Tom Maxwell | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,966 words)
On the evening of May 29, 1997, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley and his roadie Keith Foti picked their way down the steep, weedy bank to Wolf River Harbor in Memphis, Tennessee. Buckley, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and heavy Doc Martens boots, waded into the water singing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” After about 15 minutes, a boat passed. Concerned about their boom box getting wet, Foti moved it out of harm’s way. When he turned back around, Buckley was gone with the undertow. His body wouldn’t be found for days. He was 30 years old.
Jeff Buckley had mastered that most singular of instruments: his own voice. Possessing the same incredible range as opera icon Pavarotti, his phrasing could be anguished or exquisite; his breath control was phenomenal. Beyond that, he was the soul of eclecticism: Raised on prog rock, he dabbled in hair metal, gospel, country, and soul. Once, during a live performance, he improvised in the ecstatic style of Qawwali devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan — someone Buckley once described as “my Elvis” — over the riff from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“I’m a ridiculous person,” he told the puzzled crowd afterward.
Sadly, if not surprisingly, Buckley left little in the way of recorded output. He released two albums during his life: 1993’s Live at Sin-é and 1994’s Grace. The record he was working on in Memphis, tentatively called My Sweetheart the Drunk, never saw completion and was shelved because of his death. It would have only been his second studio release. What was released more than a year later — a pastiche of studio recordings and demos — is as illustrative of his potential as it is of the Jeff Buckley industry that sprung up after his demise. Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk is a difficult listen, and not just because Buckley was unafraid to be challenging or the fact that much of it is more promise than fruition. The album encapsulates unpleasant cultural and legal issues of privacy, ownership, and the wishes of the artist when they run counter to those of his fanbase, record label, or even his estate. Jeff Buckley would not have wanted Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk to come out at all.
Jeff Buckley was reactive. He always seemed to be working in opposition to those aspects of him that were apparently beneficial: his record label and his provenance. On the eve of the release of Grace, an interviewer had the temerity to ask Buckley about his father, famed folk singer Tim Buckley, who died of a heroin overdose in 1975 at the age of 28.
“I knew him for nine days,” Buckley answered, after shooting the interviewer an unbelieving look. “I met him for the first time when I was 8 years old over Easter and he died two months later. He left my mother when I was 6 months old. So I never really knew him at all. We were born with the same parts but when I sing, it’s me. This is my own time.”
That night, Buckley played a 15-minute version of Big Star’s “Kangaroo,” an intense song from the Memphis band’s own 1973 shelved album, Third. Nothing could have been more portentous of Buckley’s swan song: his attempts to subvert his torch singer image; the growing contrarian imperative that made for parallel musical deconstructions on Sketches as well as Third; and Memphis’s coming role as his place of refuge and demise.
Jeff was born to Tim Buckley and Mary Guibert, a classically trained musician, in Anaheim, California, on November 17, 1966. Growing up, he was known as Scottie Moorhead, a combination of his own middle name and his stepfather’s surname. (Buckley took his biological father’s name after Tim’s death.) He spent the 1980s playing in various bands and working as a session musician.
After moving to New York City in 1990, the disaffected Buckley discovered Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose music would change his life. The two met and talked for Interview magazine in 1996.
Buckley: You once had a dream that is now very famous. Can you describe it to me?
Khan: My father [the Qawwali singer Ustad Fateh Ali Khan] died in 1964, and ten days later, I dreamed that he came to me and asked me to sing. I said I could not, but he told me to try. He touched my throat, I started to sing, and then I woke up singing. I had dreamed that my first live performance would be at my father’s chilla [funeral ceremony], where we would all sit together again and read prayers from the Koran and so on. On the fortieth day after his death, we held the ceremony, and I performed for the very first time.
Buckley: How old were you?
Khan: About sixteen.
Buckley: I had a similar struggle, because I started very late.
Khan: When did you start?
