Monday, April 5

Jeff (1997): NY to Memphis

a timeline sort of thing. all are excerpts from links you will find at the end of the post.
Jeff in New York:
 The stimulus of city life was particularly bothering him as he excavated new areas of his heart. He wasn't prepared to see amputee panhandlers or any sundry facets of urban decay that casually greet the city dweller who dares step out for coffee. 
"He lived on a really nice block, but there were prostitutes on the block all the time," says Joan Wasser (his girlfriend at the time of death) of his East Village apartment, "and you know he was compelled to look into their eyes. Jeff was giving and compassionate, but it would weaken him."

 While his haunting music is Buckley's public legacy, those closest to him remember a clever mimic with a pure heart. Mary recalls walking together in New York when he "started leaping up and twirling around the lampposts and singing [My Fair Lady's] 'On the streeeet, where you liiiive' in his ridiculously operatic voice." Guitarist Nathan Larson, from the band Shudder to Think, says Buckley would "call you at 3:00 AM to tell you he loved you, or to sing whatever was on his mind, or to talk like Colonel Klink from 'Hogan's Heroes.'

Jeff goes to Memphis:

"At a certain point, all the touring and dealing with the idea of success and the music, your identity, your ego, it gets into a really weird realm...So I was glad for Jeff. There was kind of a safe feeling when he moved to Memphis."  -Michael Tighe

Buckley had a regular Monday night gig at a hole-in-the-wall club called Barrister's. With the band due in, he was eager to begin recording. "Everything's in black and white now," he told Bowen. "The band's coming down, and then . . . and then we'll have color."
Buckley became interested in recording at Easley McCain Recording in Memphis, at the suggestion of friend Dave Shouse from the Grifters.

In early February, Buckley and the band did a third recording session with Verlaine, in Memphis, but Buckley expressed his dissatisfaction with the sessions and later called Grace producer, Andy Wallace, to step in as Verlaine's replacement. Buckley started recording demos on his own 4-track recorder in preparation for a forthcoming session with Wallace. Some of these demos were sent to his band in New York, who listened to them enthusiastically, and were excited to resume working on the album. These recordings wo
uld go on to compose the first disc of Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. However Buckley was not entirely happy with the results and he sent his band back
 to New York while he stayed behind to work on the songs. The band were scheduled to return to Memphis for rehearsals and recording sessions May 29.

Just before he died, Buckley set up a meeting at a favourite haunt, the Memphis Zoo, to discuss being a volunteer cage-cleaner. "He thought the perfect way to spend his life would be to write songs, perform at night, and shovel tiger doody in the meantime," laughs Mary, closing her eyes again.

Jeff's Memphis House:
When the sessions were done, Buckley stayed, moving from dreary corporate apartments to a small, funky cottage on a quiet midtown street where he let the grass grow wild and set up shop: a front room for his four-track, a pair of spare bedrooms in the back for the band when it would arrive. 

     It was a small house in a neighborhood of small houses, the home Jeff Buckley had chosen in midtown Memphis. But Joan Wasser, Buckley's long-time friend and lover, remembers it as being huge. "Because he filled it up," she remembers, "with his giant self."

Staying on after the band went north, Jeff's Memphis home became the site of the breakthrough that had proven so elusive in Manhattan. The four-track perched atop a mile crate documented these living room sessions while the front lawn shook off its manicured perfection.

   "The last time I was there, it was probably three feet high," says Joan about the lawn. "High enough to lie down in it and have no one be able to see you. Which was...heavenly. And then you felt like a kitty cat...You couldn't see anything but the tall grass and the insects crawling around you."

        While the lawn manifested the growth in Jeff's songwriting - the external aspect of his talent that would be shared with the world - something quite different was playing itself out on the floors of his new home. Jeff began hand-sanding them, peeling away the layers of cloudy finish while scratch, scratch, scratching at the Hot Boy who say about unrequited love. The mild crate altar was never moved. The Grace-era Jeff, like that varnished square of floor beneath the four-track, would likely be kept since that too, was honest; it simply would have been contrasted with a more stripped away expanse of sound.

Andria Lisle, a Memphis record-store manager who lived around the corner from Buckley and became a steady, platonic companion during the singer's five months in Memphis, remembers him as existing there "like a kitten that would go from house to house, and everyone would do for him. He'd just show up and then go to the next house and get fed there, too. He lived for the moment -- spontaneous, very flirtatious, full of whimsy, mischievous. But he knew he was so blessed, and he was so committed to life."

He'd vowed to get a car but was getting around by bicycle and the kindness of not-quite strangers. Music writer Robert Gordon had met Buckley at Easley Studios during the Verlaine sessions; Buckley's cottage was Gordon's find, on the street where he and his wife, Tara, lived. 

