Remembering an icon: The tragedy of Jeff Buckley’s death
On May 29th, 1997, the music world would be in tatters as the phenomenal Jeff Buckley would go missing following a spontaneous swim in the Mississippi River that would, unfortunately, prove to be fatal.
Buckley’s band had flown to Memphis to join him in his studio to work on new material and, on the first evening that they arrived in town, they decided to take a trip down to the Mississipi River. The iconic singer went swimming fully dressed in Wolf River Harbor, which is a slack water channel that is part of the Mississippi River, whilst allegedly singing the chorus of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppelin.
Keith Foti, who acted as a roadie in Buckley’s band, remained onshore whilst Buckley found himself swept away by the River. After moving a radio and guitar out of reach of the wake from a passing tugboat, Foti looked up to see that Buckley had vanished. A rescue effort took place after Foti reported the incident that night and the morning after by scuba teams. However, the police failed to discover him. On June 4, two locals spotted his body in the Wolf River near a riverboat, and Buckley was finally brought to land.
His death was the definition of a tragedy, which was not related to drugs, alcohol, or suicide. There is proof in a medical examiner’s report, as well as eye witness testimony that proves that the incident was a complete accident and Buckley’s state of mind wasn’t fragile.
The singer was 30 at the time, with his best years musically ahead of him following the release of Grace in 1994 which, despite not arrive as a commercial success by any stretch of the imagination. But through word of mouth, Buckley’s stock was firmly on the rise. The album was critically acclaimed at the time of the release but it took the general public a long time to get on board with his mastery.
Even if the man on the street was unaware of Buckley before his death, he had gained adoration from his idols with Bob Dylan describing him as “one of the great songwriters of this decade” and David Bowie said the album would be in his ten picks to take on a Desert Island. Meanwhile, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were huge fans of his, with the latter naming the record as his favourite of the ’90s.
Despite the medical examiner’s report claiming that Buckley was in a sound state of mind, this was later questioned by his former manager Dave Lory. Lory worked with Buckley from 1993 until the late singer’s death four years later, in 2018 he spoke with NPR’s Talia Schlanger and said the musician had been “acting erratic” in the two weeks before his death.
Lory claimed: “He was trying to buy a house that wasn’t for sale,” Lory said. “He was trying to buy a car that wasn’t for sale. He proposed to Joan [Wasser, Buckley’s girlfriend]. He even applied for a job to be a butterfly keeper at Memphis Zoo – a lot of weird stuff that was uncharacteristic for him. I think it was a yearning to settle down. He wanted a normal life.”
His former manager has gone on to write a book about his experience managing Buckley. In this same 2018 interview, he vividly recounted the tragic incident and the numbness he felt: “It was 5:58 – I’ll never forget the time — in the morning,” he said. “I was in Dublin so that meant it must have been almost one AM in New York and midnight in Memphis. I just froze. I thought I was having a dream. I dropped the phone and you don’t know what to do. Thank god there was no internet cos it would have been tweeted off the banks. You just go numb. I was totally numb, no emotion.”
The manager then returned to Memphis and went to the river three days after the tragedy, before Buckley’s body had been found on June 4th. He said he spent the first 15 minutes he was there crying and the next 15 minutes throwing “rocks in the water and I said, ‘How dare you leave me with this pile of you know what.’”
Lory said he “knew right away” that he was dead. He also told a story about visiting a bizarre experience he had with a psychic just outside of London six years after Buckley’s death, who said: “A Jeff or a John is trying to get a hold of you, it has something to do with water.”
“She told me things only Jeff and I knew,” he said, explaining that he had given her a bracelet of Buckley’s to hold. “Towards the end, she said, ‘Is this is his bracelet?’ and I said, ‘Yes’. She said, ‘Well, I don’t know if this makes sense, but he didn’t mean for it to happen, but he didn’t fight it. It’s not your fault. It’s okay to let go.’”
The legacy that Buckley left behind in his wake is one that most musicians would be envious of, the flawless Grace remains as poignant as it did when you first heard it and it truly is an all-time classic. The singer has had songs written about him by artists ranging from PJ Harvey, Chris Cornell and Lana Del Rey with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke also citing Buckley as an influence with his presence in modern music stronger today than when he was alive.