Jeff Buckley’s drowning in 1997 in Memphis was a harrowing tragedy. We lost a great human being and we were deprived of a gifted performer whose career was just starting in earnest. At the time of his passing, Jeff was about to begin working with his band on a set of songs he had actually recorded once in Manhattan (with Television’s Tom Verlaine) and scrapped. He referred to those songs as “My Sweetheart The Drunk”, and he defined the album as “a guidebook for losers in love”.
Upon his passing, Jeff’s mother supervised a two-disc release made up of the songs Jeff had scrapped on the first disc, and the songs he had left behind as 4-track demos on the second CD. This double album became known as “(Sketches For) My Sweetheart The Drunk”, and it was a moving reminder of Buckley’s talent and determination to create a legacy as enduring as that of his brilliant (yet troubled) father Tim.
The songs he had recorded with Verlaine and scrapped only make it patent how much he strove for perfection – there was nothing wrong with them. Jeff was aiming to create a work which showcased him and his band as the close-knit performing unit they had become. And that was more than fulfilled by each of the ten songs that were featured.
“The Sky Is A Landfill” (a song in which he comes to terms with his father’s addictions) opens the album in an assertive way, and Jeff closes it almost single-handedly 50 minutes later with “You And I”, the nearest he has ever come to an acapella number. Generally, the songs stand as a more muscular version of the goth/folk sound that had been so captivating the first time around.
“Nightmares By The Sea” is a definitive highlight, and it was covered respectfully (but not brilliantly) by Katatonia later on. With its tale of lovers returning from the hereinafter to doom the existences of those still alive, the song is a clear tribute to Edgar A. Poe, an artist Jeff was very keen on. (He actually contributed a reading of “Ulalume” to an album produced and issued by Hal Willner in 1997, “Closed On Account of Rabies”.)
The album also included a cover of “Yard Of Blonde Girls”; the original version was by The Nymphs, whom Jeff had befriended in the last year of his life. The song (written by sisters Audrey Clark and Lori Kramer as a tribute to a friend who had committed suicide) fit the album perfectly with the snide way in which it described an unattainable conquest of beauty. That was the force that propelled many of Jeff’s songs here, like “Vancouver” and “Witches’ Rave”. Losers in love, and losers in life.
Finally, those of you who are keen on sci-fi might recognize “New Year’s Prayer” as it was the title song for the American TV series “The Dead Zone” (2002 – 2005).
The second disc features some remixes at the beginning (“Nightmares By The Sea” and “New Year’s Prayer”; neither is distinctive) along with a band recording of “Haven’t You Heard” before diving headlong into several of Jeff’s own demos. These feature just him and his guitar, and the one which makes the excursion worthwhile is “Jewel Box” (not coincidentally, it is the one in which he focuses on singing and not on experimenting with the mike). The CD is wrapped up by a recording of Jeff singing “Satisfied Mind” – that was the way in which his memorial service ended, and it is a tearjerker.
Upon Jeff’s passing his friend and critic Bill Flanagan remarked:
“Imagine if Springsteen had died after only recording Greetings From Asbury Park. All of Buckley’s best work was in front of him. We had heard just enough to be hungry to see where his talent would take him. It is heartbreaking that we will never know.”
We all would have adored to see Jeff’s career unfold. That was never to be. No amount of posthumous releases and re-editions can make an untold story come full circle. Much less when we are talking about a story whose preface was so unrepeatable. “Grace” and “(Sketches For) My Sweetheart The Drunk” are pure magnificence. Take them as that. Many considered Jeff a man that was beset by contradictions, an artist who strove to capture perfection in a wildly spontaneous fashion. The way he would achieve eternal life the moment he passed away might as well be the biggest contradiction of his career. But the way in which he will always stir passion and enthusiasm in people who might not even like rock music is bound to be the prettiest and most enduring of them all to me.