In February of 1993, 26-year-old Jeff Buckley entered a nondescript office building in New York’s Flatiron district armed only with his guitar and a three-ringed binder of covers and song sketches. Inside, Steve Berkowitz —a Sony A&R man who had beat out a slew of record labels to sign the up-and-coming musician — and producer Steve Addabbo were setting up the latter’s Shelter Island Sound studio for what was to be three days of unfiltered recording. A document of what the nascent Buckley had in his repertoire.
Twenty three years later, a selection of those recordings are being released for the first time under the title You and I (named after a dream song Buckley dictated to Addabbo, which is included in the release).
“I hadn’t heard much,” the producer recalls of Buckley at the time. “At that point there was no internet. When I heard Columbia had signed Tim Buckley’s son I thought, 'Oh, that’s interesting. Wonder what he’s like.'" But when Buckley opened his mouth, “He blew me away,” Addabbo says. “His voice, his guitar playing. I was discovering what he did too. I had no idea.”
Over the three days Buckley recorded some five hours of music, mostly covers he had been working on during his residency at historic folk cafe Sin-é, including songs by Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Edith Piaf, Sly and the Family Stone, Bob Dylan and the Smiths.
“His whole vibe was very cool. He made you feel at ease with him. He was very humble,” remembers Addabbo. “What you’re hearing is Jeff having a good time in the studio. Relaxing. We weren't pressuring him. We weren't making him play to a click track. If he felt like playing the song again, it’s fine. If he screwed up and didn't want to do the song, it’s fine.”
If Buckley appears cool and calm on the recordings, he was a mess of emotions internally. Fighting a cold and the pressures of a major-label deal, the young artist was worried his career had stalled before it even began.
Mary Guibert, Buckley’s mother and executor of his trust, recalls her son being “totally blown away by what he was doing.”
“He has this calm: he walks in and he sits down and he has his three-ring binder of all the songs. And he has this terrible cold, you can hear him sniffling through the whole thing. But he’s being all manly with the guys,” she says. “Then I’d get these 1 a.m. phone calls going, ‘Oh my God, mom, I did a horrible job. It sounded horrible. I know what they’re playing on the radio now and I don’t know what they’re going to do with me. They’re going to fire me. They’re gonna kick me off.'
“He agonized through everything. It was the yin and the yang of it all. I would say, ‘You chose them, babe.’ And he would say, ‘Mom, you should have seen the other guys!’”
"He agonized through everything. It was the yin and the yang of it all."
Along with the sketch title track, You and I also contains an early version of the title track to Buckley’s eventual début, Grace.
Addabbo says the two were included mostly because they were the extent of his original output at the time.
“Jeff had the ability to cop all these styles. That was the good news and the bad news,” he says. “He would go through all these styles of music from Led Zeppelin to [Leonard Cohen’s] 'Hallelujah' and they would all sound like Jeff wrote them. Which is another kind of talent in itself. It also made it more difficult for him to focus on his own style and talent and what that was going to be.”
The result is an album that is very much intended to be heard in context. It’s a portrait of the artist as a young man, presented warts and all. But history has a funny way of fitting memories into convenient boxes. When it comes to Jeff Buckley, his premature death in 1997 — swept into the Mississippi River by a passing tug boat’s undertow — has allowed a parallel universe to arise around his mythos. With only one album and a wealth of potential to his name at the time of his passing, Buckley’s supporters — including Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Brad Pitt and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page — who were drawn to his sweeping, angelic voice and authentic emotional register, have become fiercely guarded of his catalogue. And, in turn, Guibert, who raised Buckley with her second husband after his father left her during pregnancy.
“Artists will send me emails and letters or when they meet me they think somehow that I'm the oracle and that I’ll somehow utter the words that will inspire them to Jeff Buckley’s heights. Not happening.” Guibert says, her tone raising a smidgen. “I am as much in awe of Jeff’s talents and his sensitivity as an artist every time I come to the work. I bring humility and my understanding of this one individual and his work. That’s the one thing I can claim any fundamental understanding of. Everything I came into the world with, in terms of talent, prepared me for the most bittersweet success I could possibly have in life.”
Predictably then, the release of You and I has not come without its critics, but listening to the tracks, it’s nearly impossible to ignore that much of what invoked such devotion for Buckley’s crude talent is on display.
“Everyone says if Jeff were around today he would hate this,” Guibert says. “Response number 1: oh really, you knew him better than I did? Response number 2: if Jeff were alive today, he would be alive today. He would have written 100 more songs, he would be the one deciding which of the old things to go out. He would be sitting in the chair and talking to the record label.”
“If I sound a little irritated it’s because it never ends," she continues. "People who've never met him pontificate about how we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. We've got barrels we haven’t opened yet!”
For his part, Addabbo says he doesn't have any problem with the recordings being made public in such a way. “It’s like sitting in the living room with him,” he says. “It doesn’t need anything else."
Buckley and Addabbo didn't keep in touch after the recording, but the 65-year-old says he remembers the day he heard the singer had drowned. “I was at my studio and I just looked around and kind of felt very quiet. It was a very, very sad time.”
It’s the exact reason he thinks You and I, and what he hopes will be subsequent recordings from the sessions, especially the cover of Piaf’s “Je n'en connais pas la fin,” see the light of day.
“The whole point of this is that it’s a very satisfying experience just to listen to what we have here,” Addabbo says. “There’s nothing between that microphone and this recording. How often do you get this close to a singer?”