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. more