Few regrets gnaw at me as much as missing the late Jeff Buckley’s Monday-night gigs in Memphis in the spring of 1997. Buckley and his band were in town to record his sophomore release with producer Tom Verlaine, and I couldn’t have been more excited that two of my musical heroes were setting up shop but a few hours’ drive from Nashville.
Buckley wasn’t most people’s idea of a typical rock starespecially in an era saturated with angst-ridden Cobain clones. He was a singer and guitarist of exceeding taste and dexterity who easily straddled the fence between driving hard-rock music and more sophisticated material. I’d been intrigued by him ever since 1993, when he debuted with Live at Siné, a four-song EP in which he covered more sylistic ground than most singers do in their entire careers. In addition to the hypnotic originals “Mojo Pin” and “Eternal Life,” he nailed Van Morrison’s “The Way That Young Lovers Do” and the French cabaret song “Je N’en Connais Pas La Fin.”
Buckley’s first full-length album, Grace, placed him in front of a full band, enabling him to explore all his rock-god fantasies on songs like “So Real” and “Eternal Life.” But he also exposed his sensitive side on “Lilac Wine” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The album confirmed Buckley’s status as a singer willing to tackle songs that most of his rock peers shied away froman original stylist able to take someone else’s material and instantly make it his own. He came off as something of a male Edith Piaf, albeit much grungier.
He was not, however, without his faults. He tended to treat his voice like a new toy, going up and down his astonishing range just because he could. He hadn’t fully mastered the great instrument with which he was giftedbut that was part of what made him so exciting. You never knew what he was going to do next.
I got to see him perform once at 12th & Porter before the release of Grace. It was like watching a ballsy castrato front an intellectual hard-rock band. He was the best singer I’ve ever been in the same room with, and his humor and his reverence for music came across instantly. He launched into letter-perfect renditions of Elvis Presley’s classic “Mystery Train”both the Sun and the Vegas versionsand then closed the show with a jaw-dropping take on Big Star’s “Kanga Roo,” complete with hissing feedback.
A friend told me of seeing him a few months later at the Ace of Clubs, where he harmonized beautifully with the P.A.’s keening feedback, turning a moment of technical difficulty into an amazing show of vocal virtuosity. From some other singer, this sort of display would be off-putting at best, but Buckley’s astonishing technique was completely natural and unselfconscious. It was just who he was.
SKETCHES for My Sweetheart the Drunk (Columbia) is Buckley’s final release. It consists of the album that he and his band recorded with Verlaine in Memphis, along with demos of newer songs. The Verlaine-produced tracks are basically finished mixes, but after completing them, Buckley decided to change the album’s direction. Working with Grace producer Andy Wallace, he began cutting demos on a four-track recorder and waited for his band to arrive back in Memphis. But on the night of May 29, he jumped into the Mississippi for a quick dip; swept away by the strong undercurrent, he drowned.
It’s damn near impossible to judge this album the same way you would judge a regular studio release. Knowing that Buckley was more than ready to erase all the tapes, we can only wonder what sort of record he would have made, had he lived to complete it. In the liner notes, Buckley’s mother, Mary Guibert, says all the material was “in the very beginning stages of creation.” If Buckley had decided to junk everything, “it would have been a relatively minor loss. He could have written hundreds of songs and made dozens of albums in their place.”
That said, the Verlaine-produced tracks reveal an artist hell-bent on knocking down the listener’s every expectation. Buckley is obviously stretching himself herePuff Daddy would kill for his way with a smooth R&B groove on “Everybody Here Wants You,” and Alice in Chains could learn something from his whining grumble on the proto-grunge “Yard of Blonde Girls.”
But Buckley’s chance-taking on the Verlaine-produced material sounds laughably marginal when compared to the songs he recorded alone in Memphis. True, both versions of “Nightmares By the Sea,” and “New Years Prayer” are very similarthe only difference being the slightly rougher sheen of Verlaine’s mixes. But I never expected the high weirdness quotient in demo tracks like the horn-dog come-on “Your Flesh Is So Nice,” the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis cover “Back in NYC,” or the skronky goof “Murder Suicide Meteor Slave,” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Tom Waits’ Bone Machine album.
For all the surprises, though, many songs are of the same piece as Buckley’s earlier material. The lurching rhythms and vocal gymnastics of “The Sky Is a Landfill,” the softly breathing beauty of “Opened Once,” the relentless, simmering throb of “Nightmares By the Sea,” and the wistful yearning of “Morning Theft” would all have sounded at home on Grace.
SKETCHES ends with Buckley’s gorgeous, jazzy reading of “A Satisfied Mind,” taken from a live broadcast on New Jersey radio station WFMU-FM. His delicate picking and angelic vocal remind me how lucky I was to see him perform even onceand how much I will miss watching his artistic development.
A friend of mine has a theory that all the great rock ’n’ rollers live just long enough to prove their greatness. I tend to agree with himwhat if Jimi Hendrix had lived only to wind up playing bad fusion? But in Buckley’s case, it seems that his life ended much too soon, before he had the chance to share all the music he had inside him.
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