“That old funny-shaped bit of wood is still staring me in the face every day saying ‘Come on, you haven’t started yet!’ It’s infinite.” – Jeff Beck
A rock’n’roll lifetime ago as a college student, before journalism chose me, I was parking cars in a gravel lot in a seamy section of Montreal, behind a strip bar and other less than savoury enterprises.
While dating the smartest girl (excuse me—smartest person) in school—and not long before becoming the Rock Critic at the Montreal Gazette—I was lurching from terrible to worse summer jobs, enjoying the sweet summer misery of youthful poverty. I had been categorized as “brilliantly unemployable” by a friend whose name escapes me.
And on one sultry late-summer night, Jeff Beck brought a rock’n’roll miracle calling in the nick of time. Here’s a reason why that matters.
On the evening in question, I did what parking lot attendants do: sit in the agents’ “cabane”, a 4’ x 4’ shack with a bare lightbulb and one electrical outlet, waiting for the gravelly crunch of cars while listening to the local rock station, CHOM-FM, on a boombox. In that way, the job distantly—and I do mean distantly—recalled the life of a touring rock band: plenty of idle waiting before leaping into action. Then, like a mirage out of a Stephen King film, a gold Cadillac rolled into the lot from the eastern entrance at about 10 p.m.
On first view, this was not entirely unlikely; on second look, the car had no plates. Caddy dude emerged in a brown leather jacket, jeans, and cowboy boots, wreathed in menace and cursing in French, and without approaching, threw the keys over, whirled on his heel and left, as I called out something about the deposit. Fortunately, he did not hear. And he was gone, headed for the strip bar. Jeff Beck was, figuratively, waiting in the wings.
Back to the cabane, parking the odd car, listening gloomily to the classic rock on the radio, wondering about unemployability and the future, and penning the 9th in a series of 12-page, handwritten love-and-woe letters to the girlfriend who was on vacation somewhere fabulous with her family. And after three hours, the film scene shifted from King to Scorsese.
The dude was heard returning before scene, as the bootheels crunched on the gravel, but there was a difference. Having spent the night at the maypole “gentleman” dive, he now had a high-heeled young woman in strip-exotic dress under each arm.
High heels. On gravel. As they tottered towards the cabane and I emerged, dude started barking in French demanding his keys. Well, sir, there is the small matter of the $12 fee… which is when he unhooked his right arm from gal #1 and pulled out a revolver. The ladies, it must be said, were not shocked or even surprised by this. This parking lot attendant had a different reaction. Dude was not going to pay. Got it. The fee was indeed waived, and off they tottered, piling into the Caddy and peeling out, gravel flying everywhere.
In retrospect, the story is blackly comic now. At that moment, despite the gorgeously sultry weather, it was as though a trap door had opened into a dead summer future for the youthfully damned.
I don’t know who the wee-hours CHOM DJ was back then, but at the lowest moment of an abyssal night, he or she cued up a song by Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart—a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, the immortal gospel-themed classic with the legendary mystic power to save the soul of the damned. Martin Luther King Jr. had even named it the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Tonight, it had a different agenda.
What is the salvational power of a song in the right liminal moment? What is needed or delivered then?
It could have been The Who or Dylan or Muddy Waters or the Clash or Stevie Wonder or 157 other artists. But it was Beck and Rod. There was a cassette in the boombox. I pressed ‘record’. Listened to Beck’s sterling, skirling runs and knotted soloing unfurling like a rope down into the well, and Rod’s suddenly committed vocal, Scottish soul disciple that he is/was. That song was played a dozen times that night, ringing and echoing into the Montreal night over the shining gravel. What had seemed to be the latest in a series of dead-end evenings was transformed by every subsequent playing into a Not Tonight, Satan moment. From crime to sublime.
What is the purpose or value of a song? The purpose is expression. The value is effect. One lone guitarist writing a song in his bedsit. 15,000 screaming girls and boys feeling its power in their young lives.
Or yours. Or mine. I never met or interviewed Jeff Beck—he was never my go-to guitarist—and he is now part of the ether and the iconic gravitas of our musical heritage. But on one night, one song can make all the difference to anyone out there in the LostLands. Why it’s recorded; why it’s heard. So thanks DJ, on that broken night that fixed everything, and entwined with the mortality of the man and the immortality of the musician, there is an enduring gratitude, so bless you lads, for covering a song that needn’t have been covered, but was covered well. In this sense, there is no “addition by subtraction”. There is only addition. Life is addition.
“I’ve never stuck around long enough to know if anyone would miss me. That’s rock’n’roll, though. Here today, gone tomorrow.” – Jeff Beck