Interviewing Jeff Beck, the world’s greatest living rock guitarist

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 15, 2001

By Steve Newton

Like most teenage guitar-rock freaks in the ’70s, I was big on Aerosmith. I made every effort to see them if they got within driving range of Chilliwack; I even hauled my skinny hick ass out to Seattle when they played the cavernous Kingdome on the 1976 Rocks tour. That was a strangely memorable bill, in that it included a support performance by Jeff Beck, with the Jan Hammer Group. What I recall most about that gig—apart from how wasted Steven Tyler and Joe Perry appeared—is seeing Beck, halfway through “Blue Wind”, launch into a few bars of the old Yardbirds rave-up “Train Kept a-Rollin’ ”. The mostly teenaged crowd went nuts, but not because they recognized Beck’s raunchy reenactment of the British Invasion. The majority of the kids thought he was paying impromptu tribute to the show’s headliners, who’d covered the song two years earlier on the Get Your Wings album.

When I reach Beck by phone in London, England—where he’s been madly rehearsing for a North American tour that opens at the Commodore on Saturday (February 17)—the “exhausted but fine” rock legend admits to having his own vague memory of the Aerosmith fans’ response to “Train Kept a-Rollin’ ”.

“That’s just one of those things you have to put up with,” he says of the days when he was touring as a warm-up act in support of the extraordinary Wired album. At that point, he and “Blue Wind” composer Hammer were a potent team on-stage, exchanging breakneck, “I’m faster than you” solos on guitar and keyboards, and conjuring realistic traffic noises in the intro to “Freeway Jam”. Beck hasn’t collaborated with Hammer since 1985’s Flash album, but he called him up a couple of years ago, when Beck’s band was coming through New York. “He was just adamant that he didn’t want to play on the road anymore,” Beck explains, still sounding slightly dejected. “His wife was not too well, and plus he’d made a lot of money from, I guess, Miami Vice, so the underlying desire was not there to go out on the road. But he’s too good to sit around, I’ll tell you that.

“I wanted to find out if he had any tunes,” he adds, “because he writes great stuff for me. He was already involved in a project, but he did give us a couple, and one of them [“Even Odds”] was on the last album. But I could see that he was tied up in another world, you know, so I didn’t push it.”

Hammer may be out of the picture for now, but Beck has no complaints about the virtuoso instrumentalist that he is trading riffs with at the moment. He discovered eye-opening guitarist Jennifer Batten when she was touring in Michael Jackson’s band. “She was the girl with the big hair,” he remarks with a chuckle, “and I thought, ‘God, you know, I could use a fiery guitar player in the band.’ She’s a star, and also being a girl, that puts a whole different spin on things, you know.

“I don’t know why she wants to waste her life with me,” he adds with a laugh. “But she sort of dragged me out of retirement in some ways. I mean, I would have formed a band eventually, but she actually got me off the ground quicker.”

Although Batten played guitar and MIDI guitar on Beck’s 1999 CD, Who Else!, and toured with him extensively after its release, there’s little of her recorded work on his new disc, You Had It Coming. That album is mostly the work of Beck, programmer Aiden Love, and producer Andy Wright, but Batten does get credit for writing the opening track, “Earthquake”—originally titled “Gnasher”—and she snuck a few hot licks in there for good measure.

“She does some really raving stabs on the opening song,” explains Beck, “but the whole idea of the album was that we didn’t want to use any prewritten songs—they were all brewed in the studio, in an editing suite, which was a part of the writing process. What I wanted to get away from was the sort of formulated, contrived sound. I wanted kind of a wild house party, you know.”

The devastating “Earthquake” starts things off on an intense note; tracks like the gnarly “Dirty Mind”—and a feverish, tribal version of Muddy Waters’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ”—further display Beck’s innate heavy-metal capabilities. But he’s always been one to balance fury and finesse, so it’s no surprise when, in the midst of all this techno-tinged cacophony, he sets a tune like “Blackbird”, which sees him playfully jamming along for 90 seconds with the recorded chirps of an unnamed feathered friend. And then there’s the spirit-lifting version of Indian musician Nitin Sawhney’s “Nadia”, which Beck considers the standout track on the CD. “It’s got a flowing Indian melody over a very very hip groove,” he says, “which I thought was very attractive. It was also the hardest thing to learn. To try and copy a traditional Indian vocalist was a real challenge.”

