Jeff Beck's Curtain Call

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Jeff Beck's Curtain Call

At my high school, there was a storage closet hoarding an assemblage of video cameras. It was also the meeting point where I, along with my best friends, would do the morning announcements every day. But later in the day, during video production class, we’d hide in there and do Sporcle quizzes trying to name every Bob Dylan album in less than 10 minutes. Back then, we worshiped Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 movie Blow-up, even going as far as finding illegal streams of it on our school’s computers and bestowing the prophecy of Antonioni’s genius onto our peers during free periods.

How a couple of 18-year-olds discovered a not-so-mainstream Italian flick can only be understood if you allow yourself to buy into the idea that we watched the Turner Classic Movies channel religiously. There is a scene late in the film that takes place in a central London club. Amid the high-pressure tensions and mysteries of the third act, a band called The Yardbirds play their song “Stroll On,” an adaptation of the 1951 Tiny Bradshaw jump blues joint, live and heavily. Watch closely and you’ll see two of the greatest guitarists ever on-stage: Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, whose fuzzed-out guitar work turned the R&B standard into a touchstone of psychedelic rock.

Beck, an eight-time Grammy Award winner, passed away peacefully yet suddenly yesterday at the age of 78 after contracting bacterial meningitis. I have lived through the deaths of some of my greatest idols. Prince, Cohen, Withers. The list goes on and will do so indefinitely. I suppose back then, when I was 17 years old and awoken by my mother delivering the news of David Bowie’s death in the sprawling hours of an otherwise unimportant morning, I had not yet understood how fleeting and mortal brilliance truly is. I’m 24 now and, theoretically, more weathered and ready to grieve the deaths of beloved artists that are bound to come. As more musicians I have adored and studied leave us, I continue to understand more and more how undivine humanity is.

Jeff Beck was many things: a virtuoso; a guitar god; a pioneer of Vietnam-era blues. You can plug in any accolade you wish and it will likely ring true. Beck didn’t have an upbringing full of tragedy or perseverance. He was raised in England by his parents, Ethel and Arnold, and attended Sutton Manor School and, later, the Wimbledon College of Art. When Beck was six years old, he heard Les Paul playing “How High the Moon” on the radio and then deemed playing the electric guitar as his destiny. Other pickers like Cliff Gallup, B.B. King and Steve Cropper would begin etching the foundations of Beck’s interests, so much so that he tried building his own guitar out of glue, fence-posts and cigar boxes and hand-painted the frets onto it. Some years later, after picking up a Fender Stratocaster, the Jeff Beck we have long adored came to be.

How Beck joined the Yardbirds, however, is much more of an unbelievable fairytale. He befriended Ian Stewart of the Rolling Stones, who turned him on to R&B, and played in bands called the Nightshift, the Rumbles and the Tridents in the early 1960s. He was playing this swashbuckling, Croydon-style of R&B and making a name for himself around London. But it was when he became a reliable session guy, alongside his longtime friend Jimmy Page, that things began to shake out like a storybook. After Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds, it was Page who recommended Beck be the replacement. He would spend barely 20 months in the band, eventually sharing co-lead guitarist duties with Page for a short handful of them before getting kicked out of the group himself. The legacy of the Yardbirds is much akin to that of the Beatles in many ways, how three of the most talented musicians ever were, within a three-year span, all a part of the same band.

It seemed like, as soon as Beck joined the Yardbirds, he had his eyes positioned on what was possible beyond the limitations of a rock band he was not the frontman of. In 1966, he made his concerto “Beck’s Bolero” without the Yardbirds, opting instead for the Who’s drummer Keith Moon, future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and Rolling Stones organist Nicky Hopkins as his backing band. A year later, he formed The Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, Aynsley Dunbar and Hopkins. Around that time, Pink Floyd wanted him to replace Syd Barrett after the frontman’s departure. When Brian Jones passed away in 1969, the Rolling Stones asked him to join the band.

As the Jeff Beck Group, he made the album Truth, which is one of the greatest blues rock records of all-time. I remember my friend Steven showing me “I Ain’t Superstitious” at school once, in that storage room, and watched my entire perception of music change instantaneously. Beck revolutionized the use of the wah-wah pedal and came up with a sound akin to a human voice by plucking a string and adjusting the volume knob synchronously, which comes through so clearly on “I Ain’t Superstitious.” I am no longer interested in pointing my finger at one guitarist and calling him the greatest, though seven years ago I might have very well said it was Beck. But, what can be said is this: Without Beck, there would be no Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson or Jack White. The renaissance of blues that took over the Rust Belt in the 2000s was heavily influenced by Beck’s gravitas and jazz-infused flare and would look a lot different had he never tried to make a guitar out of cigar boxes.

