By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
A Bicentennial baby, Beck had grown up in the Mid Cities (as the 'burbs between Fort Worth and DFW International Airport are known) and developed an early fascination with the macabre. When he was 10, he taught himself guitar out of a Fleetwood Mac songbook. "I was a nerdy outcast weirdo loner, and I figured that if I learned to play, I'd have something to hold onto," Beck says.
At 12, he started Thunderfoot, a punk/New Wave outfit with a girl singer that played original material, "because we were too terrible to play anybody else's," he explains. Beck taught himself to play drums, bass and keyboards, "so that I could show other people how to play my songs, since most of the people I played with didn't know how to play; they just had instruments."
In 1994, Beck moved to Denton and immersed himself in the music scene there, playing in a succession of bands that included Thorazine Dreams ("a learning experience in what not to do in a band"), Maxine's Radiator ("I was the drummer, but Sean Kirkpatrick taught me how to play the piano") and the Meat Helmets, with John Freeman of Dooms UK fame.
Pointy Shoe Factory started as a solo project in 1998 and expanded to include as many as a dozen members, the most consistent of whom were bassist Kyle Cheatham and drummer Tyler Walker. For eight months in 2001, the band decamped to Los Angeles. "We got a three-story, five-bedroom house in Echo Park," Beck says. "We decided to come back [to Texas] on 9/11. We didn't like the music scene or have any friends there." Back in Denton, Beck hooked up with Freeman and Corn Mo in the Golden Vipers. When Doug Ferguson — a big influence on Beck's keyboard style — died, Beck briefly considered offering his services to Yeti before deciding it would be "inappropriate."
In the summer of 2004, Beck left Denton with $30 in his pocket, got on a bus and traveled to New Orleans. There, he auditioned for American Idol with cabaret versions of Tom Jones' "Delilah" and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You."
"It was a sort of Tony Clifton-Andy Kaufman kind of thing," Beck explains. "I didn't tell anybody I was going. It was supposed to be a segment on so-called bad singers, and I figured that maybe I could be the best of the bad singers. When they ran the show, they used my bit for a preview before The Simpsons and I got 20 calls from people who'd seen I was going to be on."
Beck possesses one of the most distinctive and expressive voices one is likely to hear, but frequently chooses to obscure it behind layers of reverb or bury it in the mix. Those who've heard the cover of the Motels' "Only the Lonely," which he performs as his country alter ego D. Wayne Grubb, can attest to the Orbisonic beauty Beck invests in the song's last falsetto note. With the Tyrant, however, his onstage persona was alternately funereal and mock demented, declaiming his lyrics in a low growl or uttering the wails of a tormented soul.
His theatricality and effect-laden keyboard gave The Great Tyrant's performances a focused intensity and visual flare that Yeti's lacked, while Atkins and Teague's accompaniment added dimensions of power and drama. As a result, the trio was described as "a heavy rock band using keyboards instead of guitars" and "a vampire backed by two monks."
"The first few months were rough," Beck adds. "I was pop and those guys were metal. I had to learn how to sing with that."
In short order, the new lineup was documented on a 7-inch, "Candy Canes," released on Fort Worth's Dada Drumming. The record came with a four-song CD-R that included a cover of "Weidorje," by the French operatic prog band Magma — a seminal influence. The Tyrant was restlessly creative; the musicians were constantly writing and recording new material, so if you missed them for a show or two, you'd generally be greeted by an all-new set the next time.
Atkins' moodiness continued. At one point, he actually quit the band before Beck talked him back in. "I was good at talking him down," he says. "He and Jon had this intellectual relationship, but he and I had a different kind of connection, almost childlike."
On February 25, 2010, Tommy Atkins committed suicide at home in Fort Worth. Teague and Beck were stunned, but through welters of anger, tears and whiskey, they managed to write a new set of material, which they performed at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff a month after Atkins' death. A hastily organized benefit to raise funds to cover the cost of Atkins' cremation was held three days after his death. There, Beck performed "I Put A Spell On You" with one-man blues band Will Kapinos, aka Dim Locator.
"We took the Kessler show to give us a deadline to focus on," Beck says. "Otherwise, we'd just drink."
More than a year later, Dada Drumming released There Is A Man In the House, the first Great Tyrant full-length. On it, Teague lays down grooves worthy of two of his idols, Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, while the band as a whole displays an expanded dynamic range, with plenty of light-and-shade to be heard on "Adorable," and the closing track, "Still Birth," which builds to a climax that's downright uplifting. Taken as a whole, the album is a fitting epitaph for Atkins. (A second Great Tyrant album still awaits release.)