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  • Writer's pictureMike Conklin


Updated: Nov 8, 2022

Jeff Buckley

August, 1994

Columbia Records

Jeff Buckley was many things, but humble wasn't one of them. Grace is an audacious debut album, filled with sweeping choruses, bombastic arrangements, searching lyrics, and above all, the richly textured voice of Buckley himself, which resembled a cross between Robert Plant, Van Morrison, and his father Tim. And that's a fair starting point for his music: Grace sounds like a Led Zeppelin album written by an ambitious folkie with a fondness for lounge jazz.” So writes Stephen Thomas Erlewine on the All Music website review for this album.

Well, if that isn’t an intriguing introduction for any album, I would like to see one that is more so.

In my six decades of consuming popular music of all kinds, I must admit I was a bit of a late arrival to the party that Grace unfolds.

I was vaguely familiar with his name. Confused, likely, with his father Tim Buckley who was a nearly-so hotshot in the world of 60’s jazz, psychedelic, and folk music. Do not let the “nearly-so” label lead you to think he wasn’t a significant force at that time. He, like his son Jeff, had an angelic voice and a presence that could not be denied.

Father Tim was a father in name only. He was obsessed with his music career so completely that he abandoned his pregnant wife in order to pursue fame. Tragically, as was the underscore of so many brilliant musicians of that era, Father Tim succumbed to drugs, who barely missed his badge from the “27 Club” perishing at the age of 28 due to a heroin overdose.

Jeff, therefore, never knew his father. For all practical purposes, he didn’t mourn this fact. In Jeff’s world, his dad was a loser due to abandoning he and his mother Mary (a name, to me, that reinforces his Christ-like existence) and he practiced distancing himself from Tim for most of his life until the “Machine” convinced him to perform his father's work at a single concert entitled Greetings From Tim Buckley.

It is said that Jeff met his father only once at age 8.

He grudgingly performed the set due to a wide scope of reasons. He mourned the fact that he was abandoned and the fact that he was not able to share life with him. Theory, fact, dreams, companionship, music, and above all, love. Further, he was compelled by an industry that would light your mother's hair on fire if they thought it would churn out a few bucks.

The performance, however, was considered by many as a tour de force.

Buckley grew up in Southern California raised by his classically trained musician mother Mary Guibert and step-father Ron Moorhead.

He obtained his first guitar at age 13. A black Les Paul. A “starter” guitar most of us only dreamed of while we all wailed away on a Sears Silvertones or other typical “instruments” starry-eyed 70’s rock star-wanna-be kids were able to snag.

During that time he began his nearly complete scope of musical tastes. His first purchased album was Led Zep’s Physical Graffiti. His influences only spread like a nasty virus from there.

Just check out his own citations of favorites: Led Zeppelin, Rush, Queen, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Pink Floyd, and Kiss. Much due to his stepfather’s efforts. He then became enamored with the likes of Yes, Genesis (the Peter Gabriel incarnation I must assume), jazz guitarist Al Di Meola and other driving forces of the era.

Later in his short career he discovered and admired the likes of Robert Johnson, Van Morrison, Judy Garland (?!?), Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Bob Dylan, Elton John, The Smiths, Bad Brains, Siouxsie Siox, and very notably, Edith Piaf and Leonard Cohen.

Whew! Now THERE is a veritable smorgasbord of polar opposite and yet complimentary influences that many of us serious music fans would not or could not appreciate until late in life, if ever.

Is it any wonder that Grace stands out as one of the all-time great musical recordings?

Marvel at the accolades: Grace was rated by Q Magazine as the 75th greatest album of all time. Later, the same reader poll pulled the album up to #13. Rolling Stone ranked it as the 303rd greatest album of all time and later revised the ranking to 147th. The venerable Mojo rag named Grace as the NUMBER ONE Modern Rock Classic of All Time. Buckley's version of Hallelujah was ranked as Rolling Stone's 259th best song of all time.

The list goes on. One prominent critic proclaimed that Grace "...achieved a perfection that was staggering for a debut album". In hindsight, this seems an understatement.

Led Zepplin's Jimmy Page (JIMMY PAGE for chrissakes!) called Grace his "favorite album of the (1990's) decade". Bob Dylan said Buckley was "one of the greatest songwriters of the decade" and the revered Thin White Duke, David Bowie, proclaimed Grace to be the best album ever made.

Let us dwell. David-fucking-Bowie called Grace the best album ever made.

I mean, wow.

Why have most of us never heard this record? That question would require a deep dive that extends beyond the bounds of this venue and my time that can be devoted to research. Suffice it to say that "The Machine" stumbled horribly. Buckley joined the ranks of brilliance alongside "Big Star" and other artists who never got the respect they deserved.

Enough. I think you get the idea.

It's a real challenge to separate the album from the short but sprawling catalog of magnificence that this young man managed to sculpt. I could go on...

So, let us begin…. with a pathetic and abbreviated inventory of the album itself.

