When a Mississippi River wave swallowed 30-year-old singer Jeff Buckley during a twilight swim in May 1997, a ripple of disbelief surged through the music world. Just 22 years earlier, his father, Tim, a troubadour on the Elektra record label, had died of a drug overdose at 28.
"I had to write the obituary on him [Jeff Buckley] where I work," says David Browne, senior music journalist for "Entertainment Weekly" magazine and author of "Dream Brother," a dual biography of both father and son just published by Harper Collins. "I just thought, 'this is so sad and tragic and eerie that he would also die young like his father - who he was distanced from.' "
The release of the book couldn't be more timely. On March 20 Rhino records will release "Morning Glory," the first major Tim Buckley retrospective with 34 songs including "Song to the Siren" and "Dolphins." His son Jeff's stature, meanwhile, continues to grow with accolades from U2, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant. A new generation of bands like Radiohead and Coldplay are acknowledging their debt to the younger Buckley, who was blessed with a five-octave vocal range, as was his father.
Younger listeners are also discovering 1994's "Grace," the only recording Jeff released in his lifetime, as well as two posthumous releases, "Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk" and "Mystery White Boy."
"I meet people all the time who have just bought ["Grace"] for the first time," says biographer Browne, who observes the album still sells 1,000 to 2,000 copies a week. "There are certain records that come along through the history of rock that follow their own path, that take any number of influences and channel them together into an old-fashioned sort of classic album."
"Grace" is shot through with passion and stylistic breadth: "Corpus Christi Carol," a straight rendition of a Benjamin Britten classical piece is neighbors with "Eternal Life," which sounds like Nirvana covering a Led Zeppelin rock song. There's also a tender Leonard Cohen cover, while the album's closer, "Dream Brother," is influenced by the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, one of Jeff's key inspirations.
His father Tim's songs were similarly eclectic. "That whole jazz, folk, bit of rock, experimental vibe he was going for really resonates in a lot of alternative music these days," says Browne, who says he can hear elements in current artists like Beth Orton, Duncan Sheik, and Badly Drawn Boy. "There's a slow-building renaissance of Tim that's actually been going on for 15 years [even though] he never had a hit record."
The book tells the respective stories of father and son in alternating chapters, illuminating their similarities and differences, in addition to chronicling the changes in the record industry over the past few decades. Son Jeff hardly knew the father who'd abandoned him and his mother, yet often found himself following in his father's footsteps even as he tried to lose the "son of" tag.
One of the most moving passages in the book discusses the lyrics of "Dream Brother," which reveal Jeff's anguish about his father's absence. The song was written as a message to a friend who was contemplating leaving a pregnant lover, and it includes the refrain: Don't be like the one who made me so old/ Don't be like the one who left behind his name/ Because I waited for you like I waited for him/ And nobody ever came.
" 'Grace' is probably one of the most haunting records ever made," Browne concludes. "It gets under your skin."
A longer version of this article and sound clips can be found at www.csmonitor.com.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society