Every decade or so, at least one great voice emerges, making itself more memorable than all of the others, defining a generation.
The first wave of Boomers had Morrison, while the tail end of this generation had Bono. The Millenials have …who do they have, anyway? Oh, yeah, Hannah Montana Taylor Swift. My generation had Jeff Buckley, and only on borrowed time.
“Jeff who—?” You’d be surprised at how many times I toss out his name, and my same-aged peers don’t know who I’m talking about. Or they’ve forgotten about him. Not quite sure how you can forget a voice like this one:
I remember when MTV aired the world premiere video of Buckley’s “Last Goodbye” to promote his one and only studio album, Grace. Actually, it would have aired right around this time, in 1994. I didn’t usually take notice when MTV made a big deal about debut artists—where’s Johnny Hates Jazz these days, anyway?
But little to my knowledge, critics were already knocking themselves out comparing Buckley to greats like Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, and yes, even Jim Morrison. As soon as I heard Buckley’s molten-gold voice, angelic and pained, singing the most poignant break-up songs I had ever heard, I was thunderstuck. Chills literally coursed down my spine. I had an uncanny feeling that I was witnessing history being made, and that this kiddo wasn’t leaving the spotlight for a very long time.
The lyrics to “Last Goodbye” had a beautifully organic quality, as though they had flowed directly from heart to tongue:
This is our last embrace
Must I dream and always see your face?
Why can’t we overcome this wall?
Well, maybe it’s just because I didn’t know you at all
A bit of background: Jeff Buckley was the illegitimate and estranged son of Tim Buckley, a famous folk singer I’d never heard of who died of a heroin overdose in 1975 at age 28. The two of them look creepily alike:
Having watched YouTube clips of both performing, I can say that this is one of those rare instances when the talent of the son eclipses the father. Then I heard Jeff Buckley’s remake of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, and I knew that my premonition was spot on: Jeff Buckley would be the voice of my generation.
Everyone I knew (and their BFFs and siblings and coworkers and pets) thundered over to Waterloo for a copy of Grace. Not because it was a trendy CD to own; because it was damned excellent. Even today, the production quality and overall sound of Grace sounds fresh and exciting; these songs could easily blend in with those of more current young artists.
In 1997, Jeff Buckley moved to Memphis to work on his writing. While waiting for the rest of his band to arrive, he did a dumb-ass thing: just as the sun was listing west, he took an impromptu full-clothed dip in the Mississippi River and just … disappeared. Immediately, there was a flurry of rumors. He’d been on drugs—heroin. It was suicide. He had staged his own disappearance and was still alive someplace, like Elvis.
A few days after his disappearance, the Ol’ Miss offered Buckley’s body up to Beale Street. There were no signs of foul play; he had been swept up by the river’s powerful undertow and plain ol’ drowned. He outlived his famous father by only three years. It was an uneventful, unpoetic ending to a potent talent, and I spent most of the next month moping around, thinking, “What a crying shame …”
Buckley’s “Last Goodbye” is also an intimate part of my personal history. The song, the city and heartbreak are inextricably and tightly wound together in my memory, like the strands that make up my DNA. Every now and then, I’ll hear it on the radio—the “classic rock” station, god forbid—and I feel young and old at the same time. Young, because the song still evokes fresh-wound feelings of disappointment and helplessness that I didn’t know what to do with as a young woman, so I hid them under the guise of feigned acceptance.
Old, because it all happened so long ago.
Recorded for posterity, the golden-voiced boy sings the first strains the way he always does, mournful but resigned. This is our last goodbye. My mind starts the reel: A man dances down the rocky banks of the Ol’ Miss, and I see his silhouette disappear against a sherbet-colored sunset. I feel the sting of lost potential, and that old familiar pain.
I’ll always wonder if I’ll ever hear his voice again.