Beck wrote this song near the end of the Midnite Vultures
tour (in 2000), and performed it at many of the lowkey, radio, and acoustic benefit gigs during the following year. Originally known as "These Days I Barely Get By," Beck carried it with him (calling it "a loose song") for a few years. He finally recorded it on March 6, 2002 for Sea Change
. He flirted with calling it "These Days" or even "Barely Get By," but ended up settling on "The Golden Age."
The recording is less country now than it was in its earlier incarnations (see the Live section below). The heart of the original is still there, but now it's brightness has been dimmed. Vocal harmonies, slide guitars, glockenspiels, and echoes really set a hazier, spacier atmosphere. It is a standout recording, and one which really sets the mood right for Sea Change
All this atmosphere would be for naught if the song wasn't superb underneath. The song begins with advice about how to best handle the blues: "Put your hands on the wheel / Roll the window down / Cool your aching head." These lines touch on the need for escape, and sometimes just letting "the weight of the world drift away." The second verse goes similarly, continuing the driving metaphor: "you got to drive all night just to feel like you're okay." The second verse is also fairly hopeless, with treacherous roads pointed at distant lights. Some of these lines and images are not terribly original by themselves, but all together they paint a striking and emotional landscape.
This is in part because of the punch of the chorus. All the lines about how to deal with the blues are followed up with "these days I barely get by / I don't even try." (Borrowed from a George Jones song, no less.) This is a song written from the depths of the blues; that chorus comes from a place so deep and hopeless, after despair has worn you down to such a point where you can no longer even try to get out.
Played live 290 times:
June 16, 2000July 2, 2000August 13, 2000August 22, 2000September 25, 2000September 27, 2000September 28, 2000October 1, 2000October 3, 2000October 24, 2000
...and 280 more
Earliest known live version: June 16, 2000
Latest known live version: August 13, 2019
"The Golden Age" has been one of Beck's most popular live choices since he started singing it in mid-2000. So bear with me here, as I try to go through them. :)
2000 These Days early version - end of the Vultures tour
This song premiered on stage on June 16, 2000, at the tiny Largo Club in Hollywood, CA. It was a lowkey, "secret" show, and Beck was on stage with Jon Brion (drums/guitar), Roger Manning (piano), and Justin Meldal-Johnsen (bass). The setlist was improvised, and it was a very loose affair. "Creole Belle
" was also played for the first time that night. He played it again at the now famous This Ain't No Picnic acoustic band show on July 2, as well. (This version was gorgeous.) The song does not sound too different from the record at this point, in tempo and atmosphere. The song also showed up at a few of the remaining gigs at the end of the Vultures tour.
2000 post-Vultures tour version
After the Vultures tour ended, Beck did some more low-key tours and shows. One was a short tour opening for Neil Young. The version on October 1 2000 accurately predicts the sleepy space-rock vibe that it would take on Sea Change
, even though there were still times when Beck would play it in its original poppier, country form.
2001 acoustic solo country version
Finally, Beck performed the song by himself for the first time, while on KCRW on May 26, 2001. This was the last time Beck played it in public before recording it for Sea Change
acoustic version with Smokey - August 2002
The first Sea Change tour was an acoustic show. Beck played "The Golden Age" at 15 of the 20 shows. Smokey Hormel always accompanied Beck, usually on electric slide guitar. It's a simple, beautiful arrangement, but I do think a fuller band suits the song better myself.
solo/band version with The Flaming Lips - fall 2002
A few months later, on the proper Sea Change tour, Beck would begin the song alone, ending the acoustic set he used to start the shows. Then midway through the song (after the first chorus), the curtain behind him would go up, and his band, The Flaming Lips, would join right in. It was done this way at every show with the Lips. This is probably my favorite arrangement of the song; the drama of the Lips entrance is a joy and you can always hear how much the crowd loves it.
band versions - 2003
Beck used a couple of bands in 2003. His Mutations
band returned for the short Australia/Japan tour, and then a different band backed him for the summer. The song remained a popular and regular choice for the setlists. They did not use the dynamic arrangement that the Lips used; a much more straight-forward version was played.
solo acoustic versions - spring 2003
Beck played a solo tour of Europe in 2003 (like the prior August, but without Smokey).
picnic table versions - 2005/2006
After taking 2004 mostly off, Beck returned in 2005 with Guero
. With these tours, Beck took to playing "The Golden Age" acoustic, with now-legendary picnic table backing (his band sat at the table and used glasses and silverware as percussion!). Really sweet, and very impressive. They did this through 2006 and 2007 as well. These acoustic versions in 2007 often included medleys with other songs.
random versions - 2005
While Beck usually did "The Golden Age" with the picnic table, occasionally the song showed up during the main sets. For instance, the first show of the second leg of the Guero
tour, on July 11, the song was played full band. The band forgoes the usual light country, and plays it over throbbing electric pulse (it sounds very very much like "Broken Drum
"!) I love this. And it's the only time I've heard it this way.
Modern Guilt band versions - 2008/2009
Beck played the song about 15 times on his Modern Guilt tours (ie. not all that much). He played acoustic, while his band filled out the song. A fairly typical band arrangement, really.
2010-2013 pre-Morning Phase
Still one of Beck's favorite songs to perform, it was played regularly in this time period, even though his touring was sporadic and infrequent.
Morning Phase band versions - 2014
Beck continued to perform "The Golden Age" regularly during the first leg of the Morning Phase
tour, before it sort of drifted away during the second half of the tour. He ended up playing it 21 times out of 57 shows. The band had a good handle on this old classic, but it did not sound very different from Sea Change
-- maybe some extra background vocals, some pretty piano tinkles, things like that. They also cut the ending (which is lengthy on record) down a bit. I imagine the song drifted away because of the similarity in sound to the newer Morning Phase
2015-2016 post-Morning Phase
The song still shows up on occasion. 2015 had 30 concerts, and Beck played "The Golden Age" five times. A couple of these were low-key solo acoustic performances. In 2016, the song was only played once, and then he did it at a benefit show in January 2017.