Buckley: My first performance was at about age fourteen. And I also hid from my father. He had died by the time I started, but I hid from him a gift that I was born with. There was a period when I was frozen for about three or four years, starting when I was eighteen. In my dream at that time, the ghost of my father came smashing through the window.
Qawwali is Sufi devotional music, originating in Persia more than 700 years ago. More spiritual than religious (as some qawwali can be downright bawdy), it is about devotion — to another person, or god. It’s about the pain of separation, the longing to reunite, and the sacredness of expressing these things.
If Buckley learned anything from qawwali, beyond the vocal calisthenics, it was to adopt a spiritual identity as an artist, to not be afraid of emotion, and to sing from the heart.
Diffident to major-label interest, Buckley never made a demo tape or shopped a deal. “It would have been wrong somehow,” he once said, “wrong for the music. It needs to have a real sacred setting for people to understand it. Sending your music to established artists or labels or magazines — I mean there is something to be said for tenacity, for trying to pursue recognition that way — but it just doesn’t make sense for the best work. And if you do make an amazing work, it’s sometimes not the best way to be heard. You have to get on a sacred space, like a stage, and do your testifying that way.”
‘I thought we’d have something ready for Christmas, but this was going to take time. Jeff seemed despondent too.’
Buckley’s version of Khan’s “Yeh Jo Halka Saroor Hae” appeared on Live at Sin-é. In the background, some of the crowd laugh at the beginning of his performance, perhaps from amazement, surprise, or derision.
“He’s the only artist that I trusted 100 percent,” Buckley’s manager Dave Lory once said. “We had a saying: ‘Did you pack a parachute?’ because he was always taking leaps off a cliff. No other artist I’d worked with ever did. And I’d say, ‘Do you have a parachute?’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, I think so,’ because we never knew how hard the landing was gonna be.”
After Grace, Buckley toured extensively, setting up new markets in Europe, New Zealand, and Australia. Despite modest album sales, he had the label support to do this, as he was signed to Sony subsidiary Columbia, home to some of Buckley’s musical heroes: Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen.
By 1996, pressure for a second studio album was mounting. Although now committed to performing original material, Buckley was not a prolific writer. “I wish I had a real reservoir [of songs], but I don’t,” he told an interviewer. “It just sort of comes. Thoughts lead into each other and gain momentum and then BOOM! Some weird gibberish will come into my mind and I’ll go, ‘That’s the one.’ Dreams, too.”
The new project was threatened by other issues. Buckley’s longtime drummer Matt Johnson left the band in 1996.
“There was the new material they’d tried live in Australia and one or two other demos that Jeff had made, but he seemed about to go into recording his second album with even less material than he had when starting Grace,” Lory wrote in From Hallelujah to the Last Goodbye. “Jeff had declared that his days of doing cover versions were over; he wanted it to be all original material, so that option wasn’t available. There was one other problem: no Matt Johnson. No songs, no drummer, and a producer without any hits didn’t feel like a great way to start, but I’d seen Jeff pull greatness out of an empty bag before, so …”
To further complicate things, Buckley decided New York underground guitarist Tom Verlaine should produce the new album, tentatively titled My Sweetheart the Drunk. Verlaine’s band Television helped define a smart, tight post-punk sound in the late 1970s, but Columbia A&R man Steve Berkowitz struggled with his artist’s decision.
“When Jeff mentioned Verlaine, I said, ‘Oh, what a great idea — Tom and all his sounds and ability to play guitar and create sonic structures — he’ll be great on the record,’ and Jeff said, ‘No, I want him to produce it,’” Berkowitz remembered. “And I said, ‘Based on what? What Television did is not what you do.’ I had only respect for Tom, but I didn’t understand how he’d be the producer for Jeff.” Sony had, in fact, floated much bigger names for the project: Butch Vig (responsible for Nirvana’s Nevermind) and U2 producer Steve Lillywhite.
Buckley rented a bland house in Memphis and asked the landlady if he could grow the grass waist high so he could lie in it unseen.
Verlaine understood the label’s hesitation. “I’m not a goldmine for anybody,” he told an interviewer about his work with Buckley. “They probably would have loved it if he wanted to work with Mariah Carey’s producer or something.”
