Thursday, July 2, 2009

Falling in love again: Remembering Michael and Jeff

I've had a long love affair with music. My favorite songs provide a soundtrack for my life. My childhood was set to a mix of classic 70s rock, R&B, bubble gum pop and my dad's old record collection--Motown, Chi-Lites and Spinners; my teen years were lived to the sound of the second British Invasion--the glam boys (Duran Duran, Wham) and the emos (The Smiths, The Cure)--plus the emerging stars of hip hop, before success killed it; my college earnestness played out to 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., U2 and John Mellencamp, with a dose of sex from INXS, and just enough Bell, Biv, DeVoe and hip hop to keep my black card. Post college, I re-discovered my love of R&B and embraced neo-soul, but came to terms with the fact that this black girl will always be a rock chick, no matter what anyone says. My tastes as I approach the end of my 30s is a hybrid of all these things, and throw in some folk, alt country and singer/songwriters like Ray LaMontagne. I suppose I'm not so different from my fellow Generation Xers. I'm currently reading Daphne A. Brooks' exploration of Jeff Buckley's music lover's classic album, "Grace." She says of our generation's musical influences:

I was born in 1968, one year and 364 days after Jeff Buckley, and I feel as though our memories collide in the strange brew of sound and images that came leaping off the vinyl and jumping off the screen in the 1970s: Al Green and the Eagles. Big Bird and Laugh-In. The Jackson Five and David Bowie. Free to be You and Me and Morgan Freeman on The Electric Company. Elton John and the Spinners. Carol Burnett tugging her ear and Diana Ross all decked out in mink at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Froot loops and land sharks. Pam Grier and Diane Keaton. Jackson Browne and Thelma Houston. Earth, Wind, and Fire and the Fonz. Sammy Davis Jr. and Jose Feliciano. Stevie Nicks and Stevie Wonder. President Nixon and Fat Albert. Jimmy Carter and Chic. Schoolhouse Rock and Parliament Funkadelic. The Mod Squad and the Sunshine Band. Kasey Kasem and the Sweat Hogs. Linda Rondstadt and Jerry Brown. Jim Jones and Chico and the Man. The Jerry Lewis telethon and Steve Martin on SNL. Spielberg matinees and Quadrophenia midnight runs. Rocky Horror and The Wiz. Sweet, Sweetback and Sybl.
This is me. I was born in 1969. Perhaps this is why Brooks and I--two black women--are both captivated by self-proclaimed "mystery white boy" Jeff Buckley.

This week, my iPod has been churning out a strange brew of memorial music. Michael Jackson's death has me digging into my catalog of Jackson 5 hits and MJ chart toppers. And as the music flows..."Got To Be There"..."Maybe Tomorrow"..."I Can't Help It"..."Thriller"..."Human Nature"..."You Rock My World"...I'm remembering how much of my life soundtrack includes Michael. And how much this artist that I largely dismissed after "Thriller" is entwined with my life story. Like Michael, I am from Gary, Indiana. I went to Roosevelt High School, just like the older Jacksons. (Some friends even once found Jermaine or Jackie's name in an old book.) I have seen 2300 Jackson St. many times--just another little steeltown bungalow. The first concert I ever attended? The Jackson 5. My grandparents took me. I was all of 3 or 4. Pretty much all I remember was the screaming and Janet Jackson's Mae West schtick. I am appreciating Michael because his music is woven all through my soundtrack.

I appreciate Jeff Buckley because I imagine he is, like me, a product of the influences Brooks described. I bet Jeff and I would recognize each other's soundtrack. (In her book, Brooks says Buckley learned to mimic Michael jackson's singing voice--among others--in high school.) Like Jackson's music, Buckley's music has been constant background for my working and driving and exercising this week. I go from "Off The Wall" to "Grace" to "Thriller" to "Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk" and around again. "Grace," a perfect album containing the most perfect song ever performed, "Hallelujah," is a Gen X album for sure--a cornucopia of influences. One minute Buckley is singing an aria ("Corpus Christie Carol") and the next he is wailing like Robert Plant ("Eternal Life"). (The artist once said he was the love child of Nina Simone and Led Zeppelin.) And that amazing, multi-octave voice! From Wiki:

In 2004, Jeff Buckley's version was ranked #259 on Rolling Stone's "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". In September 2007, a poll of fifty songwriters conducted by Q Magazine listed "Hallelujah" among the all-time "Top 10 Greatest Tracks" with John Legend calling Buckley's version "as near perfect as you can get".
Jeff Buckley's performance of "Hallelujah" may be my favorite song of all time. The song was originally sung by folkie Leonard Cohen, but like Luther Vandross did with myriad songs, Buckley took it, "put his stank on it" and now he owns it. Several artists that I admire have covered "Hallelujah"--k.d. lang, Brandi Carlile--and their efforts are nice. I even have a "Hallelujah" playlist on my iPod. But no one captures the beauty and the raw pain of love like Buckley does in his version. Hear it. (You Tube will not allow embedding, but please follow the link. It is well worth it.)

I also appreciate the bluesy "Lover, You Should Have Come Over" from "Grace."

"...all my blood for a kiss upon her shoulder." Beautiful. Poetic. Jeff Buckley can make you cry like no one else.

This week, I downloaded Buckley's second album, "Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk," and discovered "Everybody Here Wants You." Here is Buckley the chameleon--not operatic or rock and roll, but soulful, laying back in the cut of a groove. Again, follow the link to hear it.

Of course, by the time "Sketches for my Sweetheart..." (his second album) was released, Jeff Buckley was gone:

On the evening of May 29, 1997, Buckley's band flew in intending to join him in his Memphis studio to work on the newly written material. That same evening, Buckley went swimming in Wolf River Harbor,[94] a slackwater channel of the Mississippi River, while wearing boots, all of his clothing, and singing the chorus of the song "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin.[95] A roadie of Buckley's band, Keith Foti, remained ashore. After moving the radio and a guitar out of reach of the wake from a passing tugboat, Foti looked up to see that Buckley was gone. Despite a determined rescue effort that night, Buckley remained missing. On June 4, his body was spotted by a tourist on a riverboat and was brought ashore.[95]

The autopsy to clarify the cause of Buckley's death confirmed Buckley had taken no illegal drugs before his swim and a drug overdose was therefore ruled out as cause of death.[96] In order to clarify the situation of his death, this statement was released from the Buckley estate:

Jeff Buckley's death was not "mysterious," related to drugs, alcohol, or suicide. We have a police report, a medical examiner's report, and an eye witness to prove that it was an accidental drowning, and that Mr. Buckley was in a good frame of mind prior to the accident.[97]
Sometimes, I hear a song after being apart from it for a time and I fall in love with it again like one might an old paramour. I remember the rhythms and choruses and breakdowns that first won me over, and I remember where I was in my life when the particular song was playing. I'm re-discovering the work of Michael Jackson and Jeff Buckley this week--pop and pathos (How GenX of me.). Both men exited this mortal coil way too soon, but they live on in the soundtrack to my life.


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