As stirring as Mystery White Boy is, though, it falls short on two counts. For one thing the album is composed of two-track, soundboard recordings that don't fully capture the richness of Buckley's band. But Buckley simply didn't live long enough to make a proper live record (aside from his solo 1993 EP Live at Sin-é), and this album's sonic shortcomings are a small price to pay when it means the chance to hear more music from an artist whose career ended far too soon.
The album's other flaw can probably be pinned at the door of Columbia Records. Michael Tighe, Buckley's guitarist and a coproducer of the disc, had originally planned on compiling an album that focused on obscure, unreleased tracks. But according to David Shouse (who has worked with Tighe in Those Bastard Souls), Columbia urged Tighe to incorporate several of the most popular songs from Grace.
As a result only three previously unreleased originals and two covers made the final cut on Mystery White Boy. In a way it's hard to fault the inclusion of Buckley standards such as Last Goodbye or Mojo Pin, but there's little doubt that a set of rarities would have been a fresher, more rewarding farewell for Buckley loyalists.
Buckley's choice of outside material offers fascinating clues into his bewildering musical wanderlust. On a given night, he was likely to cover everything from the MC5's Kick Out the Jams to Sly Stone's Everyday People to Bob Dylan's If You See Her Say Hello to Van Morrison's The Way Young Lovers Do (although not available on Mystery White Boy, Kick Out the Jams is included on the new video release Jeff Buckley: Live in Chicago).
On Mystery White Boy Buckley delivers a definitive version of Alex Chilton's jagged masterpiece Kanga Roo, almost convincing you that the song was written for him to sing. His impromptu take on the Judy Garland showstopper The Man That Got Away is strange, but oddly affecting. It offers a reminder that part of what made Buckley interesting was the way his elastic voice could take on a feminine quality, the way he could evoke sexual ambiguity without being coy. Among the three previously unreleased originals, the standout is I Woke up in a Strange Place, a blistering rocker that ranks alongside Buckley's most dynamic tunes.
It could have fit snugly on My Sweetheart the Drunk, the album that Buckley was laboring over when he died. (A collection of those songs, along with a number of other unreleased recordings, were put out posthumously in 1998 as a double-disc set called Sketches [For My Sweetheart the Drunk].) That album marked the point when Buckley's long-standing resistance to record-company interference came to a head. Buckley believed the suits at Columbia were pressuring him to be the kind of big-time rock star he didn't feel comfortable becoming. Meanwhile, after recording an album's worth of tracks with ex-Television leader Tom Verlaine, he decided to start from scratch.
He told me that he heard too much New York in the record he had made, and he wanted to try to get a looser, more laid-back feel that he was picking up in Memphis, recalls Robert Gordon, a music writer who befriended Buckley in the final months of his life.
He wasn't really happy with the slickness of Grace, Shouse adds. At the very least, he knew he didn't want to do it again. He talked about making a rougher record. And we told him that this was a place you could get away with whatever you wanted to get away with.
Watching Buckley at his final Monday-night gigs at Barrister's, one sensed that he was trying to re-create the vibe he'd felt in his early days at Sin-é, before he had expectations to live up to. At Barrister's, accompanied only by his electric guitar, he'd test new material and improvise lyrics on the spot. Sometimes he'd tell rambling stories about his childhood. When he wasn't onstage, he'd spend hours playing pool until closing time.
Contrary to rumors at the time, which suggested Buckley was grappling with creative burnout, he seemed, as usual, to be facing the opposite problem: how to make sense of his overload of ideas.
In a way he was always on, whether he was onstage or just hanging out, and that's why I think the stage suited him so well, Gordon says. He had this undercurrent of energy, which I don't think he could really control. He could wrangle it sometimes, and that was when he made great music or when he was particularly funny. But he would just as easily riff on a long and funny, but not very cogent, tale.