IN 1997 I WAS LIVING in New York City, just blocks away from Strawberry Fields, an area of Central Park built in loving memory of John Lennon. One morning in June my boyfriend and I headed over to the park, as we often did to escape the oppressive heat of our apartment and surround ourselves with the only organic matter in the city. It wasn't uncommon to find pictures, letters, poems, flowers, and candles left behind on the round inlaid stone circle that reads "Imagine." On this particular day, the bits and pieces of love and memory were left not for the former Beatle, but for Jeff Buckley, the 30-year-old singer/songwriter whose body had just been found floating, lifeless, at the mouth of a Memphis river. The most memorable offering was a crude photocopy of a publicity photo of Jeff. Written on the paper in thick, black ink were the words "Too good for this world."
Mystery White Boy (Columbia)
Once I Was (Fuel 2000)
Just inside the trees that surround Strawberry Fields, a group of twentysomethings was listening to Buckley's Grace over and over on a crappy little portable stereo. They'd laid out a few blankets; their pale bodies were strewn on top, some talking and holding each other, some just listening. Some were even crying. We walked by later that night at around 10pm; they were still there.
I was afraid I'd never again be able to listen to my own copy of Grace after hearing it played so many times that day. And yet I was struck by the vigil that Buckley's fans had staged, struck by their unashamed emotion and their dedication to memorializing him.
It's now been three years since that day—three years since Jeff Buckley drowned while taking a swim during a break from recording what would become his first posthumous record, 1998's Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk). It's been 25 years since his father, '60s folk/jazz/blues troubadour Tim Buckley, died of an accidental drug overdose. That two different record companies have each released a compilation of live songs by the Buckleys in the past month is sheer coincidence, another thread connecting an estranged father and the son he met only once, just months before his death in 1975.
Both albums feature previously unreleased tracks. On Tim's Once I Was, a stirring 12-minute version of "I Don't Need It To Rain" from a 1968 Denmark concert is not only a testament to his supremely gifted backing musicians, it's an excellent example of his vocal range and ability. The soulful folk of "Once I Was" is at once weeping and victorious. Tim's voice soars over the acoustic guitar and bongos.
The younger Buckley's Mystery White Boy is vulnerable and passionate, unrefined yet completely perfect. "Last Goodbye," recorded in Paris in 1995, begins with Jeff playing Edith Piaf before kicking into the song's heart-wrenching melody. The album closes with a medley of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and the Smiths' "I Know It's Over." The track is so achingly poignant that not a sound is heard from the audience. It makes for the ultimate foreshadowing: As the guitar echoes and angelic vocals wander through the ether, no one knew that it would be Buckley's final farewell.