"When music is in fashion--really rotten music too--that you have nothing to do with, then you run away and hide." This is the very simple explanation offered by guitarist Jeff Beck for his most recent hiatus from solo recording.
The music he was escaping from was new wave, a dominant rock form in the early '80s--irreverent, adventurous and in defiance of veteran Establishment rockers like Beck.
"New wave was a standing joke among me and my friends, the dinosaurs," he recalled sarcastically. "It was amazing that junk lasted as long as it did. It finally faded when everybody realized some melody was necessary. But all that took me off the scene for a while. It wasn't my time."
Now that rock fans have new wave out of their systems, it's a perfect time for Beck's re-entry. His first solo album in five years is "Flash," including the showpiece single, "People Get Ready," featuring the best singing Rod Stewart has done in many years.
A rock star since the mid-'60s, Beck, famous for his hiatuses, contends he would have burned out a long time ago if he hadn't taken these extended breaks.
"The secret of longevity is staying out of this business for long periods of time," he said. "This business will consume you. The people will consume you. They'll eat you alive and spit the bones out. If you hang around long enough, they'll get you. But if you're not there, they can't get you."
However, Beck lamented, he's addicted to the business: "I can't seem to stay away, can I? I'm like a junkie. I miss the insanity of this business. Being involved in it is like a constant jungle adventure. The lions are always just around the bend. But I do miss it when I'm away from it for a while. I wish I didn't."
When Beck was most recently snubbing the music scene, he was holed up in his estate in tranquil Sussex, England, immersed in his primary passion--1932 Fords. He has a dozen, which have been revitalized with Chevy engines. He works on them himself and is such a fanatic that he even learned how to weld.
"They're an obsession," he said. "I'm into 1932 Fords because I love the body style. It gives me pleasure to look at them and work on them. Working on cars is therapeutic for me. I don't have any vices. I work on cars instead.
"Why do I like cars? It's hard to say. It gives me pleasure to do something that Jimi Hendrix couldn't do or Jimmy Page can't do. Cars are unpredictable and sensual, like women. But when something goes wrong with cars, you can fix them. You can't fix a woman."
There is one disadvantage to his fleet of oldies: "It's a very expensive hobby. I make albums to pay for it."
Beck, 41, is a genuine rock pioneer. He was one of the early guitar heroes--revered purely for his instrumental skills rather than for singing or writing. A native of Surrey, England, he learned to play as a teen-ager on a homemade guitar. Like all the best guitarists of that era, he started with blues-based rock.
Beck surfaced in the mid-'60s in the Yardbirds, a remarkable blues-rock band that, at various times, included Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Possibly Beck's most famous band was the Jeff Beck Group, which also starred Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. After two prosperous years, that band was splintered by ego clashes.
Beck flourished in the '70s too, gracefully shifting from hard rock to jazz fusion experiments with keyboards player Jan Hammer. Beck took three years off in the late '70s before returning with "There and Back" in 1980. "Flash" is his first solo album since then.
One of the most respected musicians in the business, Beck has been an innovator in many rock-related genres: blues/rock, heavy metal and jazz/rock fusion.
"A lot of musicians don't like to try new things," Beck explained. "I do. It's dangerous sometimes because you can go out on a limb and fall off. Maybe the music won't be any good or you won't have the right feel for it. But I always say 'what the hell' and take the plunge."
He would have had a solo album out much sooner if it weren't for the busy schedule of his producer Nile Rodgers, who had to spend time working on a Madonna album, among other projects. Rodgers wound up producing only part of "Flash." The rest was done by Arthur Baker. The album took a year to record, but most of that time was spent waiting for Rodgers. In the meantime, Beck was busy with other projects, recording with the Honeydrippers, Mick Jagger and Diana Ross.
Beck certainly hasn't lost his touch. His playing is fresh and not at all dated, not what you'd expect from a musician coming back from a long layoff. Constantly listening to current music and parlor jam sessions have kept Beck sharp and up-to-date.
"I have a little music room at home," he said. "Me and some musician friends would get drunk at the pub and come home and play and exchange musical ideas. I haven't allowed myself to get stale."
Beck actually returned to the music business in 1983. A leisurely visit to Los Angeles turned to a recording session with his old pal/adversary Rod Stewart. Though they hadn't worked together since 1969--when personal conflicts destroyed the Jeff Beck Group--they put their feud on hold long enough for Stewart to record the vocals for the old Curtis Mayfield gospel ballad, "People Get Ready."
"When we recorded it, word got around the studio that we were working together for the first time in ages," Beck recalled. "So there were tons of spectators in the control room. Because of that audience we gave out a little bit more than usual. We were really pushing ourselves. I wish I could record with that kind of energy all the time."
The record sat around for nearly two years because Stewart and his manager wouldn't give Beck permission to use it on an album. Meanwhile, Beck worked on Stewart's single, "Infatuation," and began a four-month tour with him. But Beck resented being relegated to a small part in the show.
"I had 15 minutes," Beck griped. "I did 'People Get Ready' and couple of oldies. I did six nights of that. When we got to Calgary, I left. I had enough of that."
They were mad at each other for about a year. That changed when Stewart decided to allow Beck to use "People Get Ready" on his album. They had to bury the hatchet to record a video last May. The hatchet hasn't stayed buried.
"He never rings me up," Beck complained. "We're still a million miles apart."
Beck, enthusiastic about music--for the moment at least--is planning a tour next year. There's only one problem--he hates touring. "I think I'd like to do some dates but I don't know if I can," he said. "Being on the road is awful but I would like to perform. I'm planning to do it but I'm not sure what's going to happen."
Next year, Beck will be 42. Is advancing age a factor is his rock 'n' roll career?
"Not really," he replied. "I'm not too old just yet. I don't pretend to be 18, but I'm not through just yet. I can relate to youth. I have a young girlfriend who helps me stay in touch with youth. Anyway, my mind is retarded at about the age of 22. You have to be that way to stay in this business."