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I met him. I talked to him. I saw him more than once.
And he was the absolute best.
It’s hard to imagine, but once upon a time “guitar hero,” “gunslinger,” was not a thing. Beck may have known who Cliff Gallup was, but we certainly did not. I certainly did not. I was born in 1953, Beck in 1944, and it made a world of difference.
I was raised in the ignorant fifties in America. And the technicolor sixties. I remember listening to “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” but 1964 was a dividing line, with the arrival of the Beatles on these shores. Of course there were guitar solos during the British Invasion, but no one seemed to focus on them until Jimi Hendrix and “Purple Haze” and…
That blues revival in the U.K. All those influences from the Mississippi Delta? They had some traction on college campuses, in Boston, but in the U.S. we were enraptured by folk music, the “Hootenanny” scene.
And then came the electric guitar.
Of course George Harrison was our first guitar hero. And then maybe Brian Jones, with that blonde bowl haircut. We knew the credits from the back of the albums, but no one really shined that brightly until Hendrix.
HEART FULL OF SOUL
I first “Heart Full of Soul” on the Gary Lewis & the Playboys album “She’s Just My Style.” I loved that track, had to buy the album, which was filled out with covers, thus my introduction and ultimate love and infatuation with “Heart Full of Soul.”
It was different. The success of records depended upon what market you were in. Like “Gloria.” On the west coast, the Them original predominated, whereas on the east coast it was all about the version by the Shadows of Knight. I’m not saying that the Gary Lewis and the Playboys version was ever a hit, what I’m saying is depending upon where you lived and what time of year it was, you could completely miss a record. If it was during the summer and you were at camp…
It was a completely different era. Sure, there was a war, but life was full of possibilities, the middle class ruled, there were no billionaires, we were all in it together and the youth, the baby boomers, ultimately took over the narrative and ruled.
But when I finally heard the original… Sure, “Heart Full of Soul” is a great Graham Gouldman song with an incredible Keith Relf vocal, but what puts the track over the top, makes it iconic, is Beck’s playing.
Not that we knew it was Beck. Sure, some people did. But this was still the era of singles, and even those of us who bought albums could only afford a few.
And then came the double punch of Hendrix and Cream. Hearing “Purple Haze” for the very first time… It was akin to hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the first time. It was different from everything else, it instantly announced itself, at first you didn’t get it, and then you loved it! Hendrix percolated in the market slowly, but within a year “Are You Experienced” was huge.
Insiders knew “Fresh Cream,” but it wasn’t until “Disraeli Gears” that Clapton truly became God. When “Sunshine of Your Love” crossed over to AM radio and blew up.
And word ultimately spread that Clapton had started with John Mayall and his Bluesbreakers, you started to see that LP in people’s collections.
But then everything broke apart. Not only did Clapton leave the Yardbirds, but so did Beck, and ultimately Jimmy Page.
Clapton got all the cred, but when the final chapter is written the champion will be Jimmy Page. Led Zeppelin is forever. That’s how you know you’re on the right path, when you’re ahead of the critics. Oh, some liked the first Zeppelin LP, blues-influenced, but thereafter the reviews were vicious, whereas Clapton was continually lauded, for his work with Delaney & Bonnie and ultimately solo, never mind with Derek and the Dominos.
As for Beck…
He recruited Rod Stewart and made “Truth.”
Just like “Good Times Bad Times,” “Shapes of Things” burst out of the speakers as the opening cut of the album, you only had to hear it once.
But, Beck had to share the stage with Rod Stewart. Who was not as controllable as Robert Plant. Ultimately the band fractured.
And Jimi Hendrix died.
And… Guitar heroes became a thing, long before the video game.
Jeff stayed at it. But there was no hit single. so the hoi polloi didn’t know his name. But those who did…
Rod the Mod was replaced by Bobby Tench, and this was before the execrable “American Songbook” albums, when Rod still had cred, no one could compete with him, never mind replace him.
And then we had the misguided power trio with the members of Vanilla Fudge.
But then Beck decided to do it all by himself.