"If you've moved somewhere by yourself, you know it's a time to shed an old skin," says Gordon. "I think he came here to woodshed." 

 Buckley would come to dinner at the Gordons' house wearing suspenders and green sharkskin; he'd sing to their newborn and drink his big coffees: "He had this energy inside of him, this excitement about everything.

That vitality came out in his music. That he wanted to get into the river was totally characteristic; what my wife says is true --the thing that killed him is also what made him who he was. Most people talk about the river, but they don't go to it."

2 1/2 months alone there in his rented house. He was finally "writing hits" says Lory. "I'd never seen him so focused in my life. He had quit drinking, quit smoking. He was like an athlete training. He had nothing in his house but a chair with a broken leg, prepped against the wall, his four-track, all his guitars and a mattress... It was like he was a monk." Lory says Buckley told him, "I finally wrote the album... I feel like this is as good, if not better, than Grace."

Jeff playing at Barristers':

From the period of February 12 to May 26, 1997, Buckley played at Barristers', a bar located in downtown Memphis underneath a parking garage in an alley off of Jefferson Avenue, described as a place you'd never want to see with the lights up all the way. He played numerous times in order to work through the new material in a live atmosphere, at first with band and then solo as part of a Monday night residency. 

Arriving on stage with stacks of writing done the previous week, Jeff used the Barristers crowd to refine and test new songs on the 30 or so locals that would gather on Mondays. He would do covers, occasionally mining new old material for fresh veins of gold. Though the head count at Barristers on any given Monday never really changed, word spread in a strange way.

Tighe remembers meeting a girl who had flown in from London to catch a show. Buckley was, it seems, re-visiting the days a Sin-é, and East Village coffee shop where he played as a rookie in New York.

        Jeff was a very private person, despite his ability to perform, and Memphis offered him a way to be the singer/guitarist he once was. One gig stands out for Joan as a sign he was indeed reconciling that need with the fan base that wanted him to be much, much more. 

Two couples had driven to town to catch Jeff's gig, and looking around the darkened bar, were confused by what they found. According to Joan, their body language was projectingCould this be the place? Could he be getting up on that tiny stage? Why aren't there more people here? No one else seems very excited. But there he is  playing! But wait, do you recognize this?

     "He was playing new material, which was a little difficult, dense, you know, for people who wanted to hear Grace," said Joan. After about 30 minutes of songs they couldn't sing along to, it became too much for the shiny faced quartet. They began yelling, almost as if to fix this experience in a realm of fan-dom that they could recognize and tell there friends about.

"Grace! Grace! Play Grace!" they shouted, along with other requests from the album. "he was in a really great mood that night," remembers Joan. If he had been feeling boxed in by the iconography that was built around him, things could have gone quite differently. But he just looked at these four and said, a little sweetly, a little playful, "You're gonna have to wait."

        After another 90 minutes of wood-shedding, he addressed the four people who had driven hours to see Jeff Buckley. "Alright," he asked, "what do you want to hear?" Their requests were followed by eight songs that you'd be able to get off the jukebox. "It was gorgeous," says Joan, "because you saw the coming together of two people that really were in a battle previously."

May 29th:

Lisle went with him to Al Green's church. Afterward, Buckley ate two massive soul-food platters while the restaurant staff watched. The last time she saw Buckley was about 7:30 on the night he died. "Jeff and Keith [Foti] drove up, and Jeff was so excited," Lisle recalls. "He'd gone to open a bank account, to get a car; he was going to buy the house he was living in, and he was walking on air about his boys coming in. We'd planned to go to a casino, but he wanted to go play the drums."

in a rented truck with his fellow musician (and roadie) Keith Foti, listening to Foti's mix tape -- Jane's Addiction, Porno for Pyros, the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus." Their idea was to eventually go play twin sets of drums at a rehearsal space set aside for Buckley's band, which would be arriving by plane later that very night of Thursday, May 29, to begin recording the follow-up to his first full-length album, Grace. But Buckley couldn't seem to locate the building.

So they drove, recalls the 23-year-old Foti, not stopping to eat or drink, until the idea came: "Why don't we go down by the water?" Around dusk they parked the truck in the nearly empty lot adjoining the Tennessee Welcome Center near the heart of downtown. They brought their boombox down the sloping bank to the shoreline of the Wolf River channel of the Mississippi River.

Jeff and Keith Foti stopped by the bay below the Tennessee Welcoming Center to play some music and watch the sun go down.

