The best thing about the massive snowstorm that bombarded the East Coast last week (besides it not hitting here instead) was that it forced Beck to be stranded in New York City and thus appear an extra night on The Late Show with David Letterman (pre-puffy eyed Dave(s)).
Beck was originally scheduled to appear on Monday night and on that night he did a stellar, heartbreaking performance of "Lost Cause." Tuesday night he returned and performed an ethereal "Sunday Sun." To say that both performances topped everything on the Grammies held days later is the understatement of the millennium (though I must admit I liked the Springsteen, Costello, Grohl, and Van Zandt version of "London Calling" in tribute to Joe Strummer).
I've never been a huge Beck fan in the past. He's always sort of reminded me of the guys I hated most in high school: smug, hipper than thou, and unjustly talented. His lyrics and his music can often times (to these ears at least) sound just too darn clever.
It was during the great Cheapo summit last fall in rainy Los Angeles when visiting one of the multitude of CD stores where I found a used promo copy of Beck's recently released Sea Change. I was anxious to hear the new disc for a couple of reasons. One being as I made my way to the checkout counter manned by a most attractive if inattentive young lass, where Uptown Sam my motel roommate told me what a great CD I held in my hands. Sam seemed a knowledgeable sort so I was more than happy to slap my money on the counter.
The other reason I was happy to have found a disc by an aforementioned artist who hasn't been one who gets played a lot in my modest abode is that earlier in the fall the blue eyed intern was kind enough to thankfully make me a compilation of songs and she included on her disc the then new Beck song an aptly named "Guess I'm Doing Fine." On a disc of great music (it remains one of the most played discs in my collection) that was my immediate favorite song. So weary. So sad. So expressive. Fine fine stuff.
Sitting next to Uptown Sam on our plane ride home I popped Sea Change into my portable CD player. Beneath the rumble of the jet engines I knew that this disc, not immediately seeping into my soul, one day soon would. There is such a jarring and apparent purpose behind the songwriting and singing. It's an artist who is in pain and needs his art to sort things in his heart out. In other words it's exactly the same type crap I've long been accused of favoring.
"Lost Cause" is my favorite track and probably was my favorite song from last year. It's like a great Dylan kiss off song- dismissing a former lover at the same time revealing that you're not quite over her. Beck's Nick Drake-like baritone caresses the sometimes mean-spirited but always heartfelt words masterfully. The performance of the song on Letterman made such compelling viewing. Beck hardly blinked as he sang the first verse. The he closed his eyes, lost in the melody, lost in the original inspiration of the song, and it was as if it wasn't merely a song anymore. This was blood- the barest element of life- and he was as defiant as he was wistful.
It would take roofer like effort to top that performance but the next night that was exactly what Beck did. The opening dissonant chords of "Sunday Sun," strummed with aching authority by the scarf-draped diminutive figure promised something special. And it was delivered. "Looking for a satellite/in the rays of heaven again/there's no other ending..." The song exploded with the drummer banging his kit with such force and Beck matching the percussion with painful yelps and oohs and aahs. The somewhat cryptic lyrics were peeled away layer by layer like an eclipse. And all the walls thus melted.