Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Sketch of a Ghost

By Mark Jordan

JUNE 1, 1998:  On February 13, 1997, Jeff Buckley, then just barely turned 30, went into a Manhattan recording studio to lay down a track for producer Hal Willner’s album tribute to the gothic poet and short-story writer Edgar Allen Poe. He did not have his guitar with him. Indeed, he was not even going to need his acclaimed singing voice – that eerie, evocative instrument as wonderful and beatific as Gabriel’s horn. Instead, he was taking his first stab at spoken-word recording by reading one of Poe’s poems.

In the studio with him that day, helping coach the novice poetry reader through the session, was the famed beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who would die just one month later of liver cancer at the age of 70. In perhaps his most famous work, “Howl,” Ginsberg once lamented the loss of the “best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” the “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” whose yearning ultimately led them down dark paths of self-destruction. When Ginsberg wrote those words in 1956, he could not have imagined a Jeff Buckley. Nor even years later, as he stood in the studio with the young rock musician who was often praised for his angelic voice and transcendent music, could he have detected the madness (or folly, more likely) that would drive Buckley into the murky waters of the Memphis harbor where his slight, beautiful body would be swept up and drowned in its currents.

On that winter day in 1997, the poem Buckley read for the Poe project, titled Closed On Account Of Rabies, was the lyrical ballad “Ulalume.” In it, the narrator is walking blindly through the dark woods on an October night with only the stars to guide him. His walk ends, however, when he unwittingly comes upon the tomb of Ulalume, his late beloved whom he had laid to rest exactly one year before:

“ … On this very night of last year

That I journeyed – I journeyed down here –

That I brought a dread burden down here –

On this night of all nights in the year,

Ah, what demon has tempted me here?

Well, I know, now, this dim lake of Auber –

This misty mid region of Weir –

Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,

This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

For anyone looking for them (like a music journalist), the glorious life and tragic death of Buckley is filled with coincidences and foreshadowing. Like Ginsberg’s compatriots, Buckley has been portrayed as a starry-eyed dreamer who was consumed by his quest for transcendence. And like the narrator of “Ulalume,” the Buckley many audiences saw was a soul engulfed in darkness, using the starry heights of music to light his way out.

That may all seem like romantic, pseudo-mythic claptrap to those who knew the real Buckley, no matter how briefly, as a vigorous, life-loving person. But it hardly matters, because now Buckley belongs to myth. His memory belongs to his friends, family, and lovers. But his life after death belongs to the fans who saw him play live and who heard his records.

And now those fans are like the narrator of “Ulalume,” wandering through a year of darkness only to come upon the remains of their departed lover.

On May 29th, exactly one year after Buckley drowned in the Memphis harbor, Buckley’s mother, Mary Guibert and Columbia Records will release the first collection of posthumous new material from Buckley. Composed of full-band studio demos recorded in New York by producer Tom Verlaine and four-track home recordings made by Buckley alone in the Midtown Memphis home he lived in just before his death, the 20 tracks on two CDs represent the work Buckley was doing on the follow-up to his critically acclaimed 1994 major-label debut Grace, at the time tentatively titled My Sweetheart The Drunk.

While there are reportedly many other unreleased Buckley tapes still in the vaults (outtakes, B-sides, live recordings) which will surely surface sometime soon, for this first posthumous release Guibert wanted to present Buckley’s final work in the state it was in when he died, rough and incomplete as it may have been.

As Guibert writes in the liner notes, “the songs that would have been My Sweetheart The Drunk … are the true ‘remains’ of Jeff Buckley, not the speck of dust that was pulled out of the Wolf River.”

For this reason, the new CD, appropriately retitled Sketches For (My Sweetheart The Drunk), is an understandably uneven work.

Disc one of Sketches, made up of the Verlaine sessions, will be the easiest for fans and newcomers to take. Though Buckley reportedly disowned these takes and was readying to start recording afresh without Verlaine when he took that fateful trip down by the riverside, they are still the most fully realized songs on Sketches. My Sweetheart The Drunk was widely expected to be Buckley’s breakout album, and one can hear the beginnings of a promise fulfilled on disc one. The songs are sparse and more straight-ahead than the jazzy ruminations of Grace. (The stark appeal of these tracks may be entirely accidental, due to the fact that Buckley never had the chance to fully develop them.) And while Sketches continually falls short of the previous album’s most splendorous, emotional highs, there are still great moments to be enjoyed. Songs like “The Sky Is A Landfill,” “Nightmares By The Sea,” and the rare but characteristic R&B turn “Everybody Here Wants You” are the most (dare we say it) commercial ones Buckley ever produced. But Buckley was far too versatile, too daring an artist to sell out completely. As befitting someone who claimed equal devotion to Led Zeppelin, French chanteuse Edith Piaf, and the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (to whom Sketches is dedicated and to whom the disc-one closer “You & I” is a fitting tribute), the record’s radio-friendly rock tendencies serve only to pull in the listener before Buckley unleashes his trademark twists – turning the beat around, taking a melody in an unexpected direction, shifting moods in a single strum of the guitar.

Disc two starts off promisingly with three more cuts from the Verlaine sessions – another version of “Nightmares by The Sea,” “New Year’s Prayer,” and the cathartic “Haven’t You Heard.” But starting with track four, the second disc begins to explore Buckley’s four-track demo recordings. And while a few of these hold up fine – the surprisingly painful, bare-bones “I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby (If We Wanted To Be)” and “Jewel Box,” which has a laborless feel, as if it was born fully realized – these tracks are, for the most part, too rough, too, well, sketchy to be of interest to anyone but a completist. They and the Verlaine tracks would have been better served by being featured on separate records.

But if Sketches misses a step with the six home demos on disc two, it rebounds beautifully with a haunting, spiritual live reading of Porter Wagoner’s “Satisfied Mind,” a song performed at his New York memorial and another of Buckley’s sublime cover choices, which also includes, on this album, the early Genesis classic “Back In N.Y.C.”

“When my life is over/ And my time has run out,” Buckley sings on this final track. “My friends and my lovers/ I will leave them no doubt/ But one thing’s for certain/ When it comes my time/ I leave this old world/ With a satisfied mind.”

One hopes that’s the way it happened, that as he slipped beneath the water’s surface for the last time he was at peace with himself. But for those friends and lovers he left behind, there is only restlessness and a rough sketch to remember him by.

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