 It was a spring day in Memphis, 80 degrees and humid even as it passed 9:00 P.M. "And Foti had these aqua pants on, kin of trippy, kind of waving." Says Parker. "I can just imagine Jeff looking at those pants and being like, 'I want to go for a swim'"

        That's as close to an answer as you are going to get. Hot day, aqua pants, his trademark heavy shoes, and the call of Neptune, the Roman god of water -  the planet that lords over musical expression, deception, creativity, and escapism -  and Jeff's very real readiness to get swept up in something big.

"We used to call it the chute," says Coast Guard Petty Officer H.C. Kilpatrick about the channel, because it carried the eastern fork of the Wolf's flow into the Mississippi. But the Army Corps of Engineers had capped the north end of the chute with an earthen dam, creating a seemingly quiet channel set apart from the Mississippi by a sprawling sandbank known as Mud Island but still fed from the south by the river's waters. "Almost like a backwater," Kilpatrick points out, noting the whirlpool-like eddies where the river rushes around Mud Island, "and definitely having undertows that are way underestimated." 

Buckley, ever the clown, playfully waded into the murky waters in his black and white T-shirt, brown jeans and Doc Marten boots. Mary takes up the story of her son's last moments: "Just at the moment when the tugboat came by, he floated on his back, took the first stroke. Hadn't been treading water for a long time and had just gone out a little too far. Just over the shoulder of the drop, not realising that if he put his foot down it wouldn't touch land. Singing at the top of his lungs "Whole Lotta Love." If that's not a state of grace," she whispers through streaming tears, "I don't know what is."

When Buckley entered the water from the trash-strewn bank, he was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and boots. He turned, grinning back at Foti, as he drifted in backward. When he was about knee deep, Foti remembers cautioning him: "You can't swim in that water." As Buckley continued, Foti repeated his caution: "What are you doing, man?" But Buckley smilingly reclined into the slate-gray water, singing the chorus of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" as he backstroked into the channel.

About 100 feet offshore is one of two massive cement pylons that support a monorail bridge to Mud Island. Buckley had just crossed past it in the growing darkness when Foti yelled that a small boat was approaching down the center of the channel, which the corps keeps dredging to a depth of some 9 feet.

"Hey, get out of the way!" yelled Foti, and Buckley did, but very shortly afterward, a larger boat appeared, creating a wake that surged toward the shoreline. Foti turned for just seconds to move the boombox off the flat rock where it sat. When he turned back, he says, "There was no sight of Jeff."

After calling out for Buckley with increasing desperation for several minutes, Foti ran up the bank to the welcome center. There, at a pay phone not far from a statue of Elvis Presley, he called the police at 9:22 p.m. Help arrived quickly, but despite the presence of helicopters, police launches and officers combing the shoreline under emergency lighting ("This place was lit up like Christmas," recalls Bowen), there would be no sight of Buckley until June 4, around 4:30 p.m., when a passenger aboard the riverboat American Queen spotted his body.

Bowen identified the body, barely recognizable at this stage but bearing Buckley's navel ring with a purple bead and, as the autopsy noted, "green shiny toenail polish on three toenails."

 The probable cause of death was "drowning," although at press time, the Shelby County medical examiner had not yet completed a toxicology report from blood samples taken before Buckley's body was cremated. 

The post-modern toxicology report was drug free, denying people the right to turn Buckley's death into a cliché rock'n'roll casualty. 

Though his friends and the local authorities would spend a long night of fruitless searching, it was presumed that Buckley had drowned. It would be six days before the singer's body was given up by the river, found at the foot of Beale Street -- amid branches and the other debris that typically gathers at a slow-swirling eddy where the channel meets the Mississippi.


Mourning:

  The band members were holed up in Jeff's house for the six days that Buckley was missing, savoring the suspended closeness to him that they felt among his possessions, and hiding, to some extent from the white noise of public grief that was playing out the world over. Fans gathered outside Sin-é; Bono voiced a prayer from the stage at Meadowlands on June 1st.

        The six days, says Parker, were spent, "crying, and listening to all his CDs. His mom came down , and we had people come over and cry with us. We'd go down to the river, look at some records, make sure we got nice and drunk. Days and nights just fell into one another...Nobody could leave. It was just basically all of us trying to make sense out of something that was just completely taken away instantaneously."

      On Monday, 2 June, four days after Jeff had gone missing, his record company Columbia issued a statement confirming the disappearance. "Close friends and advisors believe he has drowned," according to the message. Jeff's mother Mary is quoted: "It has become apparent that my son will not be walking out of the river. We have to make plans to commemorate a life that was golden." A memorial service will be organized. Memphis authorities believe the singers' body has been sucked into the deep water by a undercurrent, caused by boats passing by.

