It's never over.
For me the appeal, the magic, of Jeff Buckley has always been incredibly hard to sum up. Most of my friends don't really get my fascination with him, why I, a vocalist for several hardcore bands, have claimed his music as one of my main influences. I've never really been able to put my finger on it either, but Daphne Brooks has done a lot to help me get closer to a real understanding with some of her words and phrases in this book.
That's not the only thing that's helped. I doubt that a lot of the descriptive passages analyzing Jeff Buckley's lyrical content would have meant nearly as much to me if it weren't for the romantic relationship I was in for the last half of 2004, a relationship that was in the midst of disintegration at the time when I started this blog (I'm sure that's nakedly obvious to anyone who goes back and reads the first 3 or 4 posts). That relationship, though it was not as long as a lot of others I've been in, was for me inspired by a love that I felt which was deeper and more intense than any I'd ever felt before. Over half a year after the entire thing ended, I'm still unable to forget the feelings I felt during that time, nor to successfully move on and engage in other romantic relationships, even of the least serious nature (I'm sure of this; I've tried).
A lot of those memories are inextricably linked with Jeff Buckley. That particular girl was the one who gave me the Legacy Edition of "Grace" back when it came out last fall. I can remember driving in her car after dark, me sitting in the passenger seat with my hand on her leg, singing "Mojo Pin" to her as it played on the stereo. I'd owned the album long before I ever met her, and yet now I can't hear Jeff Buckley's voice without thinking of that girl.
What Daphne Brooks points out that I had never noticed before is the fact that many of the original songs on "Grace" revolve lyrically around concepts of romantic love lost. Furthermore, they focus on the idea that there is a beauty in continuing to feel that love after the expression of it is lost to you, and after the person you feel it for is no longer in your life. "Grace," "Lover You Should Have Come Over," "So Real," and especially "Last Goodbye" all work with concepts of this nature, all approaching them in a different way but all ultimately embodying the same idea--that love is always beautiful, and always a thing to be cherished, even at a time when all of the ineffable glory of the initial feeling, of the shared intensity of desire, has gone from your life, and all that is still felt in the present is the absence of something that once felt like it was everything that mattered.
There is a line from "Last Goodbye" that Brooks quotes in her book that I had never been able to understand before which suddenly became clear upon reading her transcription. What's more, it hit me like a ton of bricks. In that song, Jeff is singing about a breakup as it's happening, and he sings, "Kiss me, please kiss me..." which I always understood. But what I missed was that the next line is "Kiss me out of desire, baby, not consolation." In other words, don't kiss me because you're trying to make me feel better, kiss me because even though we agree that we have to part, you still love me the same as I love you. So let's not hide it.
There was a moment much like that in the ending of my last relationship, after she had driven down from her parents' house 90 minutes north of where I live to tell me that she was moving to New York instead of here, that things couldn't continue the way they were between us. After she'd gathered up the things of hers that were still in my bedroom and was about to leave to drive back home, we kissed in a manner that I assumed was going to be quick and passionless, a kiss goodbye. It wasn't; there was obviously still love there, for both of us, still an intense desire for each other despite all of the logical reasons why we couldn't be together. It's moments like that that Jeff Buckley evokes in his songs, moments where you feel like love should be gone, and yet there it still is.
All of this would be words on paper (or a screen, either way), with no real meaning to them, if it weren't for the music that backs it all up. It's amazing to me, listening to "Grace" now, that it was first released over 10 years ago, that Jeff Buckley has been dead for 8 years. On this album, he sounds so alive that you literally can't fathom the concept of this man ever dying, which makes it all the more tragic that this is the only album he ever finished. "Grace" is not the sound of any time past, but instead a vital present, or even a future. It wasn't all that successful at the time of its release, but these days it sells better than it did then, and who can really be surprised at that, considering just how many of today's popular musicians are just finally catching up with where Jeff Buckley was a decade ago? Listen, if you've never heard it, to "So Real", a late-recorded track that ended up being the highlight of the album. The way Jeff's guitar mixes with that of rhythm guitarist Michael Tighe to create a chiming, melodic verse evokes a feeling of building tension that only increases throughout the first two verse/chorus alternations, until finally exploding into a solo that is primarily 30 seconds of roaring feedback. The real star of the show, of course, is Jeff's voice, which, unlike a lot of other places on the album, is restrained through most of "So Real", only really cutting loose on the long coda after the final chorus. But restraint works well for him too, especially after that huge feedback blast, when everything trails away to nothing, and you might be fooled for a second into thinking that the song is over. But then Jeff's voice appears in the midst of the silence, speaking so softly he's almost whispering. "I love you," he says, and the band comes back in all at once, back to the tense, haunting melody of the verse. Jeff continues, "...but I'm afraid to love you," and that is the entirety of "So Real"'s final verse: a bold, impossible-to-misunderstand statement about the most difficult, complicated human emotion. Then they move into the final chorus, and Jeff wails in his trademark 5-plus octave range overtop of his own backing vocals repeating the chorus over and over again: "that was so real."
