50 Best Albums, by Brendan O’Malley, #19. Jeff Buckley, Grace

My talented brother Brendan O’Malley is an amazing writer and actor. He’s wonderful in the recent You & Me, directed by Alexander Baack. (I interviewed Baack about the film here.) His most recent gig was story editor/writer on the hit series Survivor’s Remorse. Brendan hasn’t blogged in years, but the “content” (dreaded word) is so good I asked if I could import some of it to my blog. He did series on books he loved, and albums he loved. I thought it would be fun to put up some of the stuff here. So we’ll start with his list of 50 Best Albums. I’ll put up one every Monday.

Brendan’s list of 50 Best Albums is part music-critique and part memoir and part cultural snapshot.

I have always loved these essays, because I love to hear my brother talk. I am happy to share them with you!

50 Best Albums, by Brendan O’Malley

19. Let’s Hope It’s Beck or Jeff Buckley – Grace

The year is 1997. It is May and New York is blossoming. Maria is pregnant with what will turn out to be Cashel. We work together at The Hub, a channel on AOL. I am writing a column a week as Legs Urbano, investigating urban legends for the Urban Legends website.

It seems an impossibly naive time in the city. The internet boom is in such full force that money is being thrown at anyone with an idea. People still smoke in bars. Clinton is flirting with the whole world. In fact, one of the legends that had started to surface on my site was that Clinton had had an affair with an intern. Unlike the albino alligator in the sewer, this one was true.

Even that brewing scandal seems quaint now that we’ve had 9/11, Abu Ghraib, Cheney hunting old friends, fake yellowcake, and the collapse of the economy. We all gathered every morning at the offices in midtown and played ping pong until we had good ideas. We were making it up as we went along.

Several years earlier, when Maria still lived in Providence and we were doing the long-distance dating thing, Jeff Buckley was playing an in-store appearance at a record store in Providence. I took the bus up and we went and sat on the floor as he sang a short set of material from Grace.

In person he was somewhat of a disappointment. He was not as handsome as he seemed in the shots on the album and this made that seem like a bit of a pose. He was sort of a runt, stringy hair, a bit of a dirtbag.

But when he sang, all of a sudden the James Dean beauty that infused the photos on Grace appeared. He became larger, larger than he’d seemed, larger than life. Then the song would end and he would shrink back down to the little scrawny dude who just didn’t know what to do with all these people watching him. He seemed like a monk who all of a sudden has to pray in front of an audience.

To anyone who wasn’t around when the album came out, you might not be able to fully grasp the feeling he brought out in people. He influenced so many singers that his style seems inevitable, like something that was there all along. But, no. If you go back to 1994 there was a grunt and groan aesthetic born from grunge that was passing for emotional depth. Jeff Buckley shot an arrow through the heart of that bullshit.

I can’t help but compare the sound of Grace to the vision I have of New York prior to 9/11. There is a simplicity and ease that can never be duplicated.

Working for an internet startup in those days meant that I was something of a town crier to my friends who weren’t connected to the internet. So when word started coming in that a “young white male rock musician” had passed away, I was one of the few who knew about it. There was a short period of time when those were the only details we had. Young white male rock musician. It was rumored to be Buckley but no one knew for sure.

One of my coworkers, no doubt busy creating a slide-show that would seem prehistoric today, spoke out into the common space.

“Let’s hope it’s Beck.”

I’ve always been startled by the blackness of that comment, which never fails to make me laugh. And it seemed like after we found out who it really was, everything started to come apart at the seams.

Less than 4 years later, my marriage would be over, The Hub would be long gone, Bush was President, and the city was in flames. Thank God you could still stand in a bar and have a smoke.

— Brendan O’Malley

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