The tragically short lives of cult musicians Tim and Jeff Buckley --- a father and son who barely knew one another --- scarcely intermingled during the not-quite nine years in which they both lived simultaneously. But despite the physical and emotional distance between them, fate charted a parallel course for the doomed troubadours, a story told in revealing detail by music critic David Browne in DREAM BROTHER.
The cover, featuring their two similar faces staring out with the inherent vulnerability that often caused female concertgoers to swoon, illustrates the effect of father upon son that Browne recreates with painstaking research throughout the work: Jeff, fleshed out more fully, seems haunted by his more ethereal father who floats above him --- never to be completely absorbed by his son, nor disappear.
Browne's choice to structure the work by alternating chapters between the lives of the two men thus seems perfectly fitting. The chapter breaks lead so well into one another that on several occasions we are introduced to a character who knows Tim in one section only to see his or her reaction upon meeting Jeff years later in a next chapter.
The junior Buckley's ambivalence toward his father is a classic example of a child who has been abandoned by a parent. Tim married high school sweetheart Mary Guibert both because of a false pregnancy and the chance to escape a difficult home life (in which Tim's own father was a strange and abusive personality). But when those situations were no longer an issue, and a budding music career beckoned, Tim opted for the freedom of the road, paying attention to his soon-to-end marriage only in fits and starts --- one of which produced Jeffrey Scott Buckley.
The youth was known as Scott Guibert in his early years, but himself chose to go by the name he shared with his absent father. Although Jeff claimed not to be a fan of his father's work, the boy relished any time spent with him, as shown by Jeff's reaction to seeing a concert of Tim's four months before Tim's death in a scene that Browne clearly shows as the determining moment in Jeff Buckley's life:
As they sat near the stage, Jeff seemed enraptured, bouncing in his seat to the rhythms of Tim's twelve-string guitar and rock band. "Scotty was in love," Mary [his mother] says. "He was immediately entranced. His little eyes were just dancing in his head"…At the end of the set, no sooner had Mary asked her son if he wanted to meet his father than the kid was out of his seat and scurrying in the direction of the backstage area…It seemed a foreign and frightening world to him, until he heard someone shout out, "Jeff!" Although no one had called him that before in his life --- he was still "Scotty" to everyone --- Jeff ran across the room to a table where Tim was resting after the show.
By the time Jeff began performing in his own right, the name his father quite literally gave him proved both a curse and a blessing. The young musician craved anonymity --- to be understood on his own terms and not as Tim Buckley's son. But at the same time the name opened many doors for him (almost all of which he immediately tried to close) via people who remembered the father's mostly untapped-talent and saw in the eerily similar Jeff the potential of two men. The comparison between the two irked Jeff to no end.
The quality both men shared that lifted their artistry to new musical heights was an incredibly flexible and scintillating voice. The descriptions that awed listeners tried to convey to illustrate the Buckleys' powerful tools are intentionally used by Browne to underscore the men's similarity. It was as though "the voice" had simply passed from one man to the other. And Jeff Buckley's "big break" was his appearance at a tribute concert for his father in which the gathered friends and fans of the father felt they witnessed his reincarnation in the son. Relates Browne, "'My God,' Jeff said to a friend on the phone after the show. 'I stepped onstage and they backlit it and it was like the fucking Second Coming.'"
The very music industry that granted them income is also portrayed by Browne as a prime factor in the early demises of Tim and Jeff. At first the prototypical rebel, the elder Buckley was eventually forced to capitulate to executive demands after his experimental phases led to low record sales and thinning audiences. It was a process that seemed to taint his soul. Years later, Jeff would have an inordinate amount of control over his own recording career; but his knowledge of the effect "the system" had on his father haunted him so much that he was constantly wary and felt enormous pressure to retain his individuality.
The evolution of the music business had a hand in far less of Jeff's music being recorded; his album output was only one compared to Tim's nine, despite the fact that the son lived a longer life than the father, by two years. There was also nearly a nine-year difference in age from when Tim first recorded to when Jeff finally relented to do so. But Jeff kept many journals, and Browne uses portions of these to introduce every chapter, allowing us an insight into the artist's life that he did not have time to incorporate into his music. The excerpts reveal a man at times confident, at times uncertain of his ability, a confusion that the author traces back to the conflicting feelings Jeff had for his father.
Browne's background as a journalist serves him well in DREAM BROTHER, as his numerous interviews with the principals in Tim's and Jeff's lives helped him to paint a clearer picture of the amazingly talented artists. It is a portrait of two men who looked and sounded alike and lived for their art. They also both died accidentally --- Tim by heroin overdose and Jeff by drowning.
Tim and Jeff Buckley spent much of their lives denying each other but secretly needing and longing for the other's presence. Although they rarely spoke, father and son communicated feelings for one another through their music, with Tim asking "Oh, is he a soldier, or is he a dreamer?/Is he mama's little man?/Does he help you when he can?/Oh, does he ask about me?" in "Dream Letter" on his album Happy Sad. Jeff answered in "Dream Brother," the last song on Grace, his only album, warning a friend "Don't be like the one who made me so old/Don't be like the one who left behind his name/Because I waited for you like I waited for him/And nobody ever came."
Browne's own DREAM BROTHER succeeds in capturing the Buckley story --- a legacy of men committed to a similar artistic excellence and who, but for an accident of time that made them father and child, could indeed have been twin sons of an elusive muse.
Reviewed by Scott Dietsch (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 23, 2001