994. “Whatever they want. What you like. Somebody asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted do give back to it what it’s given me. And to meet all the other people that are doing it. Just to be in the world really.”