It’s easy to play the “What If?” game in popular music. “What if John Lennon hadn’t died? “What if N.W.A. hadn’t broken up?” “What if MTV hadn’t happened in 1981?” “What if disco kept going?” Since 1997, music fans have asked “What If?” about Jeff Buckley. After a promising start, the young musician died in a tragic accident at the age of 30. He left behind one complete full-length album, Grace, that has only gained more acclaim in the years since his passing. This week marks the 25th anniversary of Grace and an all-too-brief glimpse of a talent that had more to offer.
Jeffrey Scott Buckley grew up in the shadow of music. His father, Tim Buckley, was a noted folk and jazz musician; the younger Buckley, raised as Scottie Moorhead by his mother and stepfather, met his biological father a single time when he was eight. By the next year, Tim Buckley was dead of an overdose. After his biological father’s death, Moorhead decided to go by his birth name. Buckley’s mother had raised him in music, as she herself was a classically trained cellist and pianist. He picked up the guitar at age five and learned to sing for his family. His stepfather introduced him to ’60s and ’70s rock, while Buckley gravitated to progressive rock and jazz on his own.
After high school and a year at the Musicians Institute in California, Buckley plied his trade across bands, backing gigs, and studio work, but never as lead singer. At age 23, he moved to New York for several months, expanding his palette of influences to punk and Robert Johnson-style blues. When his late father’s former manager, Herb Cohen, said he’d help the young artist get a demo together, Buckley returned to L.A. The result, Babylon Dungeon Sessions, contained four songs, including “Unforgiven” (which would morph over time into “Last Goodbye”). In 1991, Buckley made his solo debut at a tribute show for his father.
Buckley played for a bit with the band Gods and Monsters before striking out on his own, carving out regular gigs in NYC. He slowly built a fanbase that generated attention from record labels. Buckley eventually signed with Columbia Records in 1992. Live at Sin-é, a four song EP, was recorded and released in 1993. That same year, he put together a band to begin work on the project that would become Grace.
Legendary engineer and producer Andy Wallace, who had worked with everyone from Prince and Springsteen to Nirvana and Slayer, co-produced the album with Buckley. Grace ended up being a 10-song affair, featuring seven originals and three covers; the title song was released as the first single, with “Last Goodbye” as the second. The video for “Last Goodbye” was chosen as a Buzz Clip by MTV, earning heavy rotation for a time in 1994. Though reviews were generally positive, sales were slow. Buckley seemed destined to have a cult following.
However, buzz around the album continued to build. Celebrities like Brad Pitt and music legends like Jimmy Page spoke of the album and Buckley in glowing terms. Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” also began to leak into public awareness as it was singled out for praise in many reviews and started to attract the interest of Hollywood. Thought it wasn’t a hit out of the gate, sales for the record were steady, and anticipation for a new album began to build.
Sadly, that would never come to pass. He toured extensively for the next two years and worked with punk legend Patti Smith on her Gone Again album in 1996. During those sessions, he met Tom Verlaine, who had been the lead singer of Television. Buckley enlisted Verlaine to produce the new record and reconvened his band to rehearse his new material. Unfortunately, after a few recording attempts, Buckley wasn’t happy with the results; he contacted Wallace to replace Verlaine. Buckley sent the band on to NYC while he worked out the songs in Memphis.
The band returned on May 29, 1997. That night, Buckley went for a swim in Wolf River Harbor. The band’s roadie Keith Foti busied himself moving a guitar and radio back from the shore as a tugboat passed. When Foti looked back to the water, Buckley was gone. Search and rescue teams worked through the night, but Buckley’s body wasn’t found until June 4. The autopsy revealed no sign of drugs or alcohol, and his death was officially declared an accidental drowning.
In the wake of Buckley’s death, Grace went to achieve a totemic existence. His version of “Hallelujah” has been used in dozens of films and television shows, from The West Wing to NCIS. In 2014, Buckley’s cover was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry due to its artistic significance. Rolling Stone and VH1 include Grace in their lists of the Greatest Albums of All Time; it was also rated as the second favorite album in the entirety of Australia in the 2006 My Favourite Album special. Buckley is also enshrined in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
In 1998, most of Buckley’s remaining studio tracks and demos for the second album were compiled into Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk; The Onion’s AV Club accurately assessed that it was “frustratingly incomplete, but mostly remarkable.” The song “Everybody Here Wants You” was released as a single and nominated for a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance in 1999. It’s mainly a snapshot of unfulfilled promise. Today, new audiences continue to discover Buckley through Grace and “Hallelujah,” which has continued to chart digitally throughout the 2000s. We’ll never know what Buckley might have accomplished, but his literal last goodbye left music that will be appreciated for years.