Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Garage Sale Culture

Our garage was/is overflowing with stuff. When my wife saw that her father's neighborhood was having a neighborhood-wide garage sale, she convinced him to participate so we could sell a bunch of our crap at the sale. We loaded up two cars worth of items and drove it over to his driveway. Correction: I loaded up two carloads of items. We had a nice globe that I used to have in my law office, three side tables, clothes drying racks, my old bike, a filing cabinet, a fake tree, and bags full of clothing that our daughters have outgrown and some of my wife's castoffs as well. The main thing was this etagere that looked stylish in the 80's. It is huge, much taller than me, and it has lots of heavy glass that goes with it.

The garage sale is supposed to start at nine a.m. So I pull up to her Dad's place at about 8:15 to set up. But apparently nine means 8:15. As soon as I pull up and start unloading, the vultures start circling. The customers at garage sales come in waves. The true Professionals, I'm talking about the people who check the papers every week and hit every garage sale in town, are there at the start. And they have no time for chit-chat, because they've got to hit all of the sales in town early before the good stuff is gone. My wife did some research and found that you should ask for about 25% of whatever the item would be worth new, and then you can negotiate down to 20-15% (or whatever you are willing to go to). A lot of these people buy garage sale items, refurbish them and then turn around and resell them at flea markets.

So I am unloading from the car and this lady approaches purposefully and asks, "how much for the globe? What about the edger? What about the tables?" I had not even calculated what they all should go for yet. Her fat partner is in a truck waiting. "Are these for sale?" She points to framed pictures my father-in-law has on his garage wall. "No." I ask for $25 for the globe (I probably bought it for $80 new). She shouts out "25" to the fat lady in the truck. Fat lady shouts back "15!" "20!" I counter. "18!" Really? I said 25, you said 15, so we meet in the middle at 20, right? Fine. Take it for 18. The whole purpose of this sale was to get rid of stuff in the garage that has been taking up space for years. They are rapid fire with some other items and are gone within about two minutes. I still need to unload the car but they keep coming. Nine o'clock, you bastards!

Things finally get set up and I'm a bit more relaxed. Fat lady and her partner caught me off guard. But I'm ready now. I'm going to be tougher from here on out. My wife thought highly of her clothing, apparently, because her instructions to me were $5 per item of hers. When people ask how much for the clothes and I tell them five bucks each, they either stare blankly at me for a few seconds and then walk away or say something along the lines of "for this?" I quickly text my wife and tell her that she cannot sell her clothes for $5 each item. She reluctantly gives me permission to sell them at $3, and they start selling slowly but steadily.

I am really unsure on what to ask for the bike. I've had it since middle school, but it is a good Schwinn mountain bike. For several decades it has resided in various garages and storage units, and it is in OK but not great shape. New bikes online that look like it vary widely in price. Anyway, I sell it for about $40, and then a woman comes up to me and says "I would have paid you more for it. You need to be patient. You got taken" and walks off. Bitch. Now I'm on tilt, like I just lost a bad hand at poker.

The Professionals are gone by now, and then come the Specialists. These are people looking for only particular items. "Do you have any jewelry?" "Do you have clothing for five year old boys?" "Do you have medieval weapons?" I am able to satisfy people looking for clothing for girls 0-6 months old. I've got a lot of that.

There is a steady stream of cars that slowly cruise by, checking out your wares in the driveway. They look like they are either casing the house out for robbery or looking for hookers. It is rather insulting when they don't stop, though. They slow down, look over your merchandise, and then speed off. I know they are at a distance, but I swear I can see disdain on their faces for my items. I take it personally each time someone doesn't stop to look around.

After the Specialists are done, then you have your more casual folks just checking things out. They are the nicest. They actually will engage in casual conversation. What I cannot understand, though, is why nobody wants this amazing etagere. By noon, I have sold all of the major, large items. People come with trucks and trailors to load huge amounts of stuff. All I've got left are a bunch of clothes and the etagere. For each person who comes by, I explain all of the great things you could do with this etagere. Repaint it and it looks like new. It would look fantastic in the entry of a Chinese restaurant. I have to leave for an hour to help my wife with something, so I leave my father-in-law and his caretaker in charge, with instructions to ask for $35 but go to $30 on the etagere. And be sure to explain how awesome it is. I desperately want to sell this thing, because if I don't, I have to lift this monstrosity, strap it back to the top of my car, and take it back to my garage. When I return an hour later, it is still there. The caretaker tells me someone offered $25, but since I said $30, she said no. Dammit, I would now pay somebody to take it.

Around 2 p.m., it is all over. We got several hundred bucks for things that we didn't want anyway. I guess that is what a garage sale is for. And the buyers know you don't really want this stuff.

