The Black Book Article
Jeff Buckley: The Lover and Friend
The last months and the truth behind the posthumous release Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk
It was a small house in a neighbourhood of small houses, the home Jeff Buckley had chosen in midtown Memphis. But Joan Wasser, Buckley’s long-time friend and lover, remembers it as being huge. Because he filled it up, she remembers, with his giant self. Echoes of this giant self were still stomping the raw wood floors when Buckley’s band mates – guitarist Michael Tighe, bassist Mick Grondahl, and drummer Parker Kindred – walked in on the evening of May 29th, 1997. They had just flown down from New York to record what was to be the follow-up to Grace, Buckley’s 1994 full-length debut. After a discouraging false start with former Television guitarist Tom Verlaine behind the boards, the band was eager to have a go with a new producer, excited to see their friend, and confident that the months Jeff had been holed up in Memphis working on new material and polishing his existing songs had finally yielded the direction he’d been pursuing. They had heard it in his voice when he called. He sounded better than he had all year.
A fork was stuck through some take-out container in front of his green velvet couch. Jeff had trimmed his hair before heading off to arrange a mortgage that morning, and some locks were piled out behind the kitchen door. The four-track recorder where he made and mixed demos sat on its mild crate altar in the front room of his one bedroom home.
The phone rang within five minutes of their arrival. It was Keith Foti, their friend and sometimes roadie who’d been helping Buckley prepare for the upcoming sessions. Jeff’s missing, Foti said, Come down to the river right away.
I think that at those pivotal moments there’s such a wide parameter for transformation of every kind, even if that means leaving your body, says the soft-spoken Tighe with the open face of a person who has wrested a grim loss and emerged without bitterness. You see, they all knew Jeff was going through some radical changes – in the way he wanted to play his music, live, and interact – they just didn’t expect the change to manifest in death.
You’ve by now been familiarized with the aftermath of Foti’s phone call. Just after 9pm on May 29th, 1997, 30-year-old Jeff Buckley floated fully clothed into the Wolf River, a tributary of the Mississippi, singing Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. He wouldn’t be seen again until his drowned body was found the afternoon of June 4th. This is not a story about his death. It’s a story about a man who was sanding away the peripheral aspects of his personality as he hand-sanded the floor in his Memphis home. It is a story about El Viejito – the nickname given to him by his grandmother – The Little Ancient One, the little old soul that vibrated in a way that made everyone within ear-shot pay attention.
According to Joan, who met Jeff when her old band the Dambuilders shared a bill with Buckley in July 1994, Jeff was specifically crafting the second record to cannonball the image created by Grace, particularly the song Last Goodbye. His popularity took him off guard, and he never quite came to terms with being recognized in the street, never came to terms with the fact that everything written about him following the single – where Jeff laments leaving a relationship even though it’s the right thing to do – included some reference to soulful good looks. The sorority houses clued into the sensitive, pained lover, and wanted more.
He just never knew that he was going to be taken on the level of Hot Boy, says Joan. That was ridiculous to him. Really unattractive, because he wanted to be taken seriously musically – he was reverent for music.
It’s a funny quirk of the human make-up that we cling very fast to things we don’t need at all – his reverence for music was never disputed. Jeff was embraced by critics, peers, and the 600,000 fans that bought his album. There was, however, the inertia of massive desire for Grace Part Deux. And that was the last thing that he wanted because that’s not what he was any longer, says Joan. He was planning on losing a lot of fans [with the second record]. He was looking forward to losing a lot of fans. So [the second record] wasn’t just getting certain feelings of unrequited love out. This was a statement of life, and his life.
The stimulus of city life was particularly bothering him as he excavated new areas of his heart. He wasn’t prepared to see amputee panhandlers or any sundry facets of urban decay that casually greet the city dweller who dares step out for coffee. He lived on a really nice block, but there were prostitutes on the block all the time, says Joan of his East Village apartment, and you know he was compelled to look into their eyes. Jeff was giving and compassionate, but it would weaken him.
Whereas he'd had twenty-odd years to acculmulate material for Grace, now the clock was ticking. The pressure to get it right, Columbia Records waiting to turn their gold seller platinum, invitations to sit in with other bands - Jeff was accomplishing little in New York. He went [to Memphis] to just dive into himself, says Joan.
