Keeping Up the Ghost

  • Billboard magazine does not publish a posthumous pop chart, but if it did, Elvis and Tupac would have an everlasting grip on the top slots. Hovering just behind them would be Jeff Buckley. Buckley was not widely known during his life, and his productivity after death, while impressive, does not yet approach that of Presley or Shakur. But careerwise, he does have a few things going for him. In 1995 he was named one of PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful People. Two years later, on a spring day in Memphis, Tenn., Buckley, 30, put down the guitar on which he was writing songs for his second album, stepped into the Mississippi and drowned.

    Now Buckley has two flourishing careers. His pretty face and early death have made him a cult hero, while his songs — or one of his songs — have turned him into TV's hottest sound-track artist, the bard of the Very Special Episode. The cult came first, and it feeds off more than one tragedy. Buckley's father, '70s folk singer Tim Buckley, abandoned his mother, pianist Mary Guibert, before Jeff was born, and father and son ended up meeting just once, in 1975, two months before the elder Buckley died of a heroin overdose at age 28. Jeff never spoke kindly of his dad, but he did inherit Tim's nimble vocal range and worked tirelessly on the New York City coffeehouse scene to develop his songwriting before landing a record deal with Columbia in 1992. Jeff's only album, 1994's Grace, was promising but inconsistent. It produced a minor hit, Last Goodbye, and featured exquisitely sung covers of Nina Simone's Lilac Wine and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, but its eclecticism ruined its chances of getting noticed in the grunge era. When Buckley died, his fans mourned mostly what might have been.

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    Now a cottage industry of Buckleyana has bloomed to fill the void: Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (1998), a two-disc set wrung from the Grace follow-up sessions; Mystery White Boy (2000), a live album; a five-CD Grace EPs boxed set of foreign releases (2002); a CD of loose ends titled Songs to No One 1991-1992 (2002); a two-disc Live at Sin-e DVD of coffeehouse footage (2003); and, just in August, the 10th anniversary Grace: Legacy Edition, featuring the original album, a B-sides disc and yet another DVD. (A Buckley documentary, Amazing Grace, is currently making the film-festival rounds.) It's possible that this posthumous heap originated in an honest impulse — much of it was curated by Guibert — but packaging every bad video, throwaway cover and alternate take not only appears greedy; it also has the side effect of making Buckley seem undisciplined and, worse yet, unpromising.

    Oddly, the people doing the best job of memorializing Buckley are the so-called song pimps, whose business it is to sell an artist's back catalog to movies and TV shows. A few years ago, Sony ATV, Buckley's publisher, put tracks from Grace on the compilation discs it uses to lure entertainment executives. Soon producers were forking over mid — five figures for Buckley's Hallelujah cover. Cohen murmured the original like a dirge, but except for a single overwrought breath before the music kicks in, Buckley treated the 7-min. song like a tiny capsule of humanity, using his voice to careen between glory and sadness, beauty and pain, mostly just by repeating the word hallelujah. It's not only Buckley's best song — it's one of the great songs, and because it covers so much emotional ground and is not (yet) a painfully obvious choice, it has become the go-to track whenever a TV show wants to create instant mood. "Hallelujah can be joyous or bittersweet, depending on what part of it you use," says Sony ATV's Kathy Coleman. "It's one of those rare songs in this business that the more it gets used, the more people want to use it."

    So far the song has appeared on The West Wing, Crossing Jordan, Third Watch, Scrubs, Without a Trace, The O.C. and, two weeks ago, LAX. (It has also sneaked onto the iTunes Top 100.) Some shows use just a snippet, but The West Wing and Without a Trace let itplay for minutes over their season finales, a tacit admission that neither the writers nor the actors could convey their characters' emotions as well as Buckley. It's proof that in his brief life, Jeff Buckley did achieve some kind of grace.