Listen to this track by genetically-gifted vocalist, guitarist, and solo performer Jeff Buckley. It’s a version of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do”, recorded during club dates in July 19 (nineteen years ago today!) and August 17 1993 at a pokey little club in New York City called Sin-é (that’s pronounced shinay). The song originally appeared on the four-song live EP Live At Sin-é, which was later to be greatly expanded upon on the Live at Siné Legacy Edition in 2003.
Along with being a startling take on Morrison’s song, it represents something of a showcase as to the range of Buckley’s talent, while not getting in the way of his clear love of the source material. Buckley was of course an up-and-coming performer who happened to be the son of ’60s and ’70s singer-songwriter Tim Buckley. So the song also illustrates that Buckley had inherited his father’s roving ear for disparate musical styles. Soul, jazz, and rock all play a part in this one number alone, not to mention the other songs recorded on these dates.
It also shows that he approached the business of singing in a similar way, too; that his voice was not just an implement for delivering melody and lyrics, but rather was employed as a texture and accessory in the same way as any other instrument in an arrangement. Perhaps this ability was honed out of his habit of delivering ambitious arrangements of songs while performing the music entirely solo.
But does this song, and this set, provide any clues as to where Buckley would have gone if he’d had the chance?
Buckley had been in New York since 1990, in an out of various bands, and with work as a session player behind him. But, by 1992, he’d established himself as a solo act, known for playing to small crowds. And it’s on these dates that we catch Buckley as an artist in the middle of a great artistic becoming, apparent to anyone who went to see him play. Soon, the small crowds began to include people like Arista’s Clive Davis. There was buzz.
But, it seems to me that major label attention wasn’t Buckley’s primary concern. In the age where record labels were all looking for the next Nirvana, some underfed guy in a t-shirt singing Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, and ’60s jazz-folk numbers like “The Way Young Lovers Do” didn’t exactly fit the template. I think Buckley’s head was in some other game that was less lucrative, yet extremely important. I think he was looking for a voice. In the middle of cover versions by Morrison, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (his vocal idol), he was drawing all of his musical interests together just to feel the space a bit, and to see what the possibilities were for him as a performer. He was workshopping.
I think too that he was honing his act as a performer in terms of stage presentation and presence, using a small stage (or patch of floor, really), yet treating it as if he was playing Shea Stadium. You can hear it in the arrangements, those being another strength of Buckley’s that isn’t always mentioned, and should be.
This song, and many of the other selections presented on Live at Sin-é, have an epochal quality about them, a sense of scale that you would think just wouldn’t be possible for one guy in a very small venue to be able to put across. Incredibly, it’s almost a bigger sound than he would achieve when he finally was signed to a major label (Columbia), and got a full band together to help him tour the world. It’s my favourite period for Buckley, even surpassing my admiration for his single completed studio album Grace, which would follow in 1994.
Who knows where things would have gone for Buckley, had he lived to create a larger body of work. During the Sin-é years, you could tell that he was taking his time finding the path, still enthusiastic about exploration, rather than in establishing one particular course. Maybe, like his father, he would have done some experimental material, explored the gamut of musical traditions from all over the world, or cut a soul record. I think he probably would have done all of that, personally. What would a Jeff Buckley album be like in 2012? We’ll never know. Like his music, Buckley’s death was elemental, almost mythical; he just swam away one day.
In the end, losing an artist before they’ve had a chance to really get started is all about the loss of possibilities for us as an audience, and of course much more for those who knew them. Beauty and tragedy are never more apparent as they are when taking up the same space in art, and never more intensely is the loss felt by an audience touched by it long after the artist is gone.
For more information about Jeff Buckley, including legacy recordings that appeared posthumously, check out the Jeff Buckley official site.