Amazing grace

Three years after his death, Jeff Buckley continues to build a mystery with a new live collection

The album's other flaw can probably be pinned at the door of Columbia Records. Michael Tighe, Buckley's guitarist and a co-producer of the disc, had originally planned on compiling an album that focused on obscure, unreleased tracks. But according to Shouse (who has worked with Tighe in the band Those Bastard Souls), Columbia urged Tighe to incorporate several of the most popular songs from Grace.

As a result, only three previously unreleased originals and two covers made the final cut on Mystery White Boy. In a way, it's hard to fault the inclusion of Buckley standards like "Last Goodbye" or "Mojo Pin," but there's little doubt that a set of rarities would have been a fresher, more rewarding farewell for Buckley loyalists.

Buckley's choice of outside material offered fascinating clues into his bewildering musical wanderlust. On a given night, he was likely to cover everything from the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" to Sly Stone's "Everyday People" to Bob Dylan's "If You See Her Say Hello" to Van Morrison's "The Way Young Lovers Do" (although not available on Mystery White Boy, "Kick Out the Jams" is included on the new video release Jeff Buckley: Live in Chicago).

At the end of his short life, Jeff Buckley didn't want to be a rock star. He wanted to be...a zookeeper.
David Gahr
At the end of his short life, Jeff Buckley didn't want to be a rock star. He wanted to be...a zookeeper.

On Mystery White Boy, Buckley delivers a definitive version of Alex Chilton's jagged masterpiece "Kanga Roo," almost convincing you that the song was written for him to sing. His impromptu take on the Judy Garland showstopper "The Man That Got Away" is strange, but oddly affecting. It offers a reminder that part of what made Buckley interesting was the way his elastic voice could take on a feminine quality, the way he could evoke sexual ambiguity without being coy.

Among the three previously unreleased originals, the standout is "I Woke Up in a Strange Place," a blistering rocker that ranks alongside Buckley's most dynamic tunes.

It could have fit snugly on My Sweetheart the Drunk, the album that Buckley was laboring over when he died (a collection of those songs, along with a number of other unreleased recordings, were put out posthumously in 1998 as a double-disc set called Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk)). That album marked the point when Buckley's long-standing resistance to record-company interference came to a head. Buckley believed that the suits at Columbia were pressuring him to be the kind of big-time rock star that he didn't feel comfortable becoming. Meanwhile, after recording an album's worth of tracks with ex-Television leader Tom Verlaine, he decided to start from scratch.

"He told me that he heard too much New York in the record he had made, and he wanted to try to get a looser, more laid-back feel that he was picking up in Memphis," recalls Robert Gordon, a music writer who befriended Buckley in the final months of his life.

"He wasn't really happy with the slickness of Grace," Shouse adds. "At the very least, he knew he didn't want to do it again. He talked about making a rougher record. And we told him that this was a place you could get away with whatever you wanted to get away with."

Watching Buckley at his final Monday-night gigs at Barrister's, one sensed that he was trying to re-create the vibe he'd felt in his early days at Sin-e, before he had expectations to live up to. At Barrister's, accompanied only by his electric guitar, he'd test new material and improvise lyrics on the spot. Sometimes he'd tell rambling stories about his childhood. When he wasn't onstage, he'd spend hours playing pool until closing time.

Contrary to rumors at the time, which suggested that Buckley was grappling with creative burnout, he seemed--as usual--to be facing the opposite problem: how to make sense of his overload of ideas.

"In a way, he was always on, whether he was onstage or just hanging out, and that's why I think the stage suited him so well," Gordon says. "He had this undercurrent of energy, which I don't think he could really control. He could wrangle it sometimes, and that was when he made great music or when he was particularly funny. But he would just as easily riff on a long and funny, but not very cogent, tale.

"He was really nice and pretty gentle. For someone who had done so much, there was an innocence--I don't know if it was an innocence or a purity. It was like his voice. It was a natural thing, like a mountain is a natural thing. He was in a nasty business, but the slime didn't stick to him."

In the three years since his death, Buckley's stature has slowly grown. Artists like Marianne Faithfull, Bono, Chris Cornell, and Patti Smith have waxed rhapsodic about his talent. Aimee Mann and Juliana Hatfield have written songs about him. They all recognize that Buckley, while capable of self-indulgence and lapses in judgment, simply reached heights that most pop musicians never even dream about.

In his liner notes to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's 1996 album The Supreme Collection Volume 1, Buckley wrote of Khan: "Part Buddha, part demon, part mad angel, his voice is velvet fire, simply incomparable." Buckley just as easily could have been writing about himself.

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