I met Jeff Beck a few times. Each was a disconnect for me. Not in terms of our rapport, but simply because he wasn’t as his legend might suggest. I was ready for diffidence and distance. I got warmth and openness.
Let’s face it, Beck, who died Tuesday at 78, was an axeman for the ages, ostensibly nurtured on the same Americans roots music that fueled peers and rivals, notably fellow Yardbirder Jimmy Page. And yet he always seemed like a blues brother from another mother – she being, well, you name it, jazz, rockabilly, doo-wop, fusion. It was all fair game for this musical mix master.
Whether it was at the bar at Los Angeles’ Sunset Marquis hotel or in his tour bus in a Santa Rosa, California, parking lot, I was expecting the very monster that a monstrous talent might naturally create. What I got was a kind, soft-spoken, impish and exceedingly polite man, the kind of the polite the British famously muster.
Beck, or Jeff as he insisted I call him, certainly appreciated that I was familiar with his oeuvre. From that seminal 1968 Jeff Beck Group album “Truth” (featuring future antagonist Rod Stewart and future Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood) that is echoed to curious perfection in the first Led Zeppelin release, to his more adventurous and recent work with young bass phenom Tal Wilkenfeld. But what really connected us was cars.
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Jeff was a fanatic. A specific kind of fanatic. While his fellow rock icons such as Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason went in for flashy Ferraris, Jeff was a dedicated ’50s American iron man through and through. He would have fit right into the scene in George Lucas’ girls-and-hot rods epic “American Graffiti.” The jet black hair, tight white T-shirt, black leather pants, his regular wear all perfect for drag racing on a steamy summer Saturday night.
Hot rods were his thing, in particular the hot rod Holy Grail, 1932 Ford Deuce Coupes in various configurations. To get them built, he often employed the talents of a San Francisco restoration ace named Roy Brizio. That I knew Brizio seemed to grease the skids for our talks, which inevitably veered from guitars to cars.
We’d be talking about his tour with Brian Wilson, and before you knew it he’d be diving into the details of that “409” engine in the Beach Boys song of the same name. Or if I asked about the influence of Detroit on American rock ‘n’ roll, he soon would detour into details of his collection of modern-era Chevy Corvettes.
Once, I asked if he’d ever tried to convince his famous pals to get into the hot rod game, and he said he’d tried, notably with Clapton, advising him “to ditch that Italian stuff and get a hot rod.” Jeff could be convincing in his gentility.
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On the occasion I went to see him play at a small performing arts center in Santa Rosa, I brought my son, who was about 14 at the time. Jeff was eager to chat cars and music, in that order. He invited my son into that modest tour bus for a solid handshake and kind look in the eye.
Later, we both stood rapt as Jeff took the stage from the other giant on the bill, Beck idol Buddy Guy, and just shredded the place. Not so much with his power or volume, but with that almost magical finger picking style that seemed both effortless and as intricate as a spider weaving a web.
Jeff will be missed by millions of music fans, of which my son and I are but two. But I’ll forever be grateful to have spent time in the company of this modest yet magnificent man, whose very demeanor was so humble in the face of his contributions and influence.
Never meet your heroes, the saying goes. When it comes to Jeff Beck, that saying has no truth.
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