Anyone need an etagere? It looked really good in about 1987.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Dez Record Guides: Jeff Beck

Through my years of trying to spread the Gospel of Jeff, I have come to the realization that you either get Jeff Beck or you don’t. I think that it is mostly musicians who truly appreciate him. The word “genius” is thrown about way too liberally in rock music, but Beck is a sonic genius guitar player. From the beginning people recognized it. He was one of the few contemporaries that Hendrix really admired. He did things that Clapton and Page could not or would not. He is perhaps most famous to the general public as one of the three British guitar gods to come out of The Yardbirds, replacing Eric Clapton and getting booted and replaced by Jimmy Page. Comparing each of their tenures in The Yardbirds is instructive. Even then, Clapton was a musical conservative (leaving in part because they wanted to move beyond playing strictly high octane blues). It is Jeff Beck’s tenure in the Yardbirds that is most daring, most exciting, most challenging.

What makes him, in my view, the greatest living electric guitarist? His greatness is not as immediately obvious as other guitar icons. But if you listen closely, his tone, his feel for notes (nobody bends like Beck), his complete mastery of the entire instrument (and I mean entire instrument, when I saw him live I saw him play most of a song with a slide on the strings just above the pick-ups…nobody does that), his use of effects, his placement and choices…just unmatched. He can play fast and impress you with technique, but he often doesn’t go that route. He is much more interested in sounds and textures that he can conjure than just playing a fast solo. I saw Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan on a co-headlining tour in 1989. At the time I came away thinking that SRV definitely bested him. I didn’t really know what to think of the Beck set. First of all, it was about twice as loud as SRV’s. He works with volume too. I love SRV, and to my young ears his speed, grace and bombast were more obvious than Beck's talents. Now, though, I would rather listen to Jeff Beck play over SRV nine times out of ten.

He has always had a tough time keeping groups together. He notoriously cannot keep singers around. Some of the music he plays on (his own or as a guest for others) is honestly mediocre, but even there, his playing can be genius. It will be a completely mediocre song, he will step up and solo and blow you away, then step back and the song becomes mediocre once again. He is a cagey fellow with a wicked sense of humor. He enjoys restoring classic cars as much as playing, and will disappear from the music scene for years at a time to tinker in his garage. When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Yardbirds (years later he went in again on his own), he gave the funniest speech I have ever heard given at the Rockhall inductions. “I should be honored to be up here but I’m really not. They kicked me out of the band (turning to his former bandmates and Clapton and Page), so f*** you guys.”

Note: Jeff Beck was the lead guitarist for The Yardbirds from 1965-66, taking over after Eric Clapton left. There was a brief period where Beck and Jimmy Page shared lead duties, but then Beck was sacked. This discography begins after the Yardbirds.

Truth (Jeff Beck Group) (1968) ****
Beck-Ola (Jeff Beck Group) (1969) ****

Beck’s original line-up for his Group is the most celebrated, featuring Ron Wood on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano and a young, gritty singer by the name of Rod Stewart. They had the chops and attitude to match the other classic rock groups of the day, like Zeppelin, Cream or The Who. But the Achilles Heel was lack of songwriting. Both records are full of covers, although they are appropriately turbo-charged, much like the blues numbers on early Zeppelin records. Truth, especially, is held up as a foundational record for hard rock and metal, although I personally prefer the ramshackle, offhanded, heavy yet loose Beck-Ola. With some more time and stronger material, this group could have been one of the giants.

ABOVE: The original line-up of The Jeff Beck group also featured Ron Wood and Rod Stewart.

Rough and Ready (Jeff Beck Group) (1971) **
Jeff Beck Group (Jeff Beck Group) (1972) **

After the disintegration of the first line-up, Beck organized mach II of his Group. A bit more faceless, although Max Middleton brings some songwriting and a jazzier influence to the table. It is a shame that this material is generally so mediocre and features vocals from third rate Robert Plant wannabes Alex Ligertwood and Bobby Tench, because Beck’s playing is more adventurous and interesting on these records than on the more celebrated first two releases under the Jeff Beck Group banner. They also explore some jazzier and funkier directions vs. the blues rock of the previous two records. “Ice Cream Cakes” from JBG is the perfect example of great yet crappy. A funky groove is ruined by generic cock rock lyrics and vocals, while Beck is throwing out killer licks and using subtle feedback brilliantly. I’d probably give these records at least an additional star each if they would just strip off the vocal tracks.

Beck, Bogert & Appice (Beck, Bogert & Appice) (1973) *
Live in Japan (live) (Beck, Bogert & Appice) (1973) *

Beck enters the power trio sweepstakes to leaden, dull hard rock effect.

ABOVE: Get Blow By Blow now.