        Another two days later, on Wednesday afternoon 4 June, passengers of the riverboat American Queen drew the crew's attention to a floating object near the southside of Mud Island. A few crew members started searching using a rubber boat and took the lifeless singer's body to the shore at 4.30 P.M. local time. The identification took place by a friend and the official confirmation of Buckley's passing was announced worldwide. 

Mike Glenn, the proprietor of Barrister's, where Buckley performed every Monday, says: "This is a terrible loss for the entire music scene, not just in Memphis, but in the whole world. It is incredible how many lives he touched during the time he was were."

Ten days after Buckley's body has surfaced, his road manager, Gene Bowen, stands by the riverbank. Looking at the muddy rush of water, he asks, "Why would you even put your toe in that? But it's typical Jeff. He was a butterfly, you know? He was just like: 'Go with it.' "

         "Of course he, like myself and most people that I'm close with, have gone through very self-destructive periods. But, actually, right before his death, he was having amazing realization about the way he wanted to live." - Michael

        Ultimately, there is no sense in Jeff's death. 

        Until he left Memphis on June 3rd, Parker pent a lot of time in the kitchen, half expecting Jeff to stick his head through the screen door. "But it just didn't happen," says Parker. Jeff's body was spotted by a tourist at the foot of Beale Street on June 4th, a day after the band went back to New York. "Somehow that's the way it was supposed to be," says Parker.

        Before leaving, Parker reached behind the kitchen door for some of Jeff's hair. He keeps it in a plastic bag in his Brooklyn apartment, a plastic bag he will sometime open up and smell, inhaling the physical part of Jeff's essence that he still wants to hang onto. Parker dreams about Jeff occasionally - dreams of sitting at the foot of the Statue of Liberty while it gets torn down by some wrecking balls. He told Michael about that one.

They both agree that it was one of those things that somehow made you breathe Jeff in, wrap him around you.

Bowen, after closing down the house Buckley had planned to buy on a quiet residential street in Memphis, drove some of the singer's possessions up to New York and carried his ashes to Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert.

As twilight faded on November 17 last year - what would have been Jeff Buckley's 31st birthday - his mother, Mary Guibert, stood on the debris-strewn banks of Wolf River Channel, a deceptively placed outlet of the Mississippi in downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

"I threw this huge armful of flowers into the water and they rested on the surface," she recalls, sitting in her California home. "And I thought, 'How in the world could my son have died here?' Just then," she pauses, closing her eyes, a tugboat "passed by and it roiled the water and pulled the flowers down below the water's surface. And they did not bob up again. And that's the answer to my question."

bundles of fan mail and boxes of Buckley's books (Marx, Tao of the Voice, even a 'How to' on meatless cooking - "he was always talking about going vegetarian"). On one candlelit table rests his Pakistani-coin necklace ("it broke just days before he died), personal snapshots, about 30-odd keys that were in his jeans pocket ("Here," motions Mary sadly, "you can still feel the residue from the silt from the river"), and a simple rosewood box which holds his ashes.


  Her son's death is "a dream I haven't woken up from yet", she murmurs. "I still want to hear his voice at the other end of the ringing phone. When his things came, [there was] and old pair of wing-tipped shoes, for God's sake... and I smelled them. I wanted to smell him. I found a used Kleenex in the pocket of his jacket." She blurts, roughly swiping at tears, "I put it in a little envelope and I saved that. Now that's got to be insane. But," she straightens, "my tears don't ever have to dry, I don't ever have to get over it if I don't want to. And I think I'll probably have to be missing him and loving him this much until I see him again."

   Not that his attempts to play down his looks deterred his female following -- some of whom contacted Mary after his death: "I can't tell you how many young ladies have come up to me and whispered, 'I had a very special relationship with your son.' I thought 'Oh really? We'll have to do lunch sometime.' I have DNA material on file at the University of Memphis. Just in case," she smiles, "somebody comes forward and says, 'here's the lovechild of Jeff Buckley.' " (For the last two years he'd been quietly dating violist Joan Wasser.)


The Music he recorded:

"Murder Suicide Meteor Slave," concur Joan, Michael and Parker, show Jeff's personality as it was in those months. A haunting, loose song with distorted guitar noise and pitch shifting. It's a dirge of sorts about hard-won freedom of the mind, heart, body and soul. For "Your Flesh is so Nice," a song in which Jeff takes himself considerably less seriously, the grand gesture was abandoned for a simple statement of lust over a rhythm track reminiscent of the Who's "Can't Explain." "Jewel Box" is campfire Buckley -  a jangly slightly out of tune acoustic accompanies a swooner's sad love song.

 "The stuff that he did on his four-track - that is the shit," says Joan. "That's what he was going for. I'm very thankful that any of that got on this record. If it hadn't, it would be beyond misrepresentative."


1 comment:

Kirby said...

That was so beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing.

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