Why Hollywood Will Never Capture The Magic Of Jeff Buckley

With three biopics in the pipeline, interest in the late singer-songwriter has never been greater, but it is impossible to see them truly eliciting the ethereal power of the nearly-legend....
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With three biopics in the pipeline, interest in the late singer-songwriter has never been greater, but it is impossible to see them truly eliciting the ethereal power of the nearly-legend....


When it comes to heroes, we more often than not, only see what we want to see. Every great figure of music wears a sort of invincible halo and is typecast by their biggest hit and has other people’s perceptions, and their expectations, thrust upon them – so Jeff Buckley is to suffer the Hollywood treatment with the release of the trailer for Greetings From Tim Buckley, one of three Jeff biopics rumoured to be on the way over the course of 2012/13.

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The trailer shows Penn Badgley doing his best JB impression, a la Walk The Line, and credit to him his voice is similar, albeit an octave lower than Jeff’s freakishly high tones. But despite Badgley’s best efforts, the film appears to be a torrid rom-com-esque jaunt around Jeff’s first major public appearance playing at a tribute concert for his father, Tim Buckley. A pivotal event in the early development of the then-floundering Buckley who was struggling enough to establish his own musical identity; but ironically it was both his similarity to and his struggle to escape from under the shadow of his father that helped him become the world-touring megastar of his first and only official album, Grace. But just quickly, here’s why Tim is such an influential songwriter:

‘Song To The Siren’

With densely layered harmonies, obscure covers and odd tunings, Grace and the attendant talent of Jeff Buckley was, in the words of Bono (ugh), a “pure drop” in an ocean of noise in the mid-nineties, a period which lurched from grunge-copyists to brit-pop wannabes as an increasingly cynical music industry tried to find and reproduce “the next big thing”. Grace was a strange beast, with one foot in the past of Dylan and Van Morrison, the other in songs of biting vengeance and drop-D guitars with soaring strings.

Grace, and now the first of no doubt many Jeff Buckley films, has mainly served to entrench the romantic regard he was held in by some, a latter-day Byron, the romantic yardstick against which all others are measured. And because of his early death at the age of 30, like his father who died aged 28 after mistakenly snorting heroin believing it to be cocaine, it is easy to accept the image of Jeff as the anguished artist wrestling with a foreboding sense of doom. This isn’t a ridiculous idea as much of his music is dark and brooding, and death is a recurrent theme in the lyrics on Grace, providing an eerie soundtrack that can almost  feel akin to a premonition. But then just as much of Grace is devoted to joie de vivre; ‘Eternal Life’, the journey of falling in and out of love,  ‘Last Goodbye’  the natural flux of time, and  ‘Grace’.

‘Grace’

All this was to change in the second, less-heard musical phase of Jeff Buckley. More alternative than many would give him credit for, his tastes and the style of his playing owed something to numerous influences, including a (mutual) admiration for Nirvana; Jeff also called The Smiths the only decent band to come out of the Eighties (probably true) and much of his music shifts between the most emphatic balladry and rocked-up vitriol. In this he also influenced others. Thom Yorke of Radiohead is said to have scurried straight back to the studio in tears, after seeing Buckley perform in 1995, and recording ‘High And Dry’, from The Bends (1995), off the cuff that same evening.

In a commercially brave volte face against his “pretty-boy” image and his record label, Jeff pulled the track, ‘Forget Her’ from the album release of Grace, a surefire hit

Buckley scoffed at others' idealised perception of him as a naïve chanteuse lost in the city (there was certainly some truth in this early open-mic days at the Sin-E cafe) as women threw their pants at him while he was onstage. In reality, Buckley was much more a workaday musician, someone who just loved to play. Admittedly, this could lead to overly-long improv sessions as he riffed on stage, sometimes doubling songs in length with his extended intros and the ends of songs trailing off into acapella obscurity – some people just thought he sounded whiny.

In a commercially brave volte face against his “pretty-boy” image and his record label, Jeff pulled the track, ‘Forget Her’ from the album release of Grace, a surefire hit, so the company executives argued, and this perhaps influenced his decision to withhold the song from release as a soporific stain for the rest of his short career. Naturally, when the posthumous barrel-scraping began it was released in the Grace reissue, despite Jeff’s wishes and even with hindsight, one feels he was right, to me the song is largely a by-numbers verse/chorus dirge – but decide for yourself:

Part of the reason that the loss of Buckley is so keenly felt is the promise of his second album, the 2-CDs of gathered demoes, one disc of band sessions, the other of solo sessions at home recorded on a four-track, which became the posthumous release, Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk.

Where Grace was typified by massed open strings, left to ring alongside Buckley’s sonorous timbre, the later, more difficult, sessions have shuffling ¾ time signatures, spiky guitars and more surreal lyrics. This shift in direction is marked by Buckley’s choice of Tom Verlaine (of Strokes-starters, Television) to produce some of the last sessions he ever recorded with his band as the record company rapped at the door, demanding new material; anything that they could release with his name on it, finished or not. The sound reflects Verlaine’s reportedly acerbic character and perhaps some of the pressure Jeff felt he was under to produce another masterpiece-to-order, another Grace, just as Kurt Cobain was asked to deliver another Nevermind before him.

Buckley scoffed at others' idealised perception of him as a naïve chanteuse lost in the city

On Sketches… there are taut and churning waves of guitar brought to the fore. In the band demo of ‘Have You Heard’, Jeff sings about paranoia, conformity control and gives a nod to Burroughs, with the line: “paranoia sucks at virus like language.” There are also dark echoes of his flirtation with heroin (he tried it, then stopped it) amongst other things, and after slogging through the industry mill as his father Tim Buckley did, many of the sessions portray a more jaded, worldly-wise Buckley with dark rings around his eyes trying to fight his way out of difficult-second-album-syndrome and out to the other side of getting down the music as he heard it in his head.

But ever a contradictory beast, as with Grace, Buckley experimented with each take and you hear the song structures shift on different versions of songs across both discs, but the strong melodic weaves remain the same and there is a sense of Buckley sticking to his guns, grabbing defiance out from melancholy and resisting the obvious demand for hit singles plus filler. But he did produce the decidedly slinky and likeable ‘Everybody Here Wants You’, a slice of Smokey Robinson soul delivered on a lush croon, no doubt designed to melt the hearts of passing girls, make them stop in their tracks and wander, lured and captivated into their nearest record store to buy it;  it should probably have been his great number one:

‘Everybody Here Wants You’

This definitive second phase announces the second coming of Buckley, ready to record the new album, but tragically dead at 30. It does however reveal a whole other side of the man and his music, although under the dominating aegis of Grace, Buckley’s only album completed during his lifetime, Sketches… suffers as another of music’s great “might have beens…”  Unfortunately it can do little to shed the neo-romantic baggage that is always piled onto the graves of musical legends, long dead and unable to shift under the torrid weight.

Despite this,  here’s my favourite Jeff Buckley song, a ballad from Sketches... apparently written for Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins.

‘Morning Theft’

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