On May 29 it will be 20 years since Jeff Buckley, aged 30, swam out into the dark, swirling waters of the Mississippi River in Memphis and never made it back to shore.
Jeff Apter was inspired by this upcoming anniversary and his involvement in the A State of Grace series of concerts in 2015 that celebrated the music of both Tim and Jeff Buckley, to rewrite his 2008 biography of Buckley – A Pure Drop.
“It’s a substantial rewrite, much tighter, and incorporates a more nuanced view of what was happening to Jeff, and how that impacted on him,” Apter says.
The rock biographer, (previous subjects include John Farnham, Johnny O’Keefe, the Finn brothers, Casey Chambers and Keith Urban), focuses on how record company debt weighed heavily on Buckley as he danced the fine line between singing out his soul and providing saleable product for record company execs.
“The book now is very much a defining study of the pros and cons of wanting to be a star,” says Apter. “It’s worth emphasising that Grace the album was not a big hit in the USA on its first release. Buckley was seen as a serious artist who would in time strike it big for Columbia, the label of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, and consequently he secured large advances of cash to support touring and recording, that had to be repaid from sales. Luckily too, he was shielded in some measure from commercial pressures by Steve Berkowitz, the A&R man who signed him, but ultimately it all came home to roost when he was unable to buy a house in Memphis for a measly sum.”
A Pure Drop is a document of the ups and downs of the wandering minstrel’s life – on the road, tours, penury, apparent wealth but with no actual money, wine, women (especially women) and song. Buckley was an artist who compressed a lot of living into a very short period – being publicly active for five tumultuous years. Prior to that he was gearing up – music school, hanging around and roadie-ing, and finally settling in as a house act and barista at tiny New York café, Sin-e, where he was discovered in 1992.
Much of the book is about Buckley’s brooding over his relationship with his father. Tim Buckley ignored his son completely for his first years, then invited him into his life when he was eight and was spellbound by his father’s music. Within weeks of their reintroduction Tim Buckley died of a heroin overdose and Jeff struggled to deal with the constant comparisons between them for the rest of his life.
Apter deals with this deftly. It would be too easy to be completely enamoured of this rock ‘n’ roll tragedy and write about the dark romanticism of ‘true’ artists, but the author keeps away from pop psychology. He largely lets Buckley speak for himself by drawing from published interviews and showing how he consciously worked to dissociate himself from his father.
A Pure Drop reads very much like the work of a fan, but with distance, maturity and wisdom. He published the first edition in 2007 and it has aged well with its new edits and additions. It’s an absorbing and easy read and is a dispassionate fable on the perils of the music industry machine.
(You can revisit a piece of history by listening to the live show that Buckley played in Melbourne on 3RRR radio’s roof top on August 31 1995 during his first, triumphant Australian tour.)
A Pure Drop (revised edition) is available here.