If You Knew: The Short, Brilliant Life—and Lasting Legacy—of Jeff Buckley

Jeff Buckley released only one EP and one studio album before his untimely death at the age of 30, but it was enough to earn the singer-songwriter a dedicated following that has only grown over the years.
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If the only thing Jeff Buckley ever did was record his 1994 cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” he would still have a permanent spot in music history. Buckley’s stark and sensual rendition of the song has arguably become the definitive version, and it’s partially responsible for transforming Cohen’s once-obscure secular hymn into a modern standard.

As it happens, Buckley didn’t leave us with that much more. He released just one EP and one studio album, 1994’s Grace, before drowning in a Mississippi River channel in May 1997 at the age of 30. But even that limited oeuvre was enough to earn the singer-songwriter a dedicated following that has only grown over the years. A quarter-century after his untimely death, Buckley is a mythic figure with a life story as sad, beautiful, and mysterious as his music.

From SoCal to Sin-é

Jeff Buckley
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In one sense, Jeff Buckley was destined for musical greatness. Born on November 17, 1966, in Anaheim, California, he is the son of Mary Guibert, who played piano and cello, and Tim Buckley, a revered jazz-folk artist who released nine albums in his lifetime and now gets mentioned in the same breath as icons like Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison. But Jeff had no relationship with his semi-famous father: His parents divorced when he was young, and Jeff only met his old man once—in 1975, just months before Tim died of a heroin and morphine overdose at age 28. 

Musically speaking, Jeff’s stepfather, Ron Moorhead, played a much larger role in the youngster’s life. It was Moorhead who introduced Buckley to Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, the album that made Jeff decide at the age of 12 to become a musician. Buckley had been playing the guitar since he was 5, and after graduating from Loara High School in Anaheim—the same school both his father and Gwen Stefani attended (Stefani was a freshman when Jeff was a senior)—he studied at the renowned Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. Buckley spent the late ’80s playing in a variety of different bands, and for a while, he backed the pioneering dancehall reggae artist Shinehead.

Buckley moved to New York City in 1990 and caused a sensation the following year, when he performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn as part of a concert celebrating the music of his late father. “It wasn’t my work; it wasn’t my life,” Buckley said of the tribute show in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone. “But it bothered me that I hadn’t been to his funeral, that I’d never been able to tell him anything. I used that show to pay my last respects.”

Amid constant comparisons to the father he never knew, Buckley vowed to follow his own musical path. Following a stint in Gods and Monsters, a psych-rock band formed by Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, Buckley started performing at downtown New York City venues like the Lower East Side's legendary Sin-é, where he began building a buzz and ultimately ignited a major-label bidding war.

“The only way to really make it—anywhere—is to put every bit of your being into the thing that only you can provide,” Buckley told New Jersey Beat in 1993, after he had signed with Columbia Records. “You have to know what’s in yourself—all your eccentricities, all your banalities, the full flavor of your woe and your joy. What does it look like? What does it feel like? What makes it different from everybody else’s?”

Amazing Grace

Jeff Buckley
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Buckley made his Columbia debut with 1993’s Live at Sin-é, a four-song EP he recorded solo—featuring just his voice and his electric guitar. The collection opens with “Mojo Pin,” which would become the lead-off track on Buckley’s debut album, Grace, released the following year.

Grace showcased Buckley’s multi-octave vocals and unique guitar style—tangled and hypnotic one moment, gruff and noisy the next—and sounds like nothing else from the ’90s alt-rock canon. The closest comparison might be something like Radiohead’s 1995 album The Bends (which makes sense, since Thom Yorke recorded the LP highlight “Fake Plastic Trees” right after having his mind blown by seeing Buckley in concert).

Grace didn’t yield any major hit singles, though the aching, string-laced “Last Goodbye” cracked the Top 20 of Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart. Over time, Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” would emerge as the album’s best-known track. Buckley based his rendition on John Cale’s recording for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Except Buckley took it somewhere different, adding a sensuality he had always felt existed in Cohen's original version. 

“Whoever listens carefully to 'Hallelujah' will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on Earth,” Buckley once said. “The hallelujah is not a homage to a worshipped person, idol or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm. It’s an ode to life and love.” 

