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Clapton and Beck: The Long and Winding Road

As rock’s most legendary guitarists prepare for a series of historic shows, they sit down for the first time to discuss old rivalries, blues heroes and the secrets of their craft

Jeff Beck, Eric ClaptonJeff Beck, Eric Clapton

Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton perform together in London on February 13th, 2010.

Samir Hussein/Getty

ON A BITTERLY COLD MORNING IN THE FIRST WEEK of the new year, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck are stretched out on a pair of sofas in front of a crackling fire in the living room of Beck’s country home in Wadhurst, England, a Tudor house built in 1591 and stripped back to its original timbers inside and out. The guitarists warm themselves with hot tea and toasted cheese sandwiches as they talk and fire licks at each other on instruments from Beck’s collection. Beck plays some T-Bone Walker and a piece of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady” on a white Stratocaster; Clapton jumps in with stinging runs on a gorgeously weathered 1954 Telecaster.

Clapton, 64, and Beck, 65 -two of the most revolutionary and influential guitarists in rock & roll — are throwing song ideas around for their historic first-ever co-headlining tour, six February shows in London, New York and Canada. Clapton suggests a Charles Mingus piece, “Self-Portrait in Three Colors,” and blues guitarist Albert Collins’ instrumental “Sno-Cone.” Beck — whose new album, Emotion is Commotion, veers from his trademark jazz-rock snarl to a majestic solo-guitar-and-orchestra treatment of the aria “Nessun Donna,” from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot — mentions the funky guitar player Lonnie Mack, then plays the hook from Mack’s 1963 single “Wham!”

As Beck and Clapton pick and chat, other names and memories come up from the 1960s, when the two were already Britain’s first guitar superstars yet only knew each other from a distance, by records and reputations. Beck describes the first time he saw Clapton with Cream, at the Marquee in London in 1966: “It was three blokes in paradise, making great music. They were like a big machine coming at you.” Clapton recalls his deep immediate connection with Hendrix, after they first played together in the fall of ’66: “I found it affirming to meet someone else who was as passionate about blues as I was, who was absolutely on the same path.” And for one lively stretch, Beck and Clapton get into their strange connected history with the Yardbirds, the British psychedelic-R&B band that was ground zero for British guitar heroism. In just six years, the group boasted Clapton, Beck and Jimmy Page as lead guitarist, in that order.

“I was sitting in Jimmy’s house,” Beck says, explaining how he replaced Clapton in the band in 1965. “Jimmy had the best record collection, and his mum always bought him the best stereo equipment, he said to me, ‘What do you think of this?’ And he played ‘Five Long Years’” — the slow, steamy Eddie Boyd cover on the Yardbirds’ 1964 album with Clapton, Five Live Yardbirds. “The solo you played on that,” Beck tells Clapton, “was fucking wonderful. I went, This is like Buddy Guy, Elmore James.'”

“Oh, thank you, man,” Clapton replies with honest gratitude.

“Then,” Beck continues, “Jimmy said, “Would you ever play in a band like that?’ He was sort of feeling me out. He didn’t say there was a vacancy.”

“What was his involvement?” Clapton asks. “Did the band ask him to ask you?”

“No, they asked him first,” Beck says. “He turned them down.”

This is news to Clapton, who looks incredulous. “Why?”

Beck explains that Page — who finally joined the Yardbirds in 1966, briefly played with Beck in the band, then replaced Beck entirely before going on to form Led Zeppelin in 1968 — was then a busy, well-paid session man. So, Beck says, “I got the call.”

“I remember the first time I saw Jeff’ play,” Clapton says, picking up his end of the tale. “It was after I knew he got the job.” He turns to Beck, grinning. “I snuck into a gig — you were still in the Tridents. You had hair below here” — he gestures at upper-chest level — “and all this fucking echo on your guitar. I’m thinking, ‘Do they really know what they let themselves in for?'”

“When I joined the Yardbirds,” Beck says, “all I kept hearing was stories in the van: ‘Eric wouldn’t have done this. Eric wouldn’t have done that.’ I went, ‘Shut the fuck up. Eric isn’t in the band.'” The two men explode with laughter.

“They didn’t like me when I was in the band,” Clapton says, his voice dropping to a low, reflective tone. “I was very disagreeable — intolerant, really. Anyone who didn’t know Robert Johnson, I didn’t want to know them.” Clapton abruptly quit the Yardbirds after the recording session for their first pop hit, “For Your Love,” because it offended his blues purism.

“No, they did like you,” Beck counters.

