My hero: Jeff Buckley by Benjamin Wood

I never had the chance to see Buckley perform but his matchless gift remains an inspiration and a medicine – when I feel estranged, the sureness of his voice in “What Will You Say” is what I return to
Jeff Buckley in Atlanta, in August 1994
Jeff Buckley in Atlanta, in August 1994 Photograph: David Tonge/Getty Images

There is a moment, six minutes 45 seconds into Jeff Buckley’s live recording of the song “What Will You Say”, that leaves splinters in my blood. The melodic tension that’s been simmering in the verse and chorus escalates into a jagged instrumental break, with Buckley jouncing his guitar strings till they squeal and blur. And then, as if punching through a door to strangle you, the song reaches a crisis point: “Father, do you hear me?” Buckley screams. “Do you know me? / Did you even care? / What will you say / when you take my place? // Well, it’s so funny now, / I just don’t feel like I’m a man / What will you say?” These last four words he sings in an octave so high that ordinary vocal cords would snap under the strain. The purity of the note he hits seems as impossible today as it did the first time I encountered it. Against the context of Jeff’s childhood (he barely knew his father, the cult folk singer Tim Buckley, from whom he inherited an extraordinary vocal range), these few seconds of his music resonate with agony and beauty, as only great art can.

I never had the chance to see him perform this song or any other. He drowned in Wolf River Harbor, Memphis, in 1997, a year before I’d even heard his name, when a friend gave me his album, Grace, and said: “Thank me later.” I was 17 then, writing heartfelt songs of my own, and struggling (as my friend intuited) with the aftermath of my parents’ separation. After Grace, I did not so much wish to be Buckley as I hoped to wander in his shadow and have some fleck of his talent fall on me. He had a matchless gift that remains an inspiration and a medicine. When I feel estranged, it’s the sureness of his voice in “What Will You Say” that I return to.

Benjamin Wood’s second novel, The Ecliptic, is published by Scribner.