When Tiffanie DeBartolo first discovered the music of Jeff Buckley in 1999, two years after his death, she was distraught by the fact that he was gone before she ever knew about him. But her obsession and passion for his music inspired her literary output. The Bay Area writer listened to Grace for nine months while writing her first published novel, God Shaped Hole, which came out in 2002. She dedicated the book to him, and then his mother, Mary Guibert, got a hold of it.
“When the publishers approached her about doing a graphic novel, she had said to them, ‘I want Tiffanie to write it’,” recalls DeBartolo. “And I said no to it a few times because I didn’t read comic books and didn’t know the first thing about writing a graphic novel. But after she told me that I’d get to listen to all of his old demos and read his journals, I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll figure it out.'”
DeBartolo may not have been a comic book person, but she has a visual flair, having written and directed the 1996 romantic comedy film Dream For An Insomniac which starred Ione Skye and Jennifer Aniston. And by the time she was brought onboard for this graphic novel a decade ago, the author and her husband had already been running their Bright Antenna Records indie label for about two years, so she understood and empathized with the struggles of musicians.
Grace: The Jeff Buckley Story (First Second/Macmillan) is a 150-page graphic novel that focuses on the singer-songwriter’s career starting from the 1991 tribute concert for his father Tim Buckley, which kick started interest in his own music, through to this untimely end by accidental drowning in a Memphis river in 1997. In contrast to the somber image projected by Buckley through his music, performances and videos, DeBartolo portrays an exuberant young man with an irreverent sense of humor who was not seduced by the trappings of fame and scoffed at the notion of being a sex symbol.
“That was one of my goals,” DeBartolo tells Billboard. “If you listen to his music, some of his songs just rip your heart out. I had this idea that he was this brooding guy but reading his journals I just saw this whole different side of him. He was hysterical, just such a goofball, and so focused. He had these lists that he would make when he was in high school, music school, and then as an adult. ‘I have to do this every day and I have to do this by this age and this by this age.’ It was so remarkable because he did all of the things he said he was going to do. He just had this focus that was so inspiring, so that’s really what I wanted to capture.”
The author acknowledges that Buckley had his depressed side and struggled with his past, which included not knowing his father, folk icon Tim Buckley, who had recorded nine albums spanning a wide range of music by the time of his death of a heroin overdose in 1975 at age 28. Jeff lived in the shadow of his late father’s accomplishments and aspired to reach greater heights.
“But I feel like everyone knew that part of it already,” says DeBartolo. “I wanted to bring out the inspirational part of him.” Indeed, the book has a generally upbeat tone visually and narratively, even as it dips into the darker sides of his life.
Rock biographies in film or comic book form have to distill many ideas and events into a limited space, and even with 150 pages DeBartolo had to make cuts. She decided to focus on the musician’s art and his rapport with his bandmates. There were a lot of famous people that were around or interested in working with Buckley, but they do not emerge in this biography. He also had a relationship with Cocteau Twins singer Liz Fraser in the mid-1990s which was kept under the radar. The one romantic relationship that gets any real space is with the girlfriend he had when he moved to New York, but then lost when he began to get caught up in his rising stardom and his popularity with female fans. Even the relationship he was in at the end of his life is not referenced.
“To be honest, the original manuscript was probably 150 pages longer, and a lot of that [other material] have would been in there,” says DeBartolo. “The publisher said we need to get this down to X number of pages, so I just had to make choices about what made sense with the story that I was trying to tell. I also didn’t want it to be a book about who he dated and who he slept with.”
A fictional addition here to Buckley’s real-life tale involves a young singer-songwriter and the girlfriend who believes in him. The aspiring musician follows his idol’s exploits and hopes to somehow meet him and share his music with him. Through her research, DeBartolo discovered so many people of different ages who were inspired by Buckley’s work. Even a 17-year-old artist on her label recently discovered his music “and his mind has been blown,” she says. “I have so many people in my life that my love of Jeff has brought to me, and I have made such long-standing friendships through love of this music. I just feel so much magic around Jeff and what his music brings to people.”
The lone official album that Buckley left fans with, Grace, is eclectic and did not neatly fit into the sounds of the mid-1990s. He did not want to cater to mainstream trends, and at one point desired to record a punk album, which confused his bandmates. He also pushed back against his growing sex symbol status by encouraging his whole band to grow mustaches (“protest facial hair”), much to the chagrin of their label.
Six months after being brought onto the project around 2009, DeBartolo spent a month in Los Angeles going through Buckley’s archives with his mother, then a couple of more months doing research and interviewing bandmates and managers. “I probably researched and wrote the first draft in about nine months,” recalls DeBartolo. “Then there was feedback and back and forth, but it was pretty quick.”
She finished writing the graphic novel eight years ago, and then the project stalled. “It took a while for them to find the right illustrator, and then I didn’t hear about it for so long,” she says, adding that she inquired about it with Jeff’s mother who was equally stumped. They had been paid, but all was quiet until last summer when the author received an email saying that the release date was April 30, 2019.
“When they finally sent me the PDF of it and I could see the whole book, it was like reading a book that I hadn’t written,” recalls DeBartolo. “It was like I was just a reader coming upon this project because I had forgotten and it had just been so long. I enjoyed it so much that it made me really excited about it again. I figured if it can surprise and warm my heart, then it will do that to somebody else.”
Grace: The Jeff Buckley Story features dynamic art (in black, white and blue hues) by Pascal Dizin and Lisa Reist. Both contributed illustrations along with coloring and inking, although generally Dizin did more of the former and Reist more of the latter. DeBartolo only worked with Dizin for a short period of time. She says she did not want to tell him what to do because she wanted his art to shine through.
“He submitted a bunch of different samples on styles,” says DeBartolo. “Once we decided on what styles we liked the best, he went off and did his thing and would occasionally email me. But it was the same thing where he did his work and didn’t know what was happening with the book. Then there it was.”
While the finished artwork is not at all how DeBartolo envisioned it would turn out while she was writing the story, she says, “I love the way it looks.”
Even more importantly, DeBartolo says that Buckley’s mother Mary Guibert loves the graphic novel as well. “She’s really happy with it, which was pretty much the most important part to me,” remarks the author. “It’s still hard for her, and I didn’t want to write a book that wasn’t going to be meaningful or special to her.”
A book release and musical tribute event takes place Tuesday (April 30) at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, California at 7:30 p.m. The evening will feature a conversation with author Tiffanie DeBartolo along with performances by Wayne Kramer of MC5, Pat Spurgeon of Rogue Wave, Kyle Nicolaides of Beware of Darkness and others performing Jeff’s songs in tribute. Jeff’s mother, Mary Guibert, will also be attending as a special guest. Check out a preview of the book below.