Perfect Songs – “Be Your Husband” by Jeff Buckley

I had known about Jeff Buckley since 1997 when I met him at my college’s annual spring concert. The weather was unseasonably cold and Jeff had been prevailed upon by some friends of mine to come to Conway from Memphis where he was working on the followup to his now-classic album, Grace. I wish I could remember the occasion better, but at the time I was busy working as stage crew. I remember the guy had a unique voice, but that’s about it. A few months later I read that he had drowned.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I even picked up a copy of Grace, and then everything else. I won’t go on about the talent we lost in Jeff, or the incredible influence he’s had on just about every rock vocalist since about 1999. I’ll just say that while I very much enjoyed his work, it wasn’t until the two-disc Live At Sin-é legacy edition was released in 2003 that I realized just what we had in Jeff. His a cappella version of Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband,” in which he naturally adjusts the possessive adjectives to “Be Your Husband,” sets the tone: you hear the patrons of the cafe chattering and clinking their glasses as Jeff sets up and starts stomping and clapping. By two minutes in, the place is dead quiet as Jeff calls forth the ghosts of Parchman Farm, conjuring spirits to be his backing vocalists. What he did, I was not previously aware humans could do.

His chops as a soul vocalist established, he opens disc two with a verbatim rendition of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai” and immediately you’re hit with the realization that this is not merely some white boy who knows his Memphis R&B. This is a musical traveler with bigger ears than anyone his age has any right to have. In between songs, he reveals himself further to be a complete dork, talking about the radio, Nusrat, beverages, poking fun at CBGBs, and whatever else pops into his head. In doing so, he shows his allegiance to the ranks of The Uncool by admitting to a variety of enthusiasms, thus shearing him of any facade of Cool (because cool people, as everyone knows, are perpetually bored). He becomes no longer the packaged product of a record label, hair perfectly mussed and guitar slung low[1]. He’s just Jeff, the guy for whom Nusrat is Elvis, a guy with boundless potential whose artistic voice is still under construction. It’s one of the only times on a record that I’ve ever felt like I was getting to know a real person.

>> Download Be Your Husband (Live) or Live At Sin-é (Legacy Edition) at amazon.com.

As a small tribute to Jeff and to this song, I hastily assembled this video a few years ago using public domain footage from archive.org. I hadn’t looked at it in awhile; it’s got 44,000 views. Neato.

1.) 10 years passed between the EP version and the two-disc legacy edition, which makes me wonder if this sort of thing could only have been released posthumously, when Columbia Records had less of an investment in the persona of “Jeff Buckley.”