History is fullof artists who flowered briefly, with works of startling beauty, and then died young, leaving generations to wonder, heartbroken, how much more they might have done.
In the music business, this sad cliché of the too-sensitive-to-live artist has acquired such mythological weight that we sometimes suspect young stars of setting on self-destructive paths intentionally. Hard living killed Jim Morrison, you imagine them thinking, let’s see if it’ll get me while I’m still adored.
They usually leave something behind, polished or rough, for fans to mull and record companies to sell. The Smiths’ brilliant “Paint A Vulgar Picture” depicts this process as fast and vulture-like, but it isn’t always that way.
Take Nick Drake, whose brilliantly melancholy records bombed during his lifetime but were rediscovered by many when reissued in the mid-’80s. That rediscovery was nothing compared to the one following “Pink Moon”’s appearance in a particularly atmospheric Volkswagen ad, but even in the wake of that surge, the powers that be took years to give us Family Tree (Tsunami).
Made up completely of recordings made before Drake went pro, Tree contains much that has circulated for years among fans. But it sounds vastly superior to bootlegs I bought in the ’90s, contains some tracks that have never appeared anywhere, and contextualizes them in a truly meaningful way. It’s not a place for newbies to start — it lacks not only the polish but the magic of the three official albums — but it’s fascinating for the rest of us. In between the expected covers of traditional tunes are surprising glimpses of Drake’s musical youth, with a homemade snippet of the Drakes performing a Mozart trio and two songs, written and performed by Nick’s mother, that foreshadow her son’s sensitivities. Most poignant of the originals, perhaps, is track two, on which the singer sighs, “the world hurries on at its breakneck pace / people fly by in their lifelong race / for them, there’s a future to find / and I think they’re leavin’ me behind.”
More successful during his lifetime, though by no means a superstar, was adventurous folksinger Tim Buckley. Contemporary fans who don’t know quite what to make of the singer’s short but prolific career will be enlightened a bit by My Fleeting House (MVD), a DVD collection of more than a dozen live performances that are each introduced by Buckley’s collaborators and biographers. Not only are the performances — everything from a straightforward solo spot on the Monkees’ TV show to a clip from The Christian Licorice Store, an obscure feature film he made — engaging, but the intros explain how some stylistic changes that are jarring on records (the introduction of challenging jazz strains, the retreat to conventional rock instrumentation) were inspired by events in Buckley’s life. As an added curiosity, we see snips from some kind of televised “rap session” whose participants included Buckley and Catch-22 author Joseph Heller.
Buckley, of course, is only one half of a tragic double-whammy. His son Jeff Buckley hardly lived any longer than he did, and had a far shorter (though maybe more commercially successful) recording career. He made only one finished, full-length solo album, the transcendent Grace, but he’s been prolific in death, with live albums, outtakes, special editions, and the preliminary recordings for an unfinished second album flooding stores.
Now there’s So Real: Songs from Jeff Buckley (Columbia), which makes you wonder just how long the repackaging can continue. Yes, it boasts two de rigueur unreleased tracks (one a live cut, one a Smiths cover), which will force truly obsessive fans to buy it. But they’ll resent it. And the uninitiated would be making a big mistake by starting here: Grace is the essential disc, with the EP that preceded it (Live At Sin-E) close behind. After that, much of the appeal relies on imagining what the songwriter would have done with his works in progress.
If only the Smiths cover included on So Real had been “Paint A Vulgar Picture,” which goes: “At the record company meeting / on their hands a dead star / ... / re-issue! re-package! re-package! / re-evaluate the songs / double-pack with a photograph / extra track (and a tacky badge)...” •