Raider of the Lost Arts
Jeff Buckley Revisited
Remember me, but oh, forget my fate.
––Henry Purcell, “Dido’s Lament”
When Jeff Buckley drowned in the Wolf River tributary of the Mississippi on May 29, 1997, just as his band was arriving at the Memphis airport to start helping him finally nail down the long-awaited and already agonized-over second album, music lost not only one of its most singular and revolutionary of raw talents, but also the most mythologized—even during his lifetime—since Kurt Cobain’s death just three years prior. Buckley bore the boon and bane of being the scion of an also semi-famous and ill-fated folk/jazz/soul singer named Tim, and spent his entire life and career—following a single week-long reunion just before Tim’s 1975 death from an accidental heroin overdose—futilely trying to distance himself from the wayward father he never knew apart from the music of nine mostly half-baked studio albums. That an ever-growing number of people, the majority having discovered Jeff’s music post-mortem, feel they know the son better than he or anyone else knew his father, and still feel his loss as acutely as one would a dear family member, is a testament to the unparalleled emotional conveyance and lasting legacy of Jeff’s music despite having released only one official studio album during his lifetime (1994’s hauntingly gorgeous, seamlessly diverse Grace, which has found a home on innumerable “Greatest” lists and has been declared a personal favorite by many of his idols). Jeff Buckley’s influence lives on in the burgeoning underground cult of posthumous acolytes, and in the hyper-emotive, falsetto- and vibrato-laden, multi-octave vocal histrionics of so many subsequent singers, which only seem to come off as pale and obvious allusions that smack more of imitation than assimilation, much less embodiment, and we may never see his like again.
Jeff Buckley entered the world during a meteor shower on the evening of November 17, 1966, the son of an already absent father and a mother, Mary Guibert, who at 18 wasn’t much more than a child herself. Like Cobain, who would arrive only three months later, Jeff had a typical Gen X childhood, replete with divorce, paternal estrangement and maternal domination, often violently reinforced alienation from his formative peers and unstable itinerancy (Mary dragged him through virtually every backwater town in California for all too short stints before he finally put his foot down in Anaheim, where both parents had grown up, and where extended family awaited). The sole refuge, besides the brief but stabilizing presence of the occasional father figure like stepdad Ron Moorhead, was the music men like him turned Jeff onto: Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and countless others who would seemingly become part of his DNA. Music became his north star, his raison d’être, and when things went wrong, which was all too often (Jeff had to be a rock for flighty mother Mary, taking on too many of her responsibilities too young), he would escape into it for hours.
This would compound once he took up the guitar. Like many children of musicians do, in order to carve out a distinct musical identity (and to maintain a healthy generation gap), Jeff—or Scotty, as he was known by his middle name then––gravitated towards Gen-X’s chosen instrument: the electric guitar, to the exclusion of his mother’s classical piano and his father’s acoustic guitar and vocalizations. Aside from the occasional lead vocal in a high school cover band, mostly for the high-ranged prog-rock and new wave classics none of his other bandmates could pull off, he considered himself just a guitar player in the ’80s. But not just any player; with Al DiMeola as one of many paragons, Jeff threw himself headlong into the world of virtuosic technique, teaching himself complicated licks by ear as he worked diligently to master not just the instrument but music itself.
This trajectory was maintained after his 1984 high school graduation with a stint at the derided Los Angeles organization, MIT (Musician’s Institute of Technology), with its many specialized subsidiaries, including GIT (Guitar Institute of Technology), where Jeff continued his musical edification. After obtaining his virtually useless professional certificate from GIT but with his gun-slinging reputation solidified a year later, he gigged in various area bands and worked as a studio rat, arranging and recording demos for other aspiring artists. But the lead vocalist in him remained as of yet dormant.
