"Dream Brothers’ outline can be construed to suggest that Jeff Buckley was somehow destined to walk his guitar down the same rocky highway his estranged father had traveled years before, but this sort of 'parallel destiny' is as impossible a theorem to ascertain as it is to debunk. Jeff’s death provided a colorful and useful literary sub-plot, but in a sense it is a discredit to both artists to have their life’s work viewed as inexorably linked by some undefined karmic force. ..."

dream brother
searching for jeff buckley

Is it a study of contrasts; an examination of the nature of mans relationship with his artistic drive? Is it a biographical dissemination of a broken father / son bond and the creative forces that both compelled and tore them apart? Or is it a subliminal indictment of an industry that placates the mind and then destroys the heart of its talent?

Whatever it's true aim "it" is a book titled Dream Brother and is the biographical investigation into the lives of Tim and Jeff Buckley, father and son troubadours written by David Browne and published by Harper Collins.

There is no secret in the fact that the enigmatic and hugely talented Jeff resented comparisons to his father, particularly when it came to music. So the fact that the first study of his life and works’ primary focus is a meticulous examination of the two artists separate (but in this instance eerily similar) lives would seem to conflict with the younger Buckley’s determined push for autonomy from his semi-famous father’s ever-present shadow. Sadly, when he drowned in the Wolf River on May 29, 1997 the parallels between the two artists were intertwined forever. The symbolism of both father and son’s tragic, mysterious and premature deaths was lost on no one who was paying attention, and the perceived artistic bond between the two, which Jeff tried in vain to sever, was made permanent.

The tome’s title, Dream Brother, refers, it would appear, to both a composition by the younger Buckley, and an allegorical reference to the similar paths traveled by both he and his father. "Dream Brother is a true story of twisting roads and bizarre parallel destinies," the cover proclaims. The points where the two roads seem to connect is given a great deal of attention as Browne tries to link the elder Buckley (who abandoned Jeff and his mother shortly after his birth) and his estranged son in some loose, but spiritual union. It’s an effective dramatic technique and makes for an interesting, if choppy read; but it remains unresolved just how much that connection was "spiritual" as opposed to structurally convenient for the author.

Dream Brothers’ outline suggests that Jeff Buckley was somehow destined to walk his guitar down the same rocky highway his estranged father had traveled years before, but this sort of "parallel destiny" is as impossible a theorem to ascertain as it is to debunk. Jeff’s death provided a colorful and useful literary sub-plot, but in a sense it is a discredit to both artists to have their life’s work viewed as inexorably linked by some undefined karmic force. It is particularly damaging to Jeff’s legacy in that his life’s efforts showed a strong desire for an identity completely his own, based on his personal body of work. It’s a notion that seems at this juncture permanently compromised.

Alas, I suppose Browne’s tact is as inevitable as is the fact that no matter how much Jakob Dylan rails against it, he will always be known first for being the performing son of his most famous father. Or Julian Lennon, Kate Hudson or Martin Amis – offspring of important cultural icons tend to be permanently notched by the timeless influence of their genetic line. The author's work is painstakingly researched, and he presents a strong case to support his theories. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a convenient and obvious angle to pursue, and as such it is an impossible situation to reconcile with prodigy who would have bristled at the comparisons.

I picked this book up out of curiosity as much as anything else. I was aware of the industry "buzz" generated around Jeff Buckley from 1994 until his untimely death in 1997, but I never fully subscribed to it. When Grace was released in 1994, a friend had given me a tape of the album and I can’t recall being floored by it at all. In fact my recollection is that I found it a solid debut, but often melodramatic and fragmented. Grace struck me as vocally intriguing and musically precise, it’s thematic mix like bubbles blown gently into the wind, scattering musical ideas onto a glittering landscape – some very interesting and moving, some more confusing in scope and execution. While "Mojo Pin" flat rocked and "Dream Brother’s" ethereal thematic phrasing and smoky guitar notes exhilarated and moved me; covers of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah" and Nina Simone’s "Lilac Wine" left me decidedly cold. There was clearly a connection to the big-hair / prog-rock bands I had grown up with and gradually come to loathe in the punk and grunge era, but there were also subtle folk, blues and Eastern influences, as well as hints at themes pulled from mystical recesses within.