According to Lory, Verlaine was given a tight budget and a flat fee. During the first session, Buckley seemed directionless. The material wasn’t quite finished or rehearsed, and the new drummer wasn’t working out. Four songs were recorded. There was talk, quickly abandoned, of releasing these as an interim EP.
“I was disappointed,” Lory wrote. “I thought we’d have something ready for Christmas, but this was going to take time. Jeff seemed despondent too. He became quiet and insular around this time, looking like some refugee from Crime and Punishment — long coat, long hair, and a goatee — and not being his usual upbeat self. He’d call up with some paranoid thought about someone at Sony or one of the team and have to be talked down.”
Convinced by friends in a band called the Grifters, Buckley decided to relocate to Memphis and take another shot at recording with Verlaine at Easley-McCain Studios.
On October 1, 1996, Buckley wrote in his journal that he was “going to lay off the band.”
The February 1997 Memphis session was also uninspiring, with one exception. “Out of nowhere,” Lory wrote, “Jeff plucked one gem, ‘Everybody Here Wants You,’ which had the potential to groove like a Smokey Robinson song, and which everyone agreed was one of the best things to emerge from these sessions. Verlaine’s instruction to Parker [Kindred, the second replacement drummer] to hit the snare as hard as he could meant it turned out exactly as asked — heavy handed — but Jeff’s vocal was exquisite, emotional without being as refined as the Grace performances, and his harmony embellishments were gorgeous. When I first heard this song, I thought it was a massive hit in the making, but only in the making.”
The album was abandoned, and Verlaine was let go. “This stuff sounds really good to me,” he told Buckley after the last session. “If you feel dissatisfied maybe you want to take it a little easier on yourself, because there’s nothing wrong with this. I know you probably want to change everything.”
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Buckley rented a bland house in Memphis and asked the landlady if he could grow the grass waist high so he could lie in it unseen. When he attempted to buy the house for $40,000, he realized he was broke.
Columbia cross-collateralized their deal with Buckley; that is, they signed him to both a recording and copublishing agreement. Although I haven’t read Buckley’s specific contracts, major-label agreements from that time would have involved an advance in return for a grant of rights: Columbia was given ownership of all Jeff Buckley recordings, as well as a share of his songwriting interest.
“In the United States, copyrights over creative works are ‘alienable,’ so if you transfer your rights to someone else, then that party can exploit them as they wish, subject to any contractual terms,” Jennifer Jenkins, clinical professor of law at Duke University, explained to me. Buckley may have gotten a decent advance from both the record and publishing sides, but Grace reportedly cost seven figures to make, and a percentage of things like video production costs and tour support (as well as advances in their entirety) are recoupable by the label, so he must have been heavily in debt.
Buckley began a life of relative anonymity in Memphis. Unable to afford a car, he biked around town. He set up a weekly residency in a nearby dive bar. According to friends, he took a particular interest in the local zoo, applying to be their butterfly keeper. “Jeff took a shower and got all spruced up,” remembered Tammy Shouse of the Grifters. “He put on his vintage suit, and he was all shiny and went in to put in his application. He wanted a normal-guy life.”
Buckley bought a used Tascam four-track cassette tape recorder and began demoing new material. He sent tapes of his demos to his bandmates, management, and label team.
“I found out after he died that he would make different versions of the songs for different people,” Berkowitz recalled, “because Parker and I compared what each other had been sent and thought, ‘That’s funny, he sent the deeper, darker, heavier stuff to the record company guy and the prettier stuff to the drummer.’”
Buckley decided to hire Andy Wallace to produce My Sweetheart. Wallace, famous for working with Nirvana, had also produced Grace. “I didn’t need to be sold on doing another record with him,” Wallace told Lory. “He could have played me ‘Happy Birthday’ and I would have made a record with him.
