Die, Jeff Buckley, Die!

It's time to put a bullet through the head of the Jeff Buckley zombie

Oct 13, 2004 at 4:00 am
Jeff Buckley needs to die. Again. Like that photo of Michael J. Fox's parents in Back to the Future, his beloved image -- swoony alt-rock icon, weepingly tragic cult hero -- is slowly fading into nothingness, but this time a horrible image is hardening in its place:

The White Tupac.

Jeff actually released one proper studio album while alive -- 1994's Grace. Half of it consists of sorta-pleasant rockin'-out guitar stuff. But the other half is absolutely devastating and universe-obliteratingly glorious, wherein Jeff single-handedly redeems the entire Wimpy White Guy open-mic singer-songwriter racket. He vaulted octaves with the same fearless bravado Evel Knievel used to jump canyons, a voice that could shriek with the ferocity of the armadillo in Robert Plant's trousers, while simultaneously commanding enough heart-melting romantic gravitas to separate normally level-headed ladies from their undergarments, the same way you'd shuck an ear of corn.

Here's a lanky, aloof-lookin' white dude who could take "Lilac Wine," a tune definitively owned by Nina freakin' Simone, and turn it into a bone-chilling vibrato fiesta -- Lllilac wwwine is sssweet and hhheady, lllike my loooove, that last word lilting delicately upward with enough emotional force to lift your Kia Sephia off the Poplar Street Bridge by the force of its own undistilled beauty alone. You'll land somewhere around Chicago.

But three years later, in May of '97, Buckley died in ludicrously romantic fashion, drowning in the Mississippi River near Memphis during recording sessions for Grace's follow-up. Cue open weeping. Jeff's diva-like melodrama became nearly as emblematic as Kurt Cobain's snarling rage in the Rock Martyr Pantheon. And the posthumous Jeff Buckley album industry -- hellbent on diluting his lilac wine with gallon after gallon of unfiltered well water -- sprung up to cash in.

So now you can buy Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, the two-disc set cobbled together from the Grace follow-up sessions Jeff had barely begun. There's the live record Mystery White Boy, the five-CD Grace EPs box set collecting rare/foreign releases, the two-disc-plus-DVD Live at Sin-E collection chronicling his old NYC nightclub crooner days, another pre-Grace odds 'n' sods compendium entitled 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.

Knock it off.

The impulse to feed starving, mourning fans every half-listenable scrap of material a deceased artist left behind isn't necessarily predatory or greedy -- the prominent hand of Jeff's mom, Mary Guibert, in these affairs suggests it's at least partly about Letting His Voice Be Heard -- but there's no denying how sinister that process has gotten. Tupac's 30-albums-a-year regimen is both awful and hilarious, an out-of-control reworking of the ol' Jimi Hendrix juggernaut. Meanwhile, publishing Cobain's handwritten diaries remains one of our fair nation's most abominable low points, the ultimate privacy-destroying act of necrophilia.

Buckley's treatment ain't much better -- he's already saddled with one tell-all biography, David Browne's Dream Brother, fattened with diary scraps and deliberately drawing a spiritual connection Jeff openly despised, alternating his biographical chapters with the story of Tim Buckley, his also-revered folk-singer father. The book also paints Jeff as a painstaking perfectionist, which makes the posthumous strategy of releasing his every half-baked, half-finished studio burp even more suspect.

Of course, we'd forgive most of this if the gussied-up Grace reissue were absolutely essential. But the DVD is beyond pointless, with a yawner of a making-of-Grace documentary (he had so many ideas!) and five of the dunderheadest videos you'll ever run afoul of. (The "So Real" video concept: Dudes in monkey suits steal Jeff's bike; distraught, he runs down the middle of the street and rips his shirt off.) The B-side disc barely improves, larded with throwaway covers (nice Screaming Jay Hawkins impression, though) and alternate versions.

Even the set's trump card flops. "Forget Her" is canonized as the great lost Buckley song, enigmatically scrapped from Grace at the last moment despite being totally awesome, dude. Incorrect. It's boring, plodding and utterly unremarkable, a hype anticlimax of Deion Sanders proportions. We waited ten years for this?

Throw Grace -- the unsullied original -- on now and this hysteria nearly justifies itself. Jeff's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is pretty much unbelievable, a hushed, religious reading that steals the tune from Lenny forevermore and could quite possibly change your life if you're not careful. But how best to honor it? Do you release every single inferior note Buckley ever shaped in an endless series of "Legacy Editions," or do you let the tune stand alone and unmatched, a powerful and devastating reminder of What Was and What Could Have Been?

Figure this out now, folks, because Elliot Smith waits in the wings. The similarly worshipped indie-rock troubadour's final album, From a Basement on the Hill, comes out Tuesday, almost exactly a year after Smith died of an evidently self-inflicted stab wound to the heart. Basement was reportedly near completion and thus avoids the scavenger stigma -- furthermore, it's fantastic, moody and melodic and resonant and inevitably tied to the sadness and beauty of Smith's life and death.

But Elliot's debut, Roman Candle, came out in '94, just like Grace, and Smith worked prolifically through the next near-decade. You can imagine how much of a B-side odds-and-ends backlog he's got -- worth several multidisc compliations or one massive box set, at least. Is he next in line to have his every failed experiment exhumed and re-released? Like Jeff Buckley, will he ever be able to give enough?

"There is one major negative to this album, though," notes a customer review of the Buckley Live at Sin-E reissue. "It is just a reminder that there will be no more heard from Jeff." It's a somber thought, but it's even more depressing to think that he's probably wrong.