"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 projecting, Could 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."
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.
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."
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."
- "Jeff Buckley: The Lover and Friends," by Kevin Bisch, summer '98
- "Jeff Buckley 1966-1997," by Bert van de Kamp
- list of shows at barristers'