In the fall of 1997, I spent an evening with my older brother traversing New York City’s Lower East Side, searching for the spirit of Jeff Buckley. Our intended altar was Sin-é, a tiny bar-cum-performance space that was once a muse to the late singer with the unforgettable falsetto and a knack for colorful asides. A few wrong turns instead landed us in the right place, called 2A, where a Buckley intimate was keeping bar. Tom the bartender and my brother stayed in deep conversation while the hours and customers fell away.
Nine years later, my brother and I found ourselves face to face with another Buckley intimate: Midtown Memphis. I was new in town, moving into a guesthouse a few blocks from Rembert where Buckley had lived in the spring of 1997 while working on a follow-up to his first (and wildly successful) 1994 album release, Grace.
In the music world, Jeff Buckley had all the right stuff for stardom: a critically acclaimed album, respect from industry insiders, heartthrob looks, and mystique. The industry first took notice when he stunned the audience with his unforgettable vocal chops at a tribute concert for his folk-singer father, Tim Buckley, who abandoned him early in life and died of a drug overdose two months after their first meeting.
Jeff Buckley left a mark on Memphis that has been somewhat tainted by media accounts of the evening of May 29, 1997, when he drowned after wading into the Memphis harbor for a late-night swim. But today, nearly 20 years after his death, recollections from friends and acquaintances show that his time in Memphis was more than just a tragic ending. It was about an artist and a friend living life authentically in a city that knows more than a bit about music. And lots about tragedy.
As described in the book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die: A Listener’s Life List, “Buckley struck some admirers as a rock god a lá those of the mystical late 1960s, a singer forever in search of unattainable ecstasy. At the same time, he could sound like a tortured Sylvia Plath type, desperate to convey a particular depth of feeling. He could wail like an opera singer nearing the big final scene, and create extemporaneous themes like a jazz player.”
Jeff Buckley’s first Memphis moment wasn’t even in Tennessee; it was in Iowa, fall of 1994, where his band headlined a show with Memphis indie hard rockers, the Grifters. Neither group had ever heard of the other, but proximity and pre-show beers would signify the beginning of a friendship. Although affinity among touring bands isn’t uncommon, this relationship began with a typical mutual creative admiration that grew into real-life affection, the latter poignantly summed up by Grifters bassist Tripp Lamkins’ recent comment: “I miss him all the time.”
At the end of that fall 1994 tour, the Grifters would reunite with Buckley at the former South End downtown. Still largely an unknown, the singer drew a small crowd, mostly due to the Grifters’ efforts to rally support for their new friend. The following year, Buckley would land in Memphis again, this time with a big crowd at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street. Thanks to major-label backing — Grace, his first studio album, was making the rounds on radio stations across the country — he was quickly gaining celebrity, touring the world and capturing admirers with a vocal presence as commanding as the Mississippi River itself.
University of Memphis sophomore Emily Helming was in the front row at the Daisy that night, having been a fan since discovering Buckley on the radio in her home state of Oregon. With one last beer for courage, she decided to find her way to the tour bus to thank the man whose live performance had blown her away.
“That’s a great thing about Memphis — you can get up close with people you couldn’t elsewhere,” Helming remembered on a call between my home in West Virginia and hers in New York City. It’s true. During my five years in Memphis, I played taxi driver for Tommy Ramone; shared a table at Wild Bill’s with Samuel L. Jackson; made small talk with Luke Perry in the lunch line; and told Kate Beckinsale that, yes, she could give my dog a piece of chicken. Memphis has time and space for characters, not celebrities. It’s an endearing indifference.
As for getting that chance to extend flattery to Jeff Buckley, Emily Helming got a dose of character instead. While she talked with his bandmates near the bus, he descended its steps and addressed her without saying hello.
“You’re the vanilla girl. I smelled you on stage.” As quickly as he interrupted the conversation, Buckley walked away. He wasn’t rude, Helming pointed out. He was just there and gone. Doing what came naturally. Unbeknownst to Buckley, he was channeling the city of Memphis itself.