This was not the first chrysalis stage in Buckley’s life. In 1991, Scott Moorhead shaved his head, burned his journals, reclaimed his given name, and moved to New York City as Jeff Buckley. (He has grown up using his middle name and the surname of the stepfather who he loved deeply). The name change was his way of saying, I’m a new person. Watch out for me, while meeting the legacy of his father, musician Tim Buckley who died of a heroin overdose at 28 years old, head on. Memphis wasn’t the immediate answer. The intellectual understanding and admiration Jeff had for Tom Verlaine failed to translate into the big room at Easely recording studios, where the band convened to explored existing material that Jeff reluctantly agreed to record to appease Columbia.
It was really stale – lifeless, said Parker of the week of sessions in Manhattan and the two weeks spent at Easely. We were learning how to play these songs, translating to tape, and hearing what wasn’t working. Parker was unaccustomed to playing drums in a studio environment, and Jeff would often yell our "OK, you don’t know this one... and one, two, and three..."
Joan, on a rare visit to the studio, was creeped out by the tension level, the lack of freedom born of the pressure to turn what the band viewed as pre-production into product. When we came out of [the studio], Jeff said "Fellas, we’re gonna burn over that tape next time you come down", Parker recalls. "We’re going to have a fucking recording-over party... and we’re going to erase all this shit".
Verlaine was dismissed, the band went back to New York, and Jeff stayed in Memphis to flesh out his songs alone. Though Jeff rarely viewed anything as finished, everyone involved in the aborted Verlaine sessions is certain that there would have indeed been a ceremonial application of magnets to the existing tapes – tapes which now comprises half of Sketches for My Sweetheart, the Drunk.
There was a time in my life not too long ago when I could show up in a café and simply do what I do, make music. I loved it then and I missed it when it disappeared. All I’m doing is reclaiming it. – Jeff Buckley via the Web.
Shortly after moving to Memphis, Jeff secured a Monday night gig at Barristers, a dive bar off an alley which is described as a place you’d never want to see with the lights up all the way. Arriving on stage with stacks of writing done the previous week, Jeff used the Barristers crowd to refine and test new songs on the 30 or so locals that would gather on Mondays. He would do covers, occasionally mining new old material for fresh veins of gold. Though the head count at Barristers on any given Monday never really changed, word spread in a strange way. Tighe remembers meeting a girl who had flown in from London to catch a show. Buckley was, it seems, re-visiting the days at Sin-é, an East Village coffee shop where he played as a rookie in New York, performance from which yield his first EP. (The album art show Jeff belting it out to the back of a man whose nose is buried firmly in a paper).
Jeff was a very private person, despite his ability to perform, and Memphis offered him a way to be the singer/guitarist he once was. One gig stands out for Joan as a sign he was indeed reconciling that need with the fan base that wanted him to be much, much more. Two couple had driven to town to catch Jeff’s gig, and looking around the darkened bar, were confused by what they found. According to Joan, their body language was projecting "Could this be the place? Could he be getting up on that tiny stage? Why aren’t there more people here? No one else seems very excited. But there he is – playing! But wait, do you recognize this?"
He was playing new material, which was a little difficult, dense, you know, for people who wanted to hear Grace, said Joan. After about 30 minutes of songs they couldn’t sing along to, it became too much for the shiny faced quartet. They began yelling, almost as if to fix this experience in a realm of fan-dom that they could recognize and tell there friends about. "Grace! Grace! Play Grace!" they shouted, along with other requests from the album. He was in a really great mood that night, remembers Joan. If he had been feeling boxed in by the iconography that was built around him, things could have gone quite differently. But he just looked at these four and said, a little sweetly, a little playfull, "You’re gonna have to wait".
After another 90 minutes of wood-shedding, he addressed the four people who had driven hours to see Jeff Buckley. "Alright", he asked, "what do you want to hear?" Their requests were followed by eight songs that you’d be able to get off the jukebox. It was gorgeous, says Joan, because you saw the coming together of two people that really were in a battle previously.
At a certain point, all the touring and dealing with the idea of success and the music, your identity, your ego, it gets into a really weird realm... So I was glad for Jeff. There was kind of a safe feeling when he moved to Memphis – Michael Tighe
Staying on after the band went north, Jeff’s Memphis home became the site of the breakthrough that had proven so elusive in Manhattan. The four-track perched atop a mild crate documented these living room sessions while the front lawn shook off its manicured perfection. The last time I was there, it was probably three feet high, says Joan about the lawn. High enough to lie down in it and have no one be able to see you. Which was heavenly. And then you felt like a kitty cat... You couldn’t see anything but the tall grass and the insects crawling around you.
