Detail of Jeff Beck's "Truth" album cover, showing a grainy photo of a woman's face in profile.

Love & Stratocasters

In 1968 a student teacher at the junior high I was attending took a group of us on an after-school outing to see Romeo and Juliet at a local movie theater. Our parents undoubtedly figured what could be bad about going to see a film based on what is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most famous (if not the most famous: Hamlet might give it a run for attention) plays? While they—and we—weren’t familiar with Franco Zeffirelli, I’m sure that if it was noted by said student teacher that the movie was made by a famous director, it made it all seem the more worthwhile.

Realize that then there wasn’t the proliferation of instant information outlets. Perhaps the closest thing would have been AM radio, and in that period of time AM radio was about spinning the 45s, not news and talk (unless the talk was of a religious nature).

And so we saw the movie that included a sex scene between Olivia Hussey’s Juliet and Leonard Whiting’s Romeo. At the time Hussey was 15 and Whiting 16. The two, now in their 70s, have recently filed a lawsuit in Santa Monica Superior Court against Paramount for having exploited their teenaged nudity, charging that their careers were negatively impacted by their roles. (Oddly enough, Hussey went on to perform in another Zeffirelli film, Jesus of Nazareth, as the Virgin Mary, and as this was serialized and shown on TV in 1977, there was no eyes-wide-open associated with her role; this was not Scorsese’s version of the story. One wonders about her claim.)

In Shakespeare’s play, Juliet is 13 and while Romeo’s age is not given, it is estimated by Shakespeare scholars that he is probably 16.

In 1968 a slightly older friend played an album for me that had been released in the fall of that year: Jeff Beck’s Truth.

The point about Romeo and Juliet the movie, Romeo and Juliet the characters and Truth is this: When we are teenagers, some things like love, star-crossed or otherwise, and music can have long-lasting, indelible effects on us.

And Truth was an album that had an impact on me the likes of which few recordings have.

The band consisted of Beck, Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, and Micky Waller. Joining in on various cuts were John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins, Keith Moon, and Jimmy Page—who is credited with writing “Beck’s Bolero.” Go figure.

From the in medias res opening of the opening cut “Shape of Things to Come,” a Yardbirds tune, to the cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” that closes side two, the album was a revelation.

Somehow even “Greensleeves” seemed like it had a relevance in a way that the folk versions that had been played on everything from “Hootenanny” on ABC (1963-’64) to “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS (1967-’69) didn’t.

Truth was followed in 1969 with Beck-Ola. There was the album cover: René Magritte’s The Listening Room, a giant green apple filling a room, a cover that stood out in the racks at places like the record department of Korvette’s. “What the hell is that!

Hopkins became a member of the band for that album. Tony Newman replaced Micky Waller on drums. But Stewart and Wood remained.

If the opening cut of Truth was startling, the “All Shook Up” that Beck-Ola brought said everything you need to know about that band: It was the greatest rock and roll band in the world. (Yes, yes, the moniker that the Stones took applies here more purposefully: let’s not forget that Hopkins and Wood had and have a non-trivial contributions to the Stones’ sound.*)

As these things happen, the band broke up shortly after Beck-Ola. Those two albums were followed by 15 more studio albums in the Beck catalog.  But those first two albums were unlike anything that Beck was ever to apply his magnificent skills and talent to again.

Or so I feel.

With his death, many of the people commenting on his career point out that he never became a successful musician in the mold of Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton. In the U.S., only Blow by Blow (1975) broke the top 10 in the U.S.

But it seems as though Beck’s pursuit of sound was borne of love of the instrument more than it was a need for fame, which is fleeting. This whole notion that how “good” someone is being predicated on the number of units they’ve moved is like saying McDonald’s must have the best burgers—by far—because it has sold a countless number.

The talent, skill, dedication, imagination and hard work that Jeff Beck exhibited over his career are characteristics that few have equaled, or are ever likely to.

But then, my having first heard him when I was about Romeo’s age probably has a lot to do with the way that I still hear that music.

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.

Change the pronouns from those Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra to those of Beck and his music.

Somehow Requiesce in pace doesn’t seem appropriate for Jeff Beck. I imagine that he’s still relentlessly honing his considerable craft.

Spring 1969: And so you sit in the back of study hall, looking longingly at your wished-for Juliet, “Rock My Plimsoul” playing in your head. Not often thought about. But not forgotten.

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*Random Coincidence: When the Stones toured in 1972 (48 shows performed in June and July–somewhat more peppy than now), Stevie Wonder opened. In October 1972 Wonder released “Superstition,” the song that he wrote for Jeff Beck. Beck’s version was released the following March on the Beck, Bogert & Appice album.

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