Last Goodbye (in Memphis)

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:

Buckleys Senior and Junior
Buckleys Senior and Junior

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.

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I’ll always wonder if I’ll ever hear his voice again.

St. Jude’s legacy

StJude“Simply be present, honest, reasonably competent, female, and everyone’s aghast.”  — St. Jude

Who did you want to be like when you grew up? Did you have a role model? I found mine a little late in the game, but I did find her, and she’s on my mind today.

She always joked around about her moniker St. Jude — patron saint of lost causes. I found her anything but.  Judith Milhon, writer, hacker, great thinker, champion of women in technology, and purveyor of all things arcane and cutting edge, entered my life when I least expected to meet someone quite that awesome. I was fresh out of university and a struggling freelancer. The Powers That Were at the Austin American Statesman stuck me with the mind-numbing task of writing about fashion and local boutiques. I had little interest in either, but hey, it paid the bills. Then I met Jude through a friend of a friend. She took me under her wing, cultivated my nascent writing skills, and the next thing I knew, I had crossed off one thing on my bucket list: I was published in the seminal magazine, Mondo 2000, where she was a senior editor.

I never considered myself a lost cause, but when I was in my early twenties, I was quite lost. While my peers were ratcheting up credit card debt and thoughtlessly whooping it up beyond their fiscal means “St. Elmo’s Fire” style, I was pondering my legacy. I didn’t know what to become, much less how to become. I have many memories of Jude, but my favorite memories are of the two of us sitting in a little café in Berkeley that sold nothing but pie. Well, pie and coffee. On cool, muzzy Bay Area afternoons, we talked about life over hot apple pie a la mode. Her life. My life. Where I wanted mine to go, and how to get there.

Much has been written about Jude’s dark humor, her rapid-fire wit, and her contributions to the world of technology as a woman. But I saw her softer, more accessible side. She never gave me what I would exactly call “motherly” advice; she was too objective-minded for that. She asked me candid questions, the way a good reporter would. Who do you want to be? How do you want others to see you? What do you want to leave behind? She seemed to believe that this little Austin girl was capable of mastering anything she set her mind to, and I grew to believe it, too. Apart from her staggering brilliance, Jude was simply one of the best people I’ve known. She harbored no grudges. I never heard her utter an unkind word about anyone. It never ceased to amaze me how she easily she let go of sleights. She remained chummy with one long-term companion, who lived in a house adjacent to her own, and all of her former lovers, in fact. I never thought being good friends with my exes was possible until I met Jude.

She once saved my life. Literally, herded me into her car and drove me to the E.R. I wouldn’t have gone, had it not been for her.

She was blessed with the gene of eternal youth. Jude was, quite frankly, ageless. Her hair was the color of corn silk, and she had the smooth porcelain skin of a Silver Screen starlet. She never told me her age (she never told anyone), but I assumed that she couldn’t have been that much older than me — maybe ten years, fifteen, tops. It was only after she passed away that I found out she was born in 1939, placing her in her mid-fifties when we first connected. Whatever her secret was, she didn’t part ways with it.

I think that part of the magic that was St. Jude was that she was genuinely young at heart, and her body followed suit. She was always seeking, learning and anticipating what was around the next bend; the ideas hatched from her magnificent brain were a conflicting combination of practical and quixotic. Her motley collection of friends and colleagues ranged from socially awkward teenaged hackers to bastions of counterculture, like Tim Leary. A proponent of civil rights, she marched from Selma to Montgomery back in ’65. Jude adored new music, too, and I could always count on her to keep me current. Once when I was in Berkeley, we went to see a girl band called Lush. “Big, jangly guitars,” Jude laughed. “I love it!”

I’ve grown up now, and Jude helped shape me into the woman I am, comfortable in my own mind and my own skin. The kind of woman who didn’t need to announce to the world, “Yo, guys, I’m a feminist over here,” because I had learned to walk the walk. One of Jude’s philosophies was that you shouldn’t have to tell the world who you were. Significant others were a source of companionship, not a means to an end. Jude once told me she’d never live with anyone again; keeping her personal space personal kept significant others from getting on her nerves. This unorthodox idea had never occurred to me before, but it resonated. Like Jude, I too have avoidant tendencies, needing prolonged periods of solitude.

Tomorrow, July 19, marks the twelfth anniversary of her passing. Hard to believe it’s been that long. During our last phone conversation, she told me that she was giving up the fight against cancer. She had the graciousness — or perhaps it was a part of her bizarre humor? — to convey her final farewell on this webpage. It was so fucking hard to say goodbye, because Jude was my constant. Part of me wanted to be selfish and persuade her to change her mind, but I didn’t want her to suffer. I offered to fly over and take care of her, but she assured me that she’d made peace with her sister, with whom she’d been estranged, and that she was getting the TLC she needed. This made me happy, because I’d always sensed that their disconnection had caused the peace-loving Jude inner turmoil.

This morning, I woke up remembering her comfy Ward Street digs, the vast bookshelves stuffed with musty tomes, bohemian-chic sofas and chairs, and counters littered with spent teacups, and recalled her presence in that house, quietly effervescent and completely comfortable with her own solitude. I would give a week of my life for one more day of guidance from St. Jude, because sometimes I still lose my way.

I grew up to be a lot like Jude — a far less brilliant and enigmatic version of her, but present, honest and reasonably competent. I like to think of myself as one of the many legacies she left behind. I wish I could tell her. I hope she’d be pleased.

You can read more about this amazing woman at her virtual wake posted to the WELL.

A wedding ring and Chinese food buffet

It was way back in the day. My best friend, Tonya, and I were fresh into our salad days. She had married her high school sweetheart, and we all know how that typically plays out: the dreaded D-word. She and I had first bonded when we played two of the Von Trapp children in our hometown’s subpar production of The Sound of Music. Tonya retained an almost childlike fascination with music; after her ex packed up his 50-gallon fish tank and moved out for good, we spent many nights sitting in her sparsely furnished apartment drinking margaritas and listening to her favorite rock songs. It was her catharsis. “’Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place where as a child I’d hide’,” she repeated, enthralled, turning up the volume to Guns & Roses. “Listen to those lyrics, Mellie. Aren’t they perfect?”

We got it into our heads that we HAD to see Queensryche at Frank Erwin Center, or else we would just die-die-die. Tonya loved “Silent Lucidity” and had a crush on the lead singer dude (I refer to all frontmen as “lead singer dudes”, because I can’t be bothered to learn their names). Problem was, we were broke students working our way through university. Concert tickets may as well have been a trip to the Bahamas. So we trotted down to a shady pawn shop east of the highway. I sold my stereo tuner. She pawned her wedding ring. I remember the way she took it off her finger, with a little bit of hesitation. I asked her if she was sure she wanted to do this. She said she was. She got a paltry fifty bucks for the ring.

That was the night she severed ties with her past.

We were set for the tickets — dead center, around the tenth row. We even had money left over to go eat at a cheap Chinese food buffet before the concert. It was a girls’ night out to remember. I looked over at Tonya when the band performed “Silent Lucidity”, and tears were running down her face. She was never embarrassed about letting the whole world knew how much music touched her. That quality, that self-honesty, her security with her own insecurities, was what made her beautiful to me and to so many other people.

Four days shy of her twenty-sixth birthday on a rainy April day, Tonya was in a terrible auto accident. Her driving was full-on terrifying, and in her tiny two-seater convertible? Done deal. She died of a broken neck, instantly. Legally and ethically, the coroner wasn’t supposed to tell me any of this. I wasn’t family. But I had to know that she didn’t suffer, and he was a compassionate man.

Because she was somewhat removed from her parents, they handed over the planning of her memorial to me and her other friends. Death has a way of erasing the sleights of the past. Tonya’s ex-husband showed up, and he was a total rock, offering to help in any way he could. I ordered a centerpiece of colorful gerbera daisies, which Tonya loved, and made a mix tape of her favorite songs for her service. There wasn’t going to be any of this “Amazing Grace” nonsense. She would have rolled her eyes at that. “Silent Lucidity” was first on the playlist.

