Guitar god Jeff Beck hits the road with mojo back
By JERRY SHRIVER
What a tabloid headline it would have made: "Guitar god felled by mutant carrot!"
And it would have been no Spinal Tap-ish joke.
The incident occurred last fall as Jeff Beck, five-time Grammy winner, two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and one-of-a-kind six-string wizard, was prepping for a dinner party at his home outside London.
"We had these massively long carrots," he says. "For some stupid reason, I started slicing them lengthwise. I got a bit lazy, and I put full force on the carrot, and it slipped over. Next thing I know, I'm on my knees, going, 'Oh, dear, that's the end of me.' "
The tip of Beck's left index finger — the one that flies up and down the neck of his Fender Stratocaster — was a bloody nub, "barely hanging on." To make matters worse, he still had work to do on his first studio album in seven years, Emotion & Commotion, which was just released.
The next morning, a surgeon stitched it so expertly that Beck was out of commission for only seven weeks (he practiced chording with his three good fingers) and now sports just a hair-thin scar as he embarks on a U.S. tour.
"It's the miracle of nature," says Beck, 65, admiring the digit on the morning after a healthy duel with Eric Clapton at Madison Square Garden, one of six historic showdowns the ax-wielding icons staged in February.
In some ways, the accident is in keeping with the tone of Beck's quirky and occasionally miraculous five-decade career. It has been filled with twists and turns (he replaced Clapton in The Yardbirds in 1965, but a year later gave way to Jimmy Page), high spots and blank spots (his last platinum-selling studio album was 1976's Wired), missed opportunities (he pulled his band out of Woodstock at the last minute) and cutting edges.
Among members of the rock-guitarist pantheon from the late '60s — Beck, Clapton, Page and the late Jimi Hendrix — this mercurial man with omnivorous musical tastes remains the most artistically vital yet least familiar to the masses.
When asked if he regrets not becoming a more famous deity, the admittedly "fussy" and privacy-loving rocker jokes, "Didn't I? Oh, damn! No, I couldn't cope with any of that. What a terrible thing. Probably the worst thing you can ever have."
But now, energized by a new manager and record label, Beck is elevating his profile. Last year, he staged a sold-out world tour, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist, played a headlining set at the Rock Hall's 25th-anniversary concerts in New York, and released the platinum-selling CD/DVD "Performing This Week ... Live at Ronnie Scott's" (Eagle Records).
His performance of The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" from that album earned him his fifth Grammy for rock instrumental in January.
'I LOST THE SPIRIT'
He's taking a new band (and sometimes hooking up with classical ensembles) on the tour, which includes stops at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (May 1), Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn. (June 12), and Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival outside Chicago (June 26).
All of which prompts the question: What took him so long to get his career high-strung again?
"Lethargic management, probably," Beck says, shrugging. "I lost the spirit. I lost the enthusiasm to make meaningful music."
Working on his vintage hot-rod collection and spending time at his estate in Kent with wife Sandra became more important, and he was also disgusted by what he was hearing on the radio. "Even if I don't hate the music, I don't want to hear (DJs') claptrap."
Part of the fault for his absences also lies with him, he readily concedes: "I mean, I could have done something about it and not sit there whingeing."
A friend finally hooked him up with mega-promoter/manager Harvey Goldsmith, and Beck awoke. The Who guitarist Pete Townshend told him that with Goldsmith, " 'your feet won't touch the ground.' And that's exactly what's happened."
The live Ronnie Scott's album kick-started the return, but Goldsmith pushed him to go in the studio so he'd have new material to take on the road.
"You gotta do now," says Beck, whose post-Yardbirds career as an instrumentalist was never dependent on topping the singles charts.
"If I had those hits, I would be sorely tempted to be lazy and just do those," he says. "Probably that will never happen because it's just not in my nature. I can't think of anything more boring than being a live jukebox."
With E&C, he took "a risk" by assembling a wildly eclectic, half-instrumental album that includes orchestra-backed songs (Puccini's Nessun Dorma aria) along with jazz-fusion originals and covers ranging from R&B belter Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" to an instrumental "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
Longtime fans don't need a whiplash alert. They're used to his restless taste and the shape-shifting of his guitar sound, from distortion-heavy and piercing to more soothing experiments with mimicking the human voice.
"But that's me!" Beck says, chuckling. "This is the naughtiness of my thoughts."
Producer/drummer/songwriter Narada Michael Walden, 57, who backed Beck on Wired and is in his new road band, relishes the challenges Beck offers. "I like this phase, mixing things back to back. It's really kind of wild. String quartets, then bashing with the blues. It keeps it fresh."
But it doesn't lessen Beck's anxiety about "walking onstage and not really knowing whether you'll break a string or trip. It's a real deal — people have come a long way to be there, they pay a lot of money, the pressure is intense." Later, he freely admits he flubs notes "every other five seconds. It's sheer nerves."
Beck's reputation as a worrywart and as a band leader whose groups seldom lasted long are probably a result of misunderstandings, says Irish rockabilly singer Imelda May, 35, who contributes a vocal performance to E&C and will join him on some tour dates. "Jeff is a perfectionist. He realizes he's good, but I don't think he realizes maybe how good he is to us mere mortals. When you hear what you think is the best thing in the world, he says, 'Do another take.' His garbage is everybody else's best."
That elite "garbage" has been recycled for decades by musicians across the age and talent spectrums. When The Edge, 48, inducted The Yardbirds into the Rock Hall in 1992, and when Page, 66, inducted him last year for solo work, they both cited Beck's influence.
Shred-guitar master Joe Satriani, 53, says Beck "stands alone in pioneering his unorthodox use of picking-hand techniques. No one else dares embark down that road out of respect, and fear of failure, I suspect."
Despite the accolades, there's only a handful of artists whose respect Beck cherishes, starting with producer George Martin, Stevie Wonder and jazz keyboardist/composer Jan Hammer.
"They are the building blocks of my mental stability, my guiding lights," Beck says. And jazz-rock bassist Stanley Clarke, with whom Beck toured in the '70s, "was amazing. He enabled me to have a reasonably successful financial career (without having) to go buy silly trousers with leopard skin!" — a not-so-subtle poke, perhaps, at one-time Jeff Beck Group singer Rod Stewart.
(Beck's rarely recorded own voice, incidentally, "is better than he thinks," May says.)
Beck is reluctant to anoint a new guitar hero, or even speculate on whether instrumental virtuosity will ever be valued as highly as it was.
"Is the guitar age dead?" he asks. "We're still here, playing," he says, referring to himself and Clapton.
"I have seen guys on the Internet who are astonishing, but whether they will ever emerge as guitar heroes or not ... Let's see at the blues festivals what lies ahead. The chances for young players are there, but you're never going to reiterate what went on with Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy and me and Eric. Something else is going to happen."