Grace is the only official album released by Buckley. There are many posthumous live recordings, B-Sides, and vault-cobbled albums that we are, mostly, lucky to have at our disposal. The “Legacy Edition” of Grace provides us with a glimpse into what could have been. The “rejects” from that album put many other respected and adored outputs of the time to shame.

Grace was released in August of 1994. Its original version consisted of seven originals and three covers. Chief among these covers was Leonard Cohen’s venerable Hallelujah. Cohen enjoyed good success with this major-scale masterpiece, but it was only when Jeff released his version did sales of BOTH versions soar.

Casual fans will cite Hallelujah as their go-to Buckley song. Sadly, if that’s all the deeper they dug, they have missed out on a buffet of beauty, magic, and perfection.

The original album track listing goes as such:

  1. Mojo Pin

  2. Grace

  3. Last Goodbye

  4. Lilac Wine (cover - Nona Simone)

  5. So Real

  6. Hallelujah (Cover - Leonard Cohen)

  7. Lover, You Should’ve Come Over

  8. Corpus Christi Carol (cover - Ellie Brooks)

  9. Eternal Life

  10. Dream Brother

  11. Forget Her

The “Legacy Edition” adds

12. Forget Her (outtake)

13. Dream Brother

14. Lost Highway (cover - Hank Williams)

15. Alligator Wine (cover - Screamin’ Jay Hawkins)

16. Mama, You Been on My Mind (cover - Bob Dylan)

17. Parchman Farm Blues/Preachin’ Blues (covers - Bukka White/Son House)

18. The Other Woman (cover - Sarah Vaughn)

19. Kanga-Roo (cover - Alex Chilton/Big Star)

20. I Want Someone Badly

21. Eternal Life (road version)

22. Kick Out the Jams (cover - MC5)

23. Dream Brother (Nag Champa Mix)

24. Strawberry Street

Oh. My. God.

The extra tracks. Rejects? Hard to believe. They could have made a superior album compared to anything released at the time. And just marvel over the sprawling list of influential musicians who wrote the covers. From Hank #1 to MC5?

Get the fuck out of here.

I count at least six of these cover artists that deserve their own screed. This is not to mention the posthumous release of the album Buckley was working on when he died - My Sweetheart the Drunk - and many of his live cuts. My personal favorite is a cover of French songbird Edith Piaf’s Je n’en connais pas la fin.

Van Morrison’s The Way Young Lovers Do. Sly Stone’s Everyday People are lovingly crafted covers that turn the originals on their heads. Just a few of the gems NOT included in this outstanding achievement but well worth seeking out on the various live recordings, bootlegs, and “vault” recordings.

Buckley was a true example of a shooting star who shon so brilliantly that it was truly blinding. I could go on and on about both his “official” and other recordings that this love letter would turn into a small book. So, let’s take a brief look at the original album in question.

The title track is a sonic marvel. Followed by This is Our Last Goodbye. “Now this is our last embrace, must I dream and always see your face? Why can’t we overcome this wall?…Kiss me, please kiss me, but kiss me out of desire babe, and not out of consolidation”. Heartbreak. Put upon a pedestal we have all bowed to. Naked. Raw. Excruciating.

Cohen’s Hallelujah has been taken on by the best of the best but this example, in my humble opinion, outdoes not only the efforts of others but even the original due to its stark, stripped-down sincerity. Whether or not you believe in a God of any kind, we can all attest to the irony of prayers not being answered despite stalwart belief, hope, or need.

One writer explains “In Hebrew, the word hallelujah means to rejoice in praising God. This song is a bitter lament about love and loss. Cohen, adept in scripture, simply taps the human condition described in the bible in order to provide counsel to the broken-hearted."

Buckley both explains and lives through this lament and one never doubts his pain or his sincerity.

Finally, Eternal Life. A determined, angry plea to humankind to be, well, human. Buckley himself once explained to a live audience “This is a song about... it's an angry song. Life's too short and too complicated for people behind desks and people behind masks to be ruining other people's lives, initiating force against other people's lives, on the basis of their income, their color, their class, their religious beliefs, their whatever…”. It is an outstanding presentation of the common man and his struggle with “the powers that be”. A nouveau translation of Arron Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man.

Like his father before him, Buckley died at an all too young age. Not by drugs or overindulgence. But from simple exuberance for life. He gayly jumped, fully clothed, into a slack water harbor of the Mississippi singing the chorus to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” at the top of his lungs in a joyous, carefree manner that represented a most primary facet of his personality. He was pulled under by the wake of a tug barge and never resurfaced.

What could have been? WHAT could have been?

Though his death was the definition of tragedy, could he actually have kept up with his own brilliance? Perhaps our higher power presented this gem of music in one, captivating chapter. A one-off. A gift.

I will likely have to do some serious editing before this document becomes more comprehensible. But, to me, this rambling tasting of different flavors, anger, gratitude, and adoration represents the short, brilliant life of Jeff Buckley and his music in all its rambling, dignified glory.

I will likely have to do some serious editing before this document becomes more comprehensible. But, to me, this rambling tasting of different flavors, anger, gratitude, and adoration represents the short, brilliant life of Jeff Buckley and his music in all its rambling, dignified glory.


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