The End Of The Line

August 7, 2010

During my years in college and post-college, I spent a decade working in record stores and it was usually true that nothing could rekindle interest in a career like death.

A wave of customers searching for some act that had slipped from the radar of the general public usually didn’t bode well for the artist, especially if the customers making the requests appeared to be setting foot in a record store for the first time in years.

One morning, working with The Drunken Frenchman, we had several customers asking about Peter, Paul & Mary. I wondered aloud whether a plane had gone down with the folk trio on board.

As he had also worked in various record stores for years, The Frenchman realized it was entirely possible.

Ten minutes later, a customer came up to the counter asking him about Puff The Magic Dragon.

“Were they killed in a plane crash?”

He was quite concerned.

(in fact, a concert performance of theirs had aired on PBS the night before)

The store in which we worked was probably one of the thirty largest in the country. The top-selling albums each week would sometimes sell as many as five- or six-hundred copies.

The ripple effect when an act died was immediate.

I spent several years as the head buyer, responsible for ordering everything but classical and the news of a death would result in a phone call from one of the distribution reps.

Even for more obscure acts, I usually felt obligated to order – at least – a few token titles. If the artist had a catalog with releases on numerous labels, sometimes there would be three or four calls.

There were a lot of artists that shuffled on during those years who were quite notable – Frank Zappa, Kurt Cobain, Jerry Garcia – and a lot more of them who existed on the fringe.

(The Frenchman was particularly distressed over the passing of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Viv Stanshall)

It could be difficult to predict the Dead Man’s Bounce.

Our store didn’t see much of an uptick in demand for The Dead after Garcia died, but, then again, each month we would burn through a boxlot of Skeletons From The Closet: The Best Of Grateful Dead; another one in combined sales from the rest of their catalog.

When Blind Melon’s lead singer Shannon Hoon died in ’95 – just three years after the success of No Rain – it couldn’t revive interest in the band’s recently released Soup.

(I honestly believe that everyone was still sick of “the Bee Girl” video)

In fact, of all the artists that died during those years, the one whose death seemed to goose sales the most was one that I would have never expected – John Denver.

Here are four songs from acts whose passing occurred during those years when I was living in a slacker’s paradise, working in record stores)…

Traveling Wilburys – End Of The Line
from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1

Roy Orbison is one of the few artists that I vividly recall my parents playing while I was growing up, so I was somewhat more familiar with him than a lot of my peers in 1988.

As that year wound down, I was working in my first record store and Orbison was in the midst of a serious comeback. In December, a heart attack took the legendary singer.

In early ’89, two months after his death, Orbison’s Mystery Girl album was issued and would spawn the hit single You Got It. Several months prior to his passing, he had also found success as one-fifth of the supergroup Traveling Wilburys.

Orbison had just passed away when Traveling Wilburys had released their second single, the lovely End Of The Line, and his fellow Wilburys noted Lefty’s absence with several poignant visual nods in the song’s video.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Superstition
from The Real Deal: Greatest Hits Volume 2

The circumstances are fuzzy now, but a roommate were either discussing guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan or, perhaps, even listening to him in the record store where we both worked when we learned of his death.

(for quite some time, we felt somewhat responsible)

Sadly, Vaughan had finally gotten his life untracked, was playing better than he ever had, and had just fulfilled a life-long dream of recording an album with his older brother and fellow guitarist Jimmie when he perished in a post-gig helicopter crash.

A month later, Family Style, the lone album under the Vaughan Brother moniker would arrive to commercial and critical acclaim.

Personally, I thought that Vaughan’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s classic Superstition to be a particularly inspired choice.

Blind Melon – Galaxie
from Soup

I might have been one of the few people at the time that didn’t reach a point where No Rain and the “Bee Girl” would provoke visceral, involuntary rage. I still find the song winsome and charming.

Their follow-up Soup had received good notices, but had struggled to find an audience when charismatic lead singer Shannon Hoon overdosed in late October, 1995.

