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Behind the Curtain: Interviewing Jeff Beck at the Riot House
The latest installment in our Behind the Curtain category, journalist Steve Rosen recounts his fateful encounter with legendary guitarist Jeff Beck.
The drive from my guesthouse/cottage in the hills of Hollywood to the then hallowed Continental Hyatt House for the interview with Jeff Beck took maybe four minutes. Still, it was 240 of the most anxiety-laden seconds I’d ever experienced.
Like a cascading riff descending down a guitar neck, I rolled down Laurel Canyon to Sunset Boulevard, made a right and headed west for about 1 ¾ miles. There on the north side of the street stood the cement and chrome monument to everything that was wickedly wonderful and over-the-top back in the classic rock‘70s.
Dubbed the Riot House by the parade of English bands winging their way across the Atlantic Ocean on ever expanding American tours, the hotel was the only accommodations in Hollywood that not only provided room and board for these visiting musicians but willingly sought out their business.
Led Zeppelin would stay there and rent out an entire floor so they could trash the rooms while John “Bonzo” Bonham rode his motorcycle up and down the halls. The Who resided there and not to be outdone by his percussive partner, drummer Keith Moon would fling various pieces of furniture and even television sets out the windows.
Talk about high-impact TV.
In fact,the management delighted in the destruction of their hotel rooms, the torching of couches, and the high-velocity burping of motorcycles being ridden up and down hallways. There was always a day of reckoning and when the bills came due, musicians paid the freight.
They may have pillaged and plundered while they resided there and though hotel etiquette was a lyric they never sang, they were nothing if not fiscally responsible.
Waiting for me in one of these suites was Jeff Beck. Jeff wasn’t a room wrecker by nature but he had burned down some gloriously amazing guitar solos during his career.
This was 1973 and the Englishman had finally formed his long sought after trio with Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice, formerly the rhythm section for the Vanilla Fudge. Beck had 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.
It happened one early English morning when the car enthusiast was driving way too fast down a country road and hit some moisture on the road. He broke his nose and had to be stitched back up but ultimately made a full recovery.
Though I’d eventually conduct a bunch of interviews here—Aerosmith, B.B. King and many others—this was one of the first times I’d ever been at the Hyatt House. I pulled up the long incline to the parking lot in the rear, exited my car and entered through the glass doors.
I elevatored to the 11th floor while shuddering through a series of hyperventilating, armpit soaking, palsied-hand tremor convulsions. I was nervous to the point of being speechless. This was JEFF-FREAKING-BECK I was about to meet. I had to pull myself together.
To me, Jeff Beck was—and still is—the most innovative, inventive and gifted guitarist to ever lay his fingers across six strings.
I had seen the Jeff Beck Group—Beck, singer Rod Stewart, bassist Ronnie Wood, keyboardist Nicky Hopkins and drummer Tony Newman [though it could have been Micky Waller]—at the Shrine Auditorium in 1968 while still in high school.
My friend Skip Lethbridge drove us there and the anticipation of seeing the concert was exhilarating. The memory is a vague one now but I can remember them performing Shapes of Things and thinking, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I would walk on fire to meet Jeff Beck.”
Somehow, that vague musing would miraculously become a reality five years later. Miracle is really the wrong word to describe how the interview happened. I had been befriended by Gibson & Stromberg, one of the earliest rock and roll publicity companies.
Lydia Woltag, a publicist working there, took me under her wing. I was still a novice rock journalist though I had recently become the west coast correspondent for the English music newspaper Sounds.
Lydia routinely lined up interviews for me with the artists she repped—Steely Dan, Black Kangaroo, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show—and gave me entrée to her entire roster. When I told her I loved Jeff Beck and was thinking about approaching Guitar Player Magazine, she picked up the phone and called the editor on my behalf. He said he’d like to see the story when it was ready.
I was thinking about all of that—seeing Jeff Beck years earlier, Lydia setting up the interview—when the Otis doors opened. 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 30¢ cassette tape, I figured I had everything I needed.
I was a moron and naïve to the point of imbecility to believe such totally unprofessional and unreliable gear wouldn’t result in some future audio disaster. But I never really thought about it.
