Music News

Beck Vs. Henry Rollins

Punk icon turned burly entrepreneur Henry Rollins claims not to care what journalists think about him or his most recent album (see page 79). But his comments about Beck, arguably the most critically acclaimed pop musician of the past several years, suggest that he might harbor a certain resentment for this pale, willowy performer, a man whose physical and musical attributes make him Rollins's opposite: the anti-Henry.

The first time Rollins mentioned Beck during his conversation with Westword was in regard to questions about his recent signing to the DreamWorks imprint. "I can be on any label I want. Like Beck," he said, without any prompting from his interviewer. "He's artist of the year, right? And he's on a major label. So I can be on a major label, too." Shortly thereafter, he made another pair of references that seemed directed at Mr. Hansen. In explaining why Come In and Burn, the latest album by the Rollins Band, was so similar to his previous work, he declared, "This is what we do. We're not going to get two turntables and call it something else next year." He added, "A lot of contemporary artists are getting much kudos and record-of-the-year honors and whatever, but when I hear those records, I'm like, 'That's the main riff of some old song, and you scratched in some silly song over it and you've put in electronic drums--and all of a sudden we're dealing with a genius?'"

Rollins invoked Beck's name again after describing the motivations behind the Burn compositions "Thursday Afternoon" ("That is just me trying to be a better person, trying to look before I leap, trying to correct some of the things that I really hate about myself, like tendencies toward violence--it's like a prayer") and "Spilling Over the Side" ("Say you're a guy looking for a girl--you're lonely in that way--and the first female who's even slightly nice to you, even if it's a waitress, you just melt, and you end up saying too much. And then ten minutes later, or the next day, you realize, 'Oh, man, I'm blowing it'"). "I just did a TV show with Beck in England," he noted, "and I think the guy is really cool. But I listened to the lyrics, and I'm like, 'Oh, this sounds like a guy who's doing a paste-up Bob Dylan--a lot of non sequiturs and all that.' And I didn't understand where the soul or the guts were. And then I thought, maybe soul and guts isn't necessarily what this guy is about. It is, after all, pop music, not Al Green. But I'm more interested in stuff that leaves marks."

In the midst of his own chat with Westword, Beck was told about the last of Rollins's remarks. Beck's immediate response, though delivered in a laconic tone, was a touch caustic: "A lot of what I'm doing is a reaction to the sort of self-indulgence that the music and the songwriters of my generation have fallen into the trap of." But as he continued, he patiently laid out the differences between his approach and the one Rollins prefers.

"Obviously, Henry Rollins hasn't spent much time with my music," Beck began. "He doesn't really know where I'm coming from. What I'm attempting to do lyrically has more to do with poetry. His songwriting style is much more confessional, like a diary kind of thing--his inner demons. And what I've been trying to do lyrically is progress to a place where you're taking ideas and impressions and experiences and getting to the inner life of them instead of coming up with a very facile list of what's going on. That's what the best poetry has always done. But I try to jockey the two styles--to juxtapose a very simplistic blues lyric that might seem like a homily but on closer inspection speaks multitudes about all kinds of emotional struggle and turmoil with this other style.

"Rock lyrics have been completely exhausted. If you said something thirty years ago, it might have been potent, but if you say it now, it's trite. Even things that Dylan wrote--if you said them now, they'd be trite, too. So I'm working toward something, and lyrically, I still have a lot of time to develop. I did Odelay when I was 24, and I'm going to be 27 this year--and each year that goes by, you develop more in your ideas. And someone like Henry Rollins is a lot further along with what's he's doing."

As for Rollins's comments about "soul" and "guts," Beck pointed out, "There's a lot of personal things in my more acoustic music; it has much more of a personal, emotional life in it." But on Odelay, he said that he was interested in exploring "the whole concept of trying to make lyrics three-dimensional. If you're just sort of coming up with a cliche rendering or a cliche line about how you're feeling emotionally, you're not going to conjure up the specific emotions and impressions of what you're feeling. But if you can sort of throw some different images in there--'I drop my anchor in the dead of night/I packed my suitcase and threw it away'--it feels good. And it conjures up, like, this third effect."