Rolling Stone magazine named Buckley’s Grace number 303 of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” saying, “Buckley had a voice like an oversexed angel, and the songs here shimmer and twist. The fierce rocker ‘Eternal Life’ up-ends Led Zeppelin’s take on the blues while honoring it: Instead of a hellhound on his trail, Buckley, who drowned in 1997, evokes immortality bearing down on him.” He was also listed as number 39 among the magazine’s “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.”
Like Jeff Buckley, I had a small taste of Memphis before making it my home, in the form of a weekend trip with a friend. Not long after we exited Sam Cooper, my preconceived ideas and reality collided, and kept at it for the entire weekend. It was the slow drip of Midtown, not the gush of Beale. It was accents whose velocity left Southern drawl in the dust. It was a barista who offered us tofu pie instead of pecan in a quiet Midtown district kept barely alive, not by the smell of barbecue and the sound of live music, but by a bead shop, a bike shop, and a pizza joint called a café. Unlike New York City or Los Angeles, Memphis doesn’t deliver. It will leave you underwhelmed — and wanting more.
When I made Memphis home in 2006, I learned the complicated life cycle of Overton Square and discovered big rocks at Mud Island that would allow me closer to the river. I found theater in fast-talking coffee shop characters and had love affairs with pimento cheese sandwiches. I learned that everyone, and everywhere, in Midtown has a story — not least the well-known panhandlers whose yarns, though not entirely inspiring, get credit for effort beyond, “Spare some change?”
I learned that Memphis doesn’t have change to spare. Decades of strife — yellow fever, deaths of American icons, racial discord, economic despair, and violent crime — had given way to trickling evolution, Memphis-style. Here, growth happens “only in ways that make sense,” says one of the city’s brightest offerings, producer-director Morgan Jon Fox.
Fox’s career could easily take him to New York or Los Angeles, yet leaving hasn’t been on his radar because he sees Memphis as “a place where soul seeps from the cracks in the concrete and overgrown parking lots. Here in Memphis, we have a community. We pride ourselves on the grit and grind attitude of us against the world. There’s nothing clean and safe about the art that’s made here.”
Fox’s sentiments are echoed by another Memphis success story, writer-director-producer Robert Gordon, who literally wrote the book on creative culture in his hometown, It Came From Memphis: “You can come here and be a star or amount to nothing; either way it’ll have no impact on the greater community.”
“Memphis allows you a great freedom,” says Gordon. “You don’t encounter a world of agents and publicists and managers — there’s not that pressure. The expectations, in fact, are low. The edge where artists live here is wide. You work at your own pace, you develop in public as much as you want, then you take it somewhere to sell — either in a van with a guitar, or to one of the cities of industry, or from your bedroom to the internet. We are a city for creatives.”
In the same way Buckley’s vocal stylings varied, so too did his guitar playing. Through the years, his style ranged from reggae and funk to rock and grunge, from jazz and country to the guitar-picking style showcased in his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a track that became one of his most well-known recordings. His version of the song was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2014.
Unlike other cities that attract the so-called creative class, Memphis isn’t big on consequences. Rent is relatively cheap, and starting over is the currency of creativity, which runs the gamut: music, film, TV, food, theater, writing, photography. Newcomers and natives alike have equal opportunity to climb or linger, to seek or simmer, to do it their way. After living in small towns and big cities like New York City and South Beach, I myself eventually pressed the thumbtack into the far left corner of Tennessee because why not, where else? Every writer should be Southern for a little while.
Buckley’s bartender friend Tom Clarke, whom I tracked down on an email trail through three states, said Jeff had only planned to be in Memphis for a little while, too. Former Memphian Joey Pegram emailed me from China, recalling interactions with the star who “could just be himself and hang out and people treated him like one of the gang.”
If Buckley wanted a break from the pressure of making art in New York City, he found it in the Bluff City. The Grifters’ Tripp Lamkins says of his friend, “Jeff was kind of how you imagine he’d be.” Hypercreative. Moody. Shy. Witty. He “radiated at a high frequency,” says former NYC roommate Joe Murphy, who coincidentally became a Memphian himself long after his friend’s time here.