By the late ’80s it was already soul-crushingly evident that Los Angeles was a dead-end cesspool of intolerable immersion in other people’s music, and that a drastic change was required to sweep away the bad influences and external white noise to finally get him in touch with his own muse. New York City beckoned—just as it had to Tim in the ’60s—as a locus were people could become the epitome of themselves, get as weird as they wanted, and be unconditionally accepted or ignored as merely part of the scenery, and reach their full, rewarded potential in whatever their chosen field. Jeff tested the waters for a few months in 1990, but his money and options ran out, and he reluctantly returned to Los Angeles.
It wasn’t until April 26, 1991, when he performed as part of the Hal Willner-curated Greetings from Tim Buckley tribute show at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Church that he was able to lay the groundwork for a permanent relocation, having garnered the interest of several music industry types offering tangible professional succor, not to mention his first real girlfriend. That night marked the beginning of Jeff’s mythology-building not only as an artist in his own right, but also as an inextricable extension of his father’s legacy; many of the concert’s attendees were blown away not just by Jeff’s supposedly similar voice and delivery, but also by his physical resemblance (apparently there were some eerie backlit cheekbone shadows cast against the church hall walls that heightened the drama).
That there was so much defensiveness and/or mandated avoidance in so many subsequent interviews seems very bite-the-hand-that-feeds, but everyone has to break free from their parents at some point; that it often requires the assistance of those selfsame parents is a frustratingly ironic aspect of adulthood most of us have to face and embrace. Jeff simply had the misfortune of doing it in a highly scrutinized industry with zero—or even negative—expectations or tolerance of rock star progeny. He was also not only abandoned by his father, to whose funeral he was not even invited, but also projected on by Tim-obsessed fans and former love interests expecting the son to deliver on the father’s failed promise(s).
Jeff set up shop, and with the assistance of a demo tape of original songs he had recorded while still languishing in Los Angeles (courtesy of father Tim’s old manager, Herb Cohen), and a threadbare press kit (the only news clipping being a photocopied review of the Tim memorial show), he began beating the Manhattan pavement to drum up gigs and busk on the streets.
As of yet, short on original material, he leaned on sophisticated covers that resonated with his emphatically empathic and emotive spirit as he wall-pasta’d in search of a unique artistic identity. Songs by more recently assimilated influences like Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, and Leonard Cohen stood side by side with pitch-perfect deep-cut gems by Van Morrison and the beloved Zeppelin, with all-inclusive guitar arrangements that cast his different-every-time performances in full-blown Technicolor. His self-accompaniment on electric guitar as opposed to the acoustic form usually favored by the often excessively earnest—if not outright cheesy—solo folk artists of the past (including early-phase Tim), differentiated him from obsolete traditions, and it also broadcast the implicit message that this lone performer would eventually have a band behind him.
But the comprehensive guitar skill was just a tripod for the potent weapon his voice was becoming.
It’s difficult for most laypeople to differentiate between learned technique and natural timbre. Jeff didn’t inherit his father’s vocal gift; his was high-ranged and effeminate instead, with a thick palate and some huskiness occasionally muddying up his tone production. But what he did with it despite or because of the confines of those “limitations” is absolutely astounding. Instead of self-consciously diluting his delivery, he threw the book at it, almost as a diversionary tactic, like a magician smoke-and-mirror distracting his audience from an otherwise debunkable prestige move. With his uncanny imitative abilities and concomitant penchant for self-pedagogy, he adopted a rapid vibrato in accordance with essential influences (Simone, Piaf, Garland, and even father Tim, as was his undeniable birthright), nicked tricky classical and R&B trills and phrasing, turned his angelic upper register into a strength by frequently, often breathily leaning into his falsetto, incorporated various operatic (chromatic glissandos) and jazz (scatting) effects, learned how to push a full chest voice into his higher register like Robert Plant (and Tim) and to raggedly scream like Cobain and others of his generation. He ran sustain drills as he traveled across the city in cabs or on foot, drawing out his notes as long as possible to hone his deftly rationed breath support (just try holding out along with the 25-second E4 at the end of Grace’s “Hallelujah”). Tim had set the bar high for the younger Buckley, and Jeff rose mightily to the challenge, developing a comprehensive technique that kept pace with his guitar mastery, which had been pared down to unassailable jazz progressions and Hendrixian blues tropes and, like Cobain, would feature downplayed––if any––solos for the duration. If Jeff’s musical continuo was a haunted house, his voice had become the ghost that lingered within it.
