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