CAUSE WE’VE ENDED AS LOVERS
Time rights reputations, reveals truth. I’ll give you a good example. No one ever plays the second Blood, Sweat & Tears album anymore, with all the hits. Everyone knows it’s about the first LP, “Child Is Father to the Man,” with Al Kooper steering the group. And even though “Blow by Blow” was commercially successful upon its release in the mid-seventies, over time its reputation has only grown. And it’s all great. And “Freeway Jam” became iconic as a result of the live take with the Jan Hammer Group a few years later, you actually heard that on the radio, regularly, but everyone knows despite the cover of “She’s a Woman” on “Blow By Blow,” it’s all about the Stevie Wonder song, “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers.”
When I think of the most beautiful tracks of the rock era, I think of Simon & Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” and Jeff Beck’s “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers.” You see Jeff didn’t have to dominate, didn’t have to show how fast he was, he could play slow too. But what he did with the strings, you felt like your body was being bent too. Like Gumby. You can only listen and exclaim, WHEW!
Jeff continued his instrumental ways on “Wired” and…
Ultimately he had his hit, once again pairing with Rod Stewart, with a cover of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.”
But it was on both of their albums. And Rod sang. And even though you saw Jeff playing in the video…
There was a tour scheduled with Rod that was ultimately canceled and Jeff retreated into relative inaction and obscurity, but he was still available for sessions.
“Moodfood” by “Moodswings” is one of my favorite albums of the nineties. I know, you’ve never heard it. But maybe you have, you might have heard the version of “State of Independence,” the Vangelis song done previously by Donna Summer, in this case sung by Chrissie Hynde. The album was on Arista, I’m not exactly sure why I played it, but it was blasting out of the JBLs while I was on the computer and…suddenly I heard something. I literally stopped working and looked at the stereo. It could only be, had to be, and certainly was, Jeff Beck, wailing.
The album is not on streaming services, but through the magic of YouTube… Hang in there, you’ll know when Jeff comes in:
BRUSH WITH THE BLUES
Time went on. We had the the Sunset Strip hard rock sound of the eighties, ultimately killed by hair band ballads. But there were new guitar icons, like Slash.
And then came grunge.
And the internet. Suddenly information was available. You could research. But with thirty years in the rearview mirror, there was no context. It was different if you were there. You weren’t only discussing the greatest rock guitarists, you were alive and kicking when the paradigm was being established, before Brian May even put fingers to axe, at least on wax, the first Queen album didn’t come out until 1973 and it was barely heard. It was determined there were only two progenitors, Hendrix and Clapton, and everybody else was superseded.
When Beck came back.
It had been six years since Jeff had graced us with a record, and that had been the Gene Vincent tribute to Cliff Gallup “Crazy Legs.”
I’m not saying the world was waiting for “Who Else!” with bated breath, but some of us were, it was a return to form, and there was this one track, cut live, “Brush With the Blues.”
How to explain “Brush With the Blues”? You can’t, you can only listen to it.
And it’s not like one of today’s productions, with all the air squeezed out, many layers, unable to breathe. And it’s not about machines, a click track, it’s got soul! It’s got the feeling of “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” but the track is different. You can’t help but move your body, involuntarily, when you hear it, as Jeff starts slow and works himself (and you!) into a frenzy. And you might not know or care, but those who do know. Talk to the players, the aficionados, Jeff was the best. Certainly one step beyond Clapton.
How do I know?
THE A.R.M.S. CONCERT
Yes, a bicoastal affair, well, in London too, to raise money for Ronnie Lane’s cockamamie research into multiple sclerosis, from which he was suffering, and when the outlook is bleak, you grasp at straws. But on the bill were…Clapton, Page and Beck. And everybody who was there saw Beck blow the other two off the stage, just with his guitar, it was enough, everybody knew.
Jeff was unmanageable. As many creative people are. And it hurt his career, at least as far as public penetration went. But a little over a decade ago, Jeff hooked up with Harvey Goldsmith and the impresario gave Jeff his victory lap. Everywhere you went, you’d see Jeff in his scarf laying it down, “A Day in the Life” usually, or a Beach Boys song, man, this guy could do anything. People were finally finding out who Jeff Beck was.
But then the relationship ruptured and Jeff went back to his cars and relative obscurity, but you could see him, he did go on tour, and he blew everybody off the stage, I know, because I was there.
There was no one like Jeff. And I’ve seen Clapton multiple times.