(There’s something more compelling about the resulting output of singer/songwriters who start out exclusively as instrumentalists; it makes for more effective and meaningful musical accompaniment and better structured songs, and they tend to work more diligently and eruditely at mastering vocal technique. Tim leaned almost exclusively on his phenomenal voice, and insufficient thought was given to structure and harmony in his songs, and the lyrics were by turns predominantly unremarkable or unwieldy, the main drawback of being able to sing the phonebook. The resulting chord changes and accompaniment were more limited, derivative, yet ironically more obtrusive. Jeff had harnessed hooks, vivid and compelling lyrical imagery, and upper harmony into underlying works that left room for everything important, but especially the vocals. Thus, Jeff managed to achieve with one album what Tim failed to do in nine; he produced a timeless classic.)
Jeff’s most crucial influence––his self-declared Elvis––was the Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Qawwali singing introduced Jeff not only to its mystical eastern harmony, which was a subtle but unmistakable undercurrent in his guitar parts and his music in general, but also to a highly freeing ilk of vocal improvisation he would use to sparing but profound effect in his live performances, most notably in his wordless vocal warm-ups for things like “Mojo Pin” and “Dream Brother,” and in the way he would subtly tweak the songs’ melodies from show to show.
With all of this gelling within and beginning to burst out of him, Jeff flogged his wares at many a Manhattan venue, but he would find his symbiotic Shangri La at Sin-é, a hole-in-the-wall café run by a fellow man of Irish descent, ex-pat Shane Doyle. Jeff crystalized into the self-accompanying male diva he had been striving to become there at Sin-é and found a home away from home not only on the small stage, where he reveled in an unparalleled, as-of-yet anonymous freedom within the material, but also behind the counter, where he could often be found washing dishes.
This is where Jeff’s buzz began to build, thanks to his Monday night residency, the impression he had made on the industry folk at Tim’s memorial concert (including several Columbia employees who started showing up on the regular), and the steadily growing crowds comprised predominantly of young women. As word of mouth spread and audiences began to overflow onto the sidewalk, the higher-ups at several major labels started circling to investigate the fresh blood in the water. A hilarious bidding war ensued, with record company execs actually trying to make table reservations at the tiny walk-in café, and the street’s curbs clogging with limousines. Jeff would end up signing with Columbia, a Sony subsidiary that was home to many of his heroes, and that made all the right overtures and promises to this hot young talent who was desperately intent on accomplishing the impossible feat of using and defeating the music industry from the inside, as opposed to being consumed by it like his father had been.
Jeff’s “million dollar” deal––consisting of a $100,000 advance, a higher than normal royalty rate, and a three-album guarantee––was unusual for a solo artist of that time, considering there were scant few original songs, no band, and no official demo tape to speak of (the L.A. recordings, which Jeff in his humorously nihilistic cups had dubbed The Babylon Dungeon Sessions, technically fulfilled the applicable criteria but weren’t aurally suitable). Columbia knew they had a hot property on their hands, the Gen-X manifestation of a Dylan or Springsteen-esque heritage artist, and Jeff made sure they knew, mostly through intentional late arrivals to countless business meetings. But because his talents spanned so deep and wide, everyone was initially at a loss as to what form his recorded output should take. What the hell do you do with an artist that has the chops and versatility to go in any direction??
The logical first step was to try and capture the solo version of Jeff on tape and issue it as a soft introduction. Live At Sin-é was culled from two performances recorded during the summer of 1993 and released on November 23 as a perfunctory, slightly disappointing four-song EP consisting of two originals (“Mojo Pin,” and “Eternal Life,” both of which would get definitive, full-band versions on Grace), and two covers (a rhapsodically incendiary rendition of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do” and a transcendent reading of Edith Piaf’s “Je N’en Connais Pas La Fin,” complete with a fingerpicked merry-go-round guitar waltz for the French-sung refrain).
