Twilight of the Gods Part IV - Jeff Back RIP
What Becomes a Legend Most? asks Lou Reed during one of his better albums in the 1980's - New Sensations.
It's a question that raises its head when considering the impact of Jeff Beck after the sad news of his passing was announced last Thursday, Jan 13.
No one played a guitar or crossed effortlessly over genres throughout the years like Jeff Beck. He could do it all- Jazz, Funk ,Blues, Hard Rock, Thrash , Reggae and Rockabilly, often in the same piece of music. All with a gift for melody and a tone that seemed like the guitar lines were the closest to an operatic human voice. All without a pick and involving the most control of vibrato and tremolo out of any guitarist ..ever ( can only think Jimi Hendrix or Mick Taylor as getting near his mastery of this). He emerged at the perfect time in the mid 60's when the hardware required via robust electric guitars and amps ((Fender, Gibson, Marshall, Vox etc)) were reaching a level that could be tested and thrashed to the limit .
The Reed connection goes further (beyond the common thread of both using the talents of the great bassist Fernando Saunders) , the career arc is similar in that both refused to compromise or when they thought they were, they often went in other directions. "Cantankerous" is probably the right the word though while you had a sense Reed liked the aura of being a rock star, Jeff Beck couldn't care less and if anything railed against it.
The passing of Jeff Back reminds us that these rock gods and in this case guitar gods are as mortal as anyone , it's also a sense that the era of the guitar god is over. A career like Beck's is a thing of the past, no one will rise in the consciousness like the whole trinity of a Clapton, Beck or Page. In an age of quick consumption via 30 second Tik Tok clips a guitarist that can build a piece of music like Beck could and shift all over the spectrum sonically will not be sustained career wise.
My personal memories of Beck were shaped by events in the 1980's a decade in which many of his contemporaries lost their way as styles and the music business took new directions and new generations and genres were coming through.
There were two particular impressions :
1. Jeff would change his mind , often at very late notice.
Jeff collaborated again with Rod Stewart, probably the one pairing that makes sense to both , via the seemingly effortless People Get Ready cover and one of Rod's (forgettable) 80's albums. After announcing that Jeff was to tour with Stewart, he pulled out.
Jeff played some scorching guitar lines on the otherwise completely unmemorable Mick Jagger solo albums "She's the Boss" and "Primitive Cool". After playing a launch gig for the latter with Jagger and being announced as the guitarist on his tour of Australia, NZ and Japan , Jeff pulled out citing later " it was obvious I was being a substitute for Keith Richards. I wasn't happy." As someone who saw a Jagger show in Sydney in 1988 and remembering the setlist and what the guitarists (Jimmy Rip and Joe Satriani) were expected to play its fair to say Jeff made the right call.
As a much publicised guest with the (at the time) huge Guns & Roses in the late 80's Beck pulled out this time citing tinnitus
2. Jeff used to contribute to a lot on projects that weren't his ..
The Secret Policeman's Other Ball - in which he duetted guitar wise with Eric Clapton but if it was a dual Eric didn't get much of a look in
THE A.R.M.S. CONCERTS - A series of benefit gigs for the great Small Faces/Faces musician Ronnie Lane who was suffering from Multiple Sclerosis and seeking funding for alternate treatment . These saw Beck share a stage with the holy trinity of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page first at the Royal Albert Hall London, then at a series of dates in the US (search ARMS on You Tube.)
Yes, a bicoastal affair, well, in London too, to raise money for Ronnie Lane's research into multiple sclerosis, from which he was suffering. But on the bill were...Clapton, Page and Beck. And everybody who was there saw Beck blow the other two off the stage, just with his guitar, it was enough, everybody knew.
As well as the Mick Jagger sessions Jeff was also a session player including high profile albums by Tina Turner , the reunited Yardbirds, (known as the Box of Frogs the self titled debut is great) and Robert Plant.
What to make of this?
When looking at the events of the above over just one decade it would be fair to conclude that Jeff probably pi**ed a few people off yet his standing as a guitarist and the demand for his services was never in doubt.
He had a singular talent and an accompanying vision it seems. Yet it was involving the limelight only when either it suited or made sense.
