Jeff Buckley Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk

Jeff Buckley’s ‘Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk’ at 25

Anyone who wants to hear the truest Jeff Buckley—the artist he was on the way to becoming when he died young—should make sure to find ‘My Sweetheart the Drunk’.

Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk
Jeff Buckley
26 May 1998

Jeff Buckley‘s cover of “Hallelujah” is a problem. To be sure, it’s likely we wouldn’t be listening to or writing about Buckley at all, more than a quarter-century after his death, had it not been for his “hallelujah to the orgasm, an ode to life and love”, as Buckley himself called his rendition of Leonard Cohen‘s song. Now recognized as a classic, “Hallelujah” went largely unnoticed when Cohen first released it in 1984. It was rescued from the threat of oblivion by John Cale‘s 1991 cover, where Buckley first came by it and based his interpretation on it.

Cale resituated Cohen’s cool, deadpan original into what Amanda Palmer called a “heated environment”—the kind of place where “the intense flame that was Jeff Buckley”, as one music writer called him, felt at home. Buckley’s come-hither take on “Hallelujah” was sexed-up and moody, his angelic moan of a voice suffusing the lyrics with an impassioned, febrile vulnerability and naked, body-and-soul spirituality: “Jeff was the most unboundaried personality I ever met”, in the neologistic description of one of his early adherents. Another, hearing him perform “Hallelujah” live at Sin-é, the East Village club where Buckley had a standing weekly gig in his early days, “felt my hair standing up, nearly shaking, breathless, spooked” by Buckley’s otherworldly delivery.

A problem with Buckley’s “Hallelujah” is that while he may be “the song’s ultimate performer”, as Alan Light writes in his book about the song’s rich history, The Holy or the Broken, Buckley will never be its owner in the way that Joan Jett, for example, took “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” from the all-but-unknown Arrows and made it hers forevermore. The subtitle of Light’s book, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” proves as much: Buckley may be inextricable from the song, but its first claimant will always be Cohen.

It now has many others as well. The irony in Buckley’s potent revival of “Hallelujah” is that he so thoroughly convinced the world of its greatness that it became everybody’s song—heard on “every season of American Idol“, as one of its influential promoters joked, not to mention everywhere from Michael Bolton to Adam Sandler to Shrek. It’s thanks to Cohen’s painstaking craftsmanship—it took him five years and dozens of revisions to get “Hallelujah” right—that the composition is seaworthy enough to have “survived banalization with at least some of its sublimity intact”, as the critic A.O. Scott wrote.

The bigger problem with “Hallelujah” is that it doesn’t—and never did—authentically represent Buckley’s music. As Light points out in The Holy or the Broken, Buckley’s early “musical ambitions mostly revolved around his guitar playing—he had taken classes at the [Los Angeles] Musicians’ Institute, learning music theory and flashy guitar licks.” Buckley continued to stick to guitar even after leaping into the spotlight at age 24 with a memorable debut at a star-studded 1991 tribute to his father, the cult legend Tim Buckley. Buckley’s mini-set that night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn included a cover of the song his father wrote about the then-infant Jeff, “I Never Asked to be Your Mountain”, leaving the crowd agog. Afterward, though, Buckley took a gig working as a roadie and guitar tech for Glen Hansard, who had just risen to stardom in the Alan Parker music-steeped film The Commitments.

It wasn’t long before Buckley’s star ascended. He moved to New York and was soon building an audience, and hype, with his gigs at Sin-é. The winner of the industry bidding war was Columbia—Leonard Cohen’s label—for which Buckley recorded his debut album, Grace, in 1993. “Hallelujah” was the six-and-a-half-minute centerpiece, but it was surrounded by other eclectic covers (Nina Simone, Benjamin Britten) and, more significantly, by original tunes that set Buckley’s showy chanteur stylings over some startlingly hard-rocking backing tracks. Grace was produced by Andy Wallace, whose credits included Slayer and White Zombie, and as much as the album foregrounded Buckley’s vocal histrionics, it was just as inclined to thrash and rock.