In Columbia’s posthumous ambition to exploit remaining vault caches to continue paying down Jeff’s sizable debt to the label, the original release’s felonious dearth was rectified with 2003’s Legacy Edition, a two-disc, one DVD set that was a much more complete representation of Jeff not just as an artist during that pre-fame period, but as a person. Along with scads more songs from the same shows, the expanded set includes between-song banter that manages to do what his scant, more visceral studio work couldn’t: put his pronouncedly nerdy, madcap, sometimes salacious sense of humor on full display.
Meanwhile, Jeff had also begun working toward his only completed studio LP. Sony had brought him in to record the lion’s share of his repertoire in February of ’93 as a way to gently kick off the A&R cataloguing and selection process for the album (these were later released as part of the 2016 compilation You And I), and recording sessions were scheduled for September at Bearsville Studios, which was located near Woodstock in upstate New York. The only problem––and it was a big one––was that he didn’t have a band. Like so many other aspects of Jeff’s career, this got rectified at the last possible moment; he met and connected with bassist Mick Grondahl first, then drummer Matt Johnson less than a month out from the initial recording dates.
A tall, dark, and handsome Dane, Grondahl had an ideal combination of low-key receptiveness and musical adventurousness that allowed him to be the perfect on- and offstage wingman: he was interesting in an unobtrusive way. Johnson was a wet-eared Texan who had the ideal balance of power and precision (a slight and diminutive presence, Johnson’s physicality was bolstered by his construction day job) and the breadth of taste and experience to match the extreme dynamic variations of Jeff’s sonic palette (Johnson could crush it like Bonzo or play pindrop-soft like a seasoned jazz pro––whatever the music required).
Columbia was less than pleased that Jeff had recruited a rhythm section with virtually no stage or studio experience, but he would eventually be proven right in his selection of introverted, lump-of-clay rookies that doubled as a gang of friends who could hang with him in every sense, especially through all the spontaneous twists and turns he threw at them. This was one of many battles he would actually win for the better against Sony, though he would initially come off as the loser (it took a few months for the band to get up to speed on the Grace repertoire, because they rarely if ever played the album’s songs during rehearsals or soundchecks, preferring to fill that time with “jamming,” since they needed to build an intuitive rapport. They also knew they would be playing the same emotionally demanding songs night after night for the next year or two).
The trio began work on Grace at Bearsville Studios, which had been pre-rigged with several different recording environments to spontaneously capture whatever came out of Jeff and his band in any permutation and style, whether it was solo, low-key jazz combo or full-on rock group. Andy Wallace, who had dialed in the mixes for Nirvana’s Nevermind, wore the coproducing and engineering hats for these sessions, along with providing a regimented lens through which to focus and refract Jeff’s chaotic genius. Recording proceeded slowly and steadily, without too much fanfare, but then, again at the last minute there was an explosion of prodigious productivity. Among other developments, German vibraphone prodigy Karl Berger was in town, and with the assistance of a local quartet, he and Jeff co-arranged string parts for “Grace,” “Last Goodbye,” and “Eternal Life.”
The eleventh-hour burst of creativity suddenly began transforming Jeff’s modest debut into something more akin to the fully produced masterpiece that usually doesn’t happen until later in a discography. More studio time was booked for intensive overdubbing of additional layers, which pushed costs beyond the initial budget, and though Columbia held Jeff in high esteem and generally handled him with kid gloves (full artistic control was implicit), the majority of expenses went into his recoupable fund, which had to be paid down by Jeff through album sale royalties. Though Grace would eventually prove itself beyond worthy of the investment, this was one of the first major manifestations of Jeff’s Sony-sourced headache that would plague him for the duration.