“I went down and saw Easley studios. It was a funky place — not a dump but down-home and clearly not a corporate environment, and I like that,” Wallace continued. “And a little on the dry side, acoustically, which I like. Jeff was enthusiastic about working there. I don’t believe he got back in touch with me in the hope that we could make Grace 2. He wanted it to be different, to move on.”
“When he gave me that cassette back then … he said, ‘These aren’t nearly close to being completed. I’m going down with Andy Wallace and we’re gonna put the color to ‘em,’” Lory recalled.
Buckley began a life of relative anonymity in Memphis. Unable to afford a car, he biked around town.
In May, Buckley summoned his band to join him in Memphis. Although they were coming to record a new version of the album, Buckley seemed to have another idea in mind as well.
“The stories I’d heard was that he was bringing the band to Memphis to burn the tapes of the record he did with Tom Verlaine,” Buckley’s friend Glen Hansard told author Jeff Apter in A Pure Drop: The Life of Jeff Buckley. “I was getting that from his friends in New York. He was gathering the band up to have a ceremonial burning of the masters. He was really unhappy with it.”
Back in New York, Buckley visited his manager. “I saw him two weeks before he died,” Lory told an interviewer. Buckley was clear about one thing; namely, that Sony not be allowed access to his sundry demo and studio recordings. Buckley gave Lory all of these recordings. Lory also claimed that Buckley gave him “commercial rights to everything.”
Although this conversation can’t be proven to have occurred, it does seem consistent with Buckley’s wishes, at least with respect to his dim view of his record label. From a legal standpoint, however, it’s moot: Because of their recording agreement, Sony owned everything Jeff Buckley recorded, including cassette demos.
On the day his band arrived in Memphis, Buckley drowned. His mother, Mary Guibert, became his sole heir.
At the time, Guibert was working in healthcare and considering reviving her acting career. She lost little time in asserting control over her son’s estate. According to Apter, she hired lawyers, fired Buckley’s management team, and prevented Sony from releasing the Verlaine-produced version of My Sweetheart that September, calling that plan “exploitative and premature.” She oversaw the combing through of Buckley’s demo recordings.
“I was in a lawsuit with Sony, because Jeff’s last words were, ‘Don’t let Sony ever have the music’ — I knew they owned the music, but they were scrambling to put out whatever they could,” Lory remembered. “I was fired a couple months after he died, and so was Steve Berkowitz, who was his A&R person, and Andy Wallace, his producer — basically anybody who had anything to do with his music were fired. But it was kind of a relief, ‘cause of the stuff we were witnessing.”
What Columbia did issue, on May 26, 1998, was Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, a two-CD grab bag of the Verlaine sessions and some Memphis demos.
“About a week after he died, they called and asked if I could go into the studio and help this guy sort through the tracks and I said, ‘Well, there were track sheets,’” Verlaine remembered, “because I knew that they would do this: They would hire some Mr. Big Mixer and pay him a fortune to remix this stuff. He puts the bass drum, the vocal and the snare on ten and everything else at five and compresses it and there’s your mix. All the tons of very interesting guitar flavorings and moods in there that you don’t really notice … I never really mixed it. There was no mix by me of that record. There were a lot of other shades.”
The one thing that Buckley’s contemporaries — managers, producers, and friends — agree on is that he would not have wanted any of what constitutes Sketches released. “The almost-unanimous belief amongst those close to Buckley is that much of the music that has emerged in his name since 1997 not only runs contrary to his perfectionist streak but would never have seen the light of day had he stayed alive,” Apter wrote.
“This album may not be what Jeff would have wanted to release in his lifetime,” Guibert told Billboard, “but his lifetime is over.” She added that Sketches was compiled “with more love than commerce in our hearts.”
In life, Buckley was contradictory, mercurial, guided by dreams, and informed by spirituality. He constantly reworked arrangements, improvised new melodies, and abandoned recordings that didn’t meet his standards. In death, he has generated content with clocklike efficiency.
Buckley was clear about one thing; namely, that Sony not be allowed access to his sundry demo and studio recordings.
Since 1997, Guibert has overseen a steady stream of posthumous Buckley releases. “So now you can buy Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, the two-disc set cobbled together from the Grace follow-up sessions Buckley had barely begun,” the Houston Press wrote in an unsentimental 2004 article called “Die, Jeff Buckley, Die!” “There’s the live record Mystery White Boy, the five-CD Grace EPs boxed set collecting rare/foreign releases, the two-disc-plus-DVD Live at Sin-é collection chronicling his old NYC nightclub crooner days, another pre-Grace odds ’n’ sods compendium titled Songs to No One 1991–1992 and now, the Grace ‘Legacy Edition,’ which couples the original tunes with a B-sides disc and another DVD. Throw it all in an Amazon cart and you’re out 130 clams.”
Fifteen years later, there are even more CDs and DVDs, comprised of live performances and early studio recordings. (“You fucking dick!” Buckley once said to a bootlegger at one of his shows. “What are you going to do, study it?”) A graphic novel adaptation of Grace was released in April. A book, Jeff Buckley: His Own Voice, will be published in October 2019. According to Rolling Stone, it contains “reproductions of his handwritten lyrics, diary entries and letters.”
“There have been and probably always will be those who wish to speak for my son, take credit for his success or put words in his mouth,” Guibert wrote in a statement. “In choosing these pages to share with the world, I’m giving him the chance to speak with his own voice, for the record … and for his fans to see what a sweet, funny, amazing human being he was.”
In light of this onslaught, it’s jarring to visit Jeff Buckley’s website and see his name and image and know it’s not reflective of his intent, nor most of its content representative of a career he would have designed. If he were to speak in his own voice, it’s doubtful he would say that he always intended to publish his diary.
I understand fans and completists’ desire to access as much music of their favorite artist as possible, but there’s an exhaustiveness to Buckley’s postmortem career that dilutes his legacy.
“My first statement regarding projects to ‘the powers that be,’ in 1998, went something like this: ‘The recordings we have are Jeff’s true remains,’” Guibert wrote in the liner notes to a recent Buckley compilation. “‘We should treat them as we would prepare his body for burial — no makeup, no Armani suit, leave the green glitter toenail polish on, and don’t cut or comb his hair.’”
Recording technology has always been a kind of embalming method. It’s wonderful to hear Claude Debussy perform one of his own compositions, recently captured from a 1913 piano roll, or to have access to the entirety of Robert Johnson’s limited output, especially when his life (as an itinerant black Southern musician in the 1930s) was so little valued. We will never hear Johann Sebastian Bach’s pipe organ technique or Buddy Bolden’s cornet improvisations — instrumental as they were in the creation of jazz. Capturing such transience on a recorded medium is a kind of miracle, as it gives us access to these people beyond their earthly term.
But reflected in America’s cultural thinking and copyright law is the fairytale belief that fame is immortality and that both are to be devoutly desired. Therefore we can entitle ourselves to the benefits of a deceased artist’s work without the responsibility of honoring their wishes. We proceed as if our celebrities belong to us, as if the individual is subservient to the brand, as if persona trumps person. The most base expression of this — as evidenced by the posthumous juggernaut careers of Buckley, Jimi Hendrix, and Tupac Shakur — is the profitability of an artist dropping dead in the bloom of youth and at the peak of their creative expression, so that we may exploit them as we see fit, freed from their contradictory will and controlling temperament. In this particular instance, as in general, love and commerce make for strange bedfellows.
There’s an entirely different conceptual and legal framework for these issues, according to Jenkins. “Contrast this state of affairs with countries such as France that have ‘moral rights’ that are not alienable,” she wrote me. “One moral right is ‘divulgation,’ meaning that the artist can decide when and if his music ever gets released. Moral rights (such as attribution, integrity, divulgation, and withdrawal) are different than the ‘economic rights’ (reproduction, distribution, derivative works, and public performance) we have in the United States.”
United States copyright law doesn’t provide moral rights over music. Neither does our culture afford them. We should ask ourselves who are the true beneficiaries.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.