“No, they didn’t,” Clapton insists.

“No,” Beck repeats, this time with a reassuring smile. “They were in awe.”

IN ITS COZY ENGLISH-FIRESIDE way, this meeting is a landmark rock & roll moment. It is the first joint interview that Clapton and Beck have ever done. In fact, despite their connected past in the Yardbirds and later parallel successes — Clapton with Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos and as a solo artist; Beck with his late-Sixties Jeff Beck Group with a young Rod Stewart on vocals, and the platinum jazz-rock albums Blow by Blow in 1975 and Wired in 1976 — the guitarists never played together until 1981, at a charity concert in London.

Then their careers diverged dramatically. Clapton made pop records in the Eighties with Phil Collins and sold more than 10 million copies of the 1992 album Unplugged. Beck settled into a lower profile of critically well-received instrumental records, sometimes eccentric session work (like a song on the 1985 soundtrack to Porky’s Revenge) and long retreats, by choice, from the limelight. In 1989, Clapton released an album called Journeyman. Beck was the real deal.

Since that night in ’81, Beck and Clapton have shared stages about a dozen times: the 1983 A.R.M.S. superstar benefits in London and the U.S., and two co-headlining gigs in Japan last year. The latter concerts, which went so well that Beck and Clapton agreed to do more, featured separate sets by each guitarist with his band, then Beck and Clapton in extended crossfires on songs such as Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love” and the Cream number “Outside Woman Blues.”

When pressed on why he and Beck never played together in the Sixties and Seventies, Clapton says bluntly, “Because we were enemies, basically.”

It is Beck’s turn to look shocked. “That’s news to me,” he says.

“He was my replacement in the Yardbirds,” Clapton goes on. “I mean, there shouldn’t have been a replacement. That was why I left: ‘I’ll leave, and the whole thing will collapse without me.’ In fact, they got better with Jeff and became more successful.” Clapton never saw Beck live with the Yardbirds but says Beck’s convulsive-raga and manipulated-feed-back solo in the group’s 1966 single “Shapes of Things” “convinced me he was the real deal.”

Clapton pauses and grins. “It’s funny talking about him with him here.”

“Choose your words carefully,” Beck warns playfully.

“I will, I will,” Clapton promises. Actually, they speak to and about each other with an easy amusement. Away from the road and out of the rock-star limelight, the guitarists have long kept discrete private lives; this is a rare social get-together for them. But in Beck’s living room, they exchange quips and revelations about their remarkable lives in rock like two guys who know they’ve been down a lot of the same trails and have kept a close, admiring watch on each other along the way.

“It was mixed feelings,” Clapton says, getting back to his point about Beck, the Yardbirds and his own bruised ego. “To be absolutely honest, I wanted to be as critical of him as I could. It hurt me bad because I could see they were getting, with Jeff, at something beyond what I was capable of. His thing was so unique and advanced.”

Beck is moved by the compliment — he flashes a proud smile — but quickly gives Clapton his due for the fluid technique and furious blues dynamics all over Five Live Yardbirds. “He put a complete gold seal on the Yardbirds,” Beck says of Clapton. “I was carrying the torch and doing OK. But Eric cemented that band together. People used to go to see them just because Eric was there.” He looks over at Clapton. “Same thing when you went with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers — the crowds turned up for you.”

“All I was doing was representing an ideal,” Clapton claims, “which was the music had to be first.” Beck nods firmly in agreement.

For all of the early competitive distance between them, at least as Clapton perceived it, he and Beck have much in common. Clapton is earnest and confessional about his gifts. “I’m always dissatisfied,” he says about his live shows. “I always think, ‘Oh, that wasn’t quite right.'”

Beck is a wisecracking storyteller but just as blunt about his own worth. He recalls the first time he heard about Hendrix’s arrival in Britain in 1966: “Some woman who I wouldn’t go out with rang me up and said, ‘Have you ever heard of Jimi Hendrix? He’s better than you.'” Beck laughs and mimes slamming a phone down. But he was truly humbled when he and Hendrix jammed at London clubs like the Speakeasy: “He’d look at you and say, ‘You got your head together?’ He’d start playing the blues, and it was the best.”