The posthumous release of Sketches For my Sweetheart The Drunk, presented a 2-disc collection of "unfinished" compositions including an entire disc of material produced by former Television founder Tom Verlaine, and held, I think, much deeper intrigue. Sketches was entirely comprised of Jeff’s own material, and showed an artist who had grown more confident in his own songwriting abilities. The Verlaine mixes of "The Sky Is A Landfill" and "New Year’s Prayer" are sonically unique, surprisingly layered and both very different songs. The former being multi-tiered and operatic, while the latter’s power stems from its simple, mantra-like meditation. Collectively, the Verlaine produced Sketches work represented a writer at times sharply focused, yet unafraid to experiment with fresh musical arrangements and themes.

Of course his aura and musical significance was magnified times a thousand when he took that fateful swim in Memphis, but even without the apex of his untimely death his somber tale is a compelling one. Browne seems acutely aware of a tragic figure’s innate power to draw us in, and opens the book in dramatic fashion detailing the circumstance of Jeff’s final day in Memphis. He presents a number of alarming factors: Jeff’s gaunt, emaciated looks; an unkempt and disoriented state combined with seeming bouts of melancholia; numerous signs of potential mental instability; but stops just short of a suggestion that suicidal tendencies were a possible motive for the fateful swim. The idea that some diabolical outside force affecting Jeff’s fragile psyche is indeed put forth, and as the narrative is built we are given a glance at what Browne believes those forces to be and how the situation evolved.

This is Dream Bother at its strongest – the careful attention given to the artist’s struggle with the notion of creative compromise, and what sort of effects those compromises had on both Buckley’s. It is difficult to feel too much sympathy for a young creative dynamo whom, for reasons including talent, but not solely because of it, is given unheard of leverage and concessions by record companies fighting to sign him (in Jeff’s case, Columbia Records). But Browne successfully draws readers into the intense internal conflicts that Jeff found himself engaged in to stay true to his own musical vision. As industry forces tried to mold and market his image and music, the young artist seemingly grew more and more alienated. This is supported by the insightful commentary from friends, confidants and associates Browne builds his thesis around. With careful attention you can also hear this personal dilemma expressed in his lyrics recorded during the unfinished Sketches sessions. In "The Sky Is A Landfill" Jeff seemingly boasts "I have no fear of this machine," but later on in "Witches Rave" he wavers uncertainly: "Am I cursed? Or am I blessed? I can’t tell."

While he craved a greater audience for his music, Jeff, like his father before him, despised the machine designed to market to it. The book is full of these sorts of professional and personal contradictions. While decrying the arrogance of manufactured stardom, Jeff nevertheless appears drawn to the idea of a lasting artistic mythos. His determination to maintain ultimate control of both his identity and his body of work is at times heroic, other times it borders on paranoid. While obviously subject to interpretation, Dream Brother seems to suggest that it is partially this fierce independence and need for control in an industry not known for its compromising qualites that ultimately defeated him and crushed his spirit.

His death left his fans with more unanswered questions than answers, to be sure. We have hints to the direction his immense potential was leading, but Jeff’s musical legacy was then, and remains today something of a mystery. Mystery is not necessarily a detrimental attribute when it comes to lasting musical relevance. It’s primarily that sense of the unknown that drives us to dig deeper into the history of possibly the most charismatic figure in music culture of the last decade. But for as much as it tries to clear things up, Dream Brother is unable to color the dramatic circumstances it mapped out in black and white to open the book. Was the young man sick? Depressed? Had he given up? There are no real answers here, and we probably are foolish to expect them. Jeff Buckley took a lot of secrets with him when he entered the murky waters of the Wolf River four years ago.

--john richen

John Richen is an on again, off again writer and graphic artist living in Portland, Oregon. He produces Smokebox with his abundant free time. Mail him at mr.grant here at the box.

©2003 Smokebox
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