Piecing together a life from material fragments can be a tricky enterprise. “To-Do” lists reveal ambitions and goals, sometimes unrealized, and plans abruptly cut short. Piles of books, records and clothes chart interests and style, but little else without context. Journals offer daily minutiae, half-thoughts and lucid daydreams. Taken collectively they often present a vague outline of the person who left them behind, leaving the cavity of their absence more pronounced than ever. But a new book drawn from the belongings of Jeff Buckley succeeds where many similar books have failed. Rather than serving as a clinical — or invasive — appendix of an artist’s work and achievements, it manages to summon the singular spirit of the late chanteur and songwriter.
Jeff Buckley: His Own Voice is a collection of “journals, objects and ephemera” featuring intimate, in-the-moment accounts of his personal life and rise to fame, as well as unseen lyrics, letters to loved ones and photographs of instruments, clothes and albums. Drawn chiefly from Buckley’s six surviving notebooks, the book was assembled and co-edited by his mother, Mary Guibert, and Rolling Stone senior writer David Browne — one of the first journalists to champion Buckley in a 1993 New York Times profile, and author of the 2001 biography Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. Intended as a posthumous memoir, His Own Voice allows Buckley to speak for himself and lay to rest many of the misconceptions that have arisen since he took his fatal swim in the Mississippi River on May 29, 1997. Up to that point, his artistic legacy rested primarily upon the strength of his instant-classic debut LP, 1994’s Grace. The tragic accident transformed him almost overnight into a series of personas he would have no doubt hated: a moody cult figure; a doomed heartthrob; a synonym for unrealized potential. In His Own Voice, Buckley’s humanity, humility and humor are always at the fore.
The book traces his history back to his earliest musical ventures as a teenager in Orange County, California. A ticket to 15-year-old Buckley’s first live performance, on Sept. 21, 1982 as a member of the band Mahre Bukham, appears alongside a poster for a slightly later gig. The shows earned him enough cred to warrant an interview in his high school newspaper, which is also reprinted. Revealing a surprising degree showbiz savvy, he shares his hope to “get more of our own repertoire” and mount a “good slow climb to the top.”
The climb would continue for the remainder of the decade. These years of musical and emotional maturity are documented by early song lyrics, notes of encouragement to himself (“BE THE BEST. NO NEGATIVITY, NO WEAKNESS, NO AQUIESENCE [sic] TO FEAR”), adorably enthusiastic missives to his mother (“Got my passport, got a bank account!”) and strict budgets to finance his move east to the city of his dreams: New York. These dreams were fed in part by his formidable connection of records, tapes and books, photos of which are included in His Own Voice. Biographies of Chuck Berry, Hank Williams and Ray Charles compete for space on his shelves alongside beatnik tomes by Kerouac and Burroughs, and even a copy of Spoken Urdu. His music tastes were similarly eclectic, spanning John Coltrane, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell and Rush.
Once he makes the coastal jump — briefly in 1990, and then a more permanent settlement in 1991 — his notebooks begin to fill with evocative sketches of his adopted hometown. There’s the night in Harlem when he first heard the songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Qawwali vocalist whom Buckley would later dub his personal Elvis. There’s a freewheeling day in Greenwich Village when he visits a fortune-teller and peers into a cafe. And then there are slightly less glorious snapshots, including his ill-fated stint at Banana Republic, which came to a swift, ignoble end when he was falsely accused of shoplifting.
Even on a bad day, it’s clear he’s intoxicated with New York, and he begins writing some of his best-loved songs while under its influence. Early drafts of familiar tracks including “Dream Brother,” “So Real,” and “Lover You Should Have Come Over,” are featured in His Own Voice, as are posters for his now-legendary spots at the Sin-é. The resulting buzz from those famous gigs and songs are represented with a sheaf of label paperwork: proposals, contracts and other assorted legalese, marked up with Buckley’s astute questions and comments.
