Rock ‘n’ Roll Royalty
I’m no music critic, but this is my Lester Bangs moment.
Last Friday night I was strafed by a guitar so piercing it was like the Blue Angels buzzing a crowd seated on a collapsing iceberg during a tropical thunderstorm. It was seismic. Everyone in the crowd was slack-jawed and mesmerized. I realized it’s why they invented electricity. Or at least the electric guitar. My hearing is damaged now after decades of abuse, but for this holy night I endured my tinnitus onset, relinquished the plugs, and let freedom ring.
This mercurial legend doesn’t tour much. He’s quit several highflying super bands in mid tour. “What he can convey with the guitar has to heard to be believed,” says the legendary Jimmy Page. “The most original guitar player ever,” says Rod Stewart. “The Pablo Picasso of guitar,” says Slash. “He expanded the instrument beyond anyone else,” says guitar god Eric Clapton. And Jan Hammer, his keyboard collaborator on many jazz-fusion projects, says, “He took the guitar to the furthest reaches of the guitar universe.”
For one brief night, an antiseptic, sterile parking lot adjacent to Irvine’s Great Park was transformed into a rock pantheon. Geoffrey Arnold Beck was in the house, and tearing the roof off the Five Point Amphitheatre. It was a none too subtle reminder of what we miss since the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre was razed last year to make room for yet more housing.
Rolling Stone called him the fifth best guitarist of all time, but three of the four preceding him would certainly disagree (Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards). Clapton in particular has been effusive in his deference and humility when compared to Beck. Number 1 is Jimi Hendrix, but many would argue his oeuvre was cut way short with his untimely death. While he was certainly the most blistering rock guitarist of his day, he did not evolve the instrument in the ways Beck has over the last 50 years.
Here he was in fine mettle, wearing frumpy stained sweat pants and chewing gum casually as if it were all just another day at the office, accompanied by Prince’s bassist Rhonda Smith, power drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith. Like Prince, Beck is noted for discovering and fostering female musicians. And also for musical experimentation, from heavy metal to blues to jazz-fusion, and even Indian ragas.
The band took us on a sonic journey that reminded us again and again of the power of music, and especially the electric guitar as the signature instrument of our times. Listen closely to his covers of Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, or bluesman Freddie King’s “Going Down,” and you’ll hear an artist not content with interpreting the music as much as embodying it, mixing distortion, tremolo, odd chord structures and scales (along with his single thumb picking) to make the song his own. It’s said that he often plays instrumentals because he’s unable to find a human voice to sing the lead as well as his guitar can (with the exception of his early years with Rod Stewart on his bluesy eponymous 1968 – ’69 records “Truth” and “Beck-Ola,” respectively).
While his style can be full of aggression and nasty overtones, it’s on the slower, more nuanced songs that we hear Beck’s real artistry. One of his signature instrumental hits is Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.” His guitar becomes the embodiment of love lost, perhaps the saddest, most haunting melody ever. But wait, he’s also covered Charlie Mingus’s jazz great, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Lou Reed called that song, about the death of saxophonist Lester Young, the saddest song ever written – and his personal favorite. And herein lies the mystery and greatness of Jeff Beck. His guitar wails plaintively, making us feel the emotions of being alive and being a human being. He exalts the human condition with a slab of wood and six metal strings. It’s a thing of wonder that made me glad to be alive, and gladder still that Jeff Beck is too.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected]