Ripercorrendo la breve carriera di Jeff Buckley e in particolare la storia dietro l’album incompiuto Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, un articolo di Longreads esplora alcuni aspetti dell’esistenza del compianto cantautore statunitense e del suo rapporto con la musica – aspetti che spesso, sostiene l’autore, sembra confliggano con le iniziative di chi continua a gestirne il lascito artistico.
On the evening of May 29, 1997, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley and his roadie Keith Foti picked their way down the steep, weedy bank to Wolf River Harbor in Memphis, Tennessee. Buckley, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and heavy Doc Martens boots, waded into the water singing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” After about 15 minutes, a boat passed. Concerned about their boom box getting wet, Foti moved it out of harm’s way. When he turned back around, Buckley was gone with the undertow. His body wouldn’t be found for days. He was 30 years old.
Jeff Buckley had mastered that most singular of instruments: his own voice. Possessing the same incredible range as opera icon Pavarotti, his phrasing could be anguished or exquisite; his breath control was phenomenal. Beyond that, he was the soul of eclecticism: Raised on prog rock, he dabbled in hair metal, gospel, country, and soul. Once, during a live performance, he improvised in the ecstatic style of Qawwali devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan — someone Buckley once described as “My Elvis” — over the riff from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“I’m a ridiculous person,” he told the puzzled crowd afterward.
Sadly, if not surprisingly, Buckley left little in the way of recorded output. He released two albums during his life: 1993’s Live at Sin-é and 1994’s Grace. The record he was working on in Memphis, tentatively called My Sweetheart the Drunk, never saw completion and was shelved because of his death. It would have only been his second studio release. What was released more than a year later — a pastiche of studio recordings and demos — is as illustrative of his potential as it is of the Jeff Buckley industry that sprung up after his demise. Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk is a difficult listen, and not just because Buckley was unafraid to be challenging or the fact that much of it is more promise than fruition. The album encapsulates unpleasant cultural and legal issues of privacy, ownership, and the wishes of the artist when they run counter to those of his fanbase, record label, or even his estate. Jeff Buckley would not have wanted Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk to come out at all.
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