Gavin > Music > Jeff Beck Autobiography

Tuesday, 11-May-1999 18:50:43 CDT
The Real Beck's Story Finally Told
By Laura Swezey

Jeff Beck has been called the greatest living guitarist by many, but until recently there was scant information available about his life and sporadic career. And he's been out of the spotlight so long that, to his dismay, a young slacker type has usurped his surname. Thanks to Annette Carson's new Jeff Beck biography, Crazy Fingers, there is now a wealth of information about the career of this unmistakably brilliant guitarist who is currently back on the scene with his new album on Epic, Who Else!

In a recent Rolling Stone magazine special entitled "Guitar Gods," Beck acknowledged Django Reinhardt and Cliff Gallup of Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps as his favorite guitarists; in the same issue, Slash and former Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil both cited Beck as their main inspiration. As expected, several other of rock's badass axe players mention Hendrix's looming legacy as influencing their playing.

Carson carefully details in Crazy Legs that much for which Hendrix was heralded - use of heavy distortion, feedback, creating unearthly sounds with his instrument - Beck actually pioneered in the Yardbirds a good year or so before Hendrix burst on the scene. But it was Hendrix who caught fire, and his flamboyant stage presence that created a lasting impression, pushing him to the top of the guitar pantheon.

As introverted in his personal life as he often is onstage, Beck has kept a low profile throughout his illustrious career. Preferring to let the music speak for itself, Beck interviews and television appearances are rare (he declined to participate in this book as well). His musical releases in recent years have been few and far between, thanks to his all-consuming hobby of rebuilding hot rods. Therefore, Beck tends to hide in the recesses of the public's mind when it comes to guitar maestros. Yet throughout his career, whenever Beck unleashes an album, Carson reminds us he is usually one step ahead of the game.

As early as his first brush with international exposure, during his stint as guitarist for blues ravers the Yardbirds, Beck was breaking new ground. The eastern tonal sounds and sitar-like effects he created on the band's 1965 hit "Heart Full of Soul" pre-dated George Harrison and Brian Jones' fascination with Eastern music and the sitar.

Carson characterizes the Jeff Beck Group's first vinyl output, Truth, as the landmark that it was - a new mixture of blues-based heavy rock emerging from a blistering, emphatic guitar wail - a sound that took the world by storm when Led Zeppelin emerged with a similar take the following year. Beck went on to foray into various musical styles - funk and soul-influenced grooves, jazz rock fusion, and '80s pop rock. Although his last album of original material before this year's Who Else! was 1989's Guitar Shop, Beck has been busy behind the scenes. Crazy Fingers provides an excellent account of Beck's numerous guest appearances and lesser-known work in recent years, on albums by Roger Waters, Buddy Guy, and Brian May, In addition to contributing to a Jimi Hendrix tribute and Steve Vai's Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas, he recently turned in a poignant performance of "A Day in the Life" on In My Life, a tribute album to his former producer George Martin.

From setting the stage of the post-war Britain of Beck's youth to detailing the musical climate surrounding each incarnation of Beck's career, Carson's book is fastidious and insightful. She provides painstaking descriptions of the guitars he has played throughout the years, and provides a musician's insight into his technique.

Absent from the book are kiss-and-tell accounts of groupies or ex-girlfriends; this is all about the music, and very little about Beck's personal life. Despite the obstacles involved in writing the biography of a reluctant subject, Carson has put together a complete picture of Beck's career and his influence. Although all the sources for quotes and observations from Beck are previously published interviews, Crazy Fingers is coherent and entertaining, far from feeling like a pieced-together work. Supplemented with input from Beck's colleagues, just enough material is provided to give some insight into Beck as a person.

We once in a while get a glimpse of his sly sense of humor and self-effacing quality. Beck's reaction to the film This Is Spinal Tap, whose guitarist character Nigel Tufnel was fashioned in Beck's image: "I laughed myself into the ground over Spinal Tap, and I recognized some of that power complex, like wanting to turn the volume up to 11." Beck was even goodnatured enough to play on the title track of the farcical band's 1992 album Break Like the Wind.

Carson points out that elements of Beck's playing can be heard in the no-holds barred style of the next generation of guitar heroes, from Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai to Yngwie Malmsteen. But perhaps nothing sums up Beck's influence better than a quote from Eric Clapton in the book's prologue. Upon accepting a Best Guitarist award recently, the first words out of Clapton's mouth were, "I think this should have gone to Jeff."

Annette Carson's Self published Crazy Fingers is available for $18 through DAC Enterprises, Carola Court, San Jose, CA 95130.

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