Beck and Clapton were born only nine months apart — Geoffrey Arnold Beck on June 24th, 1944, Eric Patrick Clapton on March 30th, 1945 — and they are, Clapton says, “both country boys.” Clapton lives with his wife, Melia, and their three young daughters in a house he bought in 1968 that is, he notes, “about eight miles from where I was born,” in the village of Ripley in Surrey, southwest of London. “I still don’t know if I could live anywhere else.” Beck comes from Wellington, a suburban-London town about 25 miles from his current home. His father was an accountant, and his mother worked in a chocolate factory. “The irony is neither of them lived to see this,” Beck says, gesturing around his living room, at the leaded-glass windows and antique woodwork. Up a short path from the front door is a long barn housing Beck’s collection of vintage automobiles, including a 1932 chocolate-brown Ford Deuce Coupe and his Sixties Chevrolet Corvettes, all of which he restores himself. Beck and his wife, Sandra, do not have children. “You saw ‘em,” he cracks. “They’re in that barn.

“This would have been, for them, a dream beyond a dream,” Beck says of his parents. “Fortunately, I was able to tell my mum, when she was not too far from the end.” He laughs. “She said, ‘Don’t you go getting delusions of grandeur.'”

Like many teenage Britons in the Fifties and early Sixties, caught between the severity of post-war life and the imported electricity of American rock & roll and blues, Beck and Clapton found escape in the guitar. Beck, who was a boy when he started working on cars with an uncle, built his first instrument, using a cigar box, a picture frame for the neck and string from a radio-controlled toy airplane. “I played with it for hours, making noises,” he recalls happily. He still practices for long periods every day, when he’s not on tour or in the garage — working on chords, melodic phrases and fingerpicking exercises.

“I find it inexcusable not to get up and play,” Beck explains, “especially now with big shows coming up. I’ve got a guitar on every sofa, leaning up against walls, telling me, ‘Don’t forget what’s about to happen.’ That’s the way it’s been for 35 years.”

Clapton, in turn, “had a talent, found it in the guitar and treasured it,” says Paul Samwell-Smith, the Yardbirds’ bassist and producer in the Clapton and Beck eras. “The guitar was an extension of his fingers. He soloed honestly and simply -it was personal and intimate — whereas Jeff’ knew how to take a song and shake it till it bled.

“He’s aggressive, but not in an alpha-male way,” Samwell-Smith says of Beck’s playing. “It’s quite thoughtful.”

Beck and Clapton speak passionately about the importance of melody in their playing. “You reach people with the right notes in the right way,” says Beck, whose prowling-animal posture onstage belies the action packed in his right picking hand, tugging at the tremolo bar while his pinky finger works the volume knob. “Million-mile-an-hour chops leave me cold. Vocalists don’t go didididididid. Why should guitars?”

“Jeff has the ability to play a million notes, but he didn’t,” says Rod Stewart of his time with Beck. “He never played across a vocal. He put little tasty fills in around me. I remember going ’round to his fiat in Putney, listening to records by the Temptations and the Four Tops, for the melodies and arrangements. We used to do ‘Walk on By,’ by Dionne Warwick. Jeff could play that stuff as well.”

“It’s always down to what you can do with one note,” Clapton affirms. “I low you express something with one note is what gives a player class.” One of his favorite Beck recordings is the version of Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” on Blow by Blow, a master class in Beck’s muscular bent-string lyricism and sighing-note blends of treble and feedback. “I always tuned into Jeff, all through my life,” Clapton insists. “No matter what the form was, his expression is dominant.”

Asked if there are things Beck can play on guitar that he can’t, Clapton readily says, “Oh, yeah. The things he does with his right hand are beyond anything I have seen anyone do. It’s like multitasking.”

And are there things Clapton can do that Beck can’t? “No,” Beck says swiftly, with perfect comic timing.

“He is telling the truth,” Clapton contends through the pair’s laughter.

“No, bollocks,” Beck says, getting serious and citing Clapton’s taut, brawny cries in “Telephone Blues,” the B side of a 1955 single by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, as a turning point in British blues. “When Eric is in full flower, in the blues, you can’t get close to that. The timing — the actual breakdown of the phrases — is so unique.”

Guitarist Derek Trucks, who plays in the Allman Brothers Band and was a member of Clapton’s touring band in 2007-08, says there is “a beautiful reserve in Eric’s playing. He and Duane [Allman] both had this, but Eric even more so — the space, of leaving you wanting more and not showing your whole hand all the time. It’s a composer’s way of playing. You can listen to one of his solos, without knowing it’s him, and know this is someone who writes songs.”

In contrast, “Jeff is dirt, in your face,” says drummer-producer Narada Michael Walden, who worked with Beck on Wired and is playing in Beck’s new touring band. “Jeff loves to shock. But he is very noble in the material he chooses. He takes the most beautiful melodies, then twists and turns them inside out.” Among the examples on Beck’s Emotion & Commotion, out in April, are covers of “Corpus Christi Carol,” by Jeff’ Buckley, and “Elegy for Dunkirk,” from the score of the film Atonement.