Grace, which was finally released on August 23, 1994, tends to vex the neophyte at first blush. There’s so much to unpack, the resulting bottleneck can be off-putting. Only through repeated listens will it reward those who “wait in the fire,” as the title track has it. Once that rote assimilation has inured you to Jeff’s eccentric voice and anachronistically innovative affectations, and Grace has dilated your emotional receptivity wider than you ever thought possible, you will tend to listen obsessively for a while before you realize you need to take a break so your strung-out, wrung-out heart can snap back to normal. You will probably only be able to listen to it every once in a while thereafter, as the lachrymose music makes demands of your psyche that require exceptional equanimity to withstand (the irony is that while Grace might help you grieve a breakup or death, listening to its ten tracks can also exhume that grief long past the time you have worked through it). The fact that Jeff is no longer here but still sounds undeniably alive in the speakers, and that the making of this album led to insurmountable expectations for a satisfactory follow-up that added to his pre-death stress, only augments the album’s haunting intensity.
The sonic progeny of Robert Johnson, Nina Simone, Edgar Allan Poe, and John Dowland, Jeff comes off as the wide-amplitude, tragic-romantic, card-carrying Scorpio that he was, irresistibly obsessed with love and death, singing often of the moon and rain (and yet also of burning and fire), and bedroom-as-sanctuary-and-wellspring, and a melancholic, nearly heart-rending yearning for absent lovers past and present. All of this can’t help but feed into his steadily growing mythology, not to mention strike he’s-all-alone-and-vulnerable-go-save-him reverberations of longing through the heartstrings of every heterosexual female within earshot, while also getting straight men of all walks gratefully as in touch with their feminine side as he was. In the age of grunge––which force-fed emotion through intimidating volume and distortion––Grace was an anomaly, delivering a wider range of feeling through a listener’s induced surrender to its heightened peaks and valleys, with Jeff’s by turns angelic and demonic voice keeping pace, and, unlike Cobain, with absolutely no irony to lean on, hide behind, or use as disclaimer.
“Mojo Pin” is the perfect overture for an audiophile quality album with such wide yet still somehow cohesive style and dynamic oscillations, with softly looping guitar harmonics fading in, followed by a wordless melody delicately sung over a fingerpicked folk/jazz guitar pattern. The music rollercoasters from there, with dramatic stops featuring vocal melismas that proceed into straight 4/4 time, finally crescendoing in a loud, climactic buildup, and a ragged scream from Jeff that tapers seamlessly back into the jazz feel.
The first stanzas tell us so much about the author:
I’m lying in my bed, the blanket is warm
This body will never be safe from harm
Still feel your hair, black ribbons of coal
Touch my skin to keep me whole
Oh, if only you’d come back to me
If you laid at my side
I wouldn’t need no mojo pin
To keep me satisfied
Here we find a vividly lovelorn artist who tends to compose from the subconscious (as with many of his original songs, “Mojo Pin” was inspired by a dream he had had) has already begun confronting his mortality, equates love with addiction like so many troubadours before him (“mojo pin” is a euphemism for a shot of heroin, which, inspired in part by his father, Jeff used for a short time during the tour in support of Grace), and feels hopelessly separated from it all, with a heightened sense of longing that can’t help but garner the listener’s sympathies.
The title track picks up the thread in more ways than one; along with “Mojo Pin” it is the second of two pre-Sony songwriting collaborations with former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas—as part of his short-lived Gods and Monsters project (that’s Lucas’s guitar-noodle wizardry on both). And with lines like “Oh, drink a bit of wine––we both might go tomorrow,” it ups the mortality-as-enabler-and-aphrodisiac ante.
With its churning 6/8 groove, and with Jeff starting the song in typical fashion––toward the bottom of his discernable vocal range (D3), “Grace” culminates cathartically on a sustained, heavily vibrato’d, full-chest E5 bad-assedly blasting from his manic larynx and also marks the first of several ominous allusions to being harmed by water (“…And I feel them drown my name…”).
“Last Goodbye” was supposed to be the big first single. It even got an MTV video treatment (just look at his dour expression as he and the exhausted band take a precious day off from a European tour to do this exorbitantly expensive production of a compromised artistic concept in a despised medium), but with no real chorus to speak of, its chart success was modest at best. A Delta blues slide glides across an open-tuned electric 12-string guitar before dropping into a mid-tempo dance groove and a lyric full of bittersweet memories of a failed relationship with an older woman in L.A.
