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Jeff Beck’s Immortal Boogaloo

The genius guitarist who died this week was always ahead of everyone, and always evolving
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The only possible way to know what Jimi Hendrix might have been up to if he’d lived was to consider Jeff Beck, and then try to keep track. The only possible answer was to recognize the single thing they shared: relentless questing creativity.

Beck’s unique expression of adoration for Hendrix was direct: He changed. Constantly. Unlike nearly all the rest of his generation of rock stars and guitar heroes, he never stopped listening, questing, changing, challenging himself, blithely ignoring every expectation. Ripping an authoritative tribute to his early rockabilly gods — as a kid, he saw Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Buddy Holly — then spilling out astoundingly moving inventions based on Indian classical modes. Inventing the heavy metal armature that Led Zeppelin and sundry others would dine out on for decades, when he sat down at Stevie Wonder’s drum kit, out came “Superstition.” Known for the extravagance of his instrumentals, he was the empathically daring accompanist most singers will never experience. He understood perfectly. His guitar was his voice.

I sat around a lit-up aquamarine motel pool talking with him in June 1976, It was 1:30 or 2 in the morning, and in the Arizona heat, his greasy sheepdog shag hung limp. He spoke just above a whisper, out of consideration for waking the other guest, a gentlemanly concern unparalleled in the history of rock ’n’ roll. It was impossible not to marvel at his humility and his arrogance, twined together in a single rope of confidence and diffidence. This was right in the midst of the Rococo Jazz Fusion Disaster Era, when the squigglier your spaghetti splatters were, the more impressive you seemed. He’d invited himself to the party, offering the shocking relief of pure melody in the midst of pretentious clatter, a rocker’s devotion to sonic style cutting through all the excruciating din. He knew how good he was, and he was highly aware of how great he wasn’t — not yet. And he was supremely secure in the act and experience of not knowing, yet knowing he was bound to ask, to question.

(Credit: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns)

So genuine a knuckle-busting grease monkey that the multi-car garage of his English country manse had a full-on lube pit, I like to think that I turned him on to the wonders of the 327 Chevy small block, though that may have just been another moment of graciousness on his part. A faithful subscriber to Hot Rod, Car Craft, and Rod & Custom, I’m sure he was kindly indulging me. When you’re in deep pursuit of new levels of mastery in your life’s central crusade, it’s easy to be casual about lesser notions, talking cars instead of guitars… but quietly, softly, poolside, as palm fronds flutter in the waves of heat.