The gear had worked thus far for the interviews I’d done and truth be told, I wasn’t making enough money to go out and buy some hip, new cassette player—even if I knew what I was buying. No, I was cool. Nothing was going to happen. Not today of all days.
So, banishing the thought from my head, I approached Jeff’s door. Who could be bothered with a reliable recording device and a suitable microphone? Certainly not me. Just a few feet from room 1123, it was all I could do to keep from running the other way. I can summon up that feeling even 40 years later.
Every fiber of your being, every voice in your head and every protective instinct you ever had was screaming, “Turn around, man. You are not ready to do this.” It was as if I had to ooze outside of myself and become two people in order that this second person could lay a hand on my shoulder and calmly whisper, “You can do this. Jeff is waiting for you.”
Feeling a little more relaxed, I took one last glance at my list of questions. In the fluorescent light of day, they sounded inane, superfluous. Absolute drivel. My weaker self muttered, “He will laugh you out of the room.”
A wrecked man walking, I knocked timidly on the door. It swung open and there he was—oh my god, there was Jeff Beck. The most masterful and inspired guitarist who ever lived.
There have been astonishing players—Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore and Edward Van Halen to name just a few—and they were all essential in the growth and development of the electric guitar.
They were virtuosos and visionaries but for me, Geoffrey Arnold Beck transcended them all. Blessed with the sweetest touch ever, when he was born on June 24, 1944 in Wallington, England the angels reached down and touched his hands. Indeed, Jeff’s hands were marvels. The backs of them were deeply filigreed with veins and tendons.
The fingers were like tree limbs. They were the hands depicted in Michelangelo’s David. So oversized as to appear cartoonish. Hands meant to grasp guitar necks while fingers digitally danced a choreography as complex, haunting and enchanting as anything the world has ever heard.
I remembered walking in the room and thinking he was shorter than I’d imagined—I thought he was 10-feet tall—but toned. No fat. 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 or a mechanic and in this circumstance, both.
(A detour here for a clip of Stairway to Heaven with Jimmy Page, Beck and Eric Clapton)
He grasped my midget hand in a cordial shake and it disappeared entirely inside of his.
A drink was proffered and two gin and tonics were mixed. I sipped 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 slowly crept over me and kept the insecurity demons at bay. Inwardly, I kept repeating his name and it became like a mantra or even the sound a pick might make in striking a string: jeff beck jeff beck jeff beck jff bk jff bk.
Astonishingly, Jeff sensed my unease. I could tell. It wasn’t that he specifically said anything but his body language and just the way he moved around the room relaxed me. He sat me down on the over-sized bed as I underwent the process of preparing my gear.
With cassette inserted, microphone plugged in, and play button tapped we began dialoguing.
Jeff was beautiful, perfect, sensitive to my awkwardness and responsive to rare moments of insight. We talked about some of his earliest memories—about the pride he felt in building his own guitar and the hurt and shame he experienced when his father threw it into the yard—and after what felt like just a few minutes, it was time to turn the 30-minute tape over.
Just to ensure all was fine, I rewound it a bit to listen to the levels. I hit play and there was nothing. Not a word. Not a sound. Utter, unalterable, unbelievably humiliating nothing. The wounds of silence.
I scrambled in my brain to figure out what had happened. Thinking back, I realized I had never hit record—I’d punched play but not record. The bastard button loomed there like a taunt. It was like a monster’s eye blinking at me. I couldn’t speak and was so embarrassed I think I entered a state of mild catatonia.
This all happened in a matter of seconds and as my journalistic career unraveled like a cheap sweater, I had one thought: “Please, let me become invisible.” I knew Jeff was looking at me but I couldn’t raise my eyes to meet his.
He saw me rewind, hit play and heard the same thing I heard—absolutely nothing. I sat there stunned like I’d been tased and was waiting for the derisive laughter I knew was coming. I deserved it. I was simply waiting to be ushered out of the room.
Finally able to raise my eyes, I looked at him and waited to hear my sentence. Instead he was pardoning me. “Let’s just continue from here,” he said. “You can come back tomorrow and we’ll go over what you missed.”
It was truly hard to believe how gracious Jeff was being. He didn’t know me or my reputation—not that there was any rep to know—and for all he knew this had happened before with other interviews. I thanked him and thanked him again. We kept the conversation going but I didn’t want to press my luck and took my leave after about another 20 minutes or so.
