Gerry Beckley: The voice of America
The world may have stopped in 2020 but, true to form, Gerry Beckley kept on going.
Like everyone else, Gerry Beckley has had a very strange year. For over 12 months been isolated from America, the nation he usually calls home, and also from America, the band he’s fronted since 1970.
Beckley’s wife is Australian and he’s previously split his time between Sydney and the US: “The reality is that I’ve never been anywhere in my near memory for a year straight. But you know what? I’m not really missing it,” he chuckles. “It was kinda like a forced holiday. The truth is I did 200 days of travel a year for 50 straight years, and I mean, I miss the shows, but 90 per cent of touring is sitting around and waiting and flying and all, and that I don’t miss at all.”
COVID-19 didn’t just change Beckley’s touring schedule and mailing address. It also robbed him of a friend and collaborator in the late Adam Schlesinger, best known for his work in Fountains of Wayne, who died in April 2020 aged 52.
“We lost Adam there right at the start [of the pandemic] and boy, it’s not until it hits home that you really feel the gravity of it,” he says with real emotion. “I spoke to him a few weeks before when I was in New York and we had a really good chat, and then a few weeks later he told a mutual friend ‘I think I got that damn virus’. And then he was gone in ten days.”
Schlesinger and his regular studio collaborator, Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, produced America’s acclaimed 2007 album Here & Now, in recognition that there was a throughline of classic US rock from their own bands back to the harmony-rich America classics like ‘A Horse With No Name’, ‘You Can Do Magic’ and Beckey’s signature song, ‘Sister Golden Hair’.
And, as it turned out, they weren’t alone in being America fans. “All these other musicians like Ben Kweller and Ryan Adams and My Morning Jacket got in touch to collaborate, and I don’t know if they’d have made the effort if James and Adam weren’t involved. We’ve done a million records, but that one is one of my favourites.”
It’s a testament to how beloved the band actually, despite having never exactly having been… well, cool. While other platinum-selling 70s bands dissolved in legal battles, substance abuse and bitter relationship dramas, America just quietly kept on going.
Beckley and his musical partner, Dewey Bunnell, have never stopped recording and touring with America, racking up hits and filling arenas. In fact, the band’s biggest controversy was when the band’s co-founder, bassist Dan Peek quit the band in 1977 to focus on Christian rock. As stories of rock’n’roll excess go, it’s not exactly Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt.
“Well, true,” Beckley replies. “I know what you’re getting at, but it’s virtually impossible to have hit records – and for those of us who’ve had them in our career it’s almost as impossible to get cred. And honestly, I would take what we accomplished versus the other.”
Beckley’s also carried out a parallel solo career, showcased on the new compilation Keeping The Light On: The Best Of Gerry Beckley.
Watch the official lyric video for ‘Life Lessons’ by Gerry Beckley
“Well, I got a lot of songs,” he chuckles. “I’m a pretty prolific guy. And I’d like think that as scattershot as [the songs on the album] might appear, with acoustic songs and rock songs and soundtrack-sorta stuff, the common denominator is me. It’s my voice and my chords, and that’s enough of a rudder to steer the whole thing.”
When it comes to selecting what’s an America song and what’s a solo number, “The ears I trust the most, of course, are Dewey’s. So when we do an album I’ll dump a huge pile of songs on him and go ‘OK, have at it!’,” he laughs.
“And obviously I have opinions on what makes an America song, like ‘I think this one is perfect for two part harmony’ or something. But I really think that America’s strength is to avoid at all costs ‘here’s a Gerry song, here’s a Dewey song, back and forth’. When we can blur those lines I think we make the best album we can deliver.”
Mind you, for a deeply prolific dude Beckley also knows when to reign it in.
“I got a notification on Spotify recently. You know: ‘one of your favourite artists has a new release’, and so I click on the new Sufjan Stevens. And if you haven’t looked at him in four months you’d be amazed, you go on there and there’s suddenly twelve new albums,” he laughs. “Seriously, there is a guy that oughta take a holiday.”