Sam Lawry
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.