When musician Jeff Buckley drowned in a Mississippi River tributary in 1997 at the age of 30, rock & roll lost a glowing ember. Three years had passed since Buckley released his debut CD, Grace, a lush piece of regret and high romanticism. U2's Bono, who admits that his own version of Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" will never match the one on Grace, called Buckley "a pure drop in an ocean of noise." Joan Osborne said that "he had a one-in-a-billion voice." But Buckley's long delay in writing a follow-up didn't bode well; at the time of his death only a few new songs existed, in very rudimentary versions. His rabid fans were getting restless, and his record company, Columbia -- which was expecting him to be a long-term critic's darling -- was getting impatient. Was "Grace" a fluke? Was he all promise and no delivery? With no answers to these questions, Jeff Buckley remains a looming "what if?"
Adding irony is the fact that Jeff's father, the late-'60s/early-'70s folksinger Tim Buckley, also died young, at 28 from a heroin overdose. Tim had released 10 albums, veering from straight folk to improvised, jazz-tinged curiosities. While his appearances ranged from a spot on "The Monkees" to a headlining show at the New York Philharmonic, he wasn't exactly popular, and he wasn't exactly critically lauded. He married in his teens and then left his wife, who was pregnant with Jeff, to pursue his music and a bohemian, Lower East Side life. Jeff was 8 when Tim died, and the number of times they met could be counted on one hand.
This material might contain a good story, but David Browne's "Dream Brother" doesn't find it. Browne, an Entertainment Weekly critic, accumulated a lot of facts and conducted plenty of interviews, but he wrote a timid book with few insights.
Browne alternates chapters between Jeff and Tim, a structure that's meant to show parallels between them. The chapters on Tim are better, mostly for moving at a quicker pace. Having lived during a time when a musician might release two or three albums in one year, Tim recorded a lot, and he seems to have wanted to be more daring than he really knew how to be. Some of his concerts sound like fascinating examples of a man displaying frustration and self-defeat in front of smaller and smaller audiences.
On the other hand, Jeff Buckley's life simply doesn't sustain the extended treatment it gets here. Besides "Grace," he made only one other recording, a live EP, so examining his artistic output won't get anyone very far. In "Dream Brother" he comes across as earnest, confused and willfully eccentric, the kind of guy you find at coffeehouses and alt-rock clubs talking about Charles Bukowski. Such types are engaging, sure, but deserving of a biography? Doubtful. As a result, we get a lot of mundane details about Jeff. When poor, he ate macaroni and cheese. He wore Doc Martens to record-company meetings. It goes without saying that this makes for bogged-down reading.
Browne works on a journalist's assumptions rather than a biographer's; he offers surface details as if those were somehow adequate, when really such random bits pop up in newspaper stories to add color to a piece that's too short to reveal much. A biographer should aim to discover the person, the motivations, not the clothes. "Dream Brother" is a long way from accomplishing this.
Furthermore, Browne mentions unflattering traits but stops short of any clear-eyed examination of them. We hear about but never see the elder Buckley's drug use, so we forget about it until we're startled by a reference to Tim throwing up because of heroin. As for boorish or inconsiderate behavior from both father and son, it's not clear whether Browne, caught up in artistic admiration, doesn't notice or doesn't care. These lapses make "Dream Brother" read like a way-too-long magazine piece, littered with the requisite quotes and dates but lacking immediacy, and certainly not up to the task of describing much about creativity, success or family legacies.