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  • Christopher McHale

Jeff Beck: Blow by Blow

Maybe 60-years is not enough

One night in New York

We take the ‘C’ train down to the garden. It’s always buzzy in Manhattan. But when we get off the train, our hearts are racing faster. Our eyes are a little wider. The air is sharper.

We find our way to the end of the subway platform and climb the steel-plated stairs.

Clapton is playing tonight. Big night. The place is sold-out. It’s a Clapton crowd, but we’re not there for Clapton. We’re there for the opening act.

I was raised in London in the 60s, haunted the clubs, saw every incarnation of the Yardbirds, Clapton to Page to Beck. Three years of three guitar gods in and out. Those other guys were okay, but to me, it was always about Beck.

Hard to say why. I mean hard to put in words. I know why. There was this aura around Jeff Beck. Does that sound weird to you?

Did you ever see the man play? Because if you did, you know exactly what I mean. And if you didn’t, well, you missed something.

We’re climbing the subway stairs in New York, and I’m thinking back to London. I’m thinking back to nights at places like the Marquee and Tiles. Theaters like the Hammersmith Odeon. The Yardbirds were one of those bands wrapped in magic.

I could go on about the Yardbirds. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck, all of whom ranked in the top five of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 greatest guitarists. What can you say about a band that rolled through a list like that in 36-months while dropping a series of hits?

The Virtuoso 'Birds

The ‘Birds were Mod Pop is the way I remember them. Too soft for Clapton, who passed the pick to Page. Too pop for Page as well, I guess. Beck joined the band, and they sounded better than ever. Beck was the guy who just took the sound for what it was and made it work, made it bite.

There are all these shades in the Yardbirds. They started out blues-based (hello, Eric) but by the end of the run they morphed into a proto-Prog-psychedelic-punk-fusion band. Beck was in the middle of all that.

In some ways, I think that’s why Jeff Beck was a musician’s musician. He took the Yardbirds gig. He found the band and made them better. Whatever he needed to do to make that happen, he made that happen.

He was too restless to climb to the Top of the Pops and stay there. It was easy to brand Clapton. He was what he was. Jimmy took the big arena band route. Led the way into arena rock jam spectacle epicness. Jeff Beck wandered in and around the different back alleys and out of the way lanes of music. He followed his nose. He bent over his guitar and played.

I was never a big fan boy of any player. Anointed guitar gods by NME meant dick to me. I heard the music running up and down my spine fifty years ago with Beck, and that was the signal. Here was exceptional, an original player.

I can count on ten fingers the amount of players I feel that way about.

We go to Church

We come out of the subway and walk up 33rd Street along the side of the Garden. I see a player I know rushing by me toward the stage. His face is lit. This guy is one of the top session players in the city. New York cool. He ain’t so cool tonight. I think he must be headed backstage, and he is. I assume it’s for Clapton, but it’s not. I find out later he’s following the same star we are.

New vistas, ideas, riffs, beats, something new every time. Beck just never seemed to settle. He never phoned it in. Ever. Every time I saw him, he was better than the last time. Think about that. We’re not talking years. We’re talking decades.

We’re entering the Garden. We like to get there early, Patty and I. Patty calls it her Church. I’m with her. MSG is the pinnacle. Everybody who walks that stage is peaking. We settle in.

Beck is opening, and we don’t want to miss it. We’re close. We look around and watch the crowd build.

Opening in a setting like that can be weird. People filing in. Nobody really focused exactly. Jeff comes on stage and takes care of that in five-seconds. There’s no turning from his music or his sound. He knows how to rattle the rafters of a barn like that.

At one point, he turned down an offer to join the Rolling Stones. Probably turned down a bunch of cash, too. Instead, he hooked up with up with ex-Beatles producer George Martin to create ‘Blow by Blow.’

He believed in his music and made me believe in his music.

Look, fusion has never been the most popular course for a player to take, but ‘Blow by Blow’ was something else, a Beck/Martin collaboration jazz-suffused album, subtle and joyful. It opened our ears. We listened to this record dozens of times.

Wah-wah pedaled funk on Lennon-McCartney’s ‘She’s A Woman, melting melancholy on Stevie Wonder’s “‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.’ And ‘Freeway Jam.’ Man, ‘Freeway Jam’ just sailing the open roads of our imagination. Such a scorching solo. Wow.

It all just rewired my brain. As I said, I’ve no clue why. It just happened. That album changed me. Top 10 album on the list I keep in pocket. I’ve added and subtracted from the list for years. Blow by Blow has never left it.

Beck is a virtuoso, but his fire chops have nothing to do with it. He believed in his music and made me believe in his music. My radar pings hard at musical artifice. You might be shocked at some albums I consider way too slick and produced, in love with themselves. I never felt that with Jeff Beck. His love of the music was pure. i heard him play dozens of times. He never let me down.

He didn’t let us down that night at the Garden either. This wasn’t the Jeff Beck Museum. The guy played. He played with the same passion I heard ringing off the walls of Soho clubs decades ago. I was truly blown away. You see so many of these bands rolling into town. Big names. Big fan base. Selling out tickets. Playing the hits.

I saw Clapton back in London, a young stud playing mind-boggling riffs in the Underground night after night when he was with Cream. The Underground had these big easy chairs and you sort of sank into them as Cream jammed their way through the night.

That was peak Clapton. I don’t mean to be mean, but old Slowhand played his set at MSG that night like a Professor of the Blues from a small upstate college. I mean, Eric’s music fifty years later was pretty academic. Patty felt it too. We looked at each other and shook our head. I don’t want to start a fight, but Eric left us cold in the Garden that night.

Beyond the Galaxy

We head back uptown. We’re walking fast through the city rain with smiles on our faces. That night was the last time we ever saw Jeff play.

I can’t exactly remember the first time I saw him. It was in some club on Wardour Street. I remember being squeezed up against stage and asking who was that on guitar. This was before the Yardbirds. The band wasn’t good, but Jeff Beck was. Some players are born to it. Jeff Beck was born to it.

We walk through the neon night, thread through Times Square. The sky was lit by Jeff Beck. He played that night with the same invention and passion he always did. Still searching for the next new twist and turn on Music Boulevard. The guy spent his whole life targeted to the Guitar Promise Land, and now, I guess, he got there, somewhere in the stars, somewhere out beyond the Galaxy, riding the songlines into eternity.


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