Music News

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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts