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Remembering Jeff Buckley

| May 29, 2014 | 20 Comments

Memphis. May 29, 1997, 8:30 p.m. Jeff Buckley and Keith Foti were lost. The two friends had set out in a van for a rehearsal space that Buckley’s band was renting. They were on the eve of recording material for the singer’s follow-up to his highly acclaimed debut Grace. For the past two months, Buckley, 30, had been living in Memphis. What should have been a 10-minute drive turned into an hour-long search through neighborhoods that all began to look the same.

Buckley thought of calling his tour manager Gene Bowen for directions, but Bowen was on his way to the Memphis airport to pick up the members of Jeff’s band. As Foti and Buckley entered downtown, an area more familiar to Jeff, he asked his friend if he wanted to go for ribs. Foti said no. Jeff had another thought. “It’s a nice night. Why don’t we go down to the river for a while?”

The Wolf River is a tributary of the Mississippi River. With its slowly rippling water, the Wolf resembles a lake more than a river. But with its intersection to the Mississippi, the undercurrents can be deceptive. Memphians know that the Wolf has claimed many drowning victims.

Foti, a New York hairdresser who dabbled in songwriting, had brought along his acoustic guitar and boombox that night. A few yards downriver from a bridge that connects to a peninsula known as Mud Island was a spot where Buckley said he had swum before. The shoreline was littered with sharp rocks and broken bottles. As Foti stayed at the water’s edge, Buckley waded in. He didn’t bother to remove his white T-shirt, jeans or black combat boots.

Foti said, “What are you doing, man?” But Jeff didn’t pay attention. As he eased into the water, he started doing the backstroke. He said something to his friend about “The first one being fun, but the second one … ” Foti didn’t know what he meant. Then Jeff began to sing “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin, joking about how the echo in the harbor made his voice sound like Robert Plant’s. He kept swimming further out.

It was about 9:15. Jeff had been in the water for nearly 15 minutes. He started to swim with purpose toward the Mud Island side of the Wolf. That’s when Foti saw the tugboat. “Jeff, there’s a boat coming. Get out of the water,” he called. Jeff swam out of its path. A bigger boat followed. Again, Foti called out to Jeff and watched as his friend swam clear of the boat. The water was getting choppy, lapping at the shoreline. Foti reached down to move his boombox and when he looked back up a second later, he’d lost sight of Jeff. He screamed for help for 10 minutes before a marina worker nearby heard him and called 911.

Within 30 minutes a full search was underway—patrol boats, scuba divers and helicopters fitted with searchlights and heat-imaging equipment. Three hours later, there was still no sign of Jeff Buckley. At 1 a.m., the search was called off.

In the days following his disappearance, many of Buckley’s friends refused to believe he had drowned. Jeff had a habit of disappearing for days at a time. Maybe he was just hiding out. Maybe he wanted to escape the pressures of recording his second album.

On June 4, a passenger aboard the American Queen riverboat saw something caught in a tangle of branches floating in the Mississippi. It was the body of Jeff Buckley. Though his face and hands had been damaged by the water, positive identification was made by a gold ring through his belly button.

Two weeks later, the medical examiner at the University of Tennessee in Memphis declared that Buckley had tested negative for drugs and that his blood alcohol level was 0.04 milligrams—the equivalent of a glass of wine. The official cause of death was accidental drowning with “no evidence of other injuries.” The Memphis Police closed the case.

Why did Jeff Buckley go in the water fully clothed that night? Everyone who knew him agrees that he was a spur-of-the-moment, impetuous person. It was something he might do. And he probably didn’t know about the undercurrents that made the Wolf River dangerous.

But in retrospect, there are a few disturbing hints that may point to a planned suicide. In the two days previous to his drowning, he had made an unusual amount of surprise phone calls to old friends from his past—people he hadn’t seen or spoken to in years—as if to tie up loose ends.

He called his friend Joan Wasser to tell her excitedly that he’d realized that he was afflicted with bipolar tendencies. It was an epiphany about his own character.

The day before his death he left a message for his friend Rebecca Moore that said, “Think of me and smile … I’m gonna work my ass off, baby … I’ll see you on the other side.” His friend Tammy Shouse said Jeff told her that he had begun to dream about his own death. In the weeks before he died, Jeff had also made a point of saying that he was proud that he had outlived his father, singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, who died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 28.

Several songs on the posthumously released Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk had unsettling lyrical imagery: Stay with me under these waves tonight / Be free for once in your life tonight (“Nightmare by the Sea”) … I float just like a bubble headed for a spike (“Witches’ Rave”) … Ah, the calm below that poisoned river wild (“You & I”).

