Beck on the Highway

The man of the moment wants some moments for himself.

If the folks at Geffen were expecting Beck to fill his debut album for the imprint with more tunes like his unexpected hit single, they were no doubt shocked by 1994's Mellow Gold, an offering that seemed as much a thumb in the eye of the commercial music business as an actual album. The package was a tossed-off lark that made absolutely no concessions to the marketplace--or to listenability, either. Cuts like "Beercan" and "Mutherfucker" were entertaining in an offbeat way (especially if you took into consideration how much David Geffen probably hated them), but they didn't come close to approximating the shaggy mix that made "Loser" so appealing. Neither did Beck's live appearances during this period. Typical was an April 1994 turn at Boulder's Ground Zero, in which Beck meandered through a slovenly set of unidentifiable tunes capped by a version of "Loser" that suggested self-satire: After playing a minute of the song at punk velocity, Beck's anonymous backup group segued into a cocktail-jazz melody over which the main man screamed the lyrics to Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and A Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran." From a performance-art standpoint, this tack was intriguing; it implied that the music-industry machine turned everything into homogeneous cheese, whether it was good or not. But it also conveyed the impression that Beck was too good to bother doing anything as unhip as entertaining people.

What happened between this period--one that included a series of tepid appearances at the 1995 Lollapalooza festival--and Beck's tours in support of Odelay, which have received good notices even from those scribes who'd previously written him off as a one-hit wonder? Nothing much, Beck insists with more than a touch of disingenuousness. He contends that he never purposefully set out to alienate ticket-buyers and blames his previous weaknesses on his supporting cast. "You know what it is?" he asks. "It's that I have a really good band now. And before, the other bands I had weren't that together--so I was spending most of the show trying to keep everything together musically and technically on stage. I couldn't put my attention on performing at the time. But with this band, we've totally worked everything out, and it's pretty amazing what they can do. We've sort of gone beyond the album now: We can re-create the album, but totally take it on its own terms and create all these dynamics in the songs. So now I can step up and I don't have to worry about how everything's fitting together. I can just engage the audience and put my attention there.

"The attitude of our shows is straight hip-hop. It's something slightly different from showmanship; it's about, I don't know, embracing the audience and getting shit going instead of just getting up there and playing your songs. It's much more of a participation thing, which a lot of people in rock music have been getting away from. You go back to old rock and roll and R&B and blues, and you see people stepping up and revealing themselves completely. It's not a pretentious thing at all--and it's not so many things that rock has become."

This philosophy extends to Odelay's words, which generally dispense with soul-searching narratives in favor of disparate images that collide in unpredictable ways. "On this album, it was a very conscious thing to take the 'I' out of it," he says. "My whole attitude was to write about the 'we.' I wanted to be more inclusive, because so much of the spirit of grunge music and alternative music was all about me, me, me, me, me. It was sort of sickening after a while. But folk music has never been about that. That's what I always loved about folk. It was always about this continuous community and all the generations getting together--sort of a collective history. So I wanted to tap into that kind of consciousness in my songwriting."

Not everyone in Beck's circle was wowed by this approach, or by the music he and the Dust Brothers assembled to enhance it. "When I was making Odelay, people were telling me not to put it out. They told me it was terrible," he reveals. "I'm not going to tell you who said it, but they were people large in the music industry. Large. But I liked the record from the beginning, and I liked what I was doing. It was a drag that these people were saying that, but at the same time, I was like, I can't listen to what people say. I've got to believe in what I do, and if nobody likes it now, maybe eventually they'll come around to digging it."

They did. Although modern-rock radio types were initially cautious about championing Odelay's first single, "Where It's At," because of its hip-hop elements, they eventually capitulated, and followups "The New Pollution" and "Devil's Haircut" were plugged into an even wider variety of formats despite their bastard natures. "I make things a lot harder on myself as far as that goes," Beck admits. "The genres are so defined and segregated at radio now that to be making music that embraces different genres means that you're making people stretch a little bit. And that's not an idea that radio people like very much. The reason they have to separate the music is because they can market it more easily. If the music is ambiguous at all, it can be much harder to define and thus a lot harder to sell--because to sell something, you've got to simplify it. It takes a lot more work to put something over that people aren't conditioned to hearing. But that's what I like to do."

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