As a marvel of the public eye, Buckley met expectations. Here’s the guy who did a wicked Cher impression; who’d share morning coffee at Rockopolis, aka the apartment shared by Tripp Lamkins and Lucero’s Roy Berry across from Shangri-La Records; who paid out of his own pocket for the Grifters to fly to Australia when their label, indie powerhouse SubPop, wasn’t keen on the expenses. Buckley was like any human: multidimensional. Observers saw the obvious, and intimates discovered the depth. It was the Grifters, after all, who introduced Buckley to Memphis, and Memphis to Buckley. Among his friends and acquaintances, there was a consensus: He felt at home in a city where he was treated as a friend more than a spectacle.
A drummer by trade, Joey Pegram recalls running into Buckley one afternoon, hanging out on a patio with friends in Cooper-Young. The group walked a few blocks to play music at a friend’s practice space at Plan B gallery, formerly an industrial bakery no one remembers. For Pegram, the highlight of his acquaintance with Jeff Buckley was that jam session, where the two switched instruments and Buckley’s facility on the drums matched his comfort in a big city with a small-town feel. “I think he liked Memphis and the folks there,” says Pegram, “because we didn’t fawn over him or kiss up to him like I suspect a lot of people often did.”
Moving to Memphis in early 1997, Buckley began work on his newest album at Easley McCain Recording. He performed several shows at the downtown venue, Barristers, a bar tucked away in an alley off Jefferson Avenue. Buckley was a lively entertainer, but in Memphis he could let loose in ways that record labels and big-city venues either didn’t allow or didn’t cultivate. At one of his Monday-night gigs at Barristers, Joey Pegram and Emily Helming were there, separately, and it’s telling that both remembered a night where fans sat on the floor — not typical of Memphis bar crowds, or maybe any bar crowds.
Helming says Buckley seemed frustrated that evening, but when he played the first notes of his infamous Leonard Cohen cover, “Hallelujah,” the atmosphere changed. Pegram added another layer, saying, “The music created a kind of sparkly magical feeling in the room … and people were kind of looking at each other, smiling like they knew they were experiencing something really special.”
In a city whose musical history is forever wet to the touch, a major performer who called it home for merely a few months hardly makes a ripple. Buckley’s Memphis legacy is more about him than his music. In many ways, Buckley’s time here is a well-kept secret. Doug Easley, who worked with Buckley at Easley McCain Recording on that never-finished second album, says there’s “a kind of hush about it.” Of the small group who got to know Buckley, some waited 20 years to talk about it.
The album that took shape between Easley McCain Recording and the house on Rembert Street would be released in rough form in 1998 as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. Tripp Lamkins can’t bring himself to listen to it all the way through, nor does he believe that it’s the album his friend intended to release. Without Buckley himself to lend insight, fans and friends are left to go the way of college literature courses: to look for themes and draw comparisons.
Sketches has the unapologetic candor of New York City and the disturbing human-ness of the Southern Gothic tradition. Intentional or not, there’s Memphis flavor on the album. Songs like “Your Flesh Is So Nice,” with its hollow, unproduced edge, could sit comfortably between the Reatards and Harlan T. Bobo on a Goner Records compilation. The classic-denim cool, straight-whiskey buzz of “Witches Rave” might be inspired by one of Memphis’ most beloved exports, Big Star, whose song “Kangaroo” was a favorite cover for Buckley.
Buckley is part of a coterie of soul seekers — a mix of names recognizable and unknown — who have come from other states and countries to a home inside the Parkways, or maybe they never left there to start. For those inclined to follow their noses more than their wallets, for those who feel that, as Robert Gordon and others have said, “life is short and art is long,” Memphis is a beacon. The living is cheap. The pace is slow. This sets it apart, even from somewhere as close as Nashville. You don’t have to make it in Memphis, but you can — it’s just different. Memphis is creative awakening, growing untamed like kudzu. Buckley’s journey through this city is also a reflection of just that.
On May 29, 1997, while waiting for his band to travel to Memphis from New York to join him in the studio, Buckley went for a swim in the Wolf River Harbor, reportedly fully clothed and wearing boots. He drowned after being pulled under in the wake of a passing tugboat. His body wasn’t found until June 4th. The autopsy report deemed the drowning accidental, as no signs of drugs or alcohol were found in his system.