As for personality I'm reminded of the sadly departed Charlie Watts , a quiet presence off stage but happy to use the rewards to indulge in major wallet emptying hobbies (in Charlie's case it included Arabian horses , in Beck's case it was customising old cars )
I don't have to think too hard to come up with the following high profile guitarists over the years all of whom owe their existence as renowned players in part to Jeff's trailblazing ability with the guitar (and I don't devour or worship "Guitar Player "or "Guitar World" magazine so there will be many others not mentioned here).
In no particular order:
Mick Ronson, Nils Lofgren, Earl Slick, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Morse, Steve Lukather, Cesar Rosas, David Hildago, Marc Ribot, Steve Vai, James Calvin Wilsey Joe Bonnamassa, Neil Young
Comments by those who should know in the wake of the loss of Jeff Beck
There is Jeff Beck then everyone else
People use the word legend very freely.
Sometimes they are right. Sometimes not.
Jeff defines the word
Steve Lukather (Toto)
My band was lucky enough to play the 2007 Clapton Crossroads concert in Chicago. It was, as one might expect, nonstop guitar demigods all day, and everyone brought their A game. Just before Clapton's big finale it was Jeff Beck, Vinnie Colaiuta and the debut of 17 year old Tal Wilkenfeld who didn't look to be a day over 12. Jeff sauntered out with no pedals, no fanfare, one amp and just a single Strat that he didn't bother to tune once in an hour of what could only described as extreme ritual violence to his strings, and proceeded to burn the place down. I happened to be standing side stage between Vince Gill and Sonny Landreth, and I could hear them cursing constantly thru his show. He was by a light year the baddest motherfucker there and for all time. RIP Jeff.
Steve Berlin (Los Lobos)
This is a big hit. My personal favorite guitarist.
Genius RIP Friend.
Jeff Beck was on another planet. Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck
Nils Lofgren (Grin, Crazy Horse, E Street Band)
To say we are all devastated by this news is an understatement. I simply cannot get my head around it. Rest in Peace Jeff. The greatest that ever touched a guitar.
JB had a way of connecting Gospel to Jazz to Rockabilly to Blues to Western Classical bent like pedal steel sitar.Jeff Beck had access to the humanity of ALL of it. Without having to run scales all over the place-himself. He was somehow able to absorb the impact & make it his own
Vernon Reid (Living Color)
I am very sad to hear about Jeff’s passing. He was a brilliant guitar player. On the occasions we got to play together, we had a ball. “Let’s do this more often”, we said! Jeff was a great guy and will be
missed by all.
Recommendations for further watching (all currently on Amazon Prime)
Live at Ronnie Scotts - on what was be the smallest stage and venue on Planet Earth , Jeff is dropping sweat droplets onto tables of punters as he dive bombs and rips other worldly sounds out of his white Stratocaster. Unlike the later Live in Tokyo gig , he doesn't seem to have an arsenal of effects at his feet , he somehow conjures up these sounds without any other props.
Featuring Tal Walkenfeld on Bass who seems stunned to be sharing a stage with the master.
Rock n Roll Party (honoring Les Paul) - probably my favourite , Jeff blows up the genre of Rockabilly guitar in another small club setting (this time in NYC) wearing a ridiculous outfit that doesn't take away from his guitar masterclass . He has fanboys including Steve van Zandt and Nils Lofgren who are simply in awe of what Jeff is doing . Most poignantly also in attendance is David Bowie, by then a recluse but he has come out for the evening and is shown grinning from ear to ear at the joyous sounds being created . "Peter Gunn" will never sound the same.
Live in Tokyo - Jeff dons the sunglasses to further provide a shield from the spotlights and dazzles a Japan audience in 2014. A return largely to fusion style , he brings proceedings t a standstill halfway through with a rendition of "Danny Boy" along with the always great "Cause we Ended Up as Lovers" and the Beatles "A Day in the Life" There are pedals galore at this feet yet each time he hits one it distracts from what he can do without them. There is a microphone next to him but he largely ignores it and it is hilarious that he can't be bothered with a guitar stand and chooses to leave his hardwired Strat on the stage floor when exiting the stage.
What becomes a legend most? Spend a few minutes listening or seeking out videos of Jeff Beck online and there is the proof, though in 2023 one senses it is the likes of which we will never see again.
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