I had a few encounters with Jeff Beck. Each was a stumbling block for me. Not because of our relationship, but simply because he wasn’t as legendary as his legend might suggest. I was prepared for ambiguity and distance. I received warmth and openness.
Let’s face it: Beck, who died on Tuesday at the age of 78, was an axeman for the ages, raised on the same American roots music that fueled peers and rivals alike, most notably fellow Yardbird Jimmy Page. Despite this, he always seemed to be a blues brother from another mother, she being, well, you name it, jazz, rockabilly, doo-wop, fusion. Everything was fair game for this musical mix master.
I was expecting the monster that a monstrous talent might naturally create, whether it was at the bar at Los Angeles’ Sunset Marquis hotel or in his tour bus in a Santa Rosa, California, parking lot. What I got was a kind, soft-spoken, impish, and exceedingly polite man, the type of politeness that the British are famous for.
Beck, or Jeff, as he insisted I call him, was pleased that I was familiar with his work. From the seminal 1968 Jeff Beck Group album “Truth” (featuring future adversary Rod Stewart and future Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood), which is echoed to strange perfection in the first Led Zeppelin release, to his more adventurous and recent work with young bass phenom Tal Wilkenfeld. But it was cars that brought us together.
Jeff was a die-hard fan. A certain type of fanatic. While fellow rock icons such as Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason drove flashy Ferraris, Jeff was a true ’50s American iron man. He’d look right at home in George Lucas’ girls-and-hot rods epic “American Graffiti.” His jet black hair, tight white T-shirt, and black leather pants were all ideal for drag racing on a hot summer Saturday night.
His passion was hot rods, particularly the hot rod Holy Grail, 1932 Ford Deuce Coupes in various configurations. He frequently used the services of a San Francisco restoration ace named Roy Brizio to get them built. Brizio, I knew, seemed to grease the wheels for our conversations, which inevitably veered from guitars to cars.
We’d be talking about his tour with Brian Wilson, and then he’d be delving into the specifics of that “409” engine from the Beach Boys’ song of the same name. If I asked him about the impact of Detroit on American rock ‘n’ roll, he’d quickly deviate into details about his collection of modern-era Chevy Corvettes.
When I asked him if he’d ever tried to persuade any of his famous pals to get into the hot rod business, he said he had, most notably with Clapton, advising him to “ditch that Italian stuff and get a hot rod.” Jeff’s gentleness could be convincing.
I took my son, who was about 14 at the time, to see him perform at a small performing arts centre in Santa Rosa. Jeff was excited to talk about cars and music, in that order. He welcomed my son into the modest tour bus with a firm handshake and a kind look in the eyes.
Later, we both watched in awe as Jeff took over the stage from the other giant on the bill, Beck idol Buddy Guy, and completely destroyed the place. Not so much with his power or volume as with his almost magical finger picking style, which seemed as effortless as a spider weaving a web.
Jeff will be missed by millions of music fans, including my son and me. But I’ll be eternally grateful for the opportunity to have spent time with this modest yet magnificent man, whose demeanour was so humble in the face of his contributions and influence.
It is said that you should never meet your heroes. That is not true when it comes to Jeff Beck.