Tales of Ex-Auto Journalist Mike Nickele: Off to London to Interview Jeff Beck
May 30th, 2018, 6:45 AM
The writer was born in a housing project near Jefferson and St. Jean on Detroit's east side. He worked his way through Wayne State University by building Chryslers. He began his career as an automotive journalist and later wrote ads. This is the fourth excerpt from a memoir under way.
By Mike Nickele
So, it’s Monday at AutoWeek magazine — the weekly car mag I had the honor to slave at for a few years back in the 1980s. Mondays were refreshing at AutoWeek Tower, the shitty little red brick building into which our staff was sequestered from the Crain Communications kingdom due to rude and rowdy behavior. Friday’s deadline hell was over and the new week was just blasting off. About a half-an-hour before official lunch time, I took off on foot to the Renaissance Center down the street from our Detroit warehouse-district offices. Time for a quiet, extended, peaceful lunch with a copy of Musician magazine in hand.
Am I reading Car and Driver or Automobile or paging through Hemmings Motor News whilst I munch?
No way. I’m going to dive into an article on Brit guitarist Jeff Beck, whose mastery of the electric six-stringer amazed me then and amazes me still. Great article to accompany my southwest omelet and tumbler of jug chardonnay. In the well-written piece, the often elusive Beck discusses his love of hotrods. I’ve always loved hotrods, even though I could never imagine actually attaining one.
But, it sure got me thinking. I could use another excuse to get the hell out of the office for a while. And, wouldn’t it be just the tits to meet up with and interview Jeff Beck? I mean, Jeff Beck — of Yardbirds fame, and not to mention the many Jeff Beck Group formations — the first of which featured scratch-tone crooner Rod Stewart and current Rolling Stone Ron Wood!!! This guy is/was the shiz!
After stumbling back to the office, I rifled through the front of the Musician magazine to find the editor’s name and contact info. A quick phone call put me through to him directly. Forgot his name, but that’s due to the chardonnay.
He was kind enough to give me the name and number of Beck’s manager, protege and all-around good pal, Earnest Chapman. Chapman, too, was a quick ring up. “Well”, he said with a tight little British accent, “He’s said that the only music article he’d do this year was the one in Musician, but he just might allow one dealing with his hotrods.”
Off To The Races
Now, my heart is off to the races. Could this really happen? What would the dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool car freaks at AutoWeek say? Could I possibly scam a trip to London and an interview with my guitar hero? Hey, I’ve scrambled up taller piles of dirt!
Now, the editor of AutoWeek at the time was a young car nut. He was from Boston and he really liked music — mostly cars and racing, but he liked music more than any car guy I ever knew. Because he was smarter and more cultured than me, he was always suspect of my intentions. However, he liked Beck, too. Ha ha! Here we go! “Nick, if you can get Jeff Beck to agree to an article in AutoWeek, I’ll get you to England…somehow.” Twas the editor’s decree — and so it would be!!!
I’ll skip the boring shit. I was on my way to London to meet Jeff Beck. The editor weaseled me a trip to Germany on a car company’s wallet. I’d land in London, do the Beck interview, and take a train to join up with the other automotive journalists in Hamburg, West Germany for a new model introduction or some crap like that. Don’t get me wrong — press trips like this were always fun, but I got to do the Beck thing the day before. This is what I used to describe as a professional boner! And to top it off, the photographer assigned to the story was a Brit friend of mine, Colin Curwood - not only a top-notch shooter, but a very hip guy. So, now I know this is going to be fun. Pardon me for switching tenses, but it seems like only today, or yesterday, or … well, you get the picture.
I spent the evening before in London and there really wasn’t much going on. Kinda rainy. Kinda boring. However, while waiting for a cab inside the front door of my swanky hotel, I heard the staff girls chatting and laughing. I listened closer and realized they were talking about wanking. Through the laughter I heard one of them shriek, “ I’ve been bopping me button since I was four!” More histerical laughter. That was the high point of the night, really. Didn’t matter, though.
All I really had on my mind was that I was going to interview Jeff Beck the next day. What would I say? I had to be careful not to be an asshole. I mean, of all the hip people in the world, Jeff Beck was and is one of the hippest. And I’m sure he’s encountered hundreds of dumbbell journalists. I prayed I wouldn’t be just another one of “them".
Curwood and I pull up the drive of a centuries-old mansion on beautifully landscaped grounds. Dare I say “beautiful english countryside”? Well, it was. We park in front of a large, old structure that looks like a combination garage and barn. And, bingo! Out walks Beck. Holy fuck. There he was. As skinny as I wanted to be, as tall as I wanted to be, and with the hair I always wanted to have!
He was three days unshaven, wearing a baggy French-style jacket, khaki pants, sandals and white socks. The first thing you see after his engaging smile is that famous snozzola. (He later told me that years ago a hotrod crash had smacked him up pretty good, including a mashed up nose.) Looked good on him, though, I must admit. Better than my dinky sniffer.
