Saturday, February 26, 2011

On The Man in Black's birthday, I find myself thinkin' 'bout... Beck.

"I had a front row seat to hear ole Johnny sing." - Shel Silverstein

merican Recordings by Johnny Cash arrived in 1994, produced by Rick Rubin as the first release of his newly renamed record label.  I was no stranger to Johnny Cash (I can blame that on my parents and older siblings), but the album did appear at a time when I was finally making music my own and I absorbed it eagerly and wholly.  Probably the most important aspect of that record-release was the tour that accompanied it, enabling me to see Cash live at the Hollywood Pantages Theater.  I don’t know that there are words to describe the fondness I have for that memory, even though I got a second opportunity to see him live when The Highwaymen toured for their last album a year or so later.  But they were both events fated to not repeat themselves and I feel very fortunate to have had the experience.

But, despite it being Johnny Cash’s birthday, it isn’t really The Man In Black I want to lay some accolades on.  There are many who will do that today and my voice would only be lost in the shuffle.  Who warrants a listen to some accordion-squeezing hack from the San Fernando Valley when every accredited music critic, music historian, and venerable musical personality has something to say on the same topic?  Nah.  Everyone knows how I feel about Johnny Cash.  I will let the masses say their part.  Who I want to spend a moment talking about is Beck.

Yeah.  Beck.  That guy who musically defined the modern era of hipsterdom with classics such as “Loser”, “The New Pollution”, and “Where It’s At.”  What the hell does Beck have to do with Johnny Cash?  Well, Beck opened for Johnny Cash at that Pantages show so long ago.  Even at the time the pairing was unprecedented.  I remember friends being surprised when I told them who the opening act was indicated to be on the ticket.  Even my eclectically inclined contemporaries were hard pressed to see the connection between Beck’s renowned frenetic, yard-blower stage antics and the perceived hallowedness of Johnny Cash.

My thirteen years senior older brother, a Johnny Cash diehard, reviled the thought of the pairing when I explained to him who Beck was and played some music for him.  He even went so far as to suggest that we arrive late enough to the show as to miss the opening act, but my cajoling won out.

Anyone who knows Beck’s live performance (at least in the mid-1990s) reputation should have no problem comprehending my puzzlement over the pairing.  But it was a puzzlement that was unwarranted.  Instead, it was one of those instances where the Powers-That-Be should have been trusted. 

Beck came out alone.  Clad in a nondescript western shirt and weathered boots and armed with an undecorated steel bodied guitar he proceeded to render his own versions of what he verbally labeled “bad ass songs” for a hushed, and assuredly surprised (if not awed) audience.  Beck’s “bad ass songs” were tunes out of the songbook of Americana, traditional tunes a century old with lyrical content that raised the eyebrows of the listener who believing in the premise that the past was innocent and plagued by fewer societal complications and problems than this supposedly downward-spiraling modern world.  Songs about murderers, drug abuse, crushed dreams, and questionable repute from bygone eras flowed from Beck’s pickin’ an’ strummin’ fingers and searching voice.  At one point he brought out a dobro player and a snare drummer and did a couple tunes as a trio, and in an inspired moment he blared a ditty through a harmonica fed through the tiniest and scratchiest of amplifiers, stopping to sing verses and chorus accapella before resuming his hearty huffin’ an’ puffin’.

For nigh on 40-some odd minutes Beck continued with this very un-Beckish performance.  Then, amidst a tune he was carving out on the steel bodied guitar, a string break loudly resonated through the pick-up and out into the theater’s acoustics.  There was a muffled “Shit” under Beck’s breath, then an apology, a regretful farewell, and a thank you to “whoever it was that booked me for this gig.”

And then he was gone.  Johnny Cash delivered after that.  The man was everything you could have imagined he would be, a stage presence so overpowering and commandeering that there was absolutely no stage show necessary to hold that audience riveted.  The reverence held through the opening set with his band, through his just-me-and-my-guitar set in the middle of the show, and through the filmstrip-of-crashing-locomotives-accented Orange Blossom Special encore.

But even coming away from that night with the euphoric “I can’t believe I just saw Johnny Cash” mindset, it was hard to shake Beck.  My perception of his music had been changed forever.  Odelay! made sense on so many more levels than it had before, and the appropriation of such traditional tunes as “One Kind Favor” into his following album experimentations came as far from surprising.

When I look back on where the inspiration for Squeezebox Sam and any of the musical projects I’ve fooled with birthed from, there are the usual suspects such as being raised in a musically-versed family, permanently borrowing Lomax books from the public library, and hearing Gordon Gano’s “Mercy Seat” side project on a mid-morning independent radio broadcast.  But I would be a liar if I did not include that Beck performance in the list.  His offbeat stint truly inspired me to look at those beloved antique tunes in new ways.  I, too, thank whoever booked him for that “gig.”   

- Squeezebox Sam

Here's the variety review link fer that show so long ago:

No comments:

Post a Comment