Not only was Jeff a bit shorthanded when it came to filling an entire 52-minute album with originals, but it also would have been a shame not to round out the running order with some well-chosen and interpreted covers in emulation of the intimate immediacy of Jeff’s Sin-é days. The first of these appearing on Grace is “Lilac Wine,” a torch-song standard written by James Shelton and adopted by Nina Simone. Jeff gives the distant-lover-as-intoxicant lyrics the hyper-emotive treatment, with perfectly sustained vibrato on the drawn-out notes and with his voice occasionally breaking into a heartrending sob, especially on the line, “…Isn’t that she, or am I just going crazy, dear?”
“Lilac Wine” is a significant indication of the barely fathomable depth of Jeff’s––and by extension, the band’s––versatility and their ability to do exactly right by the artist and repertoire (it’s difficult, in that sense, to listen to any of Tim’s records without taking umbrage with the musicians in the various band incarnations smothering Tim’s voice and stepping all over his 12-string guitar with their ego-fulfilling and poorly––if at all––thought-out parts).
“So Real” represents not only the successful search for a second guitarist, but also a tenacious battle fought and won against Columbia for the very soul of the album.
Michael Tighe, a mutual friend of Jeff and his ex Rebecca Moore (the one he had met and fallen in love with at the Tim tribute, and whom “Grace”s lyrics supposedly feature) joined the band on second guitar after most of the work on the album had been completed, and he brought an intriguing set of chord changes with him. When it came time to record B-sides and possible non-album singles (a cover of Big Star’s “Kangaroo”, which, to Sony’s consternation would often stretch out to 15 or 20 minutes in concert, was also laid down), Tighe’s progressions, which were inordinately sophisticated considering he hadn’t been playing guitar for very long, were dusted off, tracked with engineer Cliff Norrell, and Jeff did the lead vocal in one take after a last-minute walk to finish the lyric.
Distinguished by the verses’ seamless changes in meter (back and forth from duple to triple time), its by-now standard mélange of tragic-romantic imagery in the lyrics (“I love you / But I’m afraid to love you,” and the foreboding “And I couldn’t awake from the nightmare that sucked me in and pulled me under…”), another wildly climactic E5 at the end, and a massive chorus hook, the song fit Jeff’s MO––accessible innovation and wide-amplitude expression––perfectly.
So much so that it quickly shed its B-side status and usurped a coveted spot on the record from another, highly contested original: The excessively personal and harsh “Forget Her,” which in retrospect would have been the sole manifestation of irony on the album. Jeff was justifiably dissatisfied with this disingenuously caustic 12/8 blues-pop dirge waltz he had allegedly penned about the aforementioned, hapless Moore, upon whom the lyric displaced Jeff’s own culpability for the relationship’s dissolution. But the label was head over heels with it, as the song’s melodramatic, Michael Bolton-esque chorus made it the one and only potential crossover smash in their minds. Columbia exec Don Ienner, who was essentially Jeff’s boss, tried everything short of bribery to futilely sweet-talk Jeff into keeping it on the album, which, in itself, was a tangible reason for Jeff to dig in, though he also feared that the slightly smarmy song would be a one-way ticket to One-Hit-Wonder-ville. As it turned out, “So Real”s chorus was hookier anyway, enough to warrant its own video treatment, though its subsequent commercial impact was also negligible.
A plaintive sigh kicks off what is now widely regarded as the definitive recording of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the second cover of the album, performed solo and glued together from multiple takes into a solemn paean to the ecstatic pain of long-term relationships. Inspired by John Cale’s 1991 reading, Jeff sticks to the ultra-romantic verses that find love and suffering linked in paradox, and the guitar tone and reverb augment the song’s church hymn vibe, almost as though it was recorded at a service or funeral. If you’ve heard this recording or noticed it in myriad movies and TV shows and haven’t cried at least once, you’re not human.
