Jeff Beck インタビュー on The New York Times (2010.02.12)
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A Guitar Hero Won’t Play the Game
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Jeff Beck, rehearsing this month for his tour.
February 14, 2010
A Guitar Hero Won’t Play the Game
By LARRY ROHTER
IN late January, Jeff Beck flew here from London for the Grammy Awards, capping what had been an unusually active year for him. Not only did he win his fifth Grammy, in the best rock instrumental category for a version of the Beatles’ “Day in the Life,” but he also led a televised memorial tribute to the electric guitar pioneer Les Paul that, in contrast to some of the other live performances that night, was flawless.
But the most illuminating moment of the visit may have been supplied by Stephen Colbert in the monologue that opened the Grammy show. “Honey, do you know who Jeff Beck is?” he asked his daughter, sitting in the audience. When she shook her head no and looked baffled, Mr. Colbert explained: “Well, you know the game ‘Guitar Hero?’ He has the all-time high score — and he’s never played it.”
That, in a nutshell, defines Mr. Beck’s peculiar situation. At 65, with a distinguished career that dates back to the earliest days of the British Invasion, he remains the greatest guitarist that millions of people have never heard of. But the master instrumentalist in him has resisted making the concessions that would allow him to be heard more widely in an era in which his craft has been reduced to a video game with colored buttons.
The creators of “Guitar Hero” invited Mr. Beck to be an avatar in the game, but he declined. “Who wants to be in a kid’s game, like a toy shop?” he asked dismissively during an interview the day before the Grammys. “There’s just this mad avalanche of material that’s available, so it’s so hard for aspiring young players to find where they should go” and “not be enslaved to yet another tool or device.”
With a new manager and a forthcoming record on a new label, Mr. Beck is instead trying to resolve his dilemma the old-fashioned way. He spent a large part of 2009 on the road, and in April was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist, the second time that body had honored him. In late October he dazzled at the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert at Madison Square Garden, performing, among other numbers, “Superstition,” a song that Stevie Wonder originally wrote for him, alongside Mr. Wonder, a friend of 40 years’ standing.
This year the pace is accelerating. On Thursday and Friday Mr. Beck and his pal Eric Clapton will be performing together at Madison Square Garden, the second stop on a four-city mini-tour. Mr. Beck and his new band will then head off to Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea before returning to the United States in April, when his first studio recording in seven years, “Emotion & Commotion,” is scheduled to be released by Atco.
“I was almost a recluse, and now you can’t get rid of me,” he said. “It just seems like I’ve picked the right moment to move. There’s a commitment I’ve made over the last year really,” prodded by his new manager and musicians he respects, “and now you’re seeing the results of that.” Originally Mr. Beck was one of what Jan Hammer, the jazz and fusion pianist and drummer who is a friend and longtime collaborator, calls “the holy trinity” of British guitar players to emerge from the 1960s. Like Mr. Clapton and Jimmy Page, the founder of Led Zeppelin, Mr. Beck first came to prominence as a member of the Yardbirds, playing blues-inflected rock ’n’ roll, and then went out on his own.
As a solo artist for the last 43 years Mr. Beck has built a reputation as the guitar player’s guitar player. Though notoriously self-effacing, even insecure, about his own talent, he has regularly topped reader polls in guitar magazines and has become a major influence on three generations of players, particularly through his use of harmonics and the whammy bar on the Fender Stratocaster he prefers to play.
“Jeff Beck is the best guitar player on the planet,” said Joe Perry, the lead guitarist of Aerosmith and a Beck admirer since his teenage years. “He is head, hands and feet above all the rest of us, with the kind of talent that appears only once every generation or two.”
George Martin, who produced the Beatles and the only two of Mr. Beck’s recordings to go platinum, “Blow by Blow” and “Wired,” from the mid-’70s, said, “If I have to think of an electric guitar virtuoso, Beck is my call.” In contrast to musicians who find a single approach and won’t budge, he continued, “Jeff has that ability to be comfortable in many styles: hard rock, jazz, funky blues, even opera.”
Mr. Beck’s career, however, has followed a curious path. Periods of engagement with the commercial side of the music world have given way to interludes of withdrawal, during which he retires to his home in the English countryside to work on his collection of hot rods, listen to obscure records and practice in his living room.
“If you were to plot my success or failure, it goes,” and here Mr. Beck made a series of up-and-down hand gestures, accompanied by the sounds of a car stopping and starting. “It very seldom stays on a high plateau.”
