Nine months after he drowned while wading late at night in the muddy waters
of the Mississippi River outside Memphis, Tenn., acclaimed singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley's posthumous album, Sketches (for my sweetheart, the drunk), is set for release.
While Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert, worked with Columbia Records in compiling the tracks for the album, some closest to the gifted singer -- including members of his band, who were not involved in choosing the song list -- say they are not so sure that the release will accurately reflect the artist's vision and that it may be premature.
The 20-track, two-CD set features some controversial tracks that Buckley had recorded during the summer of 1996 and winter of 1997 during sessions produced by former Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, as well as Buckley's own four-track home recordings. The album will be released on May 5.
"The prospect of narrowing down the list of releasable songs was daunting to say the least," said Guibert, according to a Columbia Records press release. Guibert was instrumental in selecting the tracks for the album, which was produced by Andy Wallace (who produced Buckely's 1994 album Grace), according to Columbia.
"It was clear from the beginning that it was going to take careful consideration to make the kind of choices we'd be able to 'live with' for the rest of our lives," Guibert said.
When Buckley, who had achieved critical acclaim with Grace (which has sold 206,000 copies in the U.S. to date, according to SoundScan), died last May 29 at age 30, he left behind more than grieving family, friends and fans who had seen the alternative-folk
songwriter with the powerful voice rise out of the clubs of New York's East Greenwich Village to international stardom. He also left an album's worth of songs originally intended for his next release, a project he had been working
on when his body was found by passengers on a passing Mississippi River boat.
Ten songs from the sessions he tracked with Verlaine will comprise disc one: "The Sky Is A Landfill," "Everybody Here Wants You," "Witches' Rave," "Morning Theft," "New Year's Prayer," "Yard Of Blonde Girls," "Opened Once," "Vancouver," "Nightmares by the Sea" and "You & I."
The material that Buckley left behind -- including session work and four-track home recordings -- was listened to by Buckley's friends and associates, according to Guibert. "I enlisted the help of Jeff's friends, [engineer] Michael Clouse, [ex-Soundgarden singer] Chris Cornell and his bandmembers during the listening process," Guibert said.
But it was apparently Buckley's family and Columbia who made the final choices, according to Columbia Records Sr. Director of Media Howard Wuelfing.
The album's second disc will contain the four-track recordings, described in the release as "new songs and refinements of older songs intended for my sweetheart, the drunk." The track listing for disc two is: "Nightmares By The Sea," "New Year's Prayer," "Haven't You Heard," "I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby (If We Wanted To Be)," "Murder Suicide Meteor Slave," "Back In New York City" (a Genesis cover from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway), "Demon John," "Your Flesh Is So Nice," "Jewel Box" and "Satisfied Mind."
Ironically, some close to Buckley, including his bandmates, say the songs recorded with Verlaine in early 1997 were never intended for release and, in fact, were hated by Buckley and his band.
"These [the Verlaine recordings] are tracks that we were going to have a burning party for when we got
back down there," said Buckley's drummer Parker Kindred -- who joined Buckley's band a year ago -- referring to
what he said were plans to destroy the material upon the group's return to Memphis later that May for additional session work. Buckley was said to be unhappy with many of the tracks the band had recorded the month Kindred joined. Buckley had planned on reworking or scrapping them, Kindred said.
The son of the famed folk-troubadour Tim Buckley, who died from a heroin overdose at the age of 27, Jeff Buckley had tracked several sessions with
Verlaine and the band the previous summer and fall in New York and that February in Memphis. However, he scrapped the sessions in March to work on new material to augment the dozen-plus songs he'd already slated for the project, whose working title was my sweetheart, the drunk. The press release says that Buckley sent his band back to New York after the Verlaine sessions ended, staying behind in Memphis to work on alternate versions of songs recorded with Verlaine, new material and "surprising" cover versions.
Tragically, the singer was on his way to Easley Studios in Memphis to begin three weeks of rehearsals with the band (for sessions that were to be produced by Andy Wallace) on the night he drowned while wading fully clothed in the treacherous waters of the Mud Island Harbor area. While police found that Buckley had been drinking the night of his death, the medical examiner's office ruled that he was not legally drunk and had died as a result of "accidental drowning."
"The genesis of this project is that everybody wants to put out the
material that will best reflect Jeff's legacy," said George Stein, the artist's former
attorney/co-manager. Though he was not involved in the final tracking of the album, Stein confirmed that Buckley was not satisfied with the Memphis recordings and wanted to give the project another try. "He wanted to take a second shot at his vision," said Stein, who was Buckley's attorney from 1992 until the singer's death.
While the band was recruited to listen to the tracks being considered for the album, Kindred said that the group was not involved in assembling the song list. Listening to material for the album commenced in early June, only weeks after Buckley died, he said. "There wasn't even a grace period after his death," said Kindred, 25. "There's been a very sort-of rushed approach to the whole thing. It's gone by so quickly that all of the people who sincerely wanted to just hang out with Jeff in their minds or on the records [weren't given time to mourn]. This stuff should have been starting maybe now. That would have made more sense to me as a human being."
However, Guibert indicates in the press release that the nine months it took to put together the album were rather a sign of how important this project was to those close to Buckley. "Everything about how long it has taken to release this album has to do with everyone involved wanting to do the right thing as opposed to the most expedient or commercially advantageous thing," she said.
Kindred agrees that it would be wrong to not let some of the music see the light of day. The most powerful tracks slated for the LP were recorded by Buckley himself in early May, he added. "The four-tracks are great," Kindred said. "I think he plateaued. When we first heard them it was like, 'This is so good, it can't come out. This is too personal.' But it was obvious at the same first listening that the world has to hear this."
For Guibert, listening to her son sing some of his final compositions was "heartrending," she said, but crucial to his legacy. "Listening to the recordings was both painful and fulfilling," Guibert said. "It was heartrending to listen to the sound of Jeff's voice, but the songs were stunningly beautiful! Even the rough four-tracks had their own particular charm because they showed so vividly Jeff's musical genius."
Offering additional perspective, Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, who had worked with Buckley in the past, said he suspects one of the main considerations in assembling the album was Buckley's improvisational nature. Kaye, who said he hadn't heard the material the singer was working on at the time of his death, called Buckley a restlessly creative artist. "When Jeff performed, he was so suitably improvisational that often you didn't know whether he was playing a new song, an old song or whether it was a song he had started three songs before and come back to," said Kaye, who had worked with the singer when Buckley contributed vocals to the song "Beneath the Southern Cross" (RealAudio excerpt) on Smith's 1996 Gone Again album.
Because Stein agreed that part of Buckley's allure was his spontaneous
in-studio craftsmanship, he said compiling a posthumous album that accurately
reflected his artistic sensibilities was that much harder. "No one knew what
Grace would be like until he got out of the studio," Stein said, adding
that the singer preferred to craft much of his music on the spot rather than put
too much into the preparation.
"That was part of his genius. Which is why I think everyone wrestled with
their souls about 'what would Jeff have wanted?' " Stein said. "Because he
wasn't there to say 'yes' or 'no,' does that mean then that we should say,
'Well, he's not here to give us the answer, so does that mean we don't put
anything out?' " -- (ATN Staff Writer Chris Nelson contributed to this report.) [Wed., Feb. 18, 1998, 3 p.m. PST]