In the years that followed, Buckley toured extensively across the world and began preparing for his sophomore album. In late 1996 and early 1997, he and his band worked with producer Tom Verlaine—leader of the seminal art-punk band Television—on an album that was to be titled My Sweetheart The Drunk. By this point, Buckley had moved to Memphis, where he performed solo gigs throughout the spring of 1997. He played his last-ever show there on May 26, just three days before his death.

A Fateful Swim

Jeff Buckley
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On the evening of May 29, 1997, while waiting for his band to arrive in Memphis and continue rehearsals for the new album, Buckley decided to take a swim, while fully clothed, in the Mississippi River’s Wolf River channel. Buckley’s friend and roadie Keith Foti was there, and as he told Rolling Stone, he warned the singer, “You can’t swim in that water.” But Buckley paddled out anyway, singing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” as he went. When Buckley was about 100 feet from shore, a large boat drove through the channel and created a giant wake. Foti took his eyes off the water to move his boombox, and when he looked up, Buckley was gone—a victim of the undertow.

Divers searched the river to no avail. It wasn't until nearly a week later, on June 4, that passengers aboard the American Queen riverboat spotted Buckley's body. Despite rumors of substance abuse and reports from Buckley’s manager that the singer had been “acting erratic” in his final days, toxicology reports found no drugs and only inconsequential traces of alcohol in Buckley’s system. His death was ruled an accidental drowning.

There were initially plans to release a 10-track version of My Sweetheart the Drunk comprising recordings Buckley and the band had made with Verlaine. But after Buckley’s mother took charge of his estate, Columbia instead released Sketches for My Sweetheart The Drunk, a two-disc set combining the Verlaine sessions with demos Buckley had recorded at home. Critics praised Buckley’s eclectic musicality and emotional songwriting. “The package makes it easy to mourn the loss of an artist just started on a journey of vast possibilities, but it also makes it easy to celebrate the accomplishments he left behind,” wrote Steve Hochman for the Los Angeles Times.

Buckley Forever

Jeff Buckley
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The decades since have brought numerous additional Buckley releases, many of them live albums, such as 2001’s Live À L'Olympia and 2019’s Live at Wetlands. Along the way, Grace has continued to grow in stature. The album finally went gold in 2002 and platinum in 2016; five years later, it ranked 147th on Rolling Stone’s revised list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

Buckley has also enjoyed posthumous chart success. In March 2008, after American Idol contestant Jason Castro performed “Hallelujah” on the TV competition show, Buckley’s version of the Cohen song shot up to the top of Billboard’s Digital Song chart. A similar thing happened in the UK, where X Factor winner Alexandra Burke’s “Hallelujah” cover did battle with Buckley’s in the December 2008 race for the nation’s coveted Christmas Number One. Alas, Buckley had to settle for runner-up.

Meanwhile, many of Buckley’s songwriting peers have paid tribute to the artist in song, including Juliana Hatfield (“Try Not to Think About It”), Aimee Mann (“Just Like Anyone”), Duncan Sheik (“A Body Goes Down”), and Chris Cornell (“Wave Goodbye”). Adele, Coldplay, Lana Del Rey, and Sia are among the many artists who have cited Buckley as an influence.

Buckley’s unique origin story and tragically short career make him a natural fit for the big screen. The 2012 film Greetings from Tim Buckley, starring Penn Badgley as Jeff Buckley, centers on the lead-up to Jeff’s performance at the 1991 Tim Buckley tribute concert at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

A more comprehensive biopic, Everybody Here Wants You, was announced in 2021 with actor/musician Reeve Carney (Penny Dreadful, House of Gucci) cast in the lead. Unlike Greetings From Tim Buckley, Everybody Here Wants You—which is being co-produced by Buckley’s mother, Mary Guibert—will feature the late musician’s original songs. (Though little has been reported on the film since that original announcement.)

The inclusion of Buckley’s music bodes well for the project, which Guibert said “will be the only official dramatization of Jeff's story.” After all, it’s Buckley’s soulful voice, intense poeticism, and expressive guitar playing that have kept people interested all these years. 

“My music is like a lowdown dreamy bit of the psyche,” Buckley told Raygun Magazine in 1994, perhaps summing up his sound better than anyone. “Do you ever have one of those memories where you think you remember a taste or a feel of something … maybe an object … but the feeling is so bizarre and imperceptible that you just can’t quite get a hold of it? It drives you crazy. That’s my musical aesthetic … just this imperceptible fleeting memory.”

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A version of this story ran in 2022; it has been updated for 2024.