I remember talking to him in his Winnebago, after a show at the El Rey, that was his dressing room. I told him how he never missed a note. Jeff was humble, saying he hit a clam here and there, but if he did, you had to be sharper than me to hear it. Never mind him playing without a pick.
And I saw him at the Grammy Museum and…
Jeff was a living legend, without airs. I’m not saying he didn’t feel good about himself, it’s just that he was approachable, assuming you were introduced, never ever talk to a celebrity unless you’re introduced, otherwise they’re reluctant and punch the clock on you, most of the musicians anyway, who oftentimes are shy to begin with, they let their music do the talking.
So now he’s gone.
The records are still here, thank god. It’s not like the legends of the pre-recording era. I remember reading a whole article in the “New York Review of Books” about the biggest Broadway star at the beginning of the last century… I’d never heard of her. But Jeff’s recordings are there for people to sample, to delve into, to study, to marvel at, to enjoy. You don’t have to be a muso to enjoy Jeff Beck’s music, it’s not esoteric, it’s for everybody.
And his death was so sudden. At 78. May sound old to you, but then you’re probably not a baby boomer. I mean the end is always looming, but you always believe it’s at some distant point in the future, when in truth it’s closer than you think.
But it’s even weirder than that. The giants are falling. The building blocks of not only the British Invasion, but classic rock, are passing. The icons and the secondary players. But they were all major players to us, music was everything. Not only was it soul-fulfilling, it told you which way the wind blew. And the hits were not all the same and new ones popped up all the time, it was a veritable smorgasbord of greatness.
But those days are gone. There are no giants left. Even Bad Bunny. Forget the ticket sales and Spotify streams, fewer people know his songs than those of Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas back in the sixties. Radio was bigger than Facebook or Instagram or TikTok. Combine them all, have only fifteen or twenty viewable profiles at a time and you’ll get an idea.
But you had to be there. And we were, but as years have passed most weren’t. And it’s just strange. They talk about a looming recession… The kids in college don’t even know the effects of the 2008 crash.
I mean the fact that classic rock is remembered at all is amazing. Quick, name the famous painters from the sixties and seventies! More can name the famous movies, but… As for the stars, movies when done right are larger than life, music when done right is life itself!
Yes, there’s humanity, the whole range of human expression in Jeff Beck’s guitar work. Ask his contemporaries, he was their hero. Others were stylists, Jeff was a master of the instrument, he could do it all and make it look effortless.
So another one bites the dust. Time will go by and I will be able to listen to his music again without being stopped in my tracks by the pain of his loss, but it’s going to take a while.
I mean who’s next?
A lot of the legends are pushing eighty, or have tipped over that mark.
No one lives forever. But, if Jeff Beck can die, if Jeff Beck is mortal, what about you and me?
These were our heroes. They were not objects of derision. Oh, of course we compared and contrasted, but musicians sat above not only actors, but athletes. Music was the highest calling. The most expressive artistic medium. There was enough money involved just by doing it, you didn’t need to become a brand. You wanted to play, not retire and make clothing.
But everything changes.
But I lived through this. I lived through the advent of the internet. I’ve seen so much. And I must say at this point I’m a bit numb, because in so many walks of life we appear to be going backward. But then I play one of the tracks above and it all comes into focus, it all comes clear, my priorities are set straight. Scratch a doctor or a financier and they want to be a musician. People from stock boys to doctors live to go to the show. What else can draw that many people? Anybody in line for the iPhone 7 these days?
And about the most you could say about it is it had a good beat and you could dance to it. Most of those who made the records can’t read music. They were channeling the gods. Ask ’em, they’ll all tell you, they were just minding their own business and a bolt of lightning hit ’em and they transcribed it. I’m not saying they didn’t pay a lot of dues to get to that space, they most certainly did, in a world where there were no shortcuts, you couldn’t promote yourself for free on social media. But they were dedicated, and rose above.
Don’t confuse Jeff Beck with the people uploading 100,000 tracks a day to Spotify. We’re talking something different here. Michael Jordan. Pele. Those who transcend their field.
It’s the end of an era, but the train keeps a-rollin’, all night long.
Will anybody blow up and challenge Jeff Beck’s exalted position atop the guitar hero pyramid? I don’t know, but as long as his records continue to be available, we can hope.
Enjoy every sandwich.
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