Back in Beck’s living room, the conversation has been ricocheting throughout the hothouse history of British rock guitar in the Sixties — to players such as Peter Green, who followed Clapton in Mayall’s band and soon founded Fleetwood Mac, and Mick Taylor, the Mayall alumnus who replaced Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. “I’m sure half of America’s guitar players think we all lived above the same sweets shop and played guitar all day long,” Beck jokes.

“It was a small scene,” Clapton explains. “Everybody knew everybody else. There was a certain amount of secrecy and territorialism, too — it was that small. You didn’t want to give too much away.”

Beck isn’t so sure. “The public made the comparisons,” he contends. “In the case of me and Eric, we just played the music that made us happy. That was the quest.”

So why did the two wait four decades to tour together? “Because we were all trying to be big bananas,” Beck says, shrugging his shoulders. “Except I didn’t have the luxury of the hit songs Eric’s got.”

“Very funny,” Clapton retorts.

“It’s not funny — it’s the fucking truth,” Beck shoots back. “People want to hear you go . . .” He picks up the Strat and hits the immortal riff in “Layla.” The two dissolve in laughter once again.

“I could go on for hours,” Beck says as Clapton grabs his coat and gets ready to leave for another appointment. “Once you start thinking about those days …”

I’M JUST SO USED TO HIM BEING there,” Clapton says of Beck the next morning, in his London office. “If I think of who the chief exponents are, he’s there. And there aren’t many others — Jimmie Vaughan, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, I’m running out — where you just have to give them a rhythm section, and that would work the trick.

“I sat next to a person the other night, a young skateboarder,” Clapton continues. “I said I was doing these shows with Beck. He thought I was talking about the other Beck” — the singer-songwriter. “He’d never heard of Jeff.” Clapton shakes his head in astonishment. “That’s ridiculous.”

Beck — the guitarist — is right about one thing: Of the two, Clapton is the bigger star. Across from Clapton, in the second-floor sitting room of his office, a Central London townhouse half a block from the Thames River, a dozen Grammy Awards are lined up on shelves next to the fireplace. Beck is catching up in that sweepstakes; he won his fifth Grammy this year, for Rock Instrumental for his searing reinvention of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” recorded live at the London club Ronnie Scott’s in 2007. A DVD from those shows was certified platinum, Beck’s first sales award here since a 1977 gold album, Jeff Beck With the Jan Hammer Group Live.

Beck, that day at his house, is frank about his career track. He calls the Eighties “fallow for me”; the Nineties were “Hat.” Those are slight overstatements. He went as many as six years between albums in those decades but toured frequently; there were guitar-heaven double bills with Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1989 and Carlos Santana in 1995. Still, Beck admits that Clapton had more drive: “I was always a complete lazy bastard. He got up. I didn’t.”

Clapton has a different take. “Jeff has walked a very clever and careful path,” he says. “He has had enough recognition to enable him to live the way he likes. It demands discipline and knowledge — experience to recognize the danger in decisions: ‘I’m not going down there.'”

“I went through a period in the early Nineties,” Clapton goes on, “where I was lured into things that were inappropriate, moves that I knew, at the outset, were things I oughtn’t to be doing. But I did it because I felt I was manipulated, or my vanity was responding to some flattery.

But, he claims, “I’ve always believed that if I’m true to that part of my consciousness — the music — I’ll be all right.”

The shows with Beck are the beginning of what may be Clapton’s liveliest year since he spoke openly in 2001 of retirement from the road and major-album projects. (“I will always want to express something,” he told me. “But I don’t need to do it like this anymore.”) After he plays with Beck, Clapton does his own U.S. tour, then spends the summer in Europe with former Blind Faith bandmate Steve Winwood, reprising the fantastic shows they did in New York in 2008. And on June 26th, Clapton hosts a third edition of Crossroads — the guitarist-summit festival benefitting his Crossroads addiction -treatment center in the Caribbean — at Toyota Park in Chicago.

Clapton is also finishing a new album, possibly a double. It started last year as a follow-up to his 2006 release with singer-songwriter J.J. Cale, The Road to Escondido, with new Clapton originals, but has evolved into a wildly diverse covers project with songs by, among others, Mose Allison, Irving Berlin and Fats Waller.

