Among my many musical heroes, my diminutive grandfather looms large. Big Jack Berkowitz was a tailor, 4'11" before old-age shrunk him into the mid-fours. He didn't know a scale from an arpeggio but had that uncanny ability to play any song after hearing it once, even instantly transposing everything into D-flat so his bent arthritic fingers could float along the black keys without straying to unintended locations. His headstone reads: "Big Jack lies here. He played the piano by ear."
Last night, I found myself this close to another heroic musician, Jeff Beck, just as he launched into a thrilling electric guitar solo in which all 10 of his fingers moved at warp speed, the pyrotechnics all in service of a simple, transcendent melody. The playing, which seemed to defy the laws of physics, was so otherworldly it almost seemed like a dream.
Of course, it was a dream. Within moments of waking, I'd lost the music, and have no idea if the sounds I dreamed up were inspired or nonsense -- most likely, inspired nonsense. (I stand with other musical dreamers as we eagerly await the introduction of a "Download Your Dreams" app to preserve our unconscious outpourings.)
The dream triggered a virtual tour of Beck's musical tours de force, beginning with his stint some 47 years ago as lead guitarist for the awesome British band, the Yardbirds. (Beck, then just 21 years old, replaced Eric Clapton.) His work on "Heart Full of Soul," "Shapes of Things" and "Over Under Sideways Down" helped make those tracks instant rock classics. Beck's instrumental concoction "Jeff's Boogie" -- the b-side of "Over Under Sideways Down" -- convinced me to stick to the piano. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't replicate the tune on my guitar, while my younger brother -- also Jeff -- mastered it in a matter of hours.
In the near half-century since, Beck has produced an astonishing body of work that crosses all genres and combines peerless virtuosity with deep feeling as well as any guitarist of any era. A few of the stunners can be found here, here and here. A mind-blowing cover of The Beatles' "A Day In The Life" begs the question, with music like this, who needs words?
Beck is literally an unsung hero -- he rarely sings or writes lyrics. Like the greatest jazz musicians, he creates a new composition each time he improvises, often with more musical wit than his fellow rock icons. If Eric Clapton was God, then Beck was Apollo, god of, among other things, music, for whom Hermes created the lyre, ancient precursor to the guitar.
Music, by definition, defies verbal explication. But Beck's best work is as expressive and profound as any religious text or philosophical treatise. Historian/music critic Greil Marcus coined the term "yarragh" to refer to the indescribable impact of "certain sounds, certain small moments inside a song [which] can then suggest whole territories, completed stories, indistinct ceremonies, far outside anything that can be literally traced in the compositions that carry them."
It's a drag when your artistic heroes turn out to be assholes, but happily that's not the case with Jeff Beck. Veteran A&R man Gregg Geller says, "Jeff Beck is one of the two or three favorite artists that I've ever worked closely with, and I mean favorites as people, as human beings, all considerations of artistic brilliance aside -- and he's got more than his share of artistic brilliance. I first met him in the early 1970s, became his A&R man at Epic Records, and ultimately produced his boxed set, Beckology, in the early 1990s. I've always found him to be down to earth, intent on living his life as he sees fit, and modest to a fault -- never particularly career-oriented, always more intent on making his next hot rod than making his next album."
Stephen Colbert reflected Beck's genius and self-effacement when, as host of the 2010 Grammy Awards, he told a worldwide audience, "You know the game 'Guitar Hero?' He has the all-time high score -- and he's never played it." Beck won his fifth Grammy that night -- he would win three more in 2011 -- and topped things off with a rousing musical tribute to his own hero, electric guitar trailblazer Les Paul.
At 67, Beck is going strong. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer continues to tour all over the world. He recently received the Living Legend Award at the Classic Rock Awards in London, where he performed with Joss Stone and Chrissie Hynde. And he's nominated for yet another Grammy (Best Rock Album) for Rock 'N' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul.
Big Jack Berkowitz lived and played into his nineties; let's hope, and dream, that Jeff Beck does the same.