I was pretty sure he would outlive me. He was only four years older and in better shape. I am having a hard time imagining a world without him.
He eschewed the “live fast, die young” credo held dear by so many of his rock star peers. He was about the work, when he deigned to work; often he preferred his hot rods. He was in that select club of musicians who grow, change, and experiment as they age: Jim Hall, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, I run out of names pretty quickly. He was the one that got away; the only player I would have loved to interview, or even meet, but never got the chance. (I did get to hold one of his guitars in the Hard Rock Cafe vault in London).
I first heard him when I was in high school. I would hear the Yardbirds playing “Heartful of Soul” or shilling for some milk-based soft drink called Great Shakes, on the tinny speakers of the school-bus radio. Steve Tyler (yes, that Steve Tyler) used to bring their records down to the band room, where we cut class thanks to a ready supply of stolen passes. Steve was ostensibly practicing drums, I the tuba, but mostly we listened to the Yardbirds, Stones, Kinks, and Pretty Things. I was not yet playing electric guitar and thought the licks and sounds Beck came up with were somehow normal pop music. For my younger brother and his guitar playing friends, learning to play “Jeff’s Boogie” was a rite of passage.
By the time Truth came out, I was in college and often hitched the 60 miles, from SUNY at Stonybrook to Manhattan to see a show at The Fillmore East. One show was the Jeff Beck Group. I was high on amphetamines and my mind was blown by El Becko randomly launching into the “Theme From The Beverly Hillbillies.” (Also, by Stewart’s rooster haircut, something heretofore unseen.) After I dropped out of college, a friend at Columbia hired me to write the liner notes for a double album Yardbirds compilation. I took the $125 it payed and appropriately bought a Telecaster. As soon as I started seriously playing electric guitar, I too tried to master “Jeff’s Boogie,” as well as licks from Truth, Rough and Ready, and the “Orange” record. We did the Beck version of “People Get ready” in the show band I toured with during the Beck Bogart & Appice era.
As I delved deeper into guitar lore, I heard the players from whom Beck garnered some of his licks: Les Paul, Cliff Gallup, Buddy Guy. Knowing where he got them did nothing to diminish my wonder at the way he employed and expanded on them, much like recognizing Hendrix’s variations on his foundation of Cornell Dupree and Curtis Mayfield did little to curb my astonishment when I first saw him play in my college gym.
The next time I heard Beck live was after I moved to San Francisco. I was excited; he had Pino Palladino on bass (along with Tony Hymas and Terry Bozzio). Unfortunately the sound at the Concord Pavillion was terrible. Pino turned to indistinguishable mud and Beck was so frustrated with his own sound that he handed his guitar to a kid in the front row and said, “You play!”
The second show I saw in the Bay Area, was when he toured with Stevie Ray Vaughn. That night Beck was opening (they alternated). Guitar Shop had just come out. I had heard the masterful whammy bar/harmonics manipulations of “Where Are You?” on the record and remember thinking, “Sure, he could piece that together in the studio with overdubs and punch-ins, but surely no one can pull that off on a nightly basis live?” He proved me wrong. (Not long after, my friend Erik came into the music store where I worked and showed that a mere mortal could play it, but Beck invented it.)
At another point during that show, he struck the most cliched guitar pose imaginable. At least that is what I thought until I realized, “Wait—he invented that pose.” SRV came on and I confess I left after a couple of numbers. I had seen him in a smallish club in New York and was amazed at his passion and facility. In this larger venue he showed that he had yet to learn what Beck understood: less is more, and his sound reverberated into a wash of noise.
My next Beck concert was at Roseland, after I had moved back to New York City. Jennifer Batten was in the band, the first of many talented women he would employ and feature throughout the rest of his career. She mostly played rhythm guitar and deftly handled the keyboard parts with a guitar synthesizer setup but at one point had her moment in the spotlight to solo. While an excellent player in the Metal/tapping mode, she pointed up what made Beck Beck: he eked more emotion out of one strike of the strings than she delivered with her entire flurry of notes.
I was at that show with a friend and his girlfriend. After the master played a particularly brilliant, out-of-left-field lick, my friend and I both started laughing maniacally. His girlfriend asked what was funny. We explained that sometimes someone plays something so amazing and unexpected that the only reaction is to laugh. I attended one more New York show, at B.B. King’s. Bozzio was back in the band. Fresh off a tour, they played everything way too fast, as if that was the only way they could maintain interest.
Fortunately, it was not the last time I would see him play. After I moved to Nashville, Beck played the Ryman Auditorium. I didn’t have high hopes for the sound, thinking a loud rock band in a room meant originally for virtually acoustic music would not be a fit. Once again I was wrong. The high point of the evening for me was when Jimmy Hall came out to sing, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Beck showed his R&B chord comping to be as exceptional, soulful, and inventive as everything else he did. It was the first time my wife had seen him. She instantly became a fan.
The last time I saw him was also in Nashville at a venue where the sound was less than optimal. Fortunately, our seats were on the guitar side and, frankly, when Jeff Beck is playing what else do you need?
It has been said that, when it comes to electric, rock-based guitar, there is Jeff Beck, and then there is everyone else, and that is true. I watched his Live at Ronnie Scott’s DVD multiple times, with many closeups of his hands, and still don’t know how he worked his fretboard magic. But his spectacular ability to conjure pure emotion from six-strings in a unique style is not the whole story.
Beck’s restless spirit, while probably costing him a level of fame he didn’t really want, led him to explore music influenced by jazz, rockabilly, Indian, EDM, and, of course, the blues. It kept him coming up with fresh sounds, almost entirely eked from hands, strings, cable and amps. His ever revolving lineups allowed him to show off his good taste in musicians.
I particularly love his example that you can be at the top of the heap, have real star quality, a long career, and sell plenty of records without falling prey to the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” mythology. He showed you can be one of the historic greats and still live a healthy, balanced life, out of the public eye, and, from all reports, be a good bloke.
He is not the only one who has reinvented this instrument that we love, but he was one of the first and will remain one of the best. Along with Hendrix, he showed that you can move beyond the notes, a concept well represented here at Guitar Moderne.
For many artists, who have lived hard and disappeared from view, physically, creatively, or both, 78 would not be a surprising age to pass. For Jeff Beck, it seems way too soon.