It's being real, and being real about complicated and important emotions, that matters here, not just on "So Real" but all of "Grace". This was a bold place to come from in approaching music at the time that "Grace" was recorded, and is only moreso now: straightforward, honest emotion in the midst of alt-rock's bitter whining about childhood injustices surpassed only in boldness by direct defiance to a constant ironic distance that has become the face of post-milennial underground rock, something in the midst of which Jeff Buckley would probably have felt even more out of place. But he didn't really care, at the end of the day, as long as he could make his music, so really, why should I? Why should any of us? Better to just pay attention to the ways he used his gift of translating raw emotion into words and music and forget everything that might have been considered context, at the time or now. This album exists completely outside the passage of time.
Nowhere is that more obvious than on opening track "Mojo Pin." The first song I ever heard by Jeff Buckley, I actually encountered the solo version from his "Live at Sin-E" EP, and couldn't imagine how a full band would ever do that version of the song justice. I needn't have worried; if anything, they improved it. The song begins quietly, with Jeff crooning over soft fingerpicking on his guitar, and the band doesn't even reveal itself until after he's completed the first verse. Then they move in softly, picking up on the witchy, ethereal vibe of the song and taking their cues from Jeff's voice. And such a voice it is--if restraint was the key for most of "So Real", "Mojo Pin" is the opposite, deriving power and intensity from Jeff's constant octave hopping and volume shifts. This could seem like histrionic showboating from a lesser vocalist, but Jeff knew what he was doing, managing to strike the perfect balance of influence from jazz singer Nina Simone and Pakistan qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. One thing's for sure--it sounds nothing like you'd expect a twentysomething white boy to create in the mid-1990s. The strangely tuned guitar chords and constantly building song arrangement mixes perfectly with his voice, eventually culminating in a howling crescendo that carries with it the swampy depths of a left-behind lover's despair and the eternal beauty and life that comes with that feeling of at least being left with something real.
My ex-girlfriend was a drama major in college, and she favored tragedy, especially those of the ancient Greeks. I don't want to put any words in her mouth, so I hasten to point out that these words only reflect my understanding at the time we had these conversations of what she was telling me, which could have been flawed and may not actually reflect how she felt. But I always felt that her love of tragedy was somewhat unhealthy, not in and of itself but because of how she saw the tragedy. To her, as I understood it, the depiction of tragedy was a beautiful thing because it reflected life as it actually was. It allowed catharsis for the audience through the recognition that all life was essentially composed of tragedy, that we all dealt with suffering on a daily basis, no matter how good things were actually going in any given area of our lives. I understand this way of looking at things, but I'd rather look at it another way; for me, the tragedy of life is unavoidable, so I don't ever want to try and receive catharsis through focusing on it or even a metaphorical substitute for it. Nothing is going to make it suck any less. I'd rather find the beauty in the worst moments, the life and love in the midst of loss and loneliness that helps make it seem worthwhile to make it through to the next day, the next year, however long one has to slog through until one feels whole again.
This, to me, is what "Grace" is all about--watching a love more intense than any other you've felt in your life end, and pass out of your experience forever, and yet knowing that it goes on, that it's always there deep in your heart, and may someday rise again from the ashes when you least expect it. And if nothing else, on cold dark nights when you feel like the only one alive in the world, the memories and the lingering feelings can combine to help get you through until the sun can rise again. I listen to Jeff Buckley a lot on nights like that. I wonder if she does too.
Take care, wherever you are.