Jeff Beck

Some sounds fix a moment, sink us in time, and underscore our responses to the world ever after. The potency of music in organizing our ongoing experiences is…alchemical. Usually we don’t even know it’s happening. The sine-wave of neural resonance simply buoys us and each time we hear a kindred chord or strain of melody, a particular alignment of motif and rhythm, a pleasurable ache opens up. Nostalgia, certainly, but much more than that. 

The parlor psychologist will tag these moments to pivotal experiences—where were you when, what was the first time, who was there, etc—but I think this is facile. Not wrong, but it tends to relegate the music to the status of placemarker rather than the primary event, a parenthetical scaffold to presumably more  important associations. While this is certainly the case in many instances, it becomes a rote evocation of mutual recognition. 

But often the question has to be turned around. Where were you when you first heard that sound, realizing that the only reason we might remember all those other details is because of that sound. They support the music, not the other way round. The music was and remains the most important element.

We live in a culture still freighted with the idea that all things must have a social utility to be worthwhile. Deeply personal aesthetic and sensual experiences…well, they’re suspect, aren’t they? Something selfish about them. 

Nonsense, of course, but it tends to explain, for me, why so many people simply don’t appreciate the richness of artistic encounters. 

As it turns out, though, I do remember where I was the first time I heard Jeff Beck.

At school, 1972, the school newspaper office. The room itself was an oversized storage closet with a single long table, some folding chairs, one file cabinet, and two facing walls of wooden shelving. There was also an old desk in the corner by the single tall window. Someone had brought a radio and the station was set to our local FM “underground” rock station, K-SHE. I actually did not quite grasp the fact that FM was different than AM and I did not understand why I could never find that station on my radios at home, but that’s down to my peculiar insularity and isolation at the time. 

Suddenly a deep, echo-laden riff started. A pulse, bent strings, then an aggressive set of piano chords, followed by the full band and a Fender Rhodes and lead guitar line that quite literally froze me in place. 

Who the hell is that?

It was the Jeff Beck Group, a track called Situation, and I fell instantly in thrall.

Song ended, life resumed, I forgot about it. But the impact had been made. It was the same kind of complete absorption I had experienced the first time I heard Keith Emerson and, shortly thereafter, Yes.

That sound…those sounds…

That moment when music is as important in itself as air and food and sex and laughter. It’s not “in addition to” or “part of”; not an hors d’oeuvres, a side-dish; not background or just what happened to be playing the first time you kissed someone. The whole thing. A complete experience that reduced everything else around it to insignificance.

Then in 1975, Blow By Blow was released and I became a lifelong devotee. That album, all instrumental, the arrangements as close to perfection as could be, and with that achingly beautiful rendering of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers, became an anchor point my evolving musical aesthetic. 

It was the first thing I put on after the news of his passing.

Over time, gradually (because there is so much in the world) I learned more about him, acquired more of his records (not, I will admit, the first couple of incarnations of the Jeff Beck Group, because I cannot abide Rod Stewart, and my apologies to anyone offended by that), and eventually came to see him (hear him) as the most fascinating of the three giants that came out of the Sixties band The Yardbirds. The other two—Eric Clapton and Jimmie Page—are excellent in their own ways, but not in the innovations that Beck brought to the instrument. (I can drop the needle, so to speak, on just about any period of Clapton and it all sounds essentially the same, with the lone exception of Cream, and Page is a consistent virtuoso that has honed his singular approach into high art, but I always know what to expect. Jeff Beck, on the other hand, is superbly mercurial. He seemed unafraid of throwing out all that went before and doing something utterly different.) 

That he pursued instrumental work as much as he did endeared him to me. (His taste in  vocalists, when he went there, is curious to me—with the exception of Bob Tench, the males all sounded depressingly like Stewart, but his pick of female vocalists was wide-ranging and superb.) He was dedicated to exploring his instrument as the primary voice of his expression. 

As if anyone needed evidence of his chops, his tribute to Les Paul is astonishing. (That he played Les Paul and sounded like Les Paul on a Fender Strat is amusing and impressive.) 

The wide array of musicians with whom he worked is legion. 

I came finally to appreciate the depth and range of his artistic abilities and set him apart from others, in the company of a handful of musicians (which includes Rachmaninoff, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Keith Emerson) whose work I consider outside time, suis generis, and examples of a purity of expression capable of remaking, if only for the length of a performance, the inside of one’s head. In the best way.

I saw him live only twice.

This is the essence of music. This is the point. This is why it means so much. His playing was transportive. 

I am grateful that he gave such beauty to us.

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