The Electric Singer/Songwriter
By Mario Benito
When I met him, he was already dead. What I
mean is when I heard him, listened to him for the first time; his prodigious
voice, his guitar.
This is another dramatic rock story, another one of a genius youngster immortalised by death. It’s also the story of a Telecaster, which for having been a loan to friend, ended up selling for $50k, when his friend, already dead, became a legend. It’s the story of one of the most wonderful covers of a song that was ever made, Hallelujah. It’s the story of Jeff Buckley.
It was Ramón Trecet who put me on to him through his mythic Spanish radio programme Diálogos 3 - such a long-lived and prolific show on Radio 3 station, it was special, and such a sad ending -. It was an evening on my way to get the newspaper that I heard him recount how he had come to know Jeff Buckley. How he’d had the luck to follow someone’s recommendation to go see a young fellow play at Sin-é, an avant-garde venue in the East Village of New York. The joint was something of a long hall, with the tables fading from view, and at the end, a small stage on which a young lad was singing with his electric guitar. A Telecaster. Some kind of singer/songwriter, or electric minstrel.
The sound wasn’t the best in the world, as you can hear on his first record, Live at Sin-é, an LP with 4 live recordings made during those sessions in August of 1993, but the voice…”I had never heard anything like it”, says a still excited Trecet after all these long years. Then he pinched the version of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen recorded by Jeff Buckley, and it was me who, still worked up, said to myself alone in my car, without anyone listening, “I have never heard anything like it in my life”.
For those who believe in the predestined, Jeff Buckley can be an awesome confirmation of your beliefs, because his father, Tim Buckley, died in 1975, at 28 after musical success in the late 60s and early 70s. They looked the same. Had the same voice. Almost the same voice, but the son’s was even better. As if he were a re-incarnation, despite the father never wanting to know anything about his son, and who he hardly ever saw but a couple of times before dying, when Jeff was 9 years old.
It was precisely during a tribute to his father, performed in New York back in 1991, when he got to be known in the music world. They heard him sing. It was also where he met the organizer of the event, Janine Nichols, who, a little later, would lend him her Fender Telecaster guitar for his shows on the Sin-é. So Jeff Buckley’s guitar, his guitar, was really not his.
Jeff Buckley was born in Orange, California in November of 1966. He was an only child who was raised by his mother and stepfather Ron Moorhead, who, for his 14th birthday, got him his first guitar: a black Gibson Les Paul Custom from 1976. At 18, he left home to study music in L.A. for two years at the Musician’s Institute, or to “waste time”, as he himself has said. He joined a number of bands and in 1990, New York was his next destination. Where he found his next guitar.
Maybe it was because he didn’t have his Les Paul there, or because he wanted a different sound, so he asked to borrow the Telecaster from his friend Janine, and never wanted to let it go. It had both pickups modified, the one on the bridge was likely changed by Buckley himself for a Seymour Duncan Hot Lead Stack before the recording sessions on his only studio album, Grace. When Jeff Buckley drowned in the Wolf River (a Mississippi canal) in Memphis, May 29, 1997, with just 30 years of life, they returned the Telecaster to Janine. Years later, in a second-hand guitar shop in the Chelsea neighbourhood in N.Y., it was sold for the whopping price of $50,000 to an unknown buyer.
Recently, Briant W. Jackson was on an internet forum as the recording sound assistant on the album, and he affirms that pieces like Hallelujah weren’t recorded with the famous Telecaster, but with a Gibson half-body, an ES-175. Although we do see Buckley toying with a Gibson in the preliminary recordings of a gig, there are a ton of videos, including the official one, that show the mythical Hallelujah played on the Telecaster. The sound also betrays Jackson, although it is quite possible that they did different takes with both instruments. Rounding off his electric collection is a 12-string Rickenbacker 360, that he used on numbers like Last Goodbye.
His acoustic guitars were a Guild F-150 from ‘67, and a Gibson L-1, which he probably acquired in 1994 to give to Janine in return for the Telecaster that he loved so much, but as it turns out, he didn’t want to let go of the acoustic either and finally chose to order another customised electric guitar to return the Telecaster, something he never got around to doing.
Grace, his first and only studio album, was recorded between the end of 1993 and the beginning of ‘94 in Woodstock N.Y., and was edited in August of that year. There was no immediate commercial success, although the critics liked it, but over time and after his death in ‘97, the record has kept selling and being re-edited, - on special editions like the Legacy Edition from 2004, which included 3 new pieces - until it reached a total of over 2 million copies sold. Apart from the numbers, Grace is an indisputable masterpiece that is not just part of rock history, but seems to get bigger with the passing years.
It’s made up of 10 tracks, 7 of them composed by Buckley (the best recorded together with Gary Lucas, a guitarist from his band, as on the title song, Grace, with those fabulous guitar rhythms, and something that sounds like a chord solo, or that other delight that starts the record literally transporting you to another world of atmospheric sounds called Mojo Pin) and 3 covers: the above-mentioned Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, the 1950 classic Lilac Wine by James Shelton and a Christmas song by the British classic music composer Benjamin Britten titled Corpus Christi Carol.
Rumour has it that Leonard Cohen himself said after hearing this impressive version of his song, Hallelujah, he wouldn’t sing it again, a promise he evidently broke - if he actually ever did make that promise -. He should have though, because this version, - if you haven’t already heard it, listen to it! Now! - is a creation in itself which transcends the original, an original with many covers. Buckley’s cover is so great that many versions of his have been made!
It is in this song more than any other that his voice melts with arpeggios building through his fingers strumming the Telecaster, increasing in volume and tone while his lungs emit that impossibly long note, seemingly never to end. Singing to God, just as King David did, playing a secret chord, an arpeggio chord that Buckley now plays, the 4th, the 5th, the minor fall, the major lift, it’s not a cry you hear in the night, it’s not someone who has seen the light, it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah, Hallelujah, and through the whole phrase he keeps up the never-ending high note, in the 3rd syllable of Hallelujah...
On the night of May 29, 1997, Jeff Buckley went for a swim in the Wolf River. He was in Memphis, where he had gone to continue the bumpy recording of his second album, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. The other members of the band hadn’t got to town yet, so Jeff got the idea to go down to the river and play guitar with his friend Keith Foti. Despite the signs warning of the dangers of swimming there, Jeff jumped in the water, a careless thing to do?, dressed, with his boots on, while singing Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin. He vanished instantly, according to Foti’s testimony. U.S. newspapers were saying that a well-known musician had disappeared in the waters of the Mississippi for several days until they finally found the body a week later. It ended there, and there it all began.