Caught on Tape: Jeff Beck and the Sounds of Silence

Written by Caught on Tape, Music

This week marks the debut of Steven Rosen’s new column, Caught on Tape, in which he relives his adventures interviewing some of rock ‘n’ roll’s finest. First up: a 1973 chat with Jeff Beck that didn’t go exactly as planned.

For more than 30 years I’ve been interviewing and writing about guitar players. I was a mediocre guitarist and had flunked out my first year as a UCLA English major, but I read every music magazine I could find. I figured I had what it took to be a music journalist, and when guitar magazines were first coming of age, I was there — the right place at the perfect time. And I’ve been there ever since.

These are the stories I wrote and the interviews I recorded. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but neither did anyone else. That’s one of the great things about being there at the beginning of something — you can make up your own rules as you go along.

And the best part of it was that guitar players really wanted to talk to you. You made a phone call and set up an interview — just that easy. Which isn’t to say that once you were in the same room with this person, everything was cool. Hardly. Sometimes you were lucky to escape with even a shred of dignity intact. These were, after all, quirky and quixotic rock guitar players. In that regard, not a lot has changed in the past 30-plus years.

Still, it’s been a journey that few have ever taken. For all my idiotic questions and the ensuing silence, for all the sheer heart-stomping terror, I wouldn’t give back a second of it. So, take a seat, buckle up, and hang on. This is the craziest and most insane ride you’ll ever take inside your own head.

beck701JEFF BECK AND THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE
or WHY DIDN’T I HIT THE DAMN RECORD BUTTON?
(May 3, 1973 — Hollywood, California)

The drive from my guest house/cottage in the hills of Hollywood to the then-hallowed Continental Hyatt House took maybe four minutes. It was 240 of the most anxiety-laden seconds I’d ever experienced. Like a cascading guitar riff, you roll down Laurel Canyon to Sunset Boulevard, make a right, and head west for about one and three-quarter miles. There it was, north side of the street, a cement-and-chrome monument to everything that was wickedly wonderful and over-the-top back in the ’70s. Dubbed the “Riot House” by the parade of English bands winging their way across the Atlantic on ever-expanding American tours, the Hyatt was the only hotel in Hollywood that not only provided room and board for these visiting musicians but willingly sought out their business. The management delighted in the destruction of rooms, the torching of couches, the high-velocity belching of motorcycles riding up and down the hallways. Musicians may have caused physical damage, but they were also fiscally responsible — if you trashed a room, you paid cash to fix it.

It was precisely in one of these suites where Jeff Beck awaited me. It was 1973, and the Englishman had finally formed his long-sought-after trio with Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice. He’d been trying to assemble these players for years, but the project was ultimately put up on blocks when he found himself muscle-to-metal in a devastating car crash.

I elevatored myself to the 11th floor. While I shuddered through a series of hyperventilating, armpit-soaking, palsied-hand-tremor convulsions, the Otis doors opened onto the designated floor. I made the long walk down the hallway to room 1123 armed with a $29 cassette player, a $2 plug-in microphone I bought at Radio Shack, and a 29-cent cassette. Totally unprofessional gear. An audio disaster waiting to happen. But I couldn’t be bothered with that — it took every memory cell in my head just to remember my name. I glanced briefly over my list of questions, and in the fluorescent light of day they seemed inane, superfluous, absolute drivel. I thought I’d be laughed out of the room.

A wrecked man walking, I knocked timidly on the door. And there he was. There was Jeff Beck. The most masterful, God-gifted, and inspired guitarist who ever lived. Forget Hendrix and Clapton and Van Halen — Geoffrey Arnold Beck had been blessed with the sweetest touch of any guitar player around.

I remember walking in the room and thinking he was shorter than I’d imagined. But beneath a loosely buttoned long-sleeved shirt were the cut and muscled features of a man who obviously made a living with his arms and hands. A musician and a mechanic, he grasped my midget hand in a cordial shake; it disappeared entirely inside of his. Jeff’s hands are marvels, with wrists that end in tree limbs. The back of each hand is deeply filigreed with veins and tendons, the arms and shoulders slender but taut, perfect tools for the grasping of picks and the supporting of guitar bodies.

A drink was proffered. Two gin-and-tonics were mixed. I gulped mine in hopes of slowing down a heart beating faster than a big bass drum. I was still unable to control my breathing, but a gentle gin buzz certainly made me care less about hyperventilating. I kept repeating my subject’s name, and it was the very approximation of the sound a pick might make when striking a string in a fluid up-down stroke: jff bk jff bk jff bk.

Astonishingly, Jeff sensed my unease. He sat me down on the room’s oversized bed as I underwent the process of preparing my gear. Cassette inserted, microphone plugged in, tape rolling, I began the interview.

Jeff was beautiful, perfect — sensitive to my awkwardness and responsive to rare moments of insight. And after what felt like five minutes, the tape somehow ran out. Just to ensure all was fine, I rewound a touch for playback, hit “play,” and … silence. Utter, unalterable, unbelievably humiliating nothing.

That’s because after inserting the cassette and plugging in the mike, I punched “play,” not “record.” The bastard button loomed there like a taunt.

I couldn’t speak. I was embarrassed into a state of mild catatonia, and couldn’t even raise my eyes to confront Jeff. He’d witnessed the entire process. I was simply waiting for him to laugh out loud and bring the interview to an end. I deserved it.

Instead, he suggested, “Let’s just continue from here and you can come back tomorrow and we’ll go over what you missed.” It was a pardon, a reprieve, and it left me floating outside my body. More than that, though, it was an emotional pat on the back: “Hey, you screwed up. It happens.” I thanked him, and then thanked him again — profusely, endlessly — until eventually he seemed pissed off by all the thanking.

I returned the next day with my tape player and accessories in my left hand and a guitar case in the other. Upon my entrance, Jeff immediately saw the case and his eyes lit up. I told him, sheepishly, that I played, and I thought he might like to check out this Fender I had just bought. He opened the case, removed the 1973 all-maple Strat, and cradled it in his muscled forearms. He fished out a pick from somewhere, sat down on the bed, and began playing.

There was no amp in the room, but even on an electric guitar played acoustically you hear the unmistakable technique and attack that is Jeff Beck. That tone, that indescribable touch — it was all there.

He smiled, and I grinned back like a moron. He noodled through delicate little blues riffs and funky, honkin’ rhythmic chops. I asked him to play the syncopated line from Donovan’s “Barabajagal,” and with both fingers and pick he plucked out the phrase. I was grinning so wide my teeth hurt.

As I watched him sitting there on the bed holding the guitar, an almost profound image presented itself. With the Strat sort of balanced on his upper thigh, the tensile yet tender grasp of the massive left-hand phalanges on the neck and the angle and approach of the right hand grasping the pick, a perfect symmetry was created. You knew this was someone born to play the instrument. There was a sense that Jeff and the guitar were inseparable, that without it he was vulnerable or incomplete. Naked.

He loved the guitar I brought and jokingly said he was going to keep it. We went back over the unrecorded material from the previous day, and the entire time he messed around on the Fender. Listen closely and you can hear it. In fact the interview got in the way of the playing; I should’ve let the tape roll and just recorded Jeff conjuring his magic for an hour.

However, Jeff has a dry and sardonic wit and a pretty self-deprecating sense of humor. Here he talks about his early experiences with feedback. It comes across as the funniest thing you’ve ever heard. Because he’s serious — and he isn’t.

Interview Clip 1 (download)
Interview Clip 2 (download)
Interview Clip 3 (download)