Had Jeff Buckley not died from a freak drowning accident some 14 years ago, he would have turned 45 today and hopefully added to a recorded legacy that was capped at only an EP, one album, and a handful of demos and posthumous live recordings. It's tantalizing to imagine what he might have accomplished but far easier to observe what he left behind in terms of his influence and the ongoing accolades accorded him.
The instant acclaim that greeted his sole studio album, Grace, set him up for stardom. Two years of touring eventually allowed enough time to regroup and plot a sophomore set he planned to title My Sweetheart the Drunk. After initial sessions with Tom Verlaine, the former frontman for the band Television, failed to yield the desired results, Buckley relocated to Memphis, where he began cutting demos in anticipation of his band's arrival from New York. Then the unlikely happened. One night, he opted for a spontaneous swim in the Wolf River and jumped in fully clothed just as a lark. Caught up in the wake of a passing boat, tragically, he drowned. His body wasn't found for five days.
Buckley had absorbed a host of influences while growing up, most of them connected to classic-rock acts like Queen, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, the Who, and Pink Floyd, artists he was turned on to by his stepdad. His mother, a classically trained musician, encouraged his desire to sing harmony and learn an instrument. After finding an abandoned guitar in his grandmother's closet at age 5, he practiced his playing in earnest. An early fascination with Kiss gradually morphed into a preoccupation with jazz and fusion, eventually leading him to the likes of Genesis, Yes, and guitarist Al Di Meola.
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Those myriad styles played little part in the music he made on his own, but the legacy he left was far more emphatic. Several recordings were released after his death, mostly live sessions -- a concert DVD recorded live in Chicago, among them -- and assorted demos, including those that were added to the unfinished My Sweetheart the Drunk and several that fleshed out an expanded rerelease of Grace. Meanwhile, his definitive cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" scaled the charts both here and abroad and continues to be featured regularly in radio rotation worldwide.
Like many artists who exited too soon, admiration for Buckley's work only increased after his passing. Buckley tributes continue to take place all over the planet, with annual gatherings that affirm his musical influence. There have been numerous documentaries as well -- Fall in Light, produced for French TV; Goodbye and Hello, a spotlight on both Buckley and his father that was produced for Dutch television; and Everybody Here Wants You, a documentary filmed by the BBC. In addition, when the hourlong film Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley was screened at various film festivals, it received an exceptional reception and was later added to the Grace Around the World Deluxe Edition. A bio-flick with the working title Mystery White Boy is also said to be in the pipeline.
There have been other accolades as well. In 1998, Buckley received a posthumous Grammy Award nomination for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for his track "Everybody Here Wants You." Rolling Stone cited Grace as 303rd among the top 500 Greatest Albums in a 2003 music poll. The following year, the magazine placed Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah" at number 259 in a list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and Buckley himself was ranked number 39 in its 2008 list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. In addition, in 2006, the respected U.K. publication Mojo named Grace the Number One Modern Rock Classic of all Time.
Perhaps the most heartfelt tributes have come from fellow musicians. Those who have proclaimed him as an influence and inspiration include such luminaries as Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Matt Bellamy of Muse, Alanis Morissette, Chris Cornell, Brandi Carlile, Pete Yorn, Rufus Wainwright, Ray Lamontagne, and P.J. Harvey. Harvey, an early acquaintance, eulogized him in her song "Memphis": "In Memphis... die suddenly, at a wonderful age, we're ready to go." Wainwright, who also knew Buckley, penned the track "Memphis Skyline," which contained the fateful lines "Then came hallelujah sounding like mad Ophelia, for me in my room living, turn back and you will stay, under the Memphis Skyline."
Other musical salutes include:
10. Duncan Sheik's song "A Body Goes Down," from his 1998 album Humming, written in response to Buckley's drowning,
9. Bob Dylan's song "Mississippi," included on his 2001 album Love and Theft and supposedly written with Buckley in mind
8. New York rocker Willie Nile's "On the Road to Calvary," a track taken from his 1999 album Beautiful Wreck of the World and intended as a tribute to Buckley.
7. A pair of songs from Juliana Hatfield that expressed her thoughts on his passing: "Trying Not to Think About It" (from her EP Please Do Not Disturb) and "Until Tomorrow" (included on Beautiful Creature).
6. Mike Doughty's "Grey Ghost," written for his album Haughty Melodic in response to Buckley's passing.
5. Chris Cornell's "Wave Goodbye," which was included on his first solo album, Euphoria Morning.
4. Patty Griffin's "Goodbye," a poignant and prominent track on her album Flaming Red.
3. The Invisible Man, an album from Mark Eitzel that included a tribute to Buckley titled "To the Sea."
2. Actress and singer Scarlett Johansson decision to cover a Buckley tune, "Last Goodbye," for the soundtrack that accompanied her film He's Just Not That Into You.
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1. Still, the most heartfelt nod may have been the one that came from the most unlikely of sources... specifically Justin Timberlake. He named his dog Buckley in his honor.