dream brother: searching for jeff buckley

This doesn’t change the fact that it is the pedestrian angle to pursue, and leads to an outcome that is impossible to reconcile with the younger artist profiled who would have bristled at the implied convergence…”

 

by john richen

 

In a study of connections and contrasts a new book titled Dream Brother 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.

It is no secret that the enigmatic and hugely talented Jeff resented comparisons to his father, particularly when it came to music. So 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 is in direct conflict with the younger Buckley’s determined push for autonomy from his semi-famous father’s shadow. When Jeff 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 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 to both the composition by the younger Buckley, and the 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 links 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.

The device Dream Brothers is structured around suggests that Jeff Buckley was somehow destined to walk his guitar down the same rocky road 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 linked by some mysterious undefined karmic force. I suppose Browne’s tact here is inevitable as the offspring of famous cultural icons tend to be permanently notched by the influence of their genetic line. The author’s work is painstakingly researched, and he presents a strong case to support his theories. But this doesn’t change the fact that it is the pedestrian angle to pursue, and leads to an outcome that is impossible to reconcile with the younger artist profiled who would have bristled at the implied convergence.

I picked this book up out of curiosity as much as anything else. The industry “buzz” generated around Jeff Buckley from 1994 until his untimely death in 1997 was significant, loud and sustained, but I had never fully bought in to it. When Grace was released in 1994, a friend gave me a tape of the album.  My initial reaction was muted. It seemed too often melodramatic and fragmented. Grace was vocally intriguing and musically precise, a thematic mix of bubbles blown gently into the wind, scattering bold musical ideas onto a glittering landscape – some very moving, some just too moody in scope and execution. While “Mojo Pin” flat rocked and “Dream Brother’s” ethereal thematic phrasing and smoky guitar notes challenged and exhilarated; covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” left me looking for the originals to restore order. There was clearly a connection to the prog-rock bands I had grown up with and gradually come to abandon in the punk and grunge eras, but there were also folk, blues and Eastern influences.  It was a cool but challenging record.

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, a deeper intrigue. Sketches was comprised entirely 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 unique, surprisingly layered and both very different songs. The former being multi-tiered and operatic, while the latter’s power stems from its simple, Sufi drone and mantra-like meditation. Collectively, the Verlaine produced Sketches work represented a writer at times in sharp focus, yet unafraid to experiment with fresh musical arrangements and themes.

Naturally his musical pedigree was magnified times a thousand when he took that fateful swim in Memphis, but even without this apex of tragedy his somber tale is a compelling one. Browne seems acutely aware of a doomed figure’s 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 bouts of melancholia; numerous portents of mental instability; but stops just shy of an outright inference that suicide was a possible motive for the fateful swim. The seed of some diabolical outside force affecting Jeff’s fragile psyche is planted, 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 attention given to the artist’s struggle with creative compromise, and what sort of damages those compromises did to both Buckley’s. It is difficult for the average blue-collar soul to empathize with the self-absorbed grievances of 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 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 grew more and more alienated. This is supported by commentary from friends, confidants and associates Browne builds his narrative around. With attention you can also hear this isolation expressed in lyrics recorded during the unfinished Sketches sessions. In “The Sky Is A Landfill” Jeff boasts “I have no fear of this machine,” but later on in “Witches Rave” he wavers: “Am I cursed? Or am I blessed? I can’t tell.”

While he craved a greater audience for his music, Jeff, as 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 a manufactured stardom, Jeff nevertheless appears drawn to the idea of lasting artistic myth. His determination to maintain ultimate control of both his identity and his work is at times heroic, other times it borders on paranoid. While obviously subject to interpretation, Dream Brother implies that it is this fierce independence and need for control in an industry not known for its compromising qualities that ultimately crushed his spirit and defeated him.

His death left his fans with more unanswered questions than answers. We have hints to the direction this immense potential was leading him, but Jeff’s musical legacy was then, and remains today, something of an enigma. Mystery is not a detrimental attribute when it comes to enduring legend. It’s primarily that sense of the unknown that drives us to dig deeper into the back story 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 maps out in black and white to open the book. Was Jeff 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.  It looks like that is where they intend to stay.

 

 

Originally published:
Issue Ten
June 2001

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