A greasy diner in St Kilda, February 28 1996
The Mississippi, 1992
I was 25, close to falling in love with a guy I worked with, a musician. A guitarist. I poured beers and waited tables at a greasy diner in Acland Street. It was a cool night and St Kilda’s lights twinkled above the palms that lined the foreshore.
The punters came in their usual rush, demanding to know where their burgers were, within minutes of ordering. “I have to get to a show!” they’d say. Almost gloating. This one time, I did envy them. Not just for having somewhere else to be. The sign above The Palais Theatre read The Hard Luck Tour. I’d have much rather seen Jeff Buckley than while away a quiet night making coffee and, later, mopping floors.
The crowd eventually dispersed, peeling across the road and around the corner to the theatre. At about 10.30 some of them returned. There was a thrill in the air, a buzz and hum of excitement at having witnessed something quite magical. The bar became crowded, everyone drinking, intoxicated, stories spilling. “He was extraordinary,” someone said to me. “You should have heard that voice,” I overheard one person whisper into a phone. En masse, they were tremulous, worshipping.
“Did you see the show?” one of our regulars asked me. I shook my head.
“Shame. Best show I ever saw. Skinny guy, but so charismatic. His voice was like an angel’s. He had us all eating out of his hands.”
The night darkened further and the last patrons stumbled out, smiling, into it. I felt I’d missed something, a wisp or hint of faith.
Sometime later the musician I liked bought me a copy of Grace. I would listen to those eerie vocal heights of So Real, feeling as though Jeff was just taunting us, only hinting at how truly great he could be. Our relationship was in the early, intoxicating stages. Without realising, we aspired to a greatness too, together.
Just over a year later Jeff Buckley was gone, drowned. He’d gone swimming, fully dressed, in a channel of the Mississippi River, his death was ruled accidental. There was no suggestion he’d intended to die.
Hearing the news was like a punch to the stomach. I couldn’t believe it, found myself desperately sad. He ventured into a wide, flowing, blanket of water, went under and never resurfaced. So I tried to find out everything I could about him, read how he’d been discovered at a tribute show for his father, Tim, singing So Real. Watched a documentary where he talked about singing, declaring that “using the voice is using the most unique revelatory instrument you have. It is a gift.” Discovered at last, and then, so fleetingly, it was gone.
In 1992 I spent a month travelling through the US. In New Orleans I took a call from a girl who’d once been my childhood penfriend. She was now a wife, and mother, living on an army base in Mississippi. She was driving down from Memphis to get me, she said. A statement, not an offer. I lay on my hostel bed, directly under the air conditioner, lethargic from ninety per cent humidity and the drawling summer heat. “Sure,” I said, unable to argue. But pleased.
It was a strange visit. I did not know this girl any longer, our letters had been full of girlish dreams and nonsense, hers written in a curly American hand, with love hearts and flowers. But we got to know each other again. We drank too much, went boot-scooting, and she showed me pop-tarts, Graceland and the Peabody Hotel. She also made me lock my passenger-side door as we drove through town, in case we were carjacked while we stopped at the lights. We cried as we said our goodbyes, when I flew out to Miami, knowing it would be unlikely we’d meet again.
I had ridden a steam boat up the Mississippi, and thought back, on hearing of Buckley’s death, to how brown and wide it had seemed then, such a flat expanse. I remembered its calm, its implacable bulk under our meandering tourist ferry. But there must have been currents, and snags, underneath.
I was still with the guitarist when Buckley died, and we lasted another couple of years. It was a trip to the US in 1999 that made us realise – as we toured music and thrift stores – how far we’d drifted too, how we were only skimming the surface, unable to realise our gift. The trip was our last goodbye.
And I couldn’t awake from the nightmare that sucked me in and pulled me under
Pulled me under
Oh… that was so real
I love you, but I’m afraid to love you
© Sam Lawry.
For another Mississippi River Stereo Story, see Alice Bishop’s story about Last Kind Word Blues by Geeshie Wylie.