While Beck’s recent explorations in what he calls “an oddball sort of music” obviously limit his likelihood of topping the charts, the Who Else! CD did garner him a Grammy nomination last year. He didn’t feel burned, however, when that trophy—along with a suitcaseful of others—went to the long-overlooked Carlos Santana. “It went to the best,” affirms Beck. “I mean, Carlos, just for his longevity and the way he’s stayed loyal to everybody in music, and the way he’s passionate, deserves a Grammy just for that alone.

“And I didn’t feel that my album was really justified [in being nominated],” he adds. “It was just a smudge, you know, a bootprint of me comin’ back, that was all it really was.”

As one would expect of a player of Beck’s stature, he’s had the opportunity to play with some of the most revered rock guitarists in the world. In the booklet for the 1991 boxed set Beckology, he is pictured on-stage with Eric Clapton (whose place he took in the Yardbirds in 1964), Jimmie Page (who joined Beck in that band for a brief time in ’66), and Stevie Ray Vaughan (they shared the stage in ’89 on the legendary Fire & Fury tour). But when I ask Beck to name the one living player he’d most love to jam with, he doesn’t hesitate.

“I still favour John McLaughlin as probably the greatest player around,” he says. “All the others are just huge stars that everybody loves because they’re fantastic, you know, but I think John needs a mention because he just stays underground. He doesn’t encroach on rock ’n’ roll or the blues as much; he plays wonderful jazz guitar in his own style. And then the next minute he’s playing with Indian guys with tabla and clay pots. He’s just amazing.”

Beck’s been known to amaze people himself. And to dazzle, bewilder, and confound. If you saw him pull off the rapturous “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” at the Queen E. on his 1999 tour, you know what I’m talking about. They used to claim that Clapton was God, but I’ve always had faith in a higher power. Still, it’s not as if the guitar is Beck’s sole passion in life. When he isn’t getting scary on the frets, he’s been known to spend days and months holed away, tinkering with his collection of vintage cars. And even though he’s regarded as one of the pioneers of distortion—and has a serious case of tinnitus to show for it—the roar of a well-honed engine isn’t what draws Beck to the garage.

“Of course, everybody who’s into cars loves that,” says the 56-year-old rocker, “but from my angle it’s not necessarily the finished product of the powerful hot rod, it’s more the privacy of my situation. I’ve got a full workshop with everything to facilitate building a car, and it’s a way of getting away from everything, really. It’s more of a peaceful thing rather than noisy for me.”

The serenity of Beck’s private auto shop has been broken by his own howls of pain, however. He nearly lost a thumb working on his vehicles in 1987, and more recently took a big chunk of skin off the back of his hand with a sandblaster, which he says was “a nuisance”. Hopefully, he’ll keep his mitts intact, because the electric-guitar freaks of the world would sorely miss them. As long as he’s got those magic fingers, you can bet that Jeff Beck will be searching for fresh ways to communicate through six strings.

“I’ve got a cutoff point,” he relates. “When I can’t play any more or any better, I just go look for new sounds.”

Jeff Beck sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On his new touring drummer, Andy Gangadeen: “When I was auditioning he was the number one recommendation, but he was with the Spice Girls at the time, which is hard to believe when you hear him play.”

On his current interest in Indian music: “I think everything comes from Indian music. If you listen carefully to the way they play quartertones… You know, you can pretty much find any kind of music you want in Indian music, especially the new stuff that they’re comin’ out with.”

On seeing Roy Buchanan, to whom he dedicated “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers”, play a ’70s concert in London, England: “He was with a band that seemed to be like a pickup band, and they were all drunk, and they didn’t do him any favours, really. Poor Roy, he was so kind and nice, he didn’t realize who he’d got in the band, I don’t think. He had his back to the audience most of the time. He was a troubled guy.”

On being afflicted with tinnitus: “I live in a very quiet house, and the tinnitus plays havoc sometimes. It’s murder, it is, because it’s only a psychological thing that is in there, but it’s there. Some people don’t care about it, and it goes away. It’s when you do care about it that it doesn’t seem to go away.”

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