While running a variety of banal errands last weekend, I popped into Shakespeare & Co. on Broadway for a quick look-about. While I'm strenuously trying to lift my reading tastes out of the music bio/nerd-ephemera gutter, I still find myself pulled to those tables like a dead-eyed fish with a hook in its mouth. While thumbing through a couple of choice titles (if someone feels like getting me a richly undeserved gift, I'd love this book), I noticed a new photo tome dedicated to the late Jeff Buckley. If you're a fan of the man, it's a nice collection.
Being that he was saddled with preternatural good looks and the heavy legacy of his fabled father's name, I was initially skeptical of Jeff Buckley. Without hearing a single note of his music, I'd invariably written him off as some kind of privileged pretty boy; the 90's answer to Julian Lennon. Then I heard "Grace," the title track off his first proper LP. I don't remember where I was when I heard it, but that disarmingly versatile voice instantly struck me. I believe it was at someone's house, and I asked the host who it was that we were listening to and getting mad when I got the answer. I wanted to hate Jeff Buckley. But, as far as I was concerned, there was no arguing with that music. Overcoming my petty prejudices, I picked up Grace the next day.
1994, as I believe I've suggested before, was an amazing year for music. Within those 365 days, Protection by Massive Attack, Dummy by Portishead, Orange by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Let Love In by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Pandemonium by Killing Joke, Release by Cop Shoot Cop and scores of other great titles all hit the shelves, and Grace can handily be counted among the very best. Deftly mixing sultry balladry with lushly produced rockers, the album offered plenty for the girls to swoon over (most notably "Last Goodbye," "Hallelujah," "Lilac Wine" and "Lover, You Should Have Come Over") but boasted enough hard-hitting chops to vault Buckley (and his highly accomplished band) out of the confining heartthrob box. Making good on the promise of his troubled troubadour dad's name, Buckely's music won critical acclaim as well. All was falling into place.
Sadly, it was not to last. Buckley died tragically in 1997 when he waded into the dark waters of the Mississippi on a lark and drowned. Since that premature demise, Buckley's status has further spiraled into the mythological realm. Many are quick to assign an eerie prescience to his work, suggesting that he knew he would grimly follow in the footsteps of his father Tim, who also died young. That the final lyric on Grace alludes to sleeping beneath waves arguably lends the theory further mystique.
In any case, Jeff Buckley's story is now the stuff of legend, and you can read a full account in David Browne's excellent book, "Dream Brother" if you'd care to know more. After his death, I continued to follow the man's music, dutifully picking up the posthumous releases of sketches and unfinished material. Part of the appeal for me was that Jeff Buckley was so much more than the doe-eyed pin-up much of his press and fanbase might lead one to believe. Sure, his melancholy-bordering-on-histrionic slow-jams can effortlessly make any female weak in the knees, but Jeff Buckley was a musician with taste. He'd worked with everyone from former Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas through Television founder Tom Verlaine, was an avowed fan of bona fide rock of a decidedly non-teenybopper variety and was prone to the odd, left-field cover version. It was this latter element that got me in trouble.
While more renowned for trilling torch songs by fellow lovermen like Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison with his angelic pipes, Buckley also released barnstorming covers of tracks by grittier artists like the MC5 and Led Zeppelin. Following the man's death, a glut of his demo songs hit the `Net, and I was somewhat wowed to stumble upon a Buckley rendition of the furiously frenetic Bad Brains anthem "I Against I," performed on acoustic guitar no less. While obviously played as a something of a joke, Jeff's impressive grasp of H.R.'s tangled, rapid-fire lyrics and Dr. Know's hyperkinetic riffs demonstrated an ample affinity and understanding for the music in question. It was further encouraging evidence that Jeff Buckley was no Jacob Dylan.
Anyway, I posted an entry about my discovery on a (now defunct) music discussion web site that I frequently contributed to at the time. In relatively short order, my e-mail inbox was besieged by some rather thornily abusive messages, berating me for sullying Jeff's legacy by advocating the piracy of his music. As it turned out, these messages came from Jeff's mother. The notion that Jeff Buckley's mother was trolling around the internet, chastising her son's fans for merely discussing his music left such a bad taste in my mouth that it almost completely put me off the man's music. My counterpoint argument that it was the Bad Brains who were actually getting the short-end of the stick, copyright-wise, in this instance fell on deaf ears. The whole exchange was short, but ugly. I'd post some of the comments that were made (it was rumored that she also used a variety of pseudonyms), but this is all ancient history. It never struck me as a good idea that someone so close to the deceased should be in charge of his vaults. I'm sure her maternal instincts and deep feelings of loss amplified any legitimate legal grievances, so she's not really to be blamed, I suppose. Still, it was a very long time before I could listen to any of Jeff Buckley's music without thinking of her sitting at a computer, foaming at the mouth, ripping her hair out and painting her entire face red with lipstick like Diane Ladd in "Wild at Heart". She evidently has a long history of this type of stuff.
So after spotting that book in Shakespeare & Co. last Sunday, I returned to Jeff Buckley's oeuvre and have spent the last week re-discovering his rich talent. This particular track falls along the lines of that Bad Brains cover. Taken from his posthumously released collection of material, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, this is a demo recording of Jeff covering Peter Gabriel-era Genesis' sprawling prog-rock opus, "Back in N.Y.C." from the ambitiously unwieldy Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album. Not only do I warm to the fact that Buckley shared my affection for the impenetrable pomp & circumstance of early Genesis' weird stuff (the song in question is a depiction of violence from the perspective of a giddily insouciant gang member, flecked with surreal, nitemarish imagery), but I'm continually blown away by the fact that Buckley manages to replicate the essence of the original song using only a guitar and a shitload of overdubs. The spartan approach to recording this track lends it a more feral, menacing quality absent from the original.; the closest a Genesis song has ever gotten to the description "punky." It's also the type of recording that would send his lovestruck teenage crushes scrambling for the remote to silence the scary noise, which is precisely why you should crank it way the hell up.
Rest in peace, Jeff.