When Jeff Buckley waded into the muddy waters of the Mississippi singing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” on May 29, 1997 so began one of music’s greatest tragedies. Aged 28, with just one album released—but hey what an album!—Grace and another My Sweetheart the Drunk half complete, Buckley was one of the decade’s most gifted talents. More music was, of course, not to be. Not in Jeff’s lifetime anyway. A genuine loss. As the author of his beloved “Hallelujah” once sang, “Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye”.
It’s naturally impossible to visit any of Buckley’s posthumous releases without feeling a sting of sadness. Hell, even Grace parted with the shivery farewell “Dream, dream, asleep in the sand with the ocean washing over”. It’s all heavy. You and I does an admirable job though of turning back to brighter days. Still bring tissues though. In early 1993, having initially avoided following his similarly talented and tragic father Tim into music, Buckley signed with Columbia Records after triggering their alarm whilst melting hearts ‘n’ faces in Manhattan’s East Village. You and I contains those first, once-mythical sessions recorded in Steve Addabbo’s Shelter Island studio. Listening to its eight covers and two originals now feels like watching Buckley in an abandoned studio mid-afternoon and he’s playing just for you. Intimate, magical and yup, really sad.
“When we meet again…” Our afternoon session begins with some Dylan, “Just Like a Woman”. A heartbreaker obviously. After those familiar chords it’s the voice that takes your breath away, “No no nooo nobody feels any pain.” Even in 1993 Buckley’s vocal trademarks were locked down. Like a bluebird landing on your shoulder before swooping and soaring across the sky. The way it travels across a single word like “Break” is supernatural. No showboating, just curiously exploring the song, lost in the moment. It’s a style that’s since been endlessly imitated but rarely equalled.
Much of You and I is equally mesmerizing. Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” was known to many in 1993 as “That Arrested Development song”, but Buckley gives it his own spin. He sounds like the funkiest, white busker on the street corner. Slapping out its percussive groove on his guitar it glows with joy, “Scooby dooby dooby / Ooh sha sha / We got to live together.” A rallying call for fools to be cool it lures you closer with a whisper then blows you away with a passionate bellow. You can feel Buckley beaming too throughout Louis Jordan’s jumpin’ jive “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin’”. “Baby you can wail / Beat your head on the pavement,” TAP! TAP! TAP! Buckley bangs on the floor for comic effect. After he’s through you hear him shufflin’ his hymn book and mumbling “I does like that song.” It adds to the palpable “Are we supposed to be here?” invitation-only ambience. Jevetta Steele’s Bagdad Café theme “Calling You” is for night owls though and floats lonely and lost. “A desert road from Vegas to nowhere… we all know a change is coming.” When Buckley ad-libs the final moments it flickers like a candle in the dark, “Coming closer sweet release.”
In an album of haunting moments, it’s Buckley’s own tempestuous “Grace” that really delivers the chills. Even in solo demo form it’s all there. The twists, the turns, the dives and the rise. It all starts here. “I believe / My time has come.” You can sense him putting on his warpaint, the poetic martyr fired by the orchestras in his mind, “Well it’s my time coming, I’m not afraid to die.” It burns with muscle and melodrama, “I feel them drown my name.” To hear it being born is like being struck by lightning. Terrifying but, y’know, electrifying.
It’s a shame that “Dream of You and I” momentarily breaks the spell. For those drooling at the thought of unreleased Buckley originals prepare to open Capone’s vault. It’s likely just Jeff dropping a placeholder for what would become “You and I” on 1998’s Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. Two near-instrumental minutes of campfire folk that’s repeated for Jeff to dissect the song’s dreamy origins. There’s foggy memories of a “Spacey dead head band” playing “A really cool space jam”. It’s uncomfortably bizarre and is the kind of filler found in lesser “Studio scraps” compilations. A one listen oddity that slightly sours the spirit of You and I.
Buckley slips into character for two of the covers. Bukka White’s “Poor Boy Long Way from Home” remains a gritty, Southern stomp slippery with slick slide guitar. “Daddy, when you comin’ back home?” it howls. Less successful is a romp through Zeppelin’s “Night Flight” which shakes with six-string swagger but Buckley’s Percy impression strains so hard it sounds like he’s got his “Old chap” caught in his zipper. “Fuck that pissed me off!” Jeff spits at the end and we share his pain. Two Smiths’ covers prove a more flattering fit. “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side” is romantically elegant and positively dashing, “Love! Love! Oh yeah!” Unsurprisingly though “I Know It’s Over” is devastating. The original is majestically maudlin already, but in these circumstances, damn. “See, the sea wants to take me,” it weeps with crushing sincerity, “Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.” A lament for an inescapable destination. When it is finally over Jeff sighs “That’s about it, let’s go home” and he’s gone. It doesn’t so much as tug the heartstrings as nuke them from orbit.
Thankfully You and I is no barrel-scraping shakedown. It deserves to be heard. There may be no staggering surprises but it offers a chance to see a rare bird learning to fly. A memory worth holding on to.
// Notes from the Road
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