Beck on the Highway
Beck Hansen is tired. He's in England, a country where hot American acts are routinely vilified by reviewers who are suspicious of any trend that did not get its start from them. Beck, however, has somehow been spared this treatment. Since his arrival in Britain, he has been lauded, feted, acclaimed and otherwise celebrated by media types and music lovers from one end of the country to the other. But while such attention is certainly preferable to, for instance, regular stonings, it makes Beck feel a bit impatient. In fact, the two-time Grammy winner and 1996 artist of the year according to Rolling Stone, Spin, the Village Voice and enough additional publications to decimate the Brazilian rainforests, says he would gladly trade the majority of it for what's become a rarer commodity: time. "The only thing I think about is, I haven't been in the studio for two years," he maintains. "So I can't fucking wait to get back in there and have some fun, you know?"
Thanks to Odelay, the 1996 album that spurred Beck's canonization, fans and critics alike are just as eager for the 26-year-old singer, songwriter and provocateur to return to the mixing board. The disc is filled with charmingly mysterious songs that range from the neo-folk of "Lord Only Knows" to the white-boy hip-hop of "Where It's At." Assisted by the production team known collectively as the Dust Brothers, Beck takes elements of rock, pop, jazz, rhythm and blues and virtually every other sonic style heard on U.S. radios during the past fifty years and melds them into a singular whole. The fruits of his efforts taste decidedly different from most contemporary pop music, but they've managed to reach a sizable audience anyhow--and Beck thinks he knows why.
"A lot of what I'm doing is very traditional," he remarks. "Something like Aphex Twin is really groundbreaking, but what I'm doing is connected to traditional songwriting, and that's probably why people can get into it. It hasn't embraced that complete rejection of song structure and personality in music, which maybe more experimental music does." He adds, "To me, integrating something completely accessible and something completely experimental is even more experimental. Because it's more subversive."
Because of his ability to grab the ears of the masses with sounds that aren't simply rehashes of hash that's been hashed far too many times already, Beck has become a standard-bearer of sorts--the person many observers are counting on to lead his peers into the next musical millennium. That's a lot of baggage for any individual to carry, and it's resulted in an inevitable backlash, both from those dwellers of the underground whom Beck has transcended and from performers such as Henry Rollins, who have conflicting aesthetic goals (see sidebar). For his part, Beck is trying to deal with these extremes by steering clear of them entirely. He claims to be oblivious to most of what's written about him, pro or con, and reacts with bemusement to the "genius" tag that the most enthusiastic of his boosters have looped around his neck. According to him, "A genius is somebody who can design, like, a fifty-story building with fire escapes and bathrooms." He allows that "I'm erecting buildings in a more abstract sense. And I suppose I have my moments--but I also have moments where there's not much going on." Still, he says, "the stereotype of genius being mostly hard work is true. The only reason my album's good is because I went into the studio for eighteen hours a day. It took a lot of endurance to get to that point where it all clicked and it all worked."
The same can be said about Beck's life in general. The son of Bibbe Hansen, one of the less-famous veterans of Andy Warhol's Factory scene, and bluegrass musician David Campbell, he grew up in contradictory settings; when not in L.A., where he and his mom lived a hand-to-mouth existence on the margins of the West Coast punk scene, he was in the Kansas home of David's father, a minister from the old school. Beck discovered music, in the form of a Mississippi John Hurt album, shortly after graduating from junior high, and fell so deeply under the influence of the racket that he could make with an acoustic guitar that he soon put the notion of higher education behind him. He spent his teens making tapes of the songs that were pouring out of his head and his early twenties hurling them at the habitues of Al's Bar and other SoCal dives.
"Loser" changed all that. A folkie goof that Beck underpinned with a hip-hop groove, the tune was released as a single on Bong Load Custom Records, an indie label run by buddy Tom Rothrock. Through a combination of luck and cunning, the pair got a copy of the cut to the tastemakers at KROQ-FM, the Los Angeles station that's viewed as an alterna-music barometer by program directors from sea to shining sea. When KROQ subsequently put "Loser" into heavy rotation, the major labels came calling, and Beck went from being an itinerant who wouldn't have been eating on a daily basis were it not for his monthly unemployment checks to the subject of a feverish bidding war eventually won by mega-conglomerate Geffen Records.
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."
Once his jaunt through America has wrapped, Beck plans to move on to the next phase of this mission. He's already recorded what he describes as a straight folk album and hopes to finish mixing it by year's end. (It will be put out by K Records, a small firm based in the Pacific Northwest that is responsible for 1994's One Foot in the Grave, a rough but insinuating acoustic recording that Beck aficionados rightfully regard as among his finest pieces.) In addition, Beck is eager to dig into numerous unspecified projects for Bong Load prior to getting together with the Dust Brothers to begin fashioning Odelay's successor. As he puts it, "We have a lot of unfinished songs, so I'm sure we'll finish those and then do more."
In the meantime, Beck is concentrating on getting to the end of what he sees as a two-year-long road, and he has no intention of letting the fame that visited him midway through his journey prevent him from reaching his destination. "I don't worry about that stuff," he says, "because I'm completely immersed in such a different world. People who listen to your records have this abstract idea of you as a musical entity just sitting there worrying about things, but I don't. I'm out like 300 days of the year on tour, working my ass off. So that's really the last thing on my mind.
"I've been doing what I'm doing for a long time. There's a foundation there that's not going to get blown over by someone coming in and making a fuss over it. Magazine covers are nice, I guess, but a magazine comes out and then two weeks later, it's on the recycling pile. I'd rather think about music."
Beck, with the Cardigans. 7 p.m. Thursday, May 22, Red Rocks, $18, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.