Jeff Buckley’s death inspired musical tributes from many of his songwriter contemporaries: PJ Harvey’s “Memphis,” Mike Doughty’s “Grey Ghost,” Amy Correia’s “Blind River Boy,” Rufus Wainwright’s “Memphis Skyline,” Chris Cornell’s “Wave Goodbye,” Duncan Sheik’s “A Body Goes Down,” Juliana Hatfield’s “Trying Not to Think About It” and Aimee Mann’s “Just Like Anyone.”

His legacy is one of a beautiful free spirit who left his promise unfulfilled. As Bono from U2 said, “Jeff Buckley was a pure drop in an ocean of noise.”

—By Bill DeMain

From Mysterious Deaths of Rock Icons, Performing Songwriter Issue 93, May 2006

Category: Best of PS

Comments (20)

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  1. mike says:

    I saw jeff play at a small club called Barristers in downtown Memphis. He would play free shows there in the middle of the week. I wasn’t a fan nor was I a hater. I could appreciate the guy was talented and over the years I have warmed up to his music. That said anyone swimming in a river fully clothed is indeed asking for it or is just nit very smart….belly button ring and all.

  2. Kathy carter says:

    I think Jeff self destructed some people get so close to the goal and realize
    That there walking in someone else shoes maybe he want to see what his
    Father life was like because he felt abandoned as a child
    People that are fans and we’re close to him have a hard time seeing thing
    From a different prospective ( you can have a gifted talent but some people are pushed
    Into using there gift and never given the chance to pursue other thing of interest in life )
    I’m a outsider looking in just a opinion
    RIP JB

  3. sandra sherman says:

    RIP Jeff, forever in our hearts

  4. peter manzi says:

    Alex- You know nothing about me or my life and so for you to make statements like, I know nothing about quality is baseless. You are quick to judge and condemn too, another reason for viewing your comments as not very credible. If you think swimming at night, fully clothed and booted, in an unknown body of water, and skirting ships that pass by is the same as going for a walk or a woman wearing a skirt, then you obviously missed the boat on that one, no pun intended.
    I never refuted the quality of his work. But his output was cut short. Read comments about Jeff from Dave Marsh to get a different perspective. If you put yourself in danger or harm’s way, the consequences can be devastating. Life is too precious, in my view.

  5. Alex Murphy says:

    @Peter Manzi

    Unless you claim to be possess some sort of omniscient powers, their is no way in the world you can say Jeff Buckley was acting recklessly at the time of his death. The truth is no one really no the real circumstance of his death, so enough with the conjecture.

    Next, you’r assertion that Jeff Buckley was “asking for it” is baseless. Yes, people make bad choices but they are never asking for it. You seem like the person that would also believe that women who where short skirts are asking to be raped.

    You claim that Jeff Buckley not thinking of his family when he went for a swim in the river. I pose to you this question, do you not think of your family when you go for a walk down the street? And if you get hit by a car, does that make you selfish? You have know right to try and get inside Jeff Buckley’s and assume you understand his thinking? Aside from what you have read, you don’t know a thing about Jeff Buckley, let alone his motivations. Tragic things happen to people, end of story.

    Last, Jeff Buckley’s greatness is completely subjective. How many musicians are you aware of can put out three albums and have such a great impact on other artists and individuals. Greatness is not measured by quantity, but rather quality – which seems to be something you know nothing about.

  6. shayaan says:

    to peter manzi, the quantity of jeff’s output does not detract from his greatness or impact. tim buckley may have been more prolific, but he never reached the level of artistry, expression, musicianship, and influence jeff achieved in his few years as a recording artist and live performer. quality > quantity, in other words.

  7. Violet says:

    I was born in 1997 a few months after his death but now as a teenager to discover his music is absolutely amazing for me. It just goes to show Jeff will live on through his music forever. Its tragic about how he died. Death wish or not he was awesome and no one can say for sure what happened. Much love Violet <3 :)

  8. peter manzi says:

    The circumstances of Jeff’s death all suggest he was walking a tight rope- jumping into a river in an unknown city and then swimming around large boats, as opposed to returning to safety- he was asking for it and got it, too. Why do people think you need to be on drugs to do self destructive acts? Maybe not suicide but very close to it.

