Between Auster and Berryman…
July 16, 2013 | by Faber Social
Last Tuesday, after a busy week of shows in Paris and London – including a unique performance of Song Reader with an All-Star Cast* at the Barbican – Beck visited us at our Bloomsbury Square headquarters and spent some time in the Faber archive. While only perhaps 10% of the full archive iceberg is ‘active’ within the building here, we were still able to pull out some literary sparklers for him to admire. Looking at and touching (one quality your kindle will never replicate) these volumes of ee cummings, Robert Lowell, Hughes and Auden, and listening to our archivist tell stories about the Faber ‘Book Committee’ meetings in the mid-20th century (the sherry lady making her rounds at 11am etc), I was struck by how genuinely interested, even seduced, Beck was by these stories of literary discovery and misadventure. It’s heartening to think a Californian popstar in the foothills of his 40s knows and cares about publishers like Faber. And it reminded me how important it is we continue to carry our history with us – in our acquiring, our design, our principles and our publishing vision. Most importantly it reminded me we must continue to innovate.
Innovation is, of course, a word long associated with Beck, and the central reason for his first visit to these shores in five years — the ambitious recital of Song Reader — reminded us of his sui generis place in the firmament of a handful of popstars who brought some colour, energy, class and mischief-making to what now looks like a homogenised mid-90s pop scene. The most inspiring thing about participating in the Song Reader project (and participation is the correct term because by its very nature, Song Reader demands dialogue, interaction, collaboration) at the Barbican/Faber Social show was meeting the artists and hearing their genuine enthusiasm for Beck’s concept. Somehow an arty concept (release an album in illustrated sheet music book form, which can only therefore be ‘heard’ if ‘played’) was transformed into a passionate gathering of disparate musicians visibly animated and inspired by Beck’s songwriting gifts. Johnny Pictish, who as a crucial member of Fife’s Fence Collective, is no stranger to cross-genre collaboration and the rip it up post-folk aesthetic, offers his perspective on the Song Reader experience here.
I was lucky enough, either side of The Last Waltz style performance at the Barbican, to see Beck play three unplugged shows in Paris, Cambridge and London with a pick-up band. Here’s the set-list from the final show at the Union Chapel when he was joined by Bobby Gillespie for versions of You Win Again and Dead Flowers by The Stones. Opening with the spectral classic that is Golden Age, these 90 minute gigs were memorable for their intimacy, spontaneity and sense of fun. I was reminded of certain famous Prince aftershows, when we catch a glimpse of the man behind the artist. And Beck, like Prince it seems, turns out to be a very funny dude indeed, as a final song mash-up of Sissy Neck with Billie Jean and Get It On by T-Rex illustrated. By the time he played this final gig the set-list had changed to include three of the songs from Song Reader, an album Beck never intends to record, but clearly has huge affection for. Whether it ever exists in physical or digital form by the artist himself seems an irrelevance, even though some of these songs are perhaps among the very strongest in Beck’s catalogue. Song Reader seems destined to leave a legacy in its wake, and a signed copy now sits in our archive files in between Auster and Berryman.
*Cast included Franz Ferdinand, Jarvis Cocker, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Johnny Pictish, The Guillemots, James Yorkston, The Mighty Boosh, The Staves
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