Saturday, October 15, 2011

There and Beck Again

Cousin and I have a relationship analogous to the one between Tony Soprano and Tony Blundetto. Brotherly throughout our early lives and into our mid-twenties, then we each went our separate ways. I cut my teeth on life out on the West Coast, and Cousin has been doing time down in Huronia.

But Cousin has a hall pass this weekend, and is heading north to the old hood.

Almost exactly 22 years ago, when I was a pimply teenager at the concrete bunker in the northern hinterlands of Toronto known as York University, Cousin drove down to Toronto in his diesel Datsun, filled to the brim with empty Little Caesar's pizza boxes. We navigated the Byzantine labyrinth of the TTC, and got ourselves down to the feet of another concrete bunker, the newly opened eighth wonder of the North American world. SkyDome.

The roof was closed, and inside was the latest stop on the "Guitar Heroes" tour: Jeff Healey, Jeff Beck, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Vaughn had just released "In Step" that summer, and was the de facto headliner of the tour. I had bought that album a few months earlier, and had recently snagged Jeff Beck's "Guitar Shop", his first album since "Flash", an ill advised experiment that was intended to vault Jeff Beck into commercial viability, and not just universal respect and veneration amongst his peers. How could he miss with Donny Osmond as a guest vocalist? Not a bad album, just Ambitious.

I had been caught in the Crossfire all summer, and was just beginning to revel in the virtuosity of "Guitar Shop". With the great Terry Bozzio on the kit.

Cousin and I found our seats in the nosebleeds (undergrads and pizza deliverymen didn't rake in huge dollars back then). We decided it was time for a pint. I walked the concourse a few times, and all I saw was McDonald's. There were more McDonald's than bathrooms. There were more McDonald's than people. Dumbfounded, we proceeded to our blue plastic seats with milkshakes in hand.

The late Jeff Healey went on first. Nice set. He had just released "Hell to Pay", and was riding a wave of celebrity, at least in Canada and with George Harrison.

Then it was Hello Jeff time. The reason Cousin and I were there, slurping our milkshakes. Jeff didn't tour much back then. He preferred to stay in his castle and work on his collection of custom cars. The rest of the crowd liked him, even if they were there for Stevie Ray. Jeff appreciated it.

Then Stevie Ray rolled out, and the real rock n' rollers around us began to cry out for some real rock n' roll. We stayed for a bit of Stevie Ray's set, then we finished our milkshakes and headed out for Yonge Street. There was drinking to be done.

Tragically, it turned out to be one of Stevie Ray's last tours, as he died in a helicopter crash in August of 1990.

Jeff is a survivor, literally and figuratively. He has traversed the decades and the genres: late 60s/early 70s hard rock, jazz fusion, session man for Billy Cobham and Stanley Clarke, the ambient turn, alt-country. If you can find it in the history of contemporary music, Jeff's done it. Or worked with those who did. After hearing "Guitar Shop", Roger Waters had to recruit him for his "Amused to Death" album. His work on the opening track "The Ballad of Bill Hubbard" haunts me still.

Tomorrow night, almost exactly 22 years ago, Jeff Beck will be performing at the National Arts Centre. After not releasing a single album between 1989's "Guitar Shop" and 1999's "Who Else?", he has released three albums in the 11 years since. Cousin and I will be there, as will Snakey, who was supposed to be there in 1989.

Its been a long, strange trip, there and back again.

We're gonna Head for Backstage Pass.


  1. Admit it, FEL. You want to wake up female some morning so you can be Jeff Beck's number one groupie.

  2. Did a similar journey down to the Dome. No guitar gods though...I saw Aerosmith and Skid Row. Hair Metal at its best.

  3. Sometimes you can be so good, you can just stand somewhere and play, and the rest of the world will come find you. Great writing FE.