The Leap into Legend

He was the man with a thousand voices — or so it appeared. I experienced Jeff Buckley live a few times — and that first night, in 1993, a Monday at tiny Café Sin-é across from my East Village apartment in New York, is forever seared in my brain. Not knowing anything about him beforehand, I sized him up as just another cute guy with a guitar. Nearly three decades later, it has become increasingly apparent that I have never seen — nor do I expect to see again — a vocalist so spookily gifted.

Jeff Buckley leaves behind a story that seems scripted from myth. He is the SoCal boy descended from an angel-throated folksinger (Tim Buckley) who had died of a drug overdose at 28, when Jeff was only 8. He comes of age poor, toils in obscurity as a metal-band guitarist, seemingly unaware of — or resistant to — that which percolates within him. Landing in New York in his early 20s, he uncorks a five-octave voice to rival his father’s, and writes bold, baroque rock songs — multi-tiered, Zeppelin-esque anthems and keening, sex-drenched romantic balladry. He delivers them, alongside a crazy quilt of diverse covers, with operatic skill placing him among (some would say above) Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant. The latter would become a fan, as would Bono, Bowie, Lou Reed, Chrissie Hynde and Elvis Costello. At the height of his quick fame, natural forces — i.e. the Mississippi River — take him from this world, in an incomprehensible, freak 1997 drowning in Memphis. He would leave behind one studio album, “Grace,” and join the galaxy of brilliant comets who died too young, like Nick Drake and Gram Parsons.

Cover art for Jeff Buckley’s “Grace” album, by Merri Cyr, Amazon

Back to that Monday night in ’93. My singer-songwriter husband shared the bill with a sweaty 26-year-old Jeff Buckley at our St. Mark’s “local” — an Irish tea-and-coffee place by day that served beer and wine at night to about 30 people who’d pass the hat for neighborhood troubadours. No stage, just a spot where a table was shoved aside from the brick wall. My spouse lent him his capo so Buckley could play John Cale’s version of Leonard Cohen’s not-yet-ubiquitous “Hallelujah.” In my memory, the songs preceding this ranged from Porter Wagoner’s “A Satisfied Mind” to a Duane Eddy riff to an Edith Piaf chanson (in French), delivered with both offhand skill and devil-may-care goofiness, as around a boozy campfire or in someone’s smoky living room. Then came “Hallelujah.”

The disarmingly supple voice kicked into gear, encompassing all the sexual yearning and spiritual quest of that tune. Owning it. Murmuring, crooning, unabashedly howling — sometimes all within one line. The room collectively swooned. Rather than milk the moment, as the last echoes of “Hallelujah” faded, Buckley jokily — albeit expertly — picked out the intro to “Stairway to Heaven,” stopping to chat with the audience mid-song.

Freaked out, he’d step back from that ledge, not yet ready to fly.

This was his routine, apparently. Slay, then lower expectations. I wonder now if the intentionally amateurish aspects weren’t so much impish boy stuff, but rather Buckley discovering his superpowers in the moment, onstage. Freaked out, he’d step back from that ledge, not yet ready to fly. Maybe he knew his low-stakes obscurity — what he later called his “café days” — would be short-lived, something to be savored.

Sure enough, within months, limos lined St. Mark’s Place on Monday nights, crowds spilled out onto the sidewalk and we watched from our fire escape as Jeff Buckley was spirited away to the big leagues. It all seemed foretold.

The footage of Buckley performing two years later with bassist Mick Groøndahl, guitarist Michael Tighe and drummer Matt Johnson at Chicago’s Metro on May 13, 1995, is peak Buckley. “Grace” has been out nine months, with Buckley touring nonstop ever since. It shows in the band’s effortless mastery of its boss’ often challenging material — the whisper-to-a-scream “Mojo Pin,” the spellbinding drama of “So Real,” the delicate, pandemonium-inducing “Lilac Wine,” all tracks from his debut.

By now, Buckley is in full possession of his preternatural voice, or rather, it is in full possession of him. Falsetto here, purr there, and a wail sourced from the Sufi Qawwali devotional music he loves and champions. Buckley rarely moves far from his mic, concentrating his energy on singing and executing impressive guitar work. But by the last third of the set, fully on, he steps into abandon: an instrumental of his work-in-progress “Vancouver,” segueing into the Alex Chilton/Big Star cover, “Kanga Roo,” which finds him excitedly pogoing (like a kangaroo?); a full-throttle version of the MC5 gangbuster “Kick Out the Jams,” on which he’s joined at the mic by a stage-diving guitar tech. Unlike most rock artists, he ends the show not with the typical rave-up, but rather sends his band away and leaves the crowd agog with a solo “Hallelujah.”

Between songs throughout the set, he resembles that guy I first saw in ’93, joking, listening to requests, vulnerable, smiling at the ardor beyond the stage lights. He gracefully handles the enthusiastic yelling and passionate outcry from the packed house, only once telling an obnoxious guy to fuck off (which gets a big laugh). But whereas at Sin-é, Buckley made holding back a riveting thing to watch, at Metro, he fulfills the promise he’d shown. He steps to the edge, and he flies.

Jeff Buckley “Live in Chicago” Setlist

  1. Dream Brother

  2. Lover, You Should’ve Come Over

  3. Mojo Pin

  4. So Real

  5. Last Goodbye

  6. Eternal Life

  7. Kick Out the Jams (MC5 cover)

  8. Lilac Wine (James Shelton cover)

  9. What Will You Say

  10. Grace

  11. Vancouver

  12. Kanga Roo (Big Star cover)

  13. Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen cover)

Holly George-Warren is a two-time Grammy nominee and the award-winning author of 16 books, including “Janis: Her Life and Music”; “A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton”; and “Public Cowboy #1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry.” She has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. As director of Rolling Stone Press, she edited such books as “The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll,” “The Rolling Stone Album Guide” and “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.” She has served as a producer on the documentary films “Muscle Shoals,” “Nashville 2.0” and “Hitmakers,” among others.

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