Review of A Pure Drop: The Life Of Jeff Buckley
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 4/5/09
Rare is it to have two artists, one a father and the other a son, both who have talent in the same field. Think about it: while there are many offspring who try to follow in their parent’s footsteps, what usually happens is that the child is nothing but a distant drop of what the parent was, and that is putting it kindly. Examples would be Sylvia Plath and Frieda Hughes, John and Thomas Steinbeck, Anne and Linda Sexton. Even more odd is it to have a parent artist die at the age of 28, only then to have his son die at the age of 30.
For those who might not know of him, Jeff Buckley is the son of Tim Buckley—the prolific songwriter from the 1970s. Although Tim died when Jeff was only eight, in this new biography by Jeff Apter, we learn that Jeff Buckley never really knew his father outside of meeting him only a handful of times. But for those who do know of Jeff Buckley, the opening of this review is likely to irritate, for it is well known that Jeff loathed being compared to his father, since he wanted to be, and clearly is, his own artist.
Jeff Buckley, born in 1966, lived a rich and talented life, one that was filled with many of the predictable elements within a musician’s days: booze, sex, touring, arguments, depression, frustration, etc. Jeff Buckley did live a full life, despite it being a short one, ending at the age of 30, when he drowned in the Wolf River in Memphis. Yet despite his short life, he has left behind a legacy, and his stellar album Grace, for which he is most known.
Apter admits that the writing of this book was in itself a challenge, since he was composing a biography about a subject that had already died. In this book, he relies on Buckley’s friends and fellow musicians to deliver their personal experiences with Jeff, and also share their insights into his character. I can’t say for certain that the book paints an accurate picture of Buckley, since I did not know him personally, but one can gather a sense that he was high on artistic talent yet low on emotional maturity.
While this book is entertaining to read, some of the information is contradictory, for there are moments when Buckley is portrayed as selfish and narcissistic, and yet others have claimed he was totally selfless. As any artist, and any individual with a complex character, Buckley had many sides, and so trying to capture those sides equally via way of secondhand information can be difficult. But considering these limitations, Apter does a thorough job. Even more so, given that he is the former music editor of Australian Rolling Stone, it is clear that Apter knows his stuff.
He knows it so much that a music lay person, such as myself, at times was lost amid the musical names of people and bands I’d never heard of. While I do love Jeff Buckley’s music, I am somewhat clueless when it comes to music history, (literary novels are more my thing) and I say this because I realize this book was written with a certain audience in mind. Jeff Buckley fans will no doubt find it fun and a fast read, though if you’re like me, many of these obscure names won’t mean a thing. (I had no clue who Tim Buckley was for example, though in listening to some of his songs on You Tube, he clearly had talent, though Jeff had a better voice).
The book addresses that Jeff was quite the loverboy in his day, bedding as many willing women he could find. (Not an unusual occurrence in the music world). He was charismatic and good-looking, possessed a great voice and stage presence, and his talent undeniable. Though the one area he struggled with was his songwriting—he suffered from somewhat a creative inertia, in that he was simply not that prolific. This especially became a problem after Colombia Records signed the young Jeff and he barely had enough songs to complete his first album. “…Buckley prized the making of music far more than the selling of it.”
The utter stupidity of people in the “biz” is another point the book mentions, for it has been argued that Buckley feared that comparison with his father, and that ambivalence is shown via way of his interviews, where he claims to not have been influenced at all by him, yet other sources say this isn’t the case. “But the truth, however, was quite different: if any one artist had a direct influence on Buckley’s genre-jumping style and wildly expressive voice, it was his father—with all due respect to Led Zeppelin,” Apter writes.
As a writer myself, I could more than empathize with Jeff’s struggle in his need to retain his creativity and love for art against the marketing pressure. The book even notes that this also plagued Kurt Cobain—an artist whom Jeff held strong admiration. As both were pressured from their record labels for ways to be more commercial, one has to wonder just when will come the time when the record companies and publishers just let talented artists do their thing?
There are also some funny mentions of where Buckley was pissed after a newspaper lumped him beside the likes of Michael Bolton, who Buckley admitted “sucked.” Also, Grace was a rather modest seller when it first came out, selling only a few thousand copies out of the 40,000 his record company distributed. (They apparently didn’t push the album as much as they should have). Luck also clearly played an important role in Buckley’s music career, for while there can be many musicians with talent, few are lucky enough to get noticed, let alone sign with such a large label, even if that label was not as supportive as it could have been. And although Buckley did enjoy some commercial success in his lifetime, his legacy has only grown after his death. Not surprising, since quality does rise with time, though in the short term it can be overlooked.
With any artist, the art should always come first. One’s bio is just flourish. (Yet I admit it can be fun flourish, especially for the very curious). I do recommend this book, though the real Jeff Buckley will always be found via way of his work. This is how I know Jeff Buckley very well—for he regularly visits me in song.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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