Jeff Buckley

For my sweetheart, the drunk


David Bowman
May 28, 1998 8:13PM (UTC)

The young icon was just 30 years old when his wrecked body was pulled from
the water. He drowned wearing his boots. He was a young god to those who loved
him, but they no longer recognized his ravaged face. He was identified by his
fancy nankeen pants from Malta. He was Percy Bysshe Shelley, and he died
in the Ligurian Sea off the coast of Italy on July 8, 1822.

Many years later, on May 29, 1997, another young icon perishes the same
way. This one is a scant year older than Shelly was when he died. This one
also drowns in his boots. He isn't identified by his exotic Maltese trousers,
however. Instead it is his navel ring that identifies him as Jeff Buckley,
raised as Scott Moorhead, drowned on the banks of the Wolf River outside of
Memphis, Tenn.

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Besides their age and death, the personal similarity between Buckley and
Shelley is they were both guys who loved high jinks. The mythic connection is
that Shelley was too ethereal to be anything other than a poet, while Buckley
was too ethereal to be a mere "rock star." Not with that voice. This was the
voice of a seraph. This was a voice to make a doubter believe in God again.
This voice would never win something as mundane as a Grammy. No. This was a
male chanteuse whose first album would win a "Grand Prix International du
Disque" -- an award previously bestowed on Edith Piaf. And this young man died
having no idea how to live possessing such angelic pipes. As much as he hated
being the son of Tim Buckley -- singer, junkie, nonexistent father -- Jeff
also raged against being a girlie-man, an "Edith Piaf with a penis." Jeff wanted to be Jimmy Page. He even allegedly died singing "Whole Lotta Love" as he swam out into the brown water. This Led Zep obsession wasn't necessarily a good thing. Buckley's first studio album,
"Grace," was a ponderous redoing of "Houses of the Holy." Buckley's songs
didn't even have melodies. They were just moody Led Zep posturing.

A million young women disagree. Buckley was a rock star for young women too
sophisticated to care about rock stars. Just these past months, more than one
journalist has been able to lure young strangers up to his bachelor pad with
a promise of hearing a prerelease tape of Jeff Buckley's posthumous album,
"Sketches for My Sweetheart, the Drunk."

Now, the record these young women will hear is not the same record that a
man hears. Men hear a record that is mostly ... magnificent. Young women will
either agree or feel betrayed that Buckley has revealed himself to be nothing
more than a cad. More about this cad factor later -- but first, let's assume
there is magnificence in the album. The good cuts were all produced by
legendary guitarist Tom Verlaine, in sessions conducted in New York and
Memphis. These songs transform Buckley's Led Zeppelin fixation into healthy
influence instead of making him sound like Freddie Mercury. Even more
important, Buckley's new songs possess melodies. A listener might even be
walking down the street and find him or herself humming a catchy song
like "Yard of Blonde Girls." Indeed, "Yard of Blonde Girls" could be a hit
single. But Buckley was dissatisfied with the Verlaine-produced tracks. He had
summoned his band down to Memphis to rerecord them with "Grace's" producer
Andy Wallace. They were to arrive the day after the death.

What didn't Buckley dig about these songs? No one associated with the
record is talking -- at least not officially. This winter, publicists were
claiming that "Everyone is too broken up about Buckley's death to talk about
the record." But why? After Shelley was cremated, the poet's very heart
remained intact, sitting within the smoking cinders of bone. Buckley left only
this album, but surely it is as valuable as an aorta. Why wouldn't his fellow
workers want to honor his final statement? No one was talking. I tried to
track down Tom Verlaine. No luck through official channels. Then one day I was
passing the Strand Bookstore on East 12th Street in New York City and Tom
Verlaine was browsing the outdoor stalls.

"Tom?" I said.

He turned. Know that Verlaine is very tall. I identified myself, but the
very tall man said he didn't want to be interviewed. "Everybody is so broken
up," he said. He said that he didn't do anything special at the sessions -- he
just turned on the tape player. He admitted that Buckley wanted to rerecord
the songs. Then Verlaine didn't want to talk anymore. He'd been burned before
"because of how the piece is edited."

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Buckley's friends and co-workers are the only ones who can tell us what bugged
Buckley about the Verlaine tracks. Whatever it was, Buckley recorded a number
of four-track demos just before his death, and five of them are included on
"Sketches" as an indication of which direction his artistry was turning. One
of these songs is OK, just Buckley strumming a guitar and singing about girls.
But the other four songs are nothing short of awful. There's no reason to try
to convince you just how awful they are. What is more important is to state
how these four awful songs mire an otherwise lovely record. You can go ahead
and purchase "Sketches" and just program your CD player to skip cuts 5, 6, 7
and 8 on the second disc, but the inclusion of these songs reveals that Buckley
was as screwed up as Bob Dylan with regard to artistic judgment (the latter
famous for scrapping wondrous records). Buckley's demos expose that the lad
didn't just want to be Led Zeppelin -- he wanted to be Metallica and Sonic
Youth as well. He sings as if his voice is the worst curse a man-child could
ENDURE. No wonder they're not talking at Columbia. Who on earth believed that
anyone would want to bop down the street listening to a horrible, horrible song
like the "Murder Suicide Meteor Slave" on their Walkman?

The answer is Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert. She was the one who created
this record. One has to have respect for her quandary, if not her judgment:
how to honor her son's artistic intentions with finished tracks he didn't
believe in? Buckley, who was publicly hounded by myths about his junkie father,
has become more-or-less a mama's boy in death. Guibert chose to end her son's
album with a song that starts with Buckley lazily noodling on a guitar, then
singing the Appalachian chestnut about dying with a "Satisfied Mind." This cut
is beautiful, yet pointless. Buckley has no idea what he was singing about so
beautifully. He's like a gorgeous girl who wears terrible clothes because she
doesn't know her own beauty. Or is at war with it.

Which leaves us with those million young women who loved "Grace" and will
now buy "Sketches." Is it sexy when Buckley sings, "Your flesh is so nice?"
When he sings about licking and being licked? Or have you heard it all before
on bad dates? How does Buckley's oral fixation reconcile with his curious lyric "You're a
woman/I'm a calf." Is this absurd? Or does this make you want to mother him? These are honest questions only you can answer. Whether or not you agree that
this album has magnificence in it, surely you'll thank God -- the real one or
maybe only the God of Poetry -- that Buckley's mom didn't honor her drowned
son by releasing only those god-awful demos.


David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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