    It is sad for others who loved Jeff, and to his fans. But he clearly was not thinking of his mother or fans when he went swimming at night. Maybe he was afraid of his pending big time breakthrough, and a psychologist would say he may not have been aware of his death wish but it really doesn’t matter anymore, does it? He did not have a son, and the line of Buckley musicians ended with him.
    As for his music- thee is not enough albums or CDs to really state he wasa great artist. His father recorded much more work than Jeff, who started late compared to his Dad.

  9. Katsu says:

    Not sure it is too late to have discovered his music just now. I guess not. The music lives on, and that is what will be remembered.

    Something for certain, Jeff Buckley is and will be missed dearly by many people who appreciate music.

  10. I was taken by Jeffs music soon after the release of Grace in the nineties. Songs like Mojo Pin and grace for me were the greats from the album, but funnily enough they were the ones that grew on me slowly. Unlike the obvious beauty that hits you after hearing hallelujah, which was Jeffs unique take and talent in performance of voice with guitar live. After being inspired to play guitar by the album and slowly learning the songs off the grace album, and getting my own meanings from each song (as the cover diddnt have lyrics) I must say it has made a massive deep impact on my Life. After listening and reading Jeff through interviews and media, it made me proud that I was so touched and inspired by him as he seemed to want to make the world a better place through his music, and it wasnt so much about being a rock star, like many are in music for. I am still inspired to this day, and listen to the rare live stuff in the car and everywhere. Love Mish

  11. I have been a massive fan since Graces release in the nineties. When I first heard his music like mojo pin and grace it grew on me rather than hit me like say the obvious beauty and unique cover of halleleujah. The lack of lyrics in the cover, and slowly learning each song on guitar and slowly getting to know each song and what I got out of each one, made an incredibly deep mark on my life. Then watching and reading interviews about jeff and his thoughts on things made me proud that I liked his music, as he seemed to me to be a good bloke and thought things through deeply, and was trying to make the world a better place with his music rather than be a rockstar. To this day I am inspired 17.12.2013. Love Mish

  12. Jeff's Living Friend says:

    Jeff Buckley has been an inspirational figure in my life. His beautiful yet haunting voice still echoes in my head. We can never know for sure whether or not he committed suicide. however, his actions, his words, his songs; all seem to tell us Jeff had insight or premonition of his life’s end. If you listen to the song “Grace”, you can catch a glimpse of what was to become of Jeff. He will never be forgotten, at least not by this fan. For me, his words continue to trickle into my conscious stream, like a childhood memory of a long lost friend.

  13. Rich says:

    Never got to see him but he will be greatly missed by many.R.I.P

  14. SkySiren says:

    It was his time and it wasn’t planned as we would think of it being planned. He was ready although he didn’t make it happen. It wasn’t his bipolar tendencies that made this happen. this was planned LONG before he was born. Don’t believe me, dive deeper into his songs and you will maybe find out more. that’s what they are there for, I’m not allowed to say more than that, but all I do know for sure is that he Adores all of you. He really does, and he is completely honored from the overwhelming emotions that people have had and still do have for him, his voice and songs. Talk to him, he WILL hear you. THAT is what is SO REAL. He was and is the real deal my friends. He sung of LOVE until the end and what you think shall all subside, it’s up to you to decide what’s truth of this man who left us by the river, he wants you all to be like him, a giver, deliver your Love to all with Grace, and you shall see him on someone else’s face, and his gift will continue on. LOVE SkySiren xoxo

  15. michelle says:

    I wish I had the chance to see him perform. Was truly a gifted voice that I can not get enough of. There’s not enough of his music to satisfy. Wish there was more. I’m so sorry no one saw the pain in time to help him. So sorry no one could stop him. Rest well.

  16. Renee Oleari says:

    I think a lot of us hope we can meet Jeff in heaven. He was very angelic and dearly missed. I like how he was pursuing Sufi Quawwali music which suited his voice beautifully.

    http://www.liquidgnome.com/JeffBuckley/nusrat.html

  17. Victoria says:

    Jeff i loved you since 1997 – i found out about you 1 month after your death.. U are and have been my only inspiration since discovering your beauty. Live at Chicago feat Dream brother is one of the most emotional performances which still impacts me today. Love you forever – just buckley cos no one else comes close… I hope i get to meet you in heaven RIP x

  18. Kylie Erinn de koker says:

    Omg I didn’t even know about Jeff till yesterday. I’ve been crying about what happened to him all night and I would like to say that I’m a Huge fan, love all his music

  19. chase sparks says:

    RIP Jeff I fucking love you man!!

  20. Rose says:

    Aww man, major goosebumps reading this + listening to Dream Brother

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