While the lawn manifested the growth in Jeff’s songwriting – the external aspect of his talent that would be shared with the world – something quite different was playing itself out on the floors of his new home. Jeff began hand-sanding them, peeling away the layers of cloudy finish while scratch, scratch, scratching at the Hot Boy who say about unrequited love. The mild crate altar was never moved. The Grace-era Jeff, like that varnished square of floor beneath the four-track, would likely be kept since that too, was honest; it simply would have been contrasted with a more stripped away expanse of sound. Instead of buying blank cassettes, Buckley preferred to buy used tapes by other artists on the street and record over them, with the prize, of course, being to stumble across a Michael Bolton tape. Jeff called Parker on May 25th to see what he thought about the demos mailed north over Fiona Apple’s Tidal. They talked, and while Parker was trying to find ways to give feedback to his hero, Jeff stopped abruptly and said, "I love you man!" then he hung up, recalls Parker grateful. He made sure to say that.
Throughout that first night following Jeff’s disappearance, Tighe remembers the gradual acceptance of Buckley’s. I think everyone there, before the night was through felt that he had gone somewhere else. Picking up Jeff’s green Gretsch guitar, Michel saw butterfly stickers on its back and somehow knew he was alright. Larvae. Chrysalis. Butterfly.
It would be months before Michael would pick up his own guitar without crying – the thing was too loaded with memories. Memories of going to that first audition where Jeff essentially ambushed the frightened Tighe into the band. Of surrendering to the groove they played that night, and feeling the burn of it being right. Of Jeff not caring that Michael’d only been playing for three years. Of the two writing So Real together.
The band members were holed up in Jeff’s house for the six days that Buckley was missing, savouring the suspended closeness to him that they felt among his possessions, and hiding, to some extent from the white noise of public grief that was playing out the world over. Fans gathered outside Sin-é; Bono voiced a prayer from the stage at Meadowlands on June 1st.
The six days, says Parker, were spent, crying, and listening to all his CDs. His mom came down , and we had people come over and cry with us. We’d go down to the river, look at some records, make sure we got nice and drunk. Days and nights just fell into one another... Nobody could leave. It was just basically all of us trying to make sense out of something that was just completely taken away instantaneously.
The press tried to make sense of it in the only way that can be manifested on a large scale: gossip, speculation as to what Springsteen’s career would have looked like had he died after , and shoehorned comparisons to Tim Buckley, the absent father Jeff met for about ten minutes.
People were always trying to paint Jeff as this dark, self-destructive artist, says Michael of the public reaction. You know, kid of tearing himself up, chasing his muse, burning himself down. When he sang there was this sense of annihilation which was really beautiful and sometimes goes hand-in-hand with that kind of lifestyle. Of course he, like myself and most people that I’m close with, have gone through very self-destructive periods. But, actually, right before his death, he was having amazing realisation about the way he wanted to live. Ultimately, there is no sense in Jeff’s death. The post-mortem toxicology report was drug free, denying people the right to turn Buckley’s death into a cliché rock’n’roll casualty. Jeff and Keith Foti stopped by the bay below the Tennessee Welcoming Center to play some music and watch the sun go down. It was a spring day in Memphis, 80 degrees and humid even as it passed 9pm. And Foti had these aqua pants on, kin of trippy, kind of waving, says Parker. I can just imagine Jeff looking at those pants and being like ‘I want to go for a swim’. That’s as close to an answer as you are going to get. Hot day, aqua pants, his trademark heavy shoes, and the call of Neptune, the Roman god of water – the planet that lords over musical expression, deception, creativity, and escapism – and Jeff’s very real readiness to get swept up in something big.
Until he left Memphis on June 3rd, Parker spent a lot of time in the kitchen, half expecting Jeff to stick his head through the screen door. But it just didn’t happen, says Parker. Jeff’s body was spotted by a tourist at the foot of Beale Street on June 4th, a day after the band went back to New York. Somehow that’s the way it was supposed to be, says Parker.
Before leaving, Parker reached behind the kitchen door for some of Jeff’s hair. He keeps it in a plastic bag in his Brooklyn apartment, a plastic bag he will sometime open up and smell, inhaling the physical part of Jeff’s essence that he still wants to hang onto. Parker dreams about Jeff occasionally – dreams of sitting at the foot of the Statue of Liberty while it gets torn down by some wrecking balls. He told Michael about that one. They both agree that it was one of those things that somehow made you breathe Jeff in, wrap him around you.