“I covered anything I ever longed to do,” Clapton says with delight. When he played some of the tracks for guitarist Ry Cooder, the latter said, “You can’t put this out. People will get whiplash.” Clapton is now thinking of calling the record Whiplash.

Reminded of that 2001 interview, Clapton credits mortality for some of his current momentum. “Retirement is appealing when you’re in full bloom,” he suggests. “When you start to slip away, the need to stay on top of my game gets stronger.” Yet much of his recent activity has been retrospective. In addition to working with Beck and Winwood, Clapton has returned in force to some of his early, most popular music, as he did in the 2005 reunion shows with Cream and on the 2007-08 tour, which featured many songs from his Derek and the Dominos period. And while he was close to the late Duane Allman (who recorded with the Dominos), Clapton never performed with the Allman Brothers Band until last March, when he sat in for two now-legendary shows during the group’s Beacon Theater residency in New York.

“It was interesting to watch him adapt, playing longer solos than he expected because of the band swelling up around him,'” says Allmans guitarist Warren Haynes. “He went back in time a little with his attack, the overall letting go.” I Haynes was especially blown away by Clapton’s meaty soaring the second night during “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”: “His solo was filled with reckless abandon.” Clapton knew it too. When the song was over, he turned to Derek Trucks and said, “I haven’t played like that since 1967.”

Clapton explains the history in his life and playing this way: “I remember about 10 years ago buying all the albums I bought when I was in my twenties — [the Band’s] Music From Big Pink, the Traffic records, [Bob Marley and the Wailers’] Natty Dread. I wanted to retrace my steps, see if they had the same effect on me. It’s a bit like that now. I need to reaffirm what spurred me on. What is it about this that moved me? Am I still able to find that?”

Clapton refers to “unfinished business” in his relationships with Beck and Win-wood, especially the latter: “I always felt bad about abandoning Steve after that [1969] Blind Faith tour, just walking off. But that’s the kind of guy I was then, f rarely explained my behavior.” (Clapton battled drug addiction in the early Seventies, then alcoholism. he has been sober since 1987.) “And with Jeff’,” he says, “the thing really was, we are getting old. What if we never took the time to show we cared for one another? That would be stupid and a waste.”

Beck and Clapton finally got to know each other on the 1983 A.R.M.S. tour. Beck’s obsession with care helped. “Often you need something that takes it away from the issue at hand,” Clapton points out, “which is two people who have been told they are virtuosos. You can tell the first time you meet Jeff- he’s a good, open guy. I wasn’t surprised by that. I was surprised by my ability to be open with him.”

“I could never align myself with the thought of envy on his side, because he was always doing the big business,” Beck says, recalling Clapton’s remark that the two were once “enemies.” “You stop any guy in the street and ask who Eric Clapton is — they know. The chances are they don’t know who I am. “

But that whole thing is a rat race,” he adds, a sizzle of irritation in his voice. He mentions something his mother once told him: “If you ever get professional jealousy, you’re losing it. Don’t criticize anybody else until you know you can do better. And even then, don’t do it.” “I lave you ever thought about the way we’re doing these things — Jeff coming in with me, Steve checking in?” Clapton asks me — and, it seems, himself —near the end of our conversation in his London town-house. “We’re helping one another. It’s not just that we can afford to. It’s about ‘Look around. Who needs it? Who wants it?'”

His face brightens with expectation at the year ahead. “I need it.”

THIS IS WHAT BECK GETS out of working under the hood of a ’63 Corvette or using a plasma cutter on a restored 1930s Ford that he does not get from playing the guitar: “The practical application,” he declares, sitting in the London office of his manager, veteran concert promoter Harvey Goldsmith. “You dedicate yourself for a year, then you turn the key and it drives beautifully.”

Beck bought his first hot rod, a T-Bucket with a V-8 engine, in the mid-Sixties in Massachusetts while he was on tour with the Yardbirds. He estimates that he has rebuilt 14 automobiles “from the ground up” since then. Beck does not race or customize cars for official competition. “I make them to go well on the street and blow off Porsches,” he says, leaning back in his chair with a triumphant grin.

Beck admits that at dark points in his career, he considered dropping out entirely: “There have been occasions when I thought, ‘I might as well work for Roy Brizio’s Street Rods,'” a renowned speed shop in the San Francisco area. “But I always come back to music. It’s an invisible hook that pulls you in.” Beck talks about that lifelong attachment with both self-deprecation and perfectionist swagger. “It was serious but scrappy,” he says of the pioneering heavy-blues charge of his 1967-69 Jeff Beck Group with Stewart and, on bass, Ron Wood. “We used to down a bottle of Dubonet before we went on, every night, because of the fear.”