It also flopped. Grace is a certified legend now—there’s a 33 1/3 series book about it—but it sold poorly on release, and no wonder: it’s not a pop record, and Buckley wasn’t a pop artist. Although he became a media darling around the time of the album’s release in 1994—son of an icon and bearing traces of his father Tim’s celestial voice; beautiful face; a two-year worldwide tour that made that face internationally recognizable—it wasn’t quite possible to know exactly what to expect from Buckley when he finally settled down to make his second album in 1997.

It was unexpectedly produced by the legendary Tom Verlaine, whom Buckley had met while recording some vocals for Patti Smith‘s 1996 album Gone Again. The following winter, they traveled with Buckley’s band from New York City down to (even more unexpectedly) Memphis, evidently to work with fewer distractions—and because Buckley had become friendly with the (excellent) indie rock band Grifters, who were Memphians. After completing the sessions, Buckley wasn’t satisfied with the results. The band and Verlaine went back to New York, but Buckley stayed behind in Memphis and rethought the project, making a few primitive home demos of both new material and covers. He contacted Grace producer Andy Wallace to re-record everything Verlaine had done and arranged for the band to return to Memphis. While their flight was airborne 26 years ago today, Buckley jumped in the river and drowned. He was 30 years old.

Accident? Willfully risky self-destructiveness? Premeditated or rash suicide? Buckley seems to have gone for an impromptu evening swim in a part of the Wolf River (a confluent of the Mississippi) unaware of its dangerous undercurrents, which pulled him down to his death—but then, he’d also been acting “erratically” for some time before that, according to his manager, and who would jump into unknown waters, fully clothed down to his boots, as evening fell? In any case, it’s probably best to leave this problem alone and glean whatever insight we can from the album Buckley had just finished recording when he died, released 25 years ago this May.

Its title is also a problem. It was released about a year after Buckley’s death, with the caveat that it not only wasn’t finished but might have wound up being entirely scrapped and rerecorded had Buckley lived. Instead of using Buckley’s working title, My Sweetheart the Drunk, Buckley’s inner circle insisted that the music be issued as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. The 11-song studio album was packaged with a second CD comprising mostly Buckley’s sloppy Memphis demos, which, after a few songs, reach an unlistenable point from which the second disc never returns. All in all, it’s a regrettable inclusion.

Doubly so, because it detracts from the excellent first disc. Had the first been shorn of both the unfortunate second and the “Sketches” disclaimer and released simply as My Sweetheart the Drunk, we’d be able to hear it on its own unqualified and considerable merits. It’s not clear why Buckley wanted to scrap the Verlaine sessions. He may simply have heard something else in his head that he wasn’t able to communicate to or through Verlaine, but taken as they are, the sessions clearly express Buckley and his band’s music. Although the liner notes to Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk call the Verlaine sessions “official studio demos”, they sound much more polished than that. The performances are refined, the audio quality is high, the mixes are adept, Verlaine’s approach suits the material, and—as you’d expect of a guitar great like Verlaine—he’s particularly sensitive to capturing Buckley’s guitar tone and style.

Of course, Buckley’s voice, widely praised and prized by then, generally overshadows his guitar, and My Sweetheart the Drunk isn’t short on slow atmospheric songs that showcase his vocal performances. The best of these is probably “Morning Theft”, whose gorgeous chords support Buckley’s love letter to (apparently) Cocteau Twins‘ Elisabeth Fraser, with whom he was once involved in the same way that he lived: intensely, briefly. “Morning Theft” is one of the few examples of Buckley, whose vocals tended to run away with his songs, controlling the emotional envelope. It’s as though he’s pouring his heart out while trying not to wake his lover’s child, who is not his, asleep in the next room.

It’s the harder-rocking tracks that connect most deeply. Yet another problem here is that, of all the album’s songs, the one the general public is likeliest to know is “Everybody Here Wants You”, a piece of faux-soul crooning by Buckley as Mystery White Boy (to borrow the title of one of his subsequent posthumous releases) that sounds like a cover but isn’t. The come-on goes on long enough to eventually approach jocular homage, not to say parody, kin to the material Beck cooked up for Midnite Vultures (which appeared the following year).

