I feel very fortunate that I got to see Jeff Buckley three times during
short but brilliant career. The first was live in a small Toronto blues
club only a short time after he'd put together the band that would
eventually record his only "proper" studio album, Grace.
long before the pressures of "sudden stardom" had found him (the
was that he was already in his late 20s and had been busking
around NYC for
some time), a time when he and the band were thinking of nothing
music and getting it all down right -- the performance, from the time
opened his mouth to commence the long, ululating opening to
onwards, was one of the most intense and amazing shows I've
ever seen, the
kind that stays with you long after the impressions of so much
mediocre dreck you foolishly had hopes for has faded away. I've
likened that experience of mine to what others must have felt when
geniuses like Miles Davis or Marvin Gaye or Jeff's father, Tim
the outset of their careers: the effect was totally electrifying,
going far beyond the realm of mere "entertainment."
The next two times I saw Jeff he was never less than excellent, but
already seemed as if the pressures on him -- with an album that
slow but that soon began to gather a major head of sales steam --
to take their toll. Amazingly enough, though, he managed to
continue to orchestrate his own unique brand of magic -- as when
he transformed an in-store appearance at HMV Records
into nirvana, and again when he played a show in a local church.
At the church he
appeared ragged and liquored-up, both tired and energized from
doing battle with the audience's expectations, which, in the end,
he ended up satisfying. Still, he was struggling with the ghost of a
long-dead father who, although he'd abandoned his son, also
bequeathed him an amazing set of multi-octave
pipes. Jeff seemed resentful, and slightly suspicious that the
now-much-larger audience was there in part to hear him conjure
Tim, when the
fact of the matter was that he was already far more popular than
his obscure father had ever been.
I started to have premonitions at
that show -- the last time I ever saw Jeff -- that the singer was
too fragile to last in the garish world of popular culture. He'd also
inherited his father's tendency to deep, dark depression, as well
existential attitude of the artist at war with a crass bourgeois
Grace was in fact a black album that contained allusions to
singer's ultimate underwater demise (in "Dream Brother"). And
often professed to hate them (even though Jeff was a great deal
familiar with his father's back catalogue than he'd ever been able
in public), the only valid artistic comparisons one can make to the
a singular artist such as Jeff Buckley is to the only other "rock"
who possessed such an amazing voice: Tim Buckley. This too is
Of course, by the time he died of an overdose, Tim Buckley had
whole career in slightly less time than it would take for Jeff to
release an album
and EP (Live At Sin-e), and drown in the Mississippi river.
Throughout his career, Tim was known for artistic restlessness.
The aptly-titled Sketches (For My Sweetheart, The Drunk)
that same dilemma in the work of his son -- if the Apollonian,
sound of Grace was Jeff's version of Tim's similar
Hello, then it seems that Jeff had now jumped a few Buckley
albums ahead to
offer an amalgamated version of the old man's challenging avant-
Starsailor and his raunchy funk-rocking Greetings From
Jeff, of course, growing up in a different age, filters his artistic
sensibility through Led Zeppelin and '80s gloom-rock stalwarts
Cure and The Smiths, rather than the more jazz- and folk-oriented
influences of his father.
So never mind Evander Holyfield: disc one here is the real
Stemming from sessions with Television guitarist Tom Verlaine,
are pretty much completed, and hold together well as an album.
song, "The Sky Is A Landfill," is a careening Zeppelin-by-way-of-
Joke riff-rocker, which is arguably Buckley's finest moment both
and lyrically, featuring many a riveting image as Jeff posits
rebellion as the final refutation to a soul-crushing corporate world
lives are bought and sold like so much "product." A striking
millennial vision of "a garbage dump of souls that will now black
is conjured; "We'll share our bodies in disdain for the system"
spits in defiance. Added chills are provided by the singer's overt
reference to himself in the past tense: "I had no fear of this
screams, just before offering up a blistering guitar break that
underscores the sentiment.
The rest of the first disc lives up to the promise of this instant
classic. "Everybody Here Wants You" sees Jeff moving into the
genre of latter-day Tim; the former Buckley, however, is more
in the higher registers, and here offers up a truly convincing
approximation of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye Motown
with a falsetto
that would make Mick Jagger turn green with envy. Again, we
have what now
sound like foreshadowings of Jeff's fate: "I'm only here for this
he coos to the object of his affections with an eerie certainty.
swings with a breezy, jazzy gait, yet maintains a rock edge, while
Theft" returns to the fragile emotive terrain of Grace, as
in his sweetest voice, mourns the end of a relationship, cynically
wondering if his ex-partner views him as "some fool drama queen
chances were few." The hallucinatory "New Year's Prayer" is part
part Persian snake-charmer music, with Buckley's slithery voice
appropriately winding in and out of the proceedings.
The second half of the first disc is where the set's surprises really
lie: "Vancouver" and the Cure-ish "Nightmares By The Sea," with
hauntingly premonitory line "stay with me under these waves
-- feature chiming guitars and neo-gothic atmospheres, betraying
aforementioned love for '80s alt-rock. "Yard Of Blonde Girls,"
sounds like a glam-trashy amalgam of T. Rex and Smashing
"You & I" is JB stripped to the bone, his forlorn, ululating voice
melodically drifting against a funereal, medieval-ish background.
with the more standard emotive Buckley ballad, "Opened Once,"
combine to broaden the
scope of who Jeff Buckley was musically. There are no record
company-picked tracks like classical composer Benjamin Britten's
Christi Carol" (from Grace) here to highlight Jeff's "angelic"
voice; instead, we have Buckley the rocker getting his hands --
appendages -- dirty, revelling in his "low," Dionysian influences
la Dad on Greetings From L.A.
Disc 2 of this set is more problematic, as much of it consists of
experimental work Buckley was messing with in the studio, much
of which I'm
sure was never intended for public consumption. Some tracks, like
Suicide Meteor Slave" and "Back In New York City" (a Genesis
JB's heretofore submerged penchant for Starsailor's avant
far-outness, while the last tracks he'd worked on alone in the
as "Demon John" and "Your Flesh Is So Nice," alternatively find
him moving in an even more extreme direction toward stripped
dirty, unabashedly carnal rock, i.e. Papa Tim on "Honeyman." The
closer, a placid blues cover of "Satisfied Mind," however, is a nice
just Jeff on guitar and voice, singing the blues with a feel few white
have ever possessed, voicing a sentiment that we can now only
hope he found
A more accurate rating of Sketches would be: five stars for
disc one; three stars for disc two; judged strictly on its own merits,
one is album-of-the-year material. In contrast to Grace --
which, while a fine debut, is also a bit too clean, too polished, too
Apollonian -- Sketches ...' raw edges and more wholly
should hold up to the test of time, just as Greetings From
L.A. still sounds hot today. Goodbye & Hello is
more like an admirable period piece.
Jeff Buckley fans now await the promised release
of in-concert material that might more fully flesh out the oeuvre of
whose time was so long in coming, and so terribly short in