Like his Yardbird predecessor Clapton, Beck found himself in more than one musical supergroup. He notoriously ended the Jeff Beck Group the night before they were set to play at Woodstock and, in 1970, replaced Stewart, Wood, Dunbar and Hopkins with Santana vocalist Alex Ligertwood, docker-turned-clavinet-player Max Middleton, drummer Cozy Powell and bassist Clive Chaman. Two years later, Beck would dissolve the Jeff Beck Group a second time and come together with Cactus bassist Tim Bogert and Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice as a power trio.

Across a career that spanned nearly 60 years, Beck collaborated with some of the world’s greatest artists: Bowie, Donovan, Tina Turner, Kate Bush, The Pretenders and Ozzy Osbourne, just to name a few. But there is one story about Beck that I return to all the time, when, in 1972, the guitarist joined Stevie Wonder during his Talking Book sessions. It is said that an agreement was made between the two musicians: Beck would play on the album and Wonder would write him a song afterwards. That did happen. Beck played guitar on “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” and Wonder gave him permission to record a version of “Superstition.” Beck was supposed to release the song first, on Beck, Bogert & Appice, but after that record was delayed and Motown founder Berry Gordy foresaw “Superstition” being a smash hit, it was Wonder’s version that met listeners first, and it is that version that is now infamous.

The 1970s were just as kind to Beck as the 1960s were. After recording Beck-Ola at Abbey Road Studios in 1969, he would connect with Beatles producer George Martin on Blow By Blow and Wired, two of his best albums, back-to-back in 1975 and 1976. Both albums charted in the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 chart, with the former peaking at number four. In the 1980s and 1990s, Beck would work more with Clapton and Page. He inducted Stewart into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and proclaimed: “We have a love-hate relationship. He loves me and I hate him.” He made a cameo in the Ivan Reitman movie Twins, and played the guitar solo in “Blaze of Glory,” Jon Bon Jovi’s theme song for the widely revered and not-at-all-forgotten movie Young Guns II.

I don’t think the loss of Beck will truly ever be felt in its entirety. It will come in waves and in pieces, when we are looking back at moments in music history, especially in the crossover of blues and jazz, where Beck’s innovation will be remembered and then greatly missed. To be a purveyor of such immense guitar techniques and tones means your passing will leave some unfillable hole of grief in every nook and cranny of music. Beck’s voice was never at the forefront of his artistry, though when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Yardbirds in 1992, he accepted his trophy and said to the audience bluntly: “Someone told me I should be proud tonight…But I’m not, because they kicked me out. They did! Fuck them!” From his first recording with the Yardbirds, collaboration was at the top of his mind. According to Beck himself, one of his greatest honors was touring with Brian Wilson in 2013 and being able to share the stage with him.

There is a live recording of Beck playing an instrumental rendition of the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman” on BBC 4 in 1974. I think about that performance often, how he could make a guitar sing as deftly as a vocalist with just his fingers. But that was how he always was. Beck rarely, if ever, used a pick. He’d strum with his thumb and index almost immortally, as if the heavens touched his hands in a way the rest of us will never experience. 50 years have passed and all of Beck’s creative ticks and tricks are still indescribable.

His death has come to us suddenly, but Beck’s presence in the architecture of contemporary rock ’n’ roll is profound and unmovable. In my dreams I can still hear the wah-wahs of Beck’s guitar in “I Ain’t Superstitious” pouring from beyond that storage closet door. I can picture myself and my friends in the darkness, our faces lit up by a single computer monitor, and we are frozen in silence and awe, as if the one song we’d always needed to hear had finally been played. Today I am grieving, at a time when there are so many things on my plate that still need to be grieved. Perhaps you are, too, but I implore you to go out and share this moment with someone you adore. If Jeff Beck’s time here taught us anything, it’s that sometimes it is when we are with our dearest beloveds that we make our greatest light.

Listen to a full Jeff Beck concert from May 9, 1975 at the Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisc.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s assistant music editor, and a poet, essayist, and culture critic from Northeast Ohio. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.