I miss her no less today than I did then. There are no words to describe what it feels like to have the one person closest to you — your soul sister, the one you know you can call in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep — yanked away so abruptly at that stage of life. Tonya was so vibrant, always so alive, it took me quite a while to accept this new reality. I kept expecting her to show up on my doorstep with some wild tale about how she’d faked her own death to get a rise out of her parents and ex. But mostly, I just wondered where she had gone.

It’s a place where you will learn
to face your fears, retrace the years
and ride the whims of your mind;
Commanding in another world
suddenly you hear and see
this magic new dimension

You watch it. I just can’t.

“Hey, I know this guy with a falcon …”

Most early music videos looked like undergrad RTF projects, relying on outlandish costumes, props, or a trio or quartet of men that use copious styling products to get the “Wow!” response. Others, however, were more subtle. Classy, almost. The props were classy, too.

I present to you Roxy Music’s “Avalon”. The song is just as gorgeous now as it was when it was first released more than 30 years ago, in 1982. And Bryan Ferry? Ladies, please. The man was a modern-day crooner, a British Sinatra. Super-suave. The very epitome of class. Here he is in this video, in his pristine white tuxedo, paying court to a model with Barbie doll legs and a whole bunch of hair that seems to be more comfortable in the presence of her nosy octogenarian friends:

They’re all at a fancy-schmancy grand hotel, I guess. Bryan’s one of the guys in the band. Dig the mega-intense bass player. Srsly, that dude is trying to burn a hole through the television screen with his srs gaze. During a break, Bryan and Barbie cut a rug together for a while. Then they sit. He touches her shoulder tentatively. She inexplicably and delicately recoils, gives him the stink eye, and departs so she can twirl in the dark by herself in her spun pink sugar cocktail frock.

I don’t know what any of this means. But, that was the point of these early music videos. You’re not supposed to know.

Then there’s the falcon. You know you were waiting for this. It’s the coup de grace. It’s what you think of when you remember this video, that gosh-danged bird. I can imagine the conversation that went on when this video hit the drafting table: “But how are we going to end it? We need a visual that people will remember.” “I dunno … hey, I know this guy with a falcon.” “Is it trained? We don’t want any liability issues.” “Perfectly trained.” “All righty, then. Give falcon boy a call.”

Now Bryan’s standing alone, probably on top of the grand hotel. The falcon flutters through the air lands on his gloved hand. He turns to the camera and gives his audience a look that says, “See how cool it is to have a falcon? Don’t you want one too?”

Hey, it worked for me.

Do that? No, you really shouldn’t have

Who remembers the band Kajagoogoo? In 1983, their big hit, “Too Shy”, screamed to the top of the charts and stuck there. Catchy little number, right?

Limahl, the lead singer, never frosted my cupcake. With his platinum-on-chocolate hair and tugged-back eyelids, he looked like he could have been from Iceland: a place I loathe for no good reason other than it’s a free country, and I can. Limahl was like a teeny-bop male version of Bjork:

Limahl
For some reason, I’m thinking about chickens …

But he had that certain frontman presence. Long story short, the rest of the guys in the band dumped Limahl, kept the name, bumped the guitarist, Nick Beggs, up to lead singer, and released this travesty:

Shouldn’t Do That. Oh, dear lord. Go right to 1:21 and watch the combination shoulder/elbow swish as Beggs inadvertently documents his Billy Squire Rock Me Tonight moment for posterity. The other band members in the video look like they’d rather have picks shoved up their noses. This is the visual definition of “the beginning of the end”. Kaja broke up soon after, in fact. Duh.

A few years ago, I made a snarky remark about the swishy elbows on Twitter (#kajagoogooFAIL), and the guitarist/lead singer’s wife (whoa — his wife?) responded to it. Quel horror. Who would have thunk it? She was really sweet and understanding, said that Beggs himself hadn’t been enamored with the video. Heh-Heh. I felt like disappearing from cyberspace forever. Or at least changing my Twitter handle.

Let’s face it, most of the rock videos from that era were bad, bad, bad, even if the songs themselves were good. And it’s not a bad song. I watched “Shouldn’t Do That” today just for grins. And yeah, I still roll my eyes at 1:21.

I rest easier doing this knowing that Nick doesn’t mind.