Then there’s Beck’s story about his elegiac-fire solo in “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” on Wired. “I couldn’t find one that did the trick for me,” says Beck, who drove his producer, Beatles veteran George Martin, to distraction with retakes. “It turned out I was right.” In the solo on the record, “the accidental feedback in the middle, that leads into the next part, wasn’t on any other take. That spontaneity was important.”

Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, who has worked with Beck in the past few years, was also in Frank Zappa’s bands in the late Seventies and Eighties, an experience Colaiuta likens, fondly, to “Juilliard meets boot camp meets Comedy Central. Frank was very exacting about how he wanted things to sound.” Performing with Beck, the drummer says, is “mystical. Not a lot is said. It’s about the truth of playing. You have to be in the moment with him.”

“When he is playing, Jeff is absolutely in free-form,” Steve Lipson, who co-produced Emotion & Commotion, confirms. “Then he figures out what it is he’s done.”

Beck had plenty of guitar heroes before he became one, including Les Paul, the Belgian jazz master Django Reinhardt and Cliff Gallup of Gene Vincent’s band the Blue Caps. In Wallington, Beck would sit for hours in a cafe waiting for someone to pump coins in the jukebox so he could hear Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” or “Go Go Go (Down the Line),” by Roy Orbison. Beck saw Buddy Holly live in 1958 and was in the front row at a show on Vincent’s first U.K. tour. “Those were the days, pal,” Beck marvels.

In his teens, Beck met Jimmy Page. Beck’s older sister introduced them; she went to Page’s school. The boys made tapes at Page’s house and stayed friends: Last year, Page inducted Beck into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They nearly formed a superband too, in 1966, after Page co-wrote and played on Beck’s first solo recording, “Beck’s Bolero,” a thunderclap of Spanish rhythm and screaming guitars with John Paul Jones on bass and the Who’s drummer, Keith Moon. “Me and Jim were like, ‘All we need is a singer!'” Beck remembers.

Instead, Page turned that prototype into Led Zeppelin, and Beck lurched through a decade marked by great instincts, bad timing and worse luck. He first heard Rod Stewart sing at a pop festival in England, as Beck was driving out of the backstage area after a Yardbirds set. “I was in my car, and I heard this amazing blues sound. I pulled over, spellbound with him singing in the distance. I thought, ‘One day….'”

But Beck broke up the original Jeff Beck Group on the eve of a prime booking — the 1969 Woodstock Festival — because, Beck says flatly, “there was unrest. I could see the end of the tunnel.” Stewart and Wood moved on to hit singles and stadiums with the Faces. Beck was out of commission for a year after a November 1969 car crash in which he suffered a concussion and a broken jaw.

“I think he might have been a little envious of me and Woody s friendship,” Stewart suggests. He also believes that Beck, even then, was suspicious of celebrity, of what it cost to be a star. “He’s not a show-business person. Stardom, to him, is acknowledgment from great players like Eric. Jeff’s like an anti-star — almost unreal nowadays.”

Comparing his choices and fortunes to those of Clapton, Beck just says, “Some of us have got bigger wings.” But both men remain equals in their pursuit of the things beyond technique in guitar playing — emotional truth and magical release. “We just talk differently,” Clapton says of their styles, that day at Beck’s house. The guitar “is an expression of something, and we all have different ways of saying it.”

Beck, inevitably, goes for a car metaphor. “The thing is, I’m a maniac driver who crashes. And he” — Beck looks at Clapton — “is a guy who calculates the race and ends up intact.”

“That’s true,” Clapton admits, chuckling. For Christmas, he says, someone gave him a slot-car racing set. “I laid out the circuit and played with everybody. And I won all the races because I figured out how fast you can go without crashing. I’m not even interested in the other car. I don’t even want to win. I just want to finish.”

As Clapton grabs his coat and Beck gets up for goodbyes and bear hugs, they talk enthusiastically about song ideas and rehearsals for their tour, all the way to Beck’s front door. “Jeff is so fluent and lyrical,” Clapton says later, “that it opens a door in me that wants to do the same thing. He inspires me to play better, to reach further.”

“Play properly!” Beck exclaims with an embarrassed laugh when he is asked, at the end of the interview in his manager’s office, what he has left to achieve as a guitar hero. “I hear myself play on my own, in my studio upstairs at home, and I think, ‘If only I could do this in front of people.'”

In This Article: Coverwall, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck


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