My Afternoon With Jeff Beck (and SRV)

I only had one meaningful encounter with Jeff Beck, but it was a memorable one — and it involved Stevie Ray Vaughan as well.

In 1990, Matt Resnicoff and I were assigned a Guitar Player cover story on the Jeff Beck/Stevie Ray Vaughan tour. We were the two young guys on staff, eager to prove ourselves. Hard to believe, but music magazines had actual budgets in those days — enough to send me to NYC, where Matt lived, to interview the duo while they were in town for their two Madison Square Garden shows.

Despite promises from the record label and management, the pair basically just blew us off. Matt was far more aggressive than I about pursuing unauthorized interviews. (Once, after being declined an Eddie Van Halen face-to-face, he pursued Ed into the mens room and hurled questions while Ed stood at the urinal.) So we hung out in the lobby of the guitarists’ Midtown hotel. We saw Beck walk by with an attractive young woman at his side, but there was no interviewing to be done that day. Or the next one.

The label, Epic, offered to send us to the next show in Worcester, MA. Even better, we could hitch a ride back to NYC afterwards on Stevie Ray’s tour bus!

Alas, blown off again — and there was no one from the label or management to secure our ride. We’d returned our rental car, so we were pretty much stranded. We somehow forced our way to SRV’s bus and explained our situation to the road manager, who of course knew nothing about the supposed arrangement. But he kindly let us ride with Stevie Ray and the band overnight. Our interactions with SRV were minimal. Everyone was watching some mediocre western on TV, and one by one folks slipped off to their bunks. As the last person in the main lounge, I flicked off the TV. An irate Stevie Ray poked his head out the star lounge, asking who the hell had turned off his movie, which he was watching on a second screen.

“Sorry!” I squeaked.

The Epic publicist then offered to send us to the Cincinnati show. By now Matt and I were rather stressed out. We’d heard rumors that Beck could be an ornery interview, and Matt was spinning fantasies about potential disasters to come.

“I can’t believe anyone would be so stupid as to ask that idiotic question,” Matt said, imagining one possible scenario.

“Come on,” I said. “He’s probably not going to say that, and he’s definitely not going to talk in that Nigel Tufnel accent you’re using.”

The upside of all this was getting to watch the show up close — four times! Don’t hate me, but I confess that the SRV performances got old for me. The show varied little from night to night. And while I have vast respect for his musical skill and ability to touch so many hearts, I’ve always had limited patience for by-the-book blues licks.

Beck was different. This won’t be news to anyone fortunate enough to have seen him in concert, but he was no mere virtuoso. His playing was positively supernatural. He seemed to pull each note down from somewhere on high, each one requiring a mighty effort. (I hope it’s obvious that I’m not talking about any technical shortcomings on his part.) I’m not a woo woo-type person, but I swear, it was like watching Sisyphus push his rock, or Prometheus stealing fire, or some such mythological shit. He was the least complacent and most suspenseful guitarist I’ve ever witnessed. And for me, nothing on his records comes close to capturing that live energy.

At the time, his latest record was Guitar Shop, and the highlight of each set was his rendition of the album’s “Where Were You,” inspired by the La Mystère des Voix Bulgares, a 1975 album of Bulgarian folk singing. Each performance was unique, and each time he’d summon different versions of those impossibly high harmonics and that improbable sustain. His body coiled with the effort, as if he were in constant danger of falling to his death from a high wire. It was otherworldly. We often say virtuosos make difficult tasks look easy, but Beck made impossible tasks look really fucking hard. (And no — watching up close up didn’t demystify his technique in the slightest.)

Finally, Beck, Vaughan, Matt and I met in a nondescript Cincinnati hotel room. They were both perfectly nice, and Matt’s interview predictions were happily unfounded — sort of. Beck, fit and youthful-looking, pretty much WAS Nigel. If Christopher Guest didn’t derive his Nigel character directly from Beck, well, that performance was an uncanny coincidence.

You can find the interview online by googling “Beck Vaughan Guitar Player Interview 1990,” though GP has split the interview into irritating little sections. I have a difficult time revisiting my work, be it words or music, so I haven’t looked at it in 33 years. I remember feeling that the story was a bit flat simply because the two players seemed to have genuine respect for each other, and there was a lot of sincere but unexciting “No, you’re the man!” energy.

I was struck by Beck’s humility. He said that the experience of jamming with Hendrix was “awful” because it made him feel “like a peanut.” Jeff professed astonishment that Jimi seemed to admire his playing in return. He sorely regretted never having spoken to his hero Cliff Gallup. He said he’d have been satisfied just to hear his voice, even if he only said “fuck off.”

Beck reiterated what he said in so many interviews: He just wasn’t that into guitar. He compared himself negatively to Jimi, Steve Ray, and Buddy Guy, players who, he felt, lived and breathed the instrument. He said he merely “picked it up and played sometimes,” and that he felt guilty about that. Beck’s true passions were his hot rods. But perversely, the facts that he wasn’t obsessed with guitar and that he seldom, if ever, practiced only add to his mystique.

The best obit I’ve read since getting the sad news yesterday appeared in the Guardian. It quotes what was probably the most significant passage from our interview: Beck’s statement that “I shouldn’t have done Blow by Blow.” The Guardian quotes make it sound as if he was uncomfortable in that jazz-fusion format, even though the album was his greatest commercial success. True, no doubt! But I got the impression that he was mostly mortified about being immortalized in a cover image wearing those flared trousers.

We kibitzed for a few minutes after the interview. For some reason, Jamie Lee Curtis’s name came up. (Maybe someone had seen the then-recent A Fish Called Wanda.) I’d read somewhere that Curtis had pursued future husband Christopher Guest after falling in love with his Nigel character. Beck hadn’t heard this. “Oh my god,” he moaned. “That exquisite creature! And to think that she could have had the real thing!” (So yeah, he was indirectly acknowledging the Nigel/Jeff parallels.)

One grim aspect of working in music journalism for decades is the sheer number of encounters with artists who are no longer with us. I sometimes think of all the departed greats I had a chance to speak with: Ray Charles, Ennio Morricone, Bowie, Dr. John, Sonny Sharrock, Leon Russell, and on and on. Recalling my brief encounters with Beck and Vaughan evokes sadness and gratitude in equal measure.

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