It has been more than 18 months since a pair of Syracuse police officers investigating a report of gunshots kicked in the door of Jeff Beck’s home on Marcellus Street and let Sadie, his 4-year-old Pomeranian, out into the street. Sadie was killed by a passing motorist on nearby West Street, and Beck, an urban homesteader who had moved to the Near West Side to be part of a neighborhood revival, wanted answers.
Last March, Beck, who paints houses by day and makes music by night, accepted $10,000 from the city of Syracuse to settle the case. “I just wanted it done,” said the 43-yearold lead guitarist and singer for Dracula Jones and more recently, the Americana band Pale Green Stars.
Shirtless and tattooed on an early summer evening, he takes a break from working on his Harley Sportster and leads the way up the stairs to the carefully renovated second-floor apartment. Opening the door at the top of the staircase, he is greeted only by his cat. Off the dining room a crib with an animal mobile attached to the frame occupies nearly half of a small bedroom. In the front room, a photograph of a mother’s index finger pressed into the tiny right hand of an infant adorns a side table near the window. Next to the photo sits a handsome pewter urn.
“In July last year, I found out that I was going to be a father,” said Beck, whose stage name is Jeff Jones. “I really got to work. There was no hot water, the floors were not finished. I had to put in all new electric. It was like ‘holy shit, it’s time to turn up the heat.’” Friends and family from all over helped to outfit the place in preparation for the day when Beck and his girlfriend, Sara Yenny, would bring the baby home.
That day never came. Duke Benjamin Beck was born at Crouse Hospital on Feb. 4. Doctors found an irreparable heart defect, and the infant died on March 2, never having left the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. “It was two weeks of hoping and talking to doctors. I’m hearing docs describing all these kinds of surgery and you think, ‘Am I really listening to this?’ The conclusion was that it was a matter of when, not if. All we could do was give him as much love as we could.”
Beck talked of how he and his mother, a devout Catholic, asked the Rev. Jim Mathews of St. Lucy’s Church to come to the hospital to baptize Duke. He tells of the family joking that Duke was royalty and that with so many relatives he would have a large court.
He tells of the memorial gathering, at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, in the days following Duke’s death. “There were about 50 of us upstairs at a giant table. We just wanted to celebrate his life. He never did anything wrong.”
When he settled the police case, said Beck, “it was the worst position you could be in. My son died in his mother’s and my arms. Both of my grandmothers had passed away recently. Ever since the dog it’s been bad things. I thought this baby was going to be like a rebirth. Instead it went the other way. It’s not something you ever get over. You learn to find ways around it. You think about the possibilities of what he could have done.”
And if you’re Jeff Beck, you keep on working. “It’s what I do,” he said, showing off the renovations in the 200-year-old home and sounding like a man who plans to grow old on the Near West Side. He has stripped and shellacked the intricate woodwork around the doors and window frames. The once-cracked walls are now Sheetrocked and painted a rich burgundy. The pocket doors that separated the front room from the parlor have been moved downstairs, stripped to the bare wood, and outfitted with hinges. They serve as the main entrance.
He’s proud that after three years of being thwarted by dense shade trees, this spring he was able to get a thick lawn to take in the back yard. He harbors plans for hanging dummy cameras from the trees to deter customers from visiting the drug dealers down the block. And he writes music as he has always done. He’s got two albums cooking, and Pale Green Stars is slated to play at the Taste of Syracuse on Saturday, June 4, at 2:30 p.m.
Still the baby is never far from his mind.
“I sang to Duke all the time,” he said. “Never played the guitar for him, but while he was in the hospital I sang songs to him. I’ve been writing this blues song called ‘Lazy Man’ and it became kinda like his theme song. That’s what babies do—they sleep all day. It was kinda funny and he liked it.”
Jeff Beck outside his Marcellus Street home last year: A $10,000 settlement from the city doesn’t erase the sorrow of a difficult 18 months.