His suspicion of major label attention is articulated in many notes to himself and others. “I don’t write my music for Sony,” he scrawls in one memorable screed. “I write it for the people who are screaming down the road, crying to.a full-blast stereo. There is also music I’ll make that will never-ever-ever be for sale. This is my music alone, this is my true home; from which all things are born and from which all my life will spring untainted and unworried, fully of my own body.” Ultimately he signs on the dotted line, which has at least one immediate upshot — he can repay his grandmother money he owes her. “I only thank the angels that I could ever send this check,” he writes to her at the end of a lengthy paragraph that consists almost solely of the words “I LOVE YOU.”
From there, the detritus of his life becomes a bewildering jumble of tour itineraries, recording budgets and lyric sheets, as well as journal entries and other dispatches from his increasingly surreal life. He composes a half-finished tribute to Paul McCartney, with whom he would become friendly. One of the book’s most unusual treasures is an apology letter Buckley penned to Bob Dylan after rock’s preeminent poet laureate took offense to an onstage impersonation. “The truth is that I was off on a tangent, on a stage, my mind going where it goes, trying to be funny,” a contrite Buckley writes to his Columbia Records label mate. “It wasn’t funny at all. And I f—ed up…”
The emotional centerpiece of the book takes the form of lengthy passage — written in 1995 while on the European leg of the Grace tour — in which Buckley reflects on his late father, iconoclastic folk troubadour Tim Buckley. The elder musician had left Buckley’s mother just a month before his birth in November 1966. Father and son would have just one meaningful meeting before Tim died of a heroin overdose on June 29, 1975, at the age of 28. As he entered adulthood, Buckley remained conflicted about his infamous dad, and resentful of the shadow he continued to cast over his life. Though a performance at a 1991 Tim Buckley tribute concert introduced him to a hip coterie of New York music insiders, he was wary of comparisons to the senior Buckley, and stayed tight-lipped about him during interviews.
But “in a bar…with two shots of tequila in me,” Buckley poured out his complex, and often compassionate feelings towards the man who gave him a name and little else. “It’s not his memory or his ghost the I despise and avoid. It’s the fact that there is a large mass of people in my path — his fans, critics, cultists, editors and writers of our beloved rock-press, my critics — whom I have always known would be ahead of me to contrast, compare and tear me down under the showdown of my father, sometimes in my father’s behalf (as if they have the knowledge and authority),” he writes. “This is something I’ve known since I was small….I almost just barely touched his life, I was so close. But I lost him. I savour the morsel to this day. The taste is almost gone. I was stuck with his cult, his blurry memory blurred into obscurity ever after by second-hand stories, conjecture, buried jealousies, guilt, secrets, accusations and so much pain…so-so much. An ocean of pain.”
The latter portion of In His Voice contains a trove of lyrics and other documents from his intended follow-up to Grace, ultimately released as the posthumous album Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. Some were tackled in the studio or released as demos, but a few, like the incendiary “Pigs in Office,” exist only as lyrics. The troubled Tom Verlaine-produced sessions dragged on for months, yielding unsatisfactory results, but Buckley buoyed his spirits as he had in the past, with notes to himself scribbled on the back of lyric sheets. “Don’t let them make you release it before it’s ready or that s— will follow you like a ghost, wherever you go, for the rest of your life until you die,” reads one. “YOU ARE YOU. SING FROM YOU. FED FROM BOTH OUTSIDE AND INSIDE. F— THE OUTSIDE OPINION AND FEAR,” says another.
These difficult dates lead him to Memphis in February 1997, in search of fresh inspiration. He sought freedom, release, joy and peace — all the things that led him to wade fully clothed into a channel of the Mississippi later that May, belting Led Zeppelin songs to the heavens. His body washed up five days later at the foot of Beale Street, the cradle of the Blues.
It’s hard to ignore the synchronicity of Buckley’s all-too-brief life. His writing, brimming with self-awareness, is almost enough to make one wonder if something larger was at play. Even messages jotted to himself seem designed for an audience, and many of his thoughts seem scarily prescient with two decades of hindsight. “You wish to live to a full old age,” he wrote to himself months before his death. “Hope willing your music is the most powerful gift.”
It’s said that your true personality is who you are when you think no one is watching. If that’s the case, then Jeff Buckley’s journals and letters reveal him to be just as fans hoped him to be: romantic, warm, funny, insightful, poetic and truly spectacular company.