The reasons for those fluctuations are both artistic and commercial. Stylistically Mr. Beck has been all over the map, moving from proto-heavy metal to jazz, experimenting with electronica, returning to the blues, detouring to rockabilly — in general following his own inclinations regardless of what happens to be popular at the moment and leaving record companies baffled as to how to categorize and promote him. None of his recent studio recordings has achieved gold-record status. Though the original late-’60s version of the Jeff Beck Group featured Rod Stewart on vocals, Mr. Beck hasn’t recorded or toured with a full-time lead singer since the early ’70s. As a result he eschews lyrics in many of his songs, which on some recordings have tended toward the abstract.
“It’s hard for Jeff to coexist with a singer, because he thinks in terms of his guitar being a lead voice, and singers, especially in rock, have this sense of entitlement, that they are going to be the focus,” Mr. Hammer said. That attitude “has produced some great one-offs, but I don’t think it makes for a lasting collaboration or a long-term relationship.”
Those dalliances offer an idea of Mr. Beck’s wide-ranging interests and his willingness to experiment. During the long gaps between his own CDs he has recorded or played with vocalists as different as Luciano Pavarotti and Buddy Guy. He seems especially fond of female singers, having worked on sessions with Macy Gray, Chrissie Hynde, Cyndi Lauper and Wynonna Judd, among others.
The collaboration with Mr. Clapton grew out of a series of shows Mr. Beck did in 2007 at a jazz club in London, where the two guitarists played Muddy Waters’s “Little Brown Bird.” They came together again early last year for two joint performances outside Tokyo, mixing blues tunes and Sly Stone numbers with songs from the Eddie Harris and Les McCann songbook.
Mr. Beck’s new album, produced by Steve Lipson and Trevor Horn, continues that habit of doing a bit of everything. It opens with “Corpus Christi Carol,” which is associated with both Jeff Buckley and Benjamin Britten, later moves from an instrumental version of “Over the Rainbow” to “I Put A Spell on You” with Joss Stone on vocals, includes an instrumental reading of the Puccini aria “Nessun dorma” and ends with an operatic version of the “Elegy for Dunkirk” from the film “Atonement.”
“He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, and at the beginning was in major panic mode,” Mr. Lipson said in a telephone interview from his studio in London. “It was only through making the record and finding the pieces that he felt more at ease. I told him, ‘You are the greatest instrumental experimenter with melodies that I can think of, and that’s what we should concentrate on.’ And he agreed.”
To support the CD Mr. Beck will be touring with a new band. He has retained the keyboard player Jason Rebello from his last ensemble but has brought in a new rhythm section: the drummer Narada Michael Walden and the Canadian bassist Rhonda Smith, who spent nearly a decade recording and touring with Prince.
In the mid-’70s Mr. Walden, fresh out of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, wrote several songs for and played on “Wired.” Since then he has become a successful producer and songwriter for Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand. But he was willing to cast aside his aversion to long tours when Mr. Beck invited him to collaborate for the first time in more than 30 years.
“You look for the guys who can kick you” as a musician, “and Jeff can be filthy, stinky that way,” Mr. Walden said in an interview here. “He’s not just melody, or a guy who can make his guitar cry. He’s a funky cat too, always thinking about rhythm, and he has a fearlessness that makes him open to all kinds of material.”
On the business side Mr. Beck also has a reputation as something of a contrarian, and has shown that trait in decisions that have ended up working to his detriment. Booked to play at the original Woodstock festival, for example, he canceled at the last minute, a decision that so infuriated Mr. Stewart that he soon left the band in favor of the solo career that made him the bigger name.
Even today Mr. Beck remains suspicious of the machinery of the pop industry, expressing both puzzlement and disgust at the way the celebrity culture has swallowed other musicians.
“It’s a diabolical business,” he said. “I can’t imagine how hellish it must be to be hounded like Amy Winehouse and people like that. I have a little peripheral place on the outskirts of celebrity, when I go to premieres and that sort of stuff, which is as close as I want to get. I cherish my privacy, and woe betide anyone who tries to interfere with that.”
But Mr. Beck also realizes that he has paid a price for his perceived obstinacy. Asked if it frustrated him not to have enjoyed the same level of commercial success as peers like Mr. Clapton and Mr. Page, he first suggested that speculation was pointless but then said he tried to focus on the positive aspects of the choices he made.
“It’s no use, it’s spilt milk, it’s gone, it’s evaporated,” he said. “I suppose I could think of it as being too bothersome. But I could also look at it on the upside and say, ‘This is the only reason I’m still here,’ because I can almost promise you that I wouldn’t be here if I’d had a huge record in the ’80s. And also, it doesn’t suit me. I like the fact that I can just bugger off and disappear.”
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