Song In My Head #79: “I Want Someone Badly” by Shudder to Think featuring Jeff Buckley

Most mid-’90s music lovers became Jeff Buckley fans because of a song; “Last Goodbye,” say, or his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I may be the only person who first appreciated him due to an unusual magazine article where he was not the interview subject, but rather the interviewer. Might as well start at the beginning…

It was spring quarter 1996 at Stanford, and finals were looming ahead. I was particularly worried about the Poetry and Poetics exam, which would not be an exam at all. Rather, students were to memorize Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and write it down in its entirety. I read and re-read the poem for days, but somehow it wasn’t sticking. I remember my friend Scott calling me the night before the final, occasionally interrupting our lengthy discussion of the Posies and Big Star with a stern but kindly “Are you sure you shouldn’t be studying?” (He’s a working musician himself now, which seems proper.) The next morning’s final revealed the truth I had repressed all week: I only remembered bits and pieces of the poem. (The mental block, apparently, was permanent. Today I looked up the poem, and aside from the “Tell me, Ramon Fernandez, if you know” line, I might as well have been reading it for the first time. Yikes.) My TA was sympathetic, and promised to take the rest of my class work into account when grading the final. Even so, I was pretty upset. I figured I’d flunk out of school shortly, and might as well do what I always did to cheer up. I hopped the campus shuttle to Palo Alto’s University Avenue.

After lunch (Chinese at Jing Jing, as I recall–funny how I can remember that, but not the blasted poem), I decided to browse the newsstand at Borders (formerly the historic Varsity Theatre, currently the Hanahaus coworking cafe), since that was an option in those days. I flipped through the new issue of Mojo, where an appealingly odd sidebar caught my eye. Juan Garcia Esquivel, 1950s space-age composer turned 1990s lounge-pop revival icon, had granted a phone interview from his home in Mexico. The man asking the questions happened to be the up-and-coming singer Jeff Buckley. Buckley’s enthusiasm jumped off the page, thoroughly charming me. As he grilled Esquivel about the minutiae of various song arrangements, I felt myself grinning for the first time in days. I knew that the wheelchair-bound Esquivel was undergoing painful physical therapy due to various back injuries, yet the older man’s warm, upbeat demeanor was impossible to ignore. His mind was percolating with future songs and projects, and the article ended with him proclaiming “I’m in a very good mood today.” Needless to say, the whole story put my problem into perspective. (Recently, I learned that the conference call was organized by rock journalist Barney Hoskyns. I actually met Hoskyns at the 2015 ALA conference in San Francisco, but didn’t know to tell him this anecdote at the time. Given the fangirling I was doing over his books that day, it’s probably just as well.)

I bought the magazine, and became a fan of both artists. I ended up receiving a decent grade in the class, too, though somehow the situation didn’t seem so dire by then. Music has a way of fixing things, even though, as we know, it can’t fix everything. Even today, it somehow seems impossible that “I Want Someone Badly” was released more than a year after Buckley’s tragic death. I keep checking the album liner notes and Wikipedia, but they feel like typographical errors in my head. (Yes, I do know the truth. In a lifetime of reading, four books fall into the “I Cried Inconsolably, Even Though I Knew What Was Going To Happen” category so far. David Browne’s Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley  is the first.)

That’s right, a song is why we’re here, and it’s an intriguing one. “I Want Someone Badly” comes from the First Love, Last Rites soundtrack of summer 1998. (The movie is an Americanized adaptation of the Ian McEwan short story. I haven’t seen it, but have always been curious.) The songs were portraying oldies that the characters heard on the radio, so they encompassed various musical styles. The guest vocalists included everyone from Liz Phair to John Doe, but the music itself was written and performed by Shudder To Think. (Band members Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson have flourishing soundtrack work to this day, and I’ve always wondered if this project planted that seed.) The song itself is understated and spare, giving Buckley full room for a powerful (yet not overblown) performance. (Since no other singers are credited, I have a feeling the doo-wop backing vocals are an equally impressive double-tracking.) I remember thinking it strange that such an amazing song was flying under the radar, which is probably why it appeared on the expanded reissue of Buckley’s breakthrough album Grace in 2004. I still hit “repeat” often when I play this one, which I guess is as good a tribute as any…

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