We had been in Memphis, and Jeff’s A&R guy Steve Berkowitz came down, and the lawyer came down, and there was tears from people in the company. I was like "OK maybe their hearts aren’t gristle". But then when we got back to New York, these same people saying "OK, we have to get in there and listen to everything we can possibly listen to right now. The time is now. We have to put something out" – Parker Kindred
Since the record industry puts out new releases on Tuesdays only, Columbia was unable to debut Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk on the exact anniversary of Buckley’s death, settling instead for May 26th. They’re trying to make some kind of statement, says Parker. I can understand hyping stuff, but not like that. It’s just not a nice thing to do.
Considering that disc one of Sketches is essentially a group of recordings Buckley didn’t want heard, the collection is most seriously flawed to those who were closest to him. For the rest of us, there are some sublime moments, most notably The Sky is a Landfill – an indictment of the culture of shame – and Morning Theft – a searing beauty to which no one within six months of a break up should listen. The track Witches Rave is where you sense that the band’s critiques of the Verlaine sessions are valid. Experimenting with grooves for the song and unable to get the stomp they were looking for, a Mack the Knife - type swing was committed to tape.
Disc two contains the seven four-track recordings Jeff completed. Michael and Joan separately thank Mary Guibert, Buckley’s mother and heir to his publishing rights, for including these tracks with no commercial potential; which exist solely as sonic momentos. If disc one represents the re-touched photo taken by a paid professional, disc two is the red-eyed, freckles-and-all snapshot taken by someone who loves you. You may look better in the former, but you’re more you in the latter.
Murder Suicide Meteor Slave, concur Joan, Michael and Parker, shows Jeff’s personality as it was in those months. A haunting, loose song with distorto guitar noise and pitch shifting. It’s a dirge of sorts about hard-won freedom of the mind, heart, body and soul. For Your Flesh is so Nice, a song in which Jeff takes himself considerably less seriously, the grand gesture was abandoned for a simple statement of lust over a rhythm track reminiscent of the Who’s Can’t Explain. Jewel Box is campfire Buckley – a jangly slightly out of tune acoustic accompanies a swooner’s sad love song.
The stuff that he did on his four-track – that is the shit, says Joan. That’s what he was going for. I’m very thankful that any of that got on this record. If it hadn’t, it would be beyond misrepresentative.
In addition to the release date, the track sequencing reveals a cheap shot in the tearjerker department. The final verso of Satisfied Mind, a blues standard featuring Jeff and a clear toned guitar a la Hallelujah, includes the lyrics "My life is over/My time has run out/My friends and my loved ones/ I will leave them no doubt". This is, as you would expect, the last song on the collection, designed to leave you with an image of Jeff floating on his back as Foti calls from the shore. It also encourages crap analyses of drowning imagery in lyrics from Grace’s So Real.
Meditations on death, however, were not Buckley’s focus. If there was a message beyond the clarion voice, it was this: recognise that the world can be a shade of ugly so sallow that ugliness seems the only rational response, but dare to be beautiful anyway. "The most audacious thing I could possibly state in this day and age is that life is worth living" Buckley told Chris Smith of The New York Times. "It’s worth being bashed against. It’s worth getting scarred by. It’s worth pouring yourself over every one of its coals." This was as cogent as the air raid siren on Live at Sin-é’s Eternal Life and reiterated on the new Yard of Blonde Girls: "Even in this world of lies/There’s purity/You’ve got innocence in your eyes/ Even in this world of lies/You’re still hopeful."
Grace can be elegance, it can be a fluidity, it can be the intervention of a spiritual force. Grace can also be viewed as an unexpected, perhaps undeserved gift – the kind visited upon drunks and children. And all gifts carry a degree of responsibility. Flawed as it is, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, like Grace, is something this ugly world got anyway. And now it has to deal with that beauty.
People freaked out about how sad it is that Jeff didn’t lead a full life, says Joan. I just feel so certain about the fullness of his life. It’s really hard to understand, because we haven’t lived out our full lives, but I’m certain he did. I guess I just want that feeling to overwhelm this whole... the whole tragedy element. Because I just don’t feel that. That his death was a tragedy. You know?