As a fellow Hoosier, I felt especially bummed out at the news.

Galaxie, supposedly inspired by Hoon’s car, alternated between a melody that shifted from jittery to almost ethereal and back again with an effortlessness that hooks me again each time I hear it.

Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah
from Grace

I’ve told tale before of the good fortune I had to not only see Jeff Buckley shortly before Grace‘s release but to also have a few drinks with the remarkably talented singer.

Like Nick Drake, the discovery of Buckley by most listeners post-mortem seems to have gained momentum more so over the years and as a result of continued praise from critics.

And, like Drake, Buckley’s slight body of work – Grace was the only album he released during his lifetime – left those new fans with the nagging void of unfulfilled promise.

Jeff Buckley

May 29, 2009

For several years, the position of main buyer at a large record store in a major music city afforded me opportunities that would make most music fans delirious. I took advantage, but, at times, it was overwhelming.

So, when a friend who worked for a label called me on a rainy Sunday night, I had no intent of trekking out into the gloom. However, as this friend was not prone to hyperbole and he made his case that this show was a must, I reconsidered.

Fortunately, my then-girlfriend’s apartment was two blocks from the club. It was eight o’clock. I think that I told her that I’d be back by nine.

The club was small, housed in a building in which one half was a candlelit café with a decidedly bohemian slant. The club occupied the other half. It was filled to maybe half capacity – no more than a hundred people.

I found my friend at a table with several other of our usual group, likely ordered a glass of red, and watched as a slight kid with a mop of unkempt black hair took the small stage. A large statue of an angel – a noted feature of this club – hung behind the band, high above, seeming to levitate against the dark, theatre-style draperies.

The artist was Jeff Buckley.

Jeff was the son of folk singer Tim Buckley, who had died of an overdose in the mid-‘70s. It was March of ’94 and Jeff’s debut album, Grace, wouldn’t arrive in stores until late summer.

Buckley’s voice was one of the most compelling I’d ever heard. It was primal. It soared and swooped like some beautiful, yet fragile, bird of prey.

When he sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, the clinking of glasses, the idle conversations all stopped.

(and I’d argue that the version that appeared on Grace is the definitive take on that modern classic)

Afterwards, he hung out with us for a bit. The details are hazy (I was drinking on my label friend’s expense account), but I remember him having a gentleness about him. He seemed down-to-earth, quiet, and to have a vibe of restless calm about him.

I didn’t make it back to my girlfriend’s apartment until well after two.

Six months later, Grace was released to critical raves and (everyone say it together) public indifference.

But the album didn’t merely fade away. The acclaim was so strong and listeners who had found it had the need to reach converts. Though it didn’t become a mammoth commercial smash, Grace sold well and did so steadily for the next year or so.

Praise came from legends such as Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Lou Reed.

During the late winter of ’97, Buckley had relocated from Manhattan to Memphis to work on his second album. He had already recorded an album’s worth of songs but was dissatisfied with them.

On May 29, the day his band had arrived in town to continue work on the record; Buckley waded out into a channel of the Mississippi River, taking a late night swim. According to a roadie, who was onshore, he was singing the chorus to Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love.

That night, I was with the same label friend, out with most of the same friends from that show, having drinks, when he received a phone call that Buckley was missing. Word of the incident seemed to spread quickly.

Our group ended up at the house where I lived. We sat around watching a compilation of live and video footage my friend had, as mesmerized as we had been three years earlier. It was an unexpected, impromptu wake.

Buckley’s body was found six days later and – as he was sober at the time – his death was ruled an accidental drowning.

Jeff Buckley – Lover, You Should Have Come Over
from Grace

Jeff Buckley – Last Goodbye
from Grace

Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah
from Grace

Jeff Buckley – Everybody Here Wants You
from Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk

Jeff Buckley – Yard Of Blonde Girls
from Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk

Jeff Buckley – New Year’s Day Prayer
from Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk