Amazing grace

In May 1997, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley put on his best thrift-store suit and got a friend to drive him to the Memphis Zoo. Buckley, an ascendant alternative-rock icon and reluctant heartthrob, had decided to apply for a job as a zookeeper. The 30-year-old Buckley had temporarily relocated from New York to Memphis early that year to record the follow-up to his acclaimed 1994 debut album, Grace, but he'd become so entranced with the River City that he'd decided to stay. He loved bicycling around midtown, eating at his favorite Vietnamese restaurant, and playing low-key solo gigs every Monday night at a downtown Memphis dive called Barrister's. He particularly loved hanging out at the zoo, checking out the cat, hippo, and butterfly exhibits.

There was something endearingly perverse about Buckley filling out a zoo application form. Most musicians dream of the day when they can quit their day jobs, when they can pay the rent simply by playing music. But Buckley, who'd long since reached that point, actually sought out the chance to be an anonymous working grunt.

"Jeff really wanted to integrate himself into the fabric of whatever the city meant to him," says David Shouse, a friend of Buckley's and founder of the legendary Memphis band the Grifters. "I think he felt that he'd escaped from 'the man' in New York and he didn't have to hide any further down here. Just being here was enough."

Buckley never found out whether he got hired at the zoo. On May 29, 1997, he drowned in the Mississippi River, seemingly a casualty of a careless accident. But his wide-eyed zeal for the kind of average-Joe existence that many of us would prefer to escape says a lot about what drove this eccentric, extravagantly talented artist. It's reminiscent of the way comedian Andy Kaufman moonlighted as a busboy while starring on a hit TV sitcom. To push the comparison further, even after releasing his first album, Buckley often stopped by Sin-e, the New York club where he first created a buzz, and volunteered to wash dishes.

Like Kaufman, Buckley was an oddball--albeit a much sexier oddball--whose chronic sense that he was an outsider only made him more eager to be ordinary. But as the new Buckley live CD collection Mystery White Boy confirms, nothing about Buckley was ordinary.

He had a voice of mind-boggling range and emotional power, and he could switch from soaring exultation to throat-scraping fury at the crack of a snare drum. His musical influences were so broad that it was always tough to pin him down stylistically, but that's what made him so intriguing. Buckley loved Adam and the Ants as much as he did Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; he was drawn to Judy Garland in the same way he was drawn to Led Zeppelin.

Even in 1994, it seemed fitting that Buckley emerged with Grace shortly after Kurt Cobain blew himself away. In a way, Buckley's search for musical transcendence was an antidote to Cobain's hopelessness.

The two doomed idols were flip sides of the same generational coin, born only five months apart. Like Cobain, Buckley was raised by his mom and never formed a solid bond with his father (in Buckley's case, he met his father, jazz-folk troubadour Tim Buckley, only once). Like Cobain, he seemed unusually preoccupied with death, swiftly announcing on Grace's title song: "Well it's my time coming, I'm not afraid to die." Little wonder, then, that the widow Cobain, Courtney Love, very publicly courted Buckley in 1995.

But Buckley's work argues that, unlike Cobain, he didn't see death as merely a fast answer to ennui and misery. For Buckley, like the Eastern mystics he admired, death was part of life, a phase that should be greeted with acceptance.

Though he possessed some of the same demons that nagged at Cobain, he consciously chose to embrace his more life-affirming qualities. As he told a reporter in 1994, "The most audacious thing I could possibly state in this day and age is that life is worth living."

Buckley's peculiar sense of tortured exhilaration is at the core of Mystery White Boy. On the frenzied "Mojo Pin," Buckley cuts loose with a wild falsetto that mutates into a Robert Plant scream straight out of Led Zeppelin II. He also ups the ante on one of Grace's highlights, "Eternal Life," transforming it into a churning speed-metal epic that nails hate mongers and hypocrites of all stripes.

Because Buckley was such a natural and spontaneous performer, Mystery White Boy never falls into the trap of most live albums, which tend to be distracted regurgitations of studio recordings. Buckley uses his studio versions as mere blueprints for a full-frontal live assault, turning "Dream Brother," a five-minute track on Grace, into eight and a half minutes of unrelenting, droning tension. Buckley's goofy sense of humor also manifests itself here, with a brief, campy imitation of Edith Piaf in front of an adoring Paris audience.

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Gilbert Garcia