One of my worst fears is that when I die my journals will surface online.
It’s an irrational fear for several reasons, the main one being that nothing — not one damn word — would be of interest to anybody. I spill ink in private over how cumbersome and dreadful it is to create anything worthwhile, a struggle that is real, if not unique to me. Working in solitude to shape creative thoughts into tangible finished product can be an all-consuming burden. What a stirring discovery then to realize that someone as influential as Jeff Buckley—widely considered to be one of the most talented singer/songwriters and musicians of the 1990s—suffered through similar creative struggles and documented the very same struggles.
Jeff Buckley: His Own Voice is credited to his mother, Mary Guibert, and David Browne, senior writer at Rolling Stone and author of Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley (2000). In these pages, Jeff’s story belongs to him. In a gorgeously rendered photo book, His Own Voice, is a fascinating, heartbreaking, emotionally draining, and spiritually fulfilling journey to witness. The narrative is driven by Jeff’s handwritten journal entires, each one carefully illuminated in sharp, color photographs. His journals look and feel tangible, buttressed by cheap metal spirals and the shredded edges they leave behind.
Jeff was a devoted journal keeper and left behind a giant unorganized paper trail. The creation is in the chaos, but so is his magnetism. Song lyrics rest beside poems, to-do lists live amongst potential set lists, and bills and bank account totals are tallied beside motivating words.
In early entries he’s concerned with his future plans; he wants to quit his job at a hotel in California, he dreams of moving to New York City (“New York and music — that’s where I belong,” he writes). He chastises himself often for not writing better songs or working hard enough to fulfill his dreams. Later, in only one of several nakedly honest moments in his journals, he rails against his cigarette smoking, chiding, “You have no choice but to replace your cigarettes with a hot ginger and lemon concoction…you’ll need to sweat out the tar. That will take years at least, baby doll.” It seems rockstars are human after all.
Though Jeff would flinch at the descriptor, he often addresses his complex feelings about rock stardom and being tagged with any semblance of the label. In one of his oft-quoted entires, he declares, “I don’t write my music for Sony. I write for the people who are screaming down the road crying to a full-blast stereo.” Yet, through the process of writing, recording, and touring, he discovered that it was difficult, if not nearly impossible, to serve only one master.
As Jeff racks up miles touring behind 1994’s Grace, his debut album on Columbia Records, he wrestles with divided priorities. On the one hand, he is manifesting his dreams for a musical career; on the other, he’s always afraid his music is compromised, tainted by the music industry and his musical persona. It’s a devil’s bargain, one he wrestles with as he struggles to match (and surpass) the popularity and creativity energy of Grace with a follow-up album.
In later entries he becomes increasingly doubtful of his abilities and increasingly self-lacerating of his performances. “Just bring the rhythm and the story,” he says in preparation for a solo gig, “Keep your mouth shut in between and stay sober…you never need medication to do what you do well.”
The dark shadow of self-doubt occasionally manifests as ruminations about his father, musician Tim Buckley. Jeff strives to carve out his own legacy apart from his father’s, but he also tries to pay homage to his past instead of running from it. Tim’s presence is a weighty one and looms large over much of his writings, but in between the coffee-ringed pages there is joy in witnessing an unguarded version of Jeff, a version reserved for his closest friends and family — and, now, us.
On page, Jeff is a prankster, a loving son, an affectionate lover and friend, and most importantly, a voracious music lover. At one point he starts to catalog his music collection with hilarious accuracy: “CD & Tape Library: All Zep…Barktok — All!…All Dylan, All Social Distortion…” A few pages later a photo of his collection of cassette tapes offers a peek into the breadth of his listening habits: Robert Johnson sits comfortably beside Minor Threat.
He gushes over Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Qawwali (Sufi devotional music) and also tirelessly reworks song lyrics. With his first record label advance he repays borrowed money to his grandmother; he replies to fan mail, and in one of the more bizarre and and incredible instances of his life, he writes an apology letter to Bob Dylan after a simple misunderstanding. In his letter to Dylan we get a glimpse of Jeff the music fan, who was also one of the self-described people who scream “down the road, crying to a full-blast stereo.”
Exquisite photographs of some of Jeff’s mementos are included. A photo of Jeff’s wallet with his myriad IDs (including a Blockbuster membership card) is present, as is his prized harmonium and a few guitars, along with clothing outfits and his Doc Marten boots. More importantly, His Own Voice allows Jeff an opportunity for expression without filter or remorse, an opportunity to tell the story of his own life, on his own terms.
We have books, songs, and memories of Jeff and we have his music, all are vital to understanding his legacy. But his words, penned by his hand, are simple and pure, his story writ large on his canvas, free of static and noise. His Own Words assembles scattered pieces of Jeff’s life. It’s a self-portrait of an artist as a wide-eyed young man, it’s inspiring to read and, thanks to Mary Guibert and David Browne, a privilege to hold in our hands.