SANTA ROSA, Calif. – Sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of a luxurious tour bus, Jeff Beck, 72, is contemplating a future filled with self-driving cars.
The prospect leaves the guitar legend and lifelong hot rod aficionado steaming mad.
“There’s driverless cars all over the place right now, with drivers in them,” says Beck, cooling off before sound check on the latest stop of a tour he’s co-headlining with his blues idol, 80-year-young Buddy Guy (next stops are today at Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Wash., and Aug. 21 at the Woodland Park Zoo Amphitheater in Seattle).
“Really, (autonomous cars are) the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. It’s the removal of the very reason for driving, for some computer. I can’t imagine wanting to buy one and those involved in building this should be locked up,” says Beck, who is just getting revved up on the heels of news this week that Ford and Uber are both pushing aggressively to deliver self-driving vehicles.
“I don’t understand taking away the general satisfaction of being in control, where the joy of driving is removed for some crikey circuitry,” he says. “And how does it know what’s going on? They already had a crash where a white van came in front of the car and it couldn’t see it. I don’t want to sit in one of those things.”
Beck’s referring to the May crash of a Tesla in which the car’s driver was killed. The car was operating on Autopilot and did not recognize the white truck that passed in front of the sedan as being a solid object and did not slow down. Regulators are investigating.
Jeff Beck hard at work on a hot rod part in his home-garage in England. The legendary guitarist has had a love affair with American iron since his youth and owns around a dozen vintage rods. (Photo: Steve Coonan)
"Cruise control is bad enough,” says Beck, closing the matter. “If you can’t pay attention for long, you should not be driving.”
Self-driving car advocates argue that technologically advanced transportation will drastically reduce the country's 33,000 annual traffic fatalities.
Regardless, Beck would indeed rather be at the wheel of any one of a dozen hot rods he keeps at home in England. He’s personally worked on at least half of them, ignoring pleas from friends and insurance adjusters alike that doing so could damage his Grammy-winning fingers.
“If I worried about my fingers I’d never pick up a pair of pliers,” he says with a cackle.
Although this weekend thousands of car aficionados are descending on the Monterey Peninsula for the annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance - essentially Paris Fashion Week for vintage automobiles that often cost tens of millions - Beck won't be among them.
Jeff Beck, shown in concert recently in Santa Rosa, Calif., has a passion for guitars (and blues) that is equaled only by his love of American hot rods. (Photo: Marco della Cava, USA TODAY)
The guitarist's car interests skew toward an era when cars were seen as mere starting points for imaginative garage tinkers who were interested in creating their own visions of automotive bliss, with a bit of whimsy and lots of horsepower thrown in. He recently chronicled that passion in a photo-laden coffee table book, Beck01.
The vast majority of Beck’s fleet consists of 1932 Ford coupes and sedans, the fabled Deuce machines that inspired plenty of ‘50s rock song. Beck became enamored early on with both American music and street racers, which today extends to a prized 2007 Chevrolet Corvette he uses to tear across the rutted country roads near his English home.
Buddy Guy, 80, is the last surviving representative of a generation of blues musicians who defined the genre and inspired legions of British musicians to dive into the blues, including Guy's friend and mentee, guitarist Jeff Beck. (Photo: Manuel Lopez, EPA)
For the proverbial record, Beck also owns two Land Rovers, one “outfitted like a police vehicle, so it’s great fun because people get out of the way,” and the other a “posh modern one for the missus, who also drives a PT Cruiser sometimes.”
But when the weather isn’t stormy, you’ll find Beck either in a hot rod or that Vette. “It’s like a hurricane on wheels,” he says with an evil squint. “It’s ridiculous.”
Beck likes to tell the story of when fellow guitar ace and country squire Eric Clapton harassed him years back for his love of a ‘30s Ford.
“He was mocking me, and said, ‘Do you want to see some real cars?’ So I went round his place, he opened a garage and there were two Ferraris, and I said, ‘Where are they?’” Big laugh.
“But then Eric goes to Brizio and gets a ‘32 Ford made, so there,” he says with a smile.
Brizio is Roy Brizio, a revered builder of hot rods in the San Francisco area who has built custom machines for all manner of business and celebrity titans. Brizio was on hand the other night in Los Angeles for a lavish celebration of Beck’s 50 years of musicianship at the Hollywood Bowl, where the guests included Steven Tyler and Billy Gibbons.
Looking back on his life, Beck is pleased not only with his accomplishments, but also to be on the road and making fresh music. His latest effort is the politically tinged Loud Hailer, with tunes that speak to everything from the ravages of 9/11 (The Ballad of the Jersey Wives) to a general concern for future generations (Scared for the Children).
Beck practices his Fender Stratocaster every day, even on vacation. He can’t help himself. Even though sometimes he is a bit surprised that he's still at it.
A classic 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe hot rod stands in striking contrast to the rural English scenery on Jeff Beck's property. The guitarist keeps a dozen hot rods in his garages, and works on them himself. (Photo: Steve Coonan)
“When I was 22, and I read it was John Lennon’s birthday at 29, I thought, ‘Knock it off pal, time to fold the tent.’ But here we are, it’s incredible,” he says. “That hit me at the Bowl. The fans are still there.”
The fans here await, as does Guy, whose “manic attack and wonderful humor” impress Beck every bit as much today as when he first got ahold of a Muddy Waters record as a teen-ager, which featured the playing of a smooth Guy.
“When I first heard about Muddy and Buddy, it’s the same as when other people say they remember first hearing Jimi (Hendrix),” he says. “Now, being on same stage with Buddy and with me on top of the bill, that seems wrong somehow.”
Maybe. But not as wrong to Beck as a self-driving car.