As someone who spends way too much of his (limited) free time reading books about music and the music industry, Gary Lucas’s “Touched By Grace: My Time With Jeff Buckley” was a no-brainer. As a friend and fan of Gary Lucas and an admirer of Jeff Buckley’s considerable talents and his too limited output due to his all too brief time on Earth, I figured this would be a welcome addition to my growing library of rock and roll reads. What I didn’t know beforehand was, like others who have reviewed this book here, once I started reading it I could not put it down; I think I tore through it in something like three days. Had I not had other things to do, like go to a job, for example, or sleep, I can see myself having read it all in one sitting. It is that engrossing. Lucas’s words flow with the same eloquence, passion, and lyricism of his extraordinary (and very underappreciated) guitar playing, and the vicissitudes of the story mirror his career as an artist. Several famous and noteworthy musicians make appearances and are referenced throughout the book (including my uncle Maestro John Mauceri, who Lucas namechecks early on when writing about his “first major professional experience” as a member of the Yale Symphony Orchestra, for which he was featured solo guitarist when they performed the European premier of Leonard Bernstain’s “Mass,” and received high praise from Lenny himself!). He leaves it all there on the page, and we readers are the beneficiaries of his tale of the sparks that ignited, and subsequently imploded, one of the great but unfulfilled musical collaborations of the late 20th century.
The joining of forces of these two formidable, but ultimately incompatible talents – due to the typical power struggles and ego trips that seem to go with pursuing a music career, rather than creative differences – is a tragedy of near Shakespearian proportions. Being the astute and erudite musician Gary Lucas is, he of course knew Tim Buckley’s music well at the time of his fateful encounter with Tim’s estranged son Jeff in preparation for a tribute concert for the elder Buckley in Brooklyn, NY, and he was quick to pick up on the younger Buckley’s obvious talent and potential. Lucas himself had only fairly recently at the time thrown caution to the wind and decided to follow his true calling as a professional musician (at age 35), giving up a secure but soul-destroying career in the music industry itself as an ad copyist for CBS Records (he coined the slogan “The Only Group That Matters” for The Clash). As a solo guitarist, he helped put famed NYC avant-garde institution The Knitting Factory on the map with his concerts there and as part of their tour packages throughout Europe. Prior to this however, he had himself arrived on the musical map as a member of the last incarnation of musical innovator Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, joining as a full-fledged member for their last official album release Ice Cream for Crow. Unsurprisingly, Beefheart’s challenging and uncategorizable brand of blues-poetry-polyrhythmic-psychedelic-freak rock was not destined for any commercial success (the fact that a major label actually signed them seems miraculous given the state of the music industry in recent years; today a major label wouldn’t give an artist like Beefheart the time of day, let alone an actual deal).
Being the astute and erudite musician Jeff Buckley was (despite his GIT background and apparent ability to duplicate Rush guitar solos note-for-note), he was well aware of Lucas’s Beefheart credentials, which commanded instant respect in the young musician, and the two started hanging out and writing together in Lucas’s West Village apartment after performing together at the Tim Buckley tribute concert, with Lucas taking on a mentor-like role to the budding rock star. Lucas had his own band, Gods and Monsters, which had a revolving cast (including alt rocker Matthew Sweet) and Buckley eventually became the de facto lead singer. Lucas’s vision was for Jeff and he to become the modern equivalent of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and he cites the almighty Zeppelin as a primary influence on his band, showing that his and Buckley’s musical tastes, as refined and protean as they were, were not above artists who had achieved massive commercial success.
This is basically the setup for the ensuing drama of Lucas’s and Buckley’s creative/professional relationship. We all know what eventually happened to Jeff Buckley but this book details what has to be considered a key and pivotal partnership in his brief career. Case in point: the very first two tracks on the one and only official Jeff Buckley album, Grace – “Mojo Pin” and “Grace” – were co-written with Lucas and were staples in Gods and Monsters’ set during Buckley’s tenure in the band. Lucas describes in striking, intimate detail the head and soul space he was in when he came up with the music for these two groundbreaking compositions, offering us a rare glimpse into the mysteries of the creative process. I remember several years ago when I interviewed Gary for the newsletter of the company I worked at (The Harry Fox Agency), he described these two compositions as “templates for a new kind of pop song.” Early on in “Touched By Grace,” he references “Strawberry Fields Forever” as emblematic of what his ultimate vision was for his band: taking pop music into new directions while still maintaining its accessibilty.
But, alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as Jeff Buckley wanted ultimately to be a solo artist and not to have to share the spotlight with anyone. Whether or not he intentionally used Lucas as a stepping stone to further his own career remains conjecture, though it seems highly plausible given how events unfolded in this story. He seems to have had an innate ability to manipulate people to do his bidding, especially a major record label, which ended up giving him a deal that most artists would kill for, allowing him all kinds of creative freedom and, especially, plenty of time to figure out his artistic vision. Clearly the surname “Buckley” came with perks, not to mention also being handsome, charming, and charismatic. Lucas relates one particular incident involving two other more established Gods and Monsters members that I found particularly shocking (and about which I will not write anything further so as not to spoil any more than I already have).
Jeff Buckley was also most likely influenced by the industry contacts he and Lucas shared as a result of their affiliation, some of whom in all likelihood convinced him to break away from Lucas and go solo. While this may be understandable on one level, at the same time it seems unfair and ungrateful and it is hard not to sympathize with Lucas over his disappointment and heartbreak when Jeff quits Gods and Monsters right at the time they seem poised on the verge of breaking.
It is clear after reading the book that Jeff Buckley was filled with a host of contradictions. For starters, he wanted to completely dissassociate himself from his father’s legacy, understandable given he hardly knew him, but then he chose music as a career. And even a perfunctory listen of Tim Buckley reveals that Jeff Buckley’s vocal stylings were clearly heavily influenced by his father. He also wanted to maintain a certain hipster/alternative cred yet ended up signing a recording contract with the biggest record company in the world: Sony. He wanted to be his own solo artist yet had to rely on the songwriting of others to have a full length album (of the ten tracks on Grace, only three are solely credited to Jeff Buckley, four are co-writes, and three are covers). As he was working on his follow up to Grace, we learn in the book that Buckley had a dearth of new material and asked Lucas for more songs. We also learn that towards the end of his life he had apparently been more than dabbling in that cliche of maladjusted rock star recreations: heroin.
All this is not in any way to undermine the extraordinary talent that was Jeff Buckley or lessen the fact that his tragic early demise was indeed a huge loss to the music world. Nor does Lucas begrudge Buckley his immense talent at any point in his book; he acknowledges him as one of, if not the, most important of all his collaborators (a huge statement considering how many he has had in his career). Lucas paints a portrait of a talented but terribly confused, malcontented young man who ends up in a situation in which he finds he has very little control. It is sad and heartbreaking to read about how unhappy Jeff Buckly was toward the end of his life. It’s a shame he couldn’t embody the lyrics of one of his better known covers: “Satisfied Mind,” by Joe “Red” Hayes and Jack Rhodes. It has even been suggested that his accidental drowning in the Missisippi River was in fact a suicide, but such speculation seems to ony serve the whole myth and legend making aspect of his tragically short life. Who knows though? (As a side note, in the leader of the band Soul Coughing Mike Doughty’s funny and poignant memoir “The Book of Drugs,” about his days wallowing in the throes of drug addiction and subsequent recovery, he comments on Jeff Buckley’s premature death with something along the lines of “Great! Now you’re a legend!”) It has often been said that dying prematurely can sometimes be an artist’s best career move. But there definitely was something unique about Jeff Buckley and there is no question we lost someone special when he waded into the banks of the Wolf River that fateful day never to return alive again.
Despite the disappointment and pain Lucas endured over the fallout of his and Jeff Buckley’s partnership, the music they made together endures, both as band mates in Gods and Monsters and on the album Grace, which to this day is considered one of the hallmark rock albums of the ‘90’s. And although he considered himself at the time of Jeff Buckley’s departure from Gods and Monsters as “condemned . . . to indie hell for the rest of my career,” Gary Lucas, through hard work and sheer determination, has risen above tremendous obstacles to carve out a brilliant career for himself. Indie artist or not, his work – whether as a solo guitarist, band leader and songwriter, composer of soundtracks to old silent movies, or collaborator with other major creative talents around the world – is always of consistently high quality and uncompromising. If anything, he is one of those artists who I feel safe categorizing as “too good for his own good” (other great artists like this who come to mind, and of whom I am a huge fan, are Richard Thompson and Mike Viola). At the end of the day, it is about the art and not the numbers. Gary Lucas and Jeff Buckley were unquestionably kindred spirits and they created magic together. For Jeff Buckley fans, “Touched By Grace” is an absolute must read. But more importantly, it is a must read for music fans.