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Heaven Can't Wait

Death is sweet for these late tunesmiths

By Greg Cahill

Comedian Dana Carvey used to do a hilarious routine on Saturday Night Live in which he portrayed a washed-up, burned-out rock 'n' roller with spiky hair and a nominal brain-cell count who just couldn't get his songwriting chops together well enough to sell mountains of records anymore. In one skit, a record-company executive--armed with yards of spread sheets and colorful flow charts--calls the over-the-hill rocker to the office and unveils the label's new sales strategy after some marketing genius has figured out that if the singer were to die unexpectedly, record sales would skyrocket. All that remains is to convince Carvey's character to take the plunge--in everyone's best interest, of course.

Hell, it worked for Jim Morrison, a lifeless stage performer, embarrassingly bad poet and half-baked vocalist who died young enough and (more or less) pretty enough to become a Dionysian icon (or a god with a penis, as someone once described the late Lizard King).

Of course, death hasn't hurt the careers of such deceased rockers as Hendrix or Joplin either. But now the afterlife has proved a sweet refuge for a growing number of singer-songwriter types as well.

Like Nick Drake, for example.

The moody Brit penned dark lyrics and released three brooding albums filled with gorgeous chamber-folk songs before succumbing to an overdose of antidepressants (maybe accidental, maybe intentional) at his parents' home in 1974. Drake was 26. Thirty years and several posthumous albums later--the latest of which, Made to Love Magic, was released last month after being stitched together from shoddy material by greedy Island Records execs--and Drake is more popular than ever. Part of that success is due to the allure of his "Pink Moon," the wistful acoustic ballad used a couple of years ago on a highly successful Volkswagon TV ad campaign targeted at emo-generation consumers.

More recently, Drake's "One of These Things First" from his album Bryter Later has popped up on the new Garden State soundtrack.

Great, Nick. Can we expect a tour anytime soon?

And then there's Jeff Buckley. He was the son of the tragically hip singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, the Southern California folk-rocker who died of a heroin overdose in 1975 (Tim's own career was revived posthumously in the 1980s when the Cocteau Twins covered his sorrowful "Song to the Siren"). In 1997, three years after his strong first album Grace, 30-year-old Jeff Buckley staged his own tragic death when he walked fully clothed into the Mississippi River one night, slipped beneath the waves and disappeared. Five days later, his bloated body washed onto the banks of the Big Muddy just a few blocks from Beale Street.

This week, after three posthumous releases compiled by his mother, Columbia/ Legacy released an expanded, three-disc version of 1994's Grace with 12 extra tracks (seven, mostly blues covers, previously unreleased) and a DVD featuring all four music videos, archival studio footage, interviews, live performances and more. The result is a pastiche of blues, hard rock, lounge and dream pop that mirrors the many sides of a multifaceted performer blessed with a voice that could seduce with a whisper or scorch with an operatic scream.

The expanded Grace is wildly uneven in tone and style, yet it is a testament to a mercurial singer, songwriter and interpreter capable of flashes of brilliance.

Happy 10th year in the biz, Jeff.

Meanwhile, Elliott Smith, the 34-year-old songsmith who stabbed a steak knife into his heart last year as he lay beside his sleeping spouse, isn't around to celebrate the release of his first posthumous CD. From a Basement on the Hill (Anti-Records) was two years in the making and long delayed by Smith's bouts with depression and substance abuse. It comes 10 years after Roman Candle, a critically acclaimed folk-punk debut that drew comparisons to that other folk loner Nick Drake, and took Smith out of the Portland, Ore., bar scene and eventually to an Academy Award nomination for his contribution to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack.

The next few years weren't so kind, as his autobiographical accounts of addiction and torment attest, and before his suicide Smith rambled onstage almost incoherently between song sets and looked, well, like death warmed over.

At least in the afterlife Smith is doing some good: proceeds from sales of his new CD will benefit a foundation for abused children.

Way to go, Elliott.

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From the August 18-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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