The Tim Buckley Archives



The Man that Got Away

Jeff Buckley was determined not to follow in the footsteps of his father,
tragic cult artist Tim Buckley. But fate had other ideas.

By David Peschek

A small boy is watching his father. All children watch their parents. But this eight-year-old boy hasn't seen his father since he was a baby, and has only a blurred, dreamlike memory of him. And now his father is on a stage in front of him, singing. The boy, known as Scott, is with his mother, Mary. It is 1975, and the venue is The Golden Bear, a small folk club in Huntington Beach, LA. The boy's father is musician Tim Buckley, whose work journeys far beyond the boundaries of folk and who has recently released an album of which he is not as proud as he might be: Look At The Fool.

"I think the band came on and started cookin' first," remembers Mary, "yeah, and here's little Scotty, he's got blond hair down to here, he's bouncing in his seat, he's chair-dancing to his dad's music, and Tim's wailing, and I saw - or I imagine I saw, I don't know which - his eyes were closed, and he'd open them a little bit to see Scotty in the second row, and Scotty was grooving. I was watching the two of them and I thought, ‘This is really going to be amazing.’

© David Warner Ellis
Tim at Knebworth, 1974
“At the end of the first set I said, ‘Do you wanna go backstage and see [Tim]’, and Scott’s like, ’Yeah!’ So with him clutching my skirt we made our way back to the dressing room. There were a lot of people milling around and I didn't see Tim right away. [Then] this voice called, 'Jeff!' It was the first time anyone had ever called him Jeff. And he leapt at the sound of his father's voice, across the room into his arms, and he was sitting on his lap and chattering a mile a minute. He said things like, 'My dog's name is King, he's white,' and he was telling [Tim] everything he could think about himself to tell his father. He was sitting on his dad's lap facing [Tim] and I could see Tim's face over Jeff's shoulder and tears were just running down his face. So I thought, I'll just let this be, so I went back to the audience.

“After a few minutes [Tim's wife] Judy came holding little Jeff 's hand and his feet were not touching the floor, sparks were coming out of his eyes, and I could see her steel herself a little bit and she said, 'Do you think we could take him with us?' Now, God was in my head, I'm telling you; Mary Guibert would not have said yes. I looked at Scotty, and his eyes looked at me like, 'Please don't say no, Mommy.' It was the Friday night before Easter vacation so there was no school,' no reason to say no. He stayed 'til Thursday. They sent him home on the bus with a little matchbook with his daddy's telephone number written in it." Two months later Tim Buckley, who has been trying to quit heroin, dies of an overdose.

Almost two decades on, the boy - who changed his name shortly after his father's death - is a young man playing his first out-of-town shows since his solo gigs in the tiny East Village club Sin-e in New York have made him a hot property. But in Vancouver, Seattle, places that aren't Sin-e, audiences don't know quite what to make of this strange new performer, whose set comprises wild vocal peregrinations, Nina Simone and Judy Garland songs, a handful of his own compositions and a good deal of crazy, between-song banter.

"What's wrong with these people?" he asks his manager, Dave Lory, despondently. "It's not the people," Lory replies. "Just play your music. Don't talk between songs. You're gonna learn something out here no one can teach you. It's called attitude." "What's attitude?" Jeff asks. "You'll know when you have it," says Lory.

Two and a half years later, Jeff Buckley is playing two sold-out nights at the Paris Olympia. In the encore, the crowd sings Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah for him, and during an extended version of Big Star's Kanga Roo he launches himself into the audience, bodysurfing on their outstretched hands, playing his guitar as they try to tear off his clothes. Off-stage, bathed in sweat, he bounds down the stairs to Lory.

“Attitude?!" he enquires grinning.

Artists who die young exert a peculiar fascination: Nick Drake, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain – we pore over their work, their legacy, with near-prurient meticulousness. But even Nick Drake made three albums in his brief lifetime. Cobain managed four. Plath left a significant number of poems. Jeff Buckley drowned accidentally, leaving only one completed album and another barely started. And however much it might seem otherwise, it was not the weight of history that pulled him under, but the treacherous currents of the Mississippi.

After Jeff's death, his mother Mary Guibert - who, as next of kin, had inherited his estate - began working with his managers Dave Lory and George Stein, and the A&R department at Columbia Records. Mary, and Jeff's band, were worried that the release of Sketches… - initially intended to comprise only the sessions recorded with producer Tom Verlaine, which Jeff had subsequently scrapped - was being rushed. You wonder how anyone who'd been close to Jeff could decide what to do next in the fraught summer of 1997.

Mary’s involvement was greeted with uncertainty. Rumors abounded that she and Jeff had not been on speaking terms. (Mary and Jeff had argued about a salacious web-posting Courtney Love had made concerning her son; they remained distant for a while, and then were reconciled.) In an atmosphere of profound distrust, the situation was bound to ignite. Mary fired the management and Jeff's A&R man. Litigation and counter-litigation followed.

Guitarist Michael Tighe feels the division between Guibert and Lory was inevitable. "There's always panic and violence and people slandering each other around someone's death," he says. "People were trying to resolve their relationships with Jeff in different ways. I think some people thought they were protecting Jeff, 'cos they met Jeff when he was coming into himself as his own person and part of that is separating yourself from your home and your family. But that's what was illuminated when he died: they were holding on to that relationship they had with him, when you have to reinvent it."

Three years after her son's death, Mary Guibert still inspires dislike and mistrust in an array of people of varying closeness to the Buckley circus. She is, variously, "a failed actress" or (and this with bitter, pointed irony) "a great actress". "The business of her living though Jeff is really eerie," comments a source in New York, "like a Flannery O'Connor story." Perhaps most damningly, another New York source calls her "a real rock star. You'll get a lot of stuff from her," I'm told, "but none of it will be about her son."

In fact, if everything I'm told about her before we meet were to be true, she would have to be a monster. And the truth is this: she isn't.

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