... in Words: Interviews
"Mother preserving Jeff Buckley's legacy" By " by Kim Hughes
An interview with Mary Guibert
This interview was originally published in NOW Magazine, May 28 - June 3, 1998
There is nothing more heartbreaking than talking to a mother about her dead son. Condolences seem empty and inept.
Yet with a gentle stoicism that can come only after months of anguished hows and whys shot through a hundred sleepless nights, Mary Guibert -- mother of the late Jeff Buckley, who drowned in the Mississippi River in Memphis last May at age 30 -- is now discussing Sketches (For My Sweetheart The Drunk), a fragmented but essential collection celebrating Buckley's inimitable voice while extending his small but startling output.
It is, Guibert admits in the liner notes, an attempt to preserve her son's spirit, however tenuously. And for the most part, it succeeds.
The two-disc set, presented here as works-in-progress without posthumous overdubs, was assembled by Guibert with assistance from close friends and collaborators who offered critical insight into Buckley's musical mindset at the time. It draws together Buckley's last proper studio sessions, plus demos made afterward in preparation for his much-delayed follow-up to 1994's watershed Grace album.
Future releases may include out-takes from the Grace and Live At Sin-é sessions, plus concert material and a roundup of b-sides.
Moments of breathtaking and sometimes wrenching beauty abound on Sketches. Here, after all, is the exquisite voice of Jeff Buckley, relishing life and love for the very last time.
But there's a creepiness, too, which Guibert readily acknowledges, and not just because of song titles like "Nightmares By The Sea."
"You mean lyrics like 'I've had so many loves and I've drowned them all'?" an astonishingly affable Guibert offers from her California home. "Or, from 'So Real,' 'The nightmare that pulled me in and sucked me under.' Or 'I lost myself on a cool damp night' from 'Lilac Wine.' Yeah. Well, if the boy knew he was going to die by drowning, he couldn't have given folks more stuff to chat about, could he? He was very into metaphysical symbols, and I'm as much to blame for that as anybody. A focus on the soul and spirit really shaped his lyrics."
Lyrics are the least of it, though, since Sketches, in essence, chronicles Buckley's struggle to find a sound he felt comfortable with, and clearly, the stripped-down guitar/bass/drums configuration he'd been working in wasn't it. Tracks from studio sessions Buckley laid down with his band and Tom Verlaine (ex-Television) -- whom Buckley had met while guesting on Patti Smith's Gone Again disc -- between summer 1996 and February 97 in New York and Memphis were not intended for release, though they appear here. That's why Buckley remained in Memphis after his band and Verlaine split for New York to continue demo-ing new material while reworking songs already recorded. These four-track demos make up most of the second disc.
In fact, Andy Wallace, who produced Grace and engineered several songs on Sketches, was set to meet Buckley in Memphis last June to take another run at the new album Buckley was already referring to as "My Sweetheart, The Drunk." Ironically, Wallace's involvement in the posthumous set presented, Guibert admits, a conflict between her and Buckley's band as they debated what material should see the light of day.
"The bone of contention was that the songs on the first disc were mixed without involvement from me or the band, and the band resented that and felt I should go to battle with Sony to wipe out the Wallace mixes. That was something I just couldn't do. Was I supposed to go to Andy and say, 'The band doesn't want those mixes'? Especially knowing that Andy and Jeff were so simpatico? If you listen to the two songs on the record that appear in duplicate versions ("New Year's Prayer" and "Nightmares"), you can see what Andy did. So when I refused to make that an issue with Sony, I think the band resented it. But that just wasn't a battle I wanted to fight."
-- was with Buckley's record label, Columbia, over the inclusion of the rough demos Buckley hammered out in his small Memphis house between low-key, trial-run gigs at a local watering hole called Barrister's. These tracks offer a slightly clearer picture of what Buckley was getting at -- a flat-footed balance between swooping, grand arrangements and tightly structured songs. Though illuminating, these tracks, compared to the studio sessions, feel clunky and incomplete.
Still, the concept of a posthumous release was never an issue for Guibert, who arguably had as much influence over her son's outlook as did his late father, Guibert's ex-husband, Tim Buckley, who died of a drug overdose at age 28 in 1975.
"When the question at hand was to release something or nothing at all, there was no question in my mind that something should be released," Guibert says. "The question of what was the big crux for me. So when I took the tapes of the four-tracks home, and played those DATs hour upon hour, day upon day -- and at that time I was not sleeping, so my little boombox was going 24 hours a day -- the beauty of the music just kept speaking to me.
"Then the letters from his fans started coming in. It was poetry, such lovely letters, and little stories from fans about how they met Jeff on the street, how he'd buy them beers and hang out with them. It was everything that kept me together. And in the months I couldn't sleep, I would turn on the light and start reading their letters.
"That gave me the courage to face whatever critics there were going to be. And we knew there would be critics, people who questioned the motives of releasing this music but obviously didn't have an interest in Jeff's legacy.
"Jeff worked very, very hard to break through and write these songs. Much of the music was in no state to be revealed, so there are songs that no one has heard that may be suitable for other people to perform one day. But there was a point where I knew I just could not bury this music. I could not just keep it in my little apartment here. I had to have his voice heard and let the music speak for itself."
In addition to Buckley guitarist Michael Tighe and A&R man Michael Clouse, another key player in the Sketches project was former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, whom Buckley met in 1993. "Jeff hated name-dropping," Guibert says, "which is why Chris' involvement in the project has surprised some people. Few people knew they were friends.
"So everyone -- the band, Chris -- helped me to navigate the music business somewhat, and that was really important. They had impartial ears about what should and shouldn't be released because, needless to say, my impartiality was shot.
"Jeff would send me tapes of the stuff he was working on from the time he was a youngster. That," she chuckles, "was a promise he kept. I still have some of those, and they're pretty incredible. Early on, I remember being kind of dismayed because the songs were kind of quirky and the subject matter was, oh, you know, defiant and youthful.
"As he got older, he would call me not so much about music as personal stuff, like how to keep grounded when everyone around him was telling him he was the next big thing. He didn't want to become an icon. He really struggled with that. He used to say, 'Mom, I'm not going to become a big rock star.' And I would say, 'Scotty (reverting to his given name), there's nothing you can do when the public likes your music to the extent that they make you a rock star.'
"And you know," she offers, her composure finally crumbling, "so many entertainers have been so marvelous. Bono from U2 dedicated nearly every performance from their PopMart tour to my son. I would just love to give him a great big kiss. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have been very complimentary and magnanimous.
"Even Bob Dylan, in an interview with a French magazine, named Jeff as one of the great songwriters of this decade." Guibert, for the first time, begins to weep. "I don't think you can find any higher praise than from the lips of those gentlemen."
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