Blow By Blow (1975) *****
Wired (1976) *****
Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live (live) (with Jan Hammer Group) (1977) **
There and Back (1980) ***

Beck always had problems with vocalists, who tended to just get in the way. Even when it was Rod Stewart. So the solution is obvious - jettison the singer altogether. Beck would hardly ever work regularly with a vocalist again. This is his most celebrated period, and Blow By Blow is an undisputed fusion masterpiece. It all comes together on BBB, Beck’s brilliant tones and playing, and a backing band that matches his complexity, along with 5th Beatle George Martin producing. This stands up with any of the essential records of jazz/rock fusion. While most essential entries in that genre come primarily from the jazz side of the ledger, Beck approaches it from the rock side. “Scatterbrain,” “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” (the solo at the end is just gorgeous)and the immortal “Freeway Jam” are Beck’s most lasting works. Wired is almost as good, less jazzy but with a harder edge and much funkier. His live hook up with Jan Hammer and his group is pretty bad, but it is all Hammer’s fault, with his cheeseball bumblebee keyboard lines. Even Beck’s brilliant playing can’t save most of that record.

Flash (1985) *
Beck tries for mainstream rock/pop/hair metal success, and the results are predictably bad. Here he has a legion of faceless hair metal vocalists/screamers to get the songs on the radio. Only his gorgeous hit cover of “People Get Ready” with Rod Stewart on vocals is worth salvaging.

Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989) ****
I have spent many hours of my life listening to and thinking about this record. It is either a subtle, quirky masterpiece or a missed opportunity. Critics seem to be similarly split. Hooking up with keyboardist Tony Hymas and drummer Terry Bozio, you’d think it would be all hard rock bombast, but instead it is an eclectic mix of styles (reggae here, atmospherics there, hard rock and then a ballad…) Beck is uncharacteristically restrained on many tracks too, just playing fragments and laying back. Is he a bit timid since he has been out of the game for several years, or is he so confident that he doesn’t need to wow you every second? That is the thing, the record never really answers that or any other questions. So, I’ve decided that I love it. The fragmentary “Where Were You” may be the most beautiful thing Beck has ever recorded.

ABOVE: Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop features one of the coolest album covers ever.

Beckology (compilation box set) (1989) ***
Frankie’s House (soundtrack) (1992) **
Crazy Legs (1993) **
Best of Beck (compilation) (1995) ****

The high profile he gained from Guitar Shop (and the accompanying co-headlining tour with Stevie Ray Vaughan) turned out to be a false dawn, at least for another decade or so. He was relatively quiet in the 90’s, recording an atmospheric soundtrack (Frankie’s House) and a note for note covers tribute album of the songs of Gene Vincent (with Beck meticulously recreating the solos of his hero Cliff Gallup) (Crazy Legs). Other than that, it was only a couple of compilations. Box set Beckology is fantastic for his early career with The Yardbirds and the Groups, but misses the mark when covering the fusion era, while Best of Beck is a necessarily scattershot single disc sampler that nonetheless does the trick for neophytes. The primary downside to both of these collections is that they were released before what is arguably his most exciting period.

Who Else! (1999) ****
You Had It Coming (2001) *****
Jeff (2003) ***
Live at BB King Blues Club (live) (2006) ***
Live in Tokyo ’99 (live) (1999/2006) ****
Official Bootleg USA ’06 (live) (2006/2007) ***
Live at Ronnie Scott’s (live) (2008) *****
Emotion & Commotion (2010) ***
Live and Exclusive From the Grammy Museum (live) (2010) ***
Rock and Roll Party Honoring Les Paul (live) (2011) ***

From 1999 forward, Jeff Beck has had his most prolific and many could argue (I would) his most interesting and daring period. Emerging from seeming oblivion, he came back with Who Else!, a record that explores modern electronic music with his guitar slashing, stabbing and darting every which way. He sounds completely at home in this completely modern environment. Those first three studio records form a trilogy of sorts and are a peak only matched by Blow By Blow and Wired. I think You Had It Coming is the most daring and best of them all. Live at Ronnie Scott’s is the definitive modern live Beck and is probably the best place to start for this period. But, since he is not shy about playing around with effects in the studio, in the live setting he is somewhat more limited in the sounds that he can conjure. So the Ronnie Scott’s set is not as sonically interesting or diverse as those studio efforts from 1999-2003. On the other hand, the band he has for the Ronnie Scott's set is out of this world good, and the setlist is fantastic.

ABOVE: Here is "Scatterbrain" from Live at Ronnie Scott's (also available on DVD)

Bottom Line: Beck has one of the more challenging discographies because of his own sporadic work habits, his inability to keep steady line-ups together beyond a couple of records, and the varying degree of quality of his material. While his playing is almost always brilliant, it is sometimes above the material. Truth is essential early blues rock (although I prefer the more fun Beck-Ola) from his initial Jeff Beck Group. Blow By Blow is his masterpiece and one of the finest fusion records ever made, and follow-up Wired is also essential. Who Else! and You Had It Coming are musts, and Live at Ronnie Scott’s is his best live outing. After you try those, head to Guitar Shop. None of the compilations do him justice simply because they are all pre-1999.