January 25, 2023

Looking for Jeff Beck, Finding an Old Friend

By Stuart Mitchner

I try to become a singer. The guitar has always been abused with distortion units and funny sorts of effects, but when you don’t do that and just let the genuine sound come through, there’s a whole magic there.

—Jeff Beck (1944-2023), 2010 NPR interview

The only time I saw virtuoso guitarist Jeff Beck in person was at the Fillmore East, where he, Rod Stewart, and the Jeff Beck Group performed a memorable cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitious.” It was October 1968 and Halloween was in the air as Stewart keened “bad luck ain’t got me so far” while Beck stalked his trail like a demonic ventriloquist seemingly reanimating every black cat, hell hound, witch, or nightmare that ever bedeviled mortal man since the raven rapped at Edgar Allan Poe’s chamber door.

I’d first heard Jeff Beck two years earlier on the Yardbirds’ single “Shapes of Things,” which my wife and I played on numerous jukeboxes during a pre-nuptial hitchhiking trip through Italy. It was an astonishing creation, a feedback-driven march into a brave new world of psychedelia. I didn’t know who Beck was at the time, nor that he’d gone to school in South London with my old road companion Roger Yates and played in a skiffle band with several of Roger’s mates.

Later that year in Ann Arbor I saw Blow Up, Antonioni’s remake of “swinging London,” where a cosmically bored, glazed-eyed audience in a Soho club sat silent and unresponsive as the Yardbirds played a blues jam onstage. I still didn’t know that Roger’s schoolmate was the guitarist slamming his instrument into the amp in a futile quest for feedback or some sound or act outrageous enough to bring the dead crowd to life; nor did I know that another future guitar legend Jimmy Page was on the same small stage smiling over the scene as if in expectation of the moment Jeff Beck would throw his guitar on the floor, jump up and down on it, and hold the broken thing in the air, flourishing it before flinging it into a seething, screaming, come-wildly-to-life mob fighting over the remains. It all ended with the film’s photographer protagonist David Hemmings racing down a Soho alley with a piece of the mutilated guitar in his hand, before casting it aside, where the next passersby picked it up only to toss it in the gutter, leaving it there like roadkill.

A Message from Roger

Incredible as it seems, I didn’t connect with Beck again until late September 2013 when Roger emailed me a YouTube clip of a live performance of “Beck’s Bolero” at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. A month later he and I got together in Bristol and drove down through Somerset to Coleridge’s cottage at Nether Stowey. That was the last time I ever saw him. Trying to come to terms with the shock of his death on April 16, 2022, I scrolled back to that 2013 email exchange so I could hear again the music he’d been moved to share with me (“This geezer can still play a bit!”). In the same message, he sympathized with his old schoolmate’s knuckles, “all swollen with arthritis. Old age is a bitch.”

“Emotion & Commotion”

When I walked into the Princeton Public Library the other day, I was glad to see on display the CD of Beck’s 2011 album Emotion & Commotion, with its cover image of a soaring eagle clutching a guitar in its claws, Beck’s beloved Stratocaster no doubt. According to the Martin Powers biography Hot Wired Guitar (Omnibus 2014), “the first time Jeff saw Buddy Holly he wanted a Strat.”

I had no idea what to expect when I put the CD in the car stereo on my way to the parking deck exit. The first track was a complete surprise. “Corpus Christi Carol,” as I later learned, is based on Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of an early 16th century hymn. According to the liner notes, Beck had been impressed by the “simplicity and beauty” of Jeff Buckley’s rendition of the hymn.

I’d barely passed through the exit gate when I had to stop the car to listen in wonder. This tender, haunting music was being created by the master of pyrotechnics, smasher of Strats, prophet of “Shapes of Things.”

I almost didn’t make it out of Sylvia Beach Drive. Yes, music can cast a spell. Sounds, mere sounds, were shutting me down. It helped that Beck had a Ralph Vaughn Williams worthy orchestral background. Another car had been behind me for some time without honking. Wonder of wonders in the year 2023, was transcendent music being shared by two strangers in two idling cars, both windows rolled down, with the temperature in the mid-50s. Oops, there it is, the honk, but just one and at the right time, and it was a sympathetic honk, or so I told myself.

On to Kingston

As I drove down Jefferson, the Corpus Christi hush was followed by the full-on pounding thunder and lightning of “Hammerhead.” The return of Beck the Destroyer. It was a cloudburst. I kept driving. I had a mission at the Kingston Post Office. There were no more listening detours until I came to the red light at River Road and 27 and was ravished by Beck’s uncanny transformation of “Over the Rainbow,” glorious witchcraft, Dorothy of Oz possessed by a Fender strat, a spirit voice, piercing and poignant. In the liner notes, Beck writes: “I finally figured out what it is about Judy Garland’s voice that gets straight to you; her vibrato is unsteady. Anyone else with an unsteady vibrato would make you cringe. But not her.”

“Nessun Dorma”

I don’t know where in the time blender I was when I realized the song being sung by Beck’s guitar was Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma” (“Let no one sleep”) from Turandot, the opera I saw at the Baths of Caracalla, my first summer in Europe. When Pavarotti died in late September 2007, “Nessun Dorma” was played at his funeral. At the pinnacle, he sings, three times, vincerò (“I shall win”), the last note not a high C but a high B. In his note Beck says, “Hearing a trained voice always gets me going.” And when Beck gets to the pinnacle, the crowning moment that fires the engine delivering you to the emotional destination, he has a 64-piece orchestra behind him that he doesn’t really need; the guitar is singing, “the genuine sound” coming through, “the whole magic.”

The lake is on my left when I come down to earth moving along at 40 miles per hour, and over the water there’s a hawk or maybe a heron in flight, or why not an eagle clutching a guitar, wings outspread?