ALISON STEWART, host:
That's actually true. It's called the "American Idol Effect." Wannabe pop stars sing classic songs during the TV talent competition and the next morning, songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder or Peter Frampton shoot to the top of the iTunes most-downloaded chart, displacing, let's say Fergie or Chris Brown. This week's number one download is no exception - the song "Hallelujah," written by Leonard Cohen and sung by the late Jeff Buckley.
First, we'll hear the performance that started the song's climb on the chart. Here's "American Idol" contestant Jason Castro.
(Soundbite of TV Show "American Idol")
(Soundbite of song "Hallelujah")
Mr. JASON CASTRO (Contestant, American Idol): (Singing)
Well, I heard there was a secret chord That David played and it pleased the Lord But you don't really care for music, do you? Well, it goes like this: The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah...
STEWART: And now here's Jeff Buckley's version from the 1994 album "Grace."
(Soundbite of song "Hallelujah")
Mr. JEFF BUCKLEY (Singer): (Singing)
Well, your faith was strong but you needed proof You saw her bathing on the roof Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.
STEWART: "Grace" was Jeff Buckley's only full-length studio release. And for those who don't know about this expressive singer who died young, just 30 when he drowned in 1997. We continue our Assisted Listening Series with David Brown, a veteran music journalist who wrote a book, "Dream Brother," a dual biography of Jeff Buckley and his father Tim. Hey, David. Nice to speak with you.
Mr. DAVID BROWN (Author, "Dream Brother"): Likewise. Thanks for having me.
STEWART: Sure. For starters, this album has become legend for people who know about it. Could you explain why?
Mr. BROWN: I think it's - first of all, it has to do with the quality of it. It's an incredibly timeless album. It was made in 1993. It's one of those records, like a Nick Drake album, that is not tied to a particular time when you listen to it. But also in the years since Jeff died, he has become one of the most talked about pop music figures by a generation of musicians who followed him. Everybody from Coldplay to Rufus Wainwright to Nelly Furtado, and the list goes on and on of people who gave interviews in the years after his death, citing that album as one of their favorites and a real influence on them. So it became a real word-of-mouth phenomenon, and it sold probably three times what it did at the point when Jeff died.
STEWART: We mentioned that was a Leonard Cohen song there. Of his own material, how would you describe his own material?
Mr. BROWN: Jeff's own material was a little all over the place. This is a kid who grew up listening to and playing prog-rock and bands like Rush and Yes and so forth, and kind of got into the more classic song writers, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello, later in his career. And you almost hear that in his own songs. They're almost like these little journeys. The dynamics go up and down and they go from soft to loud. And the rhythms change and his voice soars above it. So, his own songs are almost this real kaleidoscopic mirror of all of his influences over the years.
STEWART: You picked a track for us to listen to. This is Jeff Buckley. "The Last Goodbye" from "Grace."
(Soundbite of song "The Last Goodbye")
Mr. BUCKLEY: (Singing)
Kiss me, please, kiss me But kiss me out of desire, babe, and not consolation You know it makes me so angry 'cause I know that in time I'll only make you cry, this is our last goodbye
STEWART: David, that song sounds to me like it would be a huge hit right now for somebody like Daughtry. Why wasn't Jeff Buckley more commercially popular at the time? He really didn't sell a huge amount of records.
Mr. BROWN: He really didn't. He barely - "Grace" had barely sold 200,000 when he died. I think it was probably just a combination of the times. That is, like you say, that song and a lot of Jeff's music is very nakedly passionate and earnest and very hard on the sleeve and back in 1994, the moment of people like Beck or alternative rock stuff. That kind of thing wasn't really in.
Mr. BROWN: And I think he was, even from the moment he started, he played a club called Shenay (ph) on the Lower East Side. And I remember speaking to a lot of people from my book about those early days. And people would go see him, and he'd be doing his own songs and covers of Billie Holiday songs or Smiths songs or Elton John songs. And people would come out of there going, "I don't get it, he seems kind of corny," singing these sincere songs. So I think that there was something about Jeff that was a little out of step with the times, but that's of course made it transcend those times at the same time at this point.
STEWART: You picked another track for us to listen to. Let's hear "Dream Brother."
(Soundbite of song "Dream Brother")
Mr. BUCKLEY: (Singing)
The love you lost with her skin so fair Is free with the wind in her butterscotch hair Her green eyes blew goodbyes With her head in her hands And your kiss on the lips of another Dream Brother, with your tears scattered round the world
STEWART: Was he a melancholy fellow? I mean, if you listen to the record sometimes you could think that.
Mr. BROWN: Yes, Jeff had almost a duality about him. He was definitely an angst-ridden tugging at his hair pondering life and certainly his father Tim who died young and Jeff barely knew. And with the impact of all that - and you hear all that, the weight of that on his music. At the same time, he can also be a total goof ball. Known for really spot-on impersonations, almost George Carlin kind of routines.
STEWART: I once saw him waltz with a guy backstage. I was backstage at a show, Better Than Ezra in Louisiana, and he just started doing a two-step with this other guy once, and I thought that's Jeff Buckley?
Mr. BROWN: Yeah, exactly. One of his friends told me there were two Jeffs. There were regular goofy Jeff and mythological Jeff.
Mr. BROWN: And he was always going back-and-forth between the two, and I think that was really spot-on.
STEWART: Well, that brings up this idea of the way he died. Dying so young, dying tragically trying to swim across a part of the Mississippi. Given who he was, some people might have thought it was a suicide attempt or not. It just seemed to be a terrible accident that added to his legend.
Mr. BROWN: Yeah, one of the things about Jeff was that he was kind of a reckless guy.
Mr. BROWN: And you kind of hear that in his music, the way he was all over the place. He was just fearless about taking his voice and his music wherever he wanted. He wasn't thinking about the pop charts and what would make him or get him a hit single.
STEWART: Or the way he was thinking about tomorrow, right.
Mr. BROWN: And he lived his life...
STEWART: The same way.
Mr. BROWN: To some degree like that as well. And he actually was in the Wolf River, which was a tributary of the Mississippi.
STEWART: Hey David, unfortunately, we ran out of time, but we'll send people to listen to "Grace." Hey, thanks for walking us through that. David Brown, music journalist.
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
This is the BPP from NPR.
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