I spent the day with him. He was more than gracious. And, his girlfriend was more than beautiful — the kind of woman who could look right through you, but amazes you because she doesn’t. We checked out the rods. T-buckets galore. And beautiful automotive works of art that I had no idea of, but was still in awe of. He told me that he really wasn’t interested in new cars.
“It’s just the latest thing,” he said. The former art student got great satisfaction out of creating a hotrod. His were rolling pieces of art. Beck doesn’t play by anyone else’s rules. Get this: His manager invites me into Beck’s recent Chevy Corvette. There’s a hole punched into the driver’s armrest, now home to a toggle switch.
"But That's Jeff'
“He didn’t like the way the windscreen wipers worked, so he just put in this toggle. But, that’s Jeff!” He would repeat that phrase, “But, that’s Jeff!” many times during our day together. While riding around London in Beck’s cars, I found a billed cap of Beck’s on the floor. Upon observation, I see that it says ZZ TOP on the front. His manager says, “Yeah, he fancies them. But, that’s Jeff!”
We really were not in London proper. We were in Sussex, a location south of London referred to as the “stock broker belt”. One of Beck’s folks warns us that if we happen to see a midget driving a Ferrari that would be Roger Daltry, charismatic lead singer of the rock band, The Who. And, he said jokingly, Paul McCartney lives that way — just “over the hill” so to speak!
Ok, so Beck was cool and the cars were cool. I was just on my toes about not gushing or acting like a jerk in an attempt to buddy up with the superstar. Believe me, I’ve done just that with much lesser known celebs.
I have the adept ability to be an idiot at times. Beck invites us into his home. I walk in behind him and look to the left. There’s an unfinished body and neck of a Fender Telecaster laying on the floor. He glanced at it and said “Yeah, sometimes I forget that I even play those.”
I have a seat on the carpeted floor of the family room — if you can call it that — in a centuries old English manor. A vegetarian, Beck’s classically beautiful, simply styled girlfriend offers up cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches. I was tempted to eat them with my pinky in the air. Beck reached for a small tin. He opened it revealing a pack of rolling papers and an herbal substance. I thought, “Holy smoke, I’m going to get high with Jeff Beck. I hope I don’t say anything stupid!”
Well, it was just tobacco. He rolls his own little ciggies. His manager reminded me many times of his frugality. They would present him with illustrations of elaborate set designs for future concerts. He’d check out the cost and reply that really just a Fender guitar and an amp would do the trick just as well and be much cheaper.
Heroes Have Heroes
But, get this. I look to the side of the sofa and I see a Fender Stratocaster with the word “Tina” carved into it. I ask about it and he relates that he had dinner with Tina Turner one night. He said that she was the sweetest person — held his hand throughout the evening. He asked her to sign his guitar and she surprised him like only a Tennessee girl could surprise someone — she took a “dagger” out of her purse and carved her monicker into the front of the guitar. She then took out some red nail polish, coated the carving and wiped away the excess. That left only the word “Tina” in red nail polish.
Ain’t it funny when your heroes have heroes?
Have you gotten the idea that I’m stunned yet? So, Beck puts a VHS (yeah it was that long ago) into a tape player. He asks if I have ever seen the British punk rock comedy, The Young Ones. Well, I had and I thought it was stupid. Some Brit stuff I like — such as Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and even Benny Hill. But The Young Ones. Nah! So, we watched a couple of episodes. And, what an asshole I was to laugh at stuff I didn’t think was remotely funny, just because Jeff F-’n’ Beck thought it was a hoot. Yeah, I whored out. But, this is Jeff Beck, and as superficial as it may have been —- I really wanted to be his buddy.
Well, the glorious day ended and I turned down a ride with photog Curwood to instead ride with Beck’s affable manager. He told me lots of little stories about Beck, usually ending with, “That’s Jeff!”. Like the one about how Beck tunes his American V-8 engines by ear, putting his lughole right up to the engine. “I said, well, Jeff you’ll destroy your hearing. It’s your livelihood. But, that’s Jeff”. In fact, it’s been reported that Beck has such severe tinnitus that he often wears music earbuds to drown out the the ringing. Anyway, we bullshitted about a bunch of stuff like that. It was fun.
The rest of the evening in London was uneventful. But, what could possibly be eventful after an entire day with Jeff Beck?
Meanwhile, back in the States … the office was abuzz with Nickele coming back from the Jeff Beck excursion. Everyone knew how much fun I had and how lucky I was to have an editor cool enough to let me put that thing together.
When the issue was published, we sent two big bundles to Beck — his pic with a hotrod on the cover. Curwood sent Beck a portfolio of color photos of his hotrods. Like the big, adolescent-like fans that we were(are) we waited for a response from Beck. Nothing. Ok, the bales of mags probably meant nothing. But, I happen to know that the portfolio of color prints my friend sent him cost him a pretty penny to print and send. No response. Really? But did we care? Nah. Well, maybe a little bit.
But, that’s Jeff!!!