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Last Goodbye

IN AN EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FROM HIS FORTHCOMING BOOK, DREAM BROTHER, EW’S MUSIC CRITIC DESCRIBES THE FINAL HOURS IN THE LIFE OF AN ENIGMATIC RISING STAR, SINGER-SONGWRITER JEFF BUCKLEY

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In the South, they call it a shotgun shack: a house so compact that one can, if so inclined, open the front and back doors and discharge a blast straight through and into the backyard. Actually, there wasn’t much behind 91 North Rembert Street, mostly dirt and gravel, and that backwoods ambiance was in keeping with the earthy feel of the rest of the property. The white wood siding had begun to peel, and three-foot-high brownish weeds had transformed the hilly front yard into a parcel of untamed field. Inside, glancing around the bare white walls and tan plank floors of the living room, Gene Bowen realized how much work there was to do this evening of May 29, 1997. With his sandy-brown shag and boyish features, the 33-year-old Bowen had begun work three years ago as the tour manager for Jeff Buckley. It wasn’t the easiest of jobs. The usual road-manager work — making sure schedules were adhered to, cars and trucks were rented at the appropriate times and places, and guitar strings were on hand — was hard enough. Fulfilling these jobs for Jeff was another matter altogether. Jeff had a tendency to show up hours late for meetings or simply space out.

Even though Jeff’s nearly two-year-long tour had ended 14 months before, the downtime had hardly been stress-free. Although it wasn’t a runaway commercial hit, his first album, Grace, had established him as a formidable new talent in rock, an old-fashioned haunted romantic who wore a heart on both sleeves yet wasn’t afraid to thrash away as if he were a bratty punk rocker. With its overspill of emotion and passion, the album set him apart from most of his Lollapalooza-era peers, as did the pensive eyes and gaunt cheekbones that had launched a reputation (one Jeff mostly loathed) as a dreamboat. Still, the making of Jeff’s second album — the one his label, Columbia, was so eager to see completed and released — was starting to feel like an endless round of fruitless recording sessions and instruments being hauled from one subterranean practice room to another.

Ever since Bowen had driven into Memphis yesterday morning, he had been concerned about his friend’s — and employer’s — mental state. Jeff had always been slight of build and height, still the skinny kid from Orange County, but he had lately begun to look a bit drawn and thin. His mood shifts, which had always been pronounced, had become more manic and erratic.

As the sun began to set on this Thursday evening, though, matters overall appeared to be on track. Jeff’s band was scheduled to arrive at the airport in two hours, and the plan called for them to stay in his house. It was going to be tight. The living room was empty save for a green velvet couch and a milk crate, but it was nonetheless small and boxy, and the adjoining room and Jeff’s own back bedroom were even more shoebox-sized.

Shortly before 8 p.m. Jeff emerged in his black jeans, ankle-high black boots, and a white T-shirt with long black sleeves and ”Altamont” inscribed on it. Though he had just turned 30 about six months before, he remained a rock & roll kid at heart. After a period in which he had often dyed his hair black, his newly shorn hair was back to its natural brown. As he and Bowen stood on the front porch, Jeff said he would be heading out for a while. Generally Bowen would accompany Jeff on expeditions while on tour, but tonight Bowen needed space. The band’s mattresses would be delivered shortly, and the last thing the tour manager needed was Jeff bouncing around the house when they arrived.