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Jeff Buckley had released two live EPs (Live at Sin-é in 1993 and Live from the Bataclan in 1995) plus a full studio album (Grace in 1994) before dying in 1997. Since his death, eight live albums and several compilations have been released, covering music recorded while he was signed at Sony and also before he had a recording contract.

The most controversial is Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, which came out a year after his death. Buckley had already discarded a batch of recordings produced by Tom Verlaine in late 1996 and early 1997 and was preparing to record again in Memphis, the place where he drowned in Mississippi.

Buckley left no will, but his estate was transferred automatically to his mother, Mary Guibert. While still mourning the loss of her son, she was informed that Sony was going to continue releasing the Verlaine tapes under the title My Sweetheart the Drunk (Buckley’s working title for what was to be her second album) only a few months ago. after his death. She had not, she says, been consulted on this press release.

“We found Jeff’s body and held the two memorials in July and August,” she says. “I got home and started getting calls from band members saying, ‘Why are you going ahead with the album? Jeff never wanted these things! He wanted the [Tom] Verlaine’s tapes burned and blah, blah, blah. And I’m like ‘Whoa wait, nobody’s doing anything!’ I picked up the phone and called the label. ‘Oh yeah, Steve Berkowitz [the Sony executive who signed Buckley] and Andy [Wallace, producer of Grace] are in the studio for mixing and mastering. ‘ What? What is that ? Well that turned out to be the first CD. Ah yes, it was ready. It was going to go into production.

‘These are his real leftovers’: the battle for Jeff Buckley’s final recordings |  Jeff Buckley
Cover of Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk. Photography: Colombia

She asked Conrad Rippy, her lawyer, to contact Sony to stop the broadcast of Tom Verlaine’s tapes. “They put this album on the fall 1997 release schedule,” says Rippy of Sony’s plans. “Jeff and the band – and therefore Mary – were very clear that the band was flying to Memphis to record the album which would then replace that album. [the Verlaine recordings]. So for Sony, just to put it on the release schedule… I understand it as a business decision, you know, to capitalize on [on it]. Literally the first thing I did was dictate a cease and desist letter to Sony. Which always catches their attention!

Guibert says she and Rippy went to meet with senior Sony executives to determine what, if anything, should be done with Buckley’s unreleased recordings. Grace had not been significantly recovered, and Sony was eager to bring a new product to the market; Guibert was less enthusiastic. The meeting included Don Iener, president of the Sony Music Label Group, and he spoke privately with Guibert about what they should do. “I said, ‘I want one thing,’” she recalls this conversation. “I want one thing. Just give me control and we’ll do it all together. You will be able to use whatever you have, that is to say worth using. ‘ She emphasizes the words “worth using”. This led to an impasse with Berkowitz. Guibert accused him of working on the unreleased recordings “behind my back” because he “thought he was going to be the new producer of Jeff’s work”. A compromise was found where it became a dual disc release with Verlaine’s recordings on one disc and the most recent demos on the other.

Guibert said she was adamant that Sony couldn’t polish the four-track demos and that they should be released as they were on the double album. “I said no! Listen! I know what you wanna do. That’s what you would do with his leftovers – put him in an Armani suit and shiny shoes and comb his hair and put lipstick on. him or something. It’s not who he is. These are his real remains, as they are. Just treat them as if they were his real remains. If it was his body here and we are doing it. were preparing for his funeral, we wouldn’t put him in a suit. We put him in a floral shirt and black jeans and his Doc Martens and left his hair tousled. And maybe a little mustard on his chin. We didn’t. wouldn’t screw it up by posting something he didn’t approve of, so I won that argument.

Relations with Berkowitz were so strained that they were deemed irrecoverable by Guibert. She felt betrayed by him (claiming that he called her “the bitch”) and was also offended that he was trying to be the one who defined her son’s legacy. To appease Guibert, Berkowitz was removed from all Jeff Buckley projects at Sony and replaced by Don DeVito, the producer and executive who worked with Bob Dylan, luring him to Sony / Columbia in 1975 after his brief defection to Asylum and producing. his 1976 album. Desire besides being the A&R contact of big names like Bruce Springsteen, Carole King and Billy Joel.

‘These are his real leftovers’: the battle for Jeff Buckley’s final recordings |  Jeff Buckley
Jeff Buckley in August 1994. Photograph: Dave Tonge / Getty Images

“Sony needed to move into someone else who had no intention of releasing [Sketches for] My Sweetheart the Drunk in the fall of 1997, ”says Rippy. “So they moved Don around pretty quickly to help soften the waters. Don ran the Buckley Project with Mary for probably the next 10 years. Don and Mary have developed a real collaborative partnership. This, especially in the early days of releases, was key to making sure everything that came out matched the inheritance appropriately. “

He says there is a hard lesson here for label executives trying to bypass estate managers, especially if they are family members. “Don came because we didn’t want to take care of Steve anymore after that,” says Rippy. “In the 23 years that I have dealt with Jeff’s legacy with Mary, I may have had a conversation with Steve Berkowitz early on. You’re not getting very far with Mary by firing her.

‘These are his real leftovers’: the battle for Jeff Buckley’s final recordings |  Jeff Buckley
Cover of Eamonn Forde’s book Leaving the Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates. Photograph: Omnibus Press

I approached Sony Music to respond to what Guibert and Rippy had to say about the company’s behavior around the release of the album. A company spokesperson declined to comment.

So having a family member – especially one who has previously collaborated creatively with the artist in question – involved in carrying out the unfinished recordings is probably the best route. It is the least likely to face charges of desecration.

Leaving the Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates by Eamonn Forde is now available, published by Omnibus Press.

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