Another problem with “Everybody Here Wants You” is that it’s the album’s second track, suggesting a direction Buckley hasn’t any intention of going. The first song, “The Sky Is a Landfill”, gives a truer read. It’s a Led Zeppelin-heavy track (with what sounds like a touch of the Grifters, in fact) that supports lyrics expressive of rage against the machine, which Buckley invites us all to fight by “shar[ing] our bodies in disdain for the system”: sex not as intimate hallelujah but as a form of political protest. It’s the sort of sentiment Patti Smith might have inspired in him. The dark imagery (“evil blacks the sky”, “garbage dump of souls”) and splenetic fury set us up for the nightmares and witches and theft we’ll encounter in some of the other songs’ titles, and for his caution to “beware the bottled thoughts of angry young men” who must surely include himself.

This new mood was welcome. Grace had a tendency to wander and to substitute Buckley’s emotive voice for well-made songs. Yet it was also full of promise that he might have enough talent, stage presence, and protean energy—not to mention the pedigree—to carve out a unique and fairly large cultural space; in other words, to become a giant. Buckley was Rufus Wainwright with more urgency and emotion, Morrissey without the moping and the meanness, an indie prophet who could actually sing, and a throwback folkie hero with better looks and sex appeal. My Sweetheart the Drunk built on the sometimes wobbly craft of the debut, evincing stronger songcraft, and turned at least some of Buckley’s gaze up and away from Cohen’s “what’s really going on below”, even if what he beheld was a landfill sky.

Not the problem this time, but the irony, is that the one song on the album Buckley didn’t write, “Yard of Blonde Girls”, might be the most convincing of them all. “Yard of Blonde Girls” has a somewhat unusual creative genesis. It was co-written by sisters Audrey Clark and Lori Kramer, apparently in tribute to a childhood friend of Kramer’s who committed suicide. At some point, Inger Lorre, with whom Buckley was evidently involved at one point, added a second verse—which happens to be about Buckley, although she is reported to have claimed never to have told him so. Lorre’s lyrics concisely describe him: “It’s in your heart, it’s in your art, your beauty / Even in this world of lies, there’s purity / You’ve got innocence in your eyes/ Even in this world of lies, you’re still hopeful / Very sexy.”

The double-exposure song—a tribute to a suicide, paean to a lover—gets a remarkable and possibly unprecedented third kind of exposure in Buckley’s rendition. It would be surprising if Buckley’s version of “Yard of Blonde Girls” were not the only recorded instance of a person singing a song of themselves that someone else wrote: an autobiography sung in the second person—and unwittingly at that if we are to believe that Lorre never told Buckley he was the subject of her verse.

Meanwhile, Kramer’s lyrics about the girl who took her own life tinge the way we hear Buckley singing about himself. His death isn’t known to have been a suicide, but there’s no question he courted self-destruction throughout his short, celebrated life. That he repeated his father’s early death (by drug overdose, in Tim’s case, at age 28, two years younger than Jeff) after publicly repudiating him again and again only adds tragic-ironic weight to the song. He’s personally invested and implicated in the lyrics in a way no one else could ever be in a piece they didn’t write.

What’s most remarkable about Buckley’s version of “Yard of Blonde Girls” is that he takes complete possession of it despite not altering it much—just like Joan Jett did with “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Both covers are virtual carbon copies of the originals that simply but firmly seize the received song and transfuse it with more sex and power, the blood cells of rock music. It’s a shame Buckley will always be so intractably associated with “Hallelujah”, because “Yard of Blonde Girls” is the cover he should be known for. It’s his for all eternity, in any case.

The cult that grew around Buckley has naturally expanded since his death, continually fed by “Hallelujah’s” deathless popularity. Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk has been followed by subsequent releases of material Buckley recorded in his cut-short career, including plenty of rough stuff he almost certainly wouldn’t have wanted the public to hear. That’s the way it always goes, for better and worse. The last of these posthumous releases, a collection of songs from his earliest recording sessions for Columbia, came out in 2019 and could very well be the last, other than a box set that will almost certainly appear at some point.

All of it should be welcomed by his fans and may gain him new ones. He deserves them—he was an intense flame, indeed, and generations will be drawn to him. They’ll always find “Hallelujah” first, but anyone who wants to hear the truest Jeff Buckley—the artist he was on the way to becoming when he died—should find My Sweetheart the Drunk. Not the Sketches but the singular, real thing. Because he was, too.