“Lover, You Should Have Come Over” is a classic swinging blues adagio, perhaps the best known and most covered original on the album. Water and death are linked once again (“Looking out the door, I see the rain fall upon the funeral mourners / Parading in a wake of sad relations as their shoes fill up with water…”), and then Jeff abruptly breaks that train of thought to do right by Moore in recognizing his role in their breakup (“…Maybe I’m too young / To keep good love from going wrong”). Again, his vocal starts low and builds to another E5 at the end. In the hands of another artist, all of this would have sounded forced and over the top, but somehow Jeff was able to make it work. That’s his genius/madness; he himself was fully dilated and committed in a way that wasn’t healthy or sustainable, but damn, did it make for visceral listening.
“Corpus Christi Carol” reaches even further back than 1950’s “Lilac Wine” and completely blows the listener away with its expectation-defying display of musical depth. He becomes a bona fide classical singer here, exhibiting total immersion in the anonymous 16th-century lyric that the aptly named English composer Benjamin Britten incorporated into 1933’s Choral Variations for Mixed Voices (“A Boy Was Born”), Op. 3, finally arriving at Jeff’s adolescent ears through the version for high voice recorded by Janet Baker in 1967. Jeff completely inhabits the allegory of a bedridden, Christ-like knight endlessly bleeding, witnessed by love and the purity of his cause, with the empathic delicacy that was already his trademark. The stark arrangement for electric guitar and scant overdubs is superbly matched by the lamenting vocal, which ends on a ghostly, falsetto’d E5 that is utterly cathartic in its climactic glory.
Jeff wanted to make an album that compelled rock fans to forget about Zeppelin II, and “Eternal Life” delivers on the heavier side of that promise. Written during his time in L.A., the creepy intro stops on a dime before a bludgeoning, yet highly danceable groove drops in and a reactive lyric confronts applicable listeners to wake up and smell the mortal coffee:
Eternal life is now on my trail
Got my red-glitter coffin, man––just need one last nail
While all these ugly gentlemen play out their foolish games
There’s a flaming red horizon that screams our names…
Racist everyman, what have you done?
Man, you made a killer of your unborn son
Oh, crown my fear your king at the point of a gun
All I want to do is love everyone…
There’s no time for hatred––only questions
What is love, where is happiness
What is alive, where is peace?
When will I find the strength to bring me release?
With distorted bass as well as guitar alongside complementary strings and a killer groove featuring a highly effective, accelerating hi-hat pattern from Johnson on the verses, the song successfully proselytizes for universally incontestable causes, and reinforces Jeff’s projected mythology as a doomed soul whose seemingly relished fate awaits him sooner rather than later.
“Dream Brother” may be the last song on the album, but it was the very first idea Jeff and the band had worked up together. At the risk of overusing the word, and just like the album as a whole, it is haunting from start to finish, with a droney, string-cranking intro giving way to an eastern-inflected guitar motif. Jeff’s more static but no less sublime vocal melody goes beyond complementary; it builds tension by hanging on or around the fifth for most of the verse stanzas before resolving to the tonic on the last note of the phrase. Grondahl’s bass line, as with all his work on the album, is a sublime treat; here we find him working his way through the exotic Phrygian mode, recasting the guitar parts into a harmonically complex, emotionally compelling accompaniment that perfectly underpins the vocal.
The song features another penned-and-sung-at-the-last-possible-minute lyric, the chorus of which admonishes dear L.A. friend Chris Dowd (of Fishbone) not to abandon his new family like Tim had Jeff and Mary: “Don’t be like the one who made me so old / Don’t be like the one who left behind his name / ‘Cause they’re waiting for you like I waited for mine / And nobody ever came.” Grace’s only allusion to Jeff’s father builds in intensity to an instrumental bridge with wordless Qawwali wailings that are utterly bone chilling in their echoing-into-eternity saturation. The album’s final line puts an ominous capstone on the pyramid of the untimely-death-by-water preoccupation: “Asleep in the sand, with the ocean washing over…”