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Remembering Jeff Buckley

The singer-songwriter was the victim of an apparent drowning in Memphis

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Remembering Jeff Buckley

Jeff Buckley had every reason to want to unwind. The singer-songwriter — and 30-year-old son of folk-jazz troubadour Tim Buckley — had temporarily relocated from New York to Memphis to record his long-delayed second album, and rehearsals had been productive. Cruising around Memphis May 29, Buckley and a friend, Keith Foti, stopped near a marina off the Mississippi River. It was a muggy night, and Buckley’s jeans and Doc Martens only made it warmer. So around 9 p.m., he plunged into the water, reportedly singing along to ”Whole Lotta Love,” which played on a boom box at river’s edge.

Sadly, it was the last song Buckley would ever sing. A barge passed by, churning the river’s already strong undercurrent. Foti moved to protect the radio; when he turned back around, Buckley had vanished. Quickly notified of the disappearance, Memphis police began combing the marina waters, an area up to 40 feet deep that a police spokesman calls ”not a good place to go swimming.” At press time, Buckley’s body had not been found, but on June 2, Columbia, Buckley’s label, issued a statement saying ”family and friends believe he has drowned.” (It added that ”there was no evidence of drugs or alcohol,” although a source close to the singer’s camp claims Buckley was ”a little drunk.”)

”He was in a happy mood,” says New York club owner Michael Dorf. ”But I can see him totally dressed, deciding to jump in because it was too hot. He didn’t always think about what he was doing.”

Although not a household name, Buckley commanded such respect in the music community that the night after his death, R.E.M. and U2 dedicated songs to him at shows in Atlanta and New Jersey, respectively. The buzz on Buckley started in 1991, when he began playing at coffeehouses in New York’s East Village. Word of his voice, charisma, and pedigree quickly spread, leading to his contract with Columbia and two discs: the 1993 EP Live at Sin-e and the 1994 album Grace, whose open-hearted passion set it apart from the emotionally aloof alternative landscape. It also made Buckley a comer: Girls screamed at his concerts, and he was seen on the town with Courtney Love. Fans from Chicago and California had journeyed to Memphis to catch Buckley’s weekly shows at Barrister’s, a small club where he’d been rehearsing his new material. Says co-owner Mike Glenn of the drowning: ”I’ve been in this business 15 years, and I’ve never had anything like this happen before.”

Eerily, something similar had occurred — within Buckley’s own family. Jeff was 8 when his father overdosed on heroin and morphine in 1975, at the age of 28. The younger Buckley shared traits with his dad — soulful good looks, a rapturous voice, and moody, unconventional songs. But he did his best to distance himself from his doomed father, whom he barely knew: Tim Buckley and his wife, Mary Guibert, separated after their son’s birth in 1966, and Jeff grew up in L.A. with his mother. ”It just so happens,” he once said, ”that I’m cursed with music.”

Juliana Hatfield, who toured with and befriended Buckley, sees his fate differently: ”I always thought Jeff was an angel from heaven. He was a sweet, loving person, and he was supernaturally gifted. He was too good for this world.”

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