I returned the next day with my tape player and accessories in my left hand and a guitar case in the other. Upon entering, I laid down my bag and offered up the case as a peace offering.
His eyes lit up. Sheepishly, I told him I played—imagine being in a room with John Steinbeck and saying, “I’m a writer”—and put the case on the bed. He opened the case, removed the 1973 all maple Stratocaster, 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 could hear the unmistakable technique and attack that was Jeff Beck. That tone and that indescribable touch was all there.
He smiled and I smiled back at him like a moron. As he noodled through delicate little blues riffs and funky, honkin’ rhythmic chops, I began the conversation [and made damn sure I pressed play and record]. When I asked him about this or that song, he’d play the riff on my Strat. I asked him about working with Donovan and recording Barabajagal and with both fingers and pick, he plucked out the phrase. I was grinning so wide my teeth hurt.
Watching him sitting there on the bed and holding the guitar, I truly felt like I was in the presence of something magical. The Strat was sort of balanced on his upper thigh and the tensile-yet-tender grasp of the massive left-hand phalanges grasped the neck.
The angle and approach of the right hand grasping the pick created this perfect symmetry. It was like a painting or a great pencil sketch from Degas. You knew this was someone born to the instrument. There was a sense that Jeff and the guitar were inseparable, that without it he was vulnerable or incomplete. Naked.
He loved my Stratocaster and jokingly said he was going to keep it. I probably would have given it to him had he said the words. Well, probably not but I certainly would have thought about it. We went back over all the questions I messed up the day before and the entire time he messed around on the Fender.
In fact, the interview just about got in the way of the playing. I should have let tape roll and just recorded Jeff Beck conjuring his magic for an hour.
When we finished our conversation, I unplugged the microphone and set it back in its case. With great trepidation, I rewound the tape for a couple of seconds and hit play.
Jeff was watching me, I was watching the cassette and the balance of my entire journalistic life was watching us both. I hit play and yes, there was Jeff’s voice and in the background the sound of the guitar. I grinned like a Cheshire cat.
We said our goodbyes and I exited the room with guitar case in one hand and cassette player in the other and made my way to the elevator. I punched the down button but felt nothing but up. There was a sense of exhilaration and I was buzzing like a hive of bees.
I got back into my car and pulled out of the Continental Riot House parking lot and made a left on Sunset Boulevard to head back home. The sun seemed a little brighter and the air smelled a little cleaner. The world around me hadn’t changed but I had.
This was one of the first handful of interviews I’d ever done and I had been victorious. I had been wounded but I survived. Armed with the most basic of tools, a furious energy and an absolute love for what I was doing, I’d been able to capture a seemingly simple moment—two people talking—and transformed it into something magical and unique.
Maybe I’m over-rhapsodizing what had happened. Romanticizing about that day. But I don’t think so. I was meeting one of my heroes and writing what would become the first of 16 cover stories for Guitar Player magazine.
It was an important day for me. Nobody else was there to occupy that exact space and time with Jeff and me and yet I’d been able to take that experience, put it on tape and then over 40 years later share it with the world.
When I turned on the car radio, the first song to come out of the speakers was the Jeff Beck Group version of Shapes of Things. That’s not true. I wished it were but it was just fanciful thinking.
In fact they rarely played Jeff’s music on the radio. He hadn’t recorded hits and had no desire to. His albums only came out every couple of years and even they took a backseat to his love of cars—building them, racing them and sometimes crashing in them.
Upon returning home a few minutes later, I put on the tape and listened to a little bit of what I’d just done. In hearing Jeff talk about the things he loved, what struck me was how sincere he was in revealing those feelings. There was a sense of sympathy and understanding in his voice when he spoke about his emotional attachment to the guitar and why he did what he did.
When I told him—in a moment of unadulterated fawning and sycophantic worship—that he was the greatest guitar player who ever lived, he was truly moved. He may have even blushed. I can hear it on the tape.
He can never understand or appreciate what his largesse meant to me. His tolerance of a young and dumb journalist gave me the strength and confidence to pursue a career that has lasted all these years.
Jeff Beck was every bit the guitar hero I was hoping he would be—every inch the human being I wanted him to be.