Gateway Acts: How Beck opened up a whole new world to an evangelical boy from the Midwest

Gateway Acts is a new ongoing series on Backbeat in which we examine the music that served as an entry point for our burgeoning musical obsessions, a gateway drug that tuned us in and turned us on. Today, Josiah Hesse gives up the goods on his Beck jones.

There is no way to listen to the music of Beck Hansen without, either actively or passively, becoming aware of the whole of 20th century American music. It's all in there: the Delta blues of Mississippi's John Hurt and Son House (One Foot In The Grave), the b-boy electro-hip-hop of Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa (Midnite Vultures), the lachrymose, orchestral folk of Townes Van Zandt and Nick Drake (Sea Change), the experimental art-noise of John Cage and Suicide (Stereopathetic Soulmanure) and the goofy punk-rock of the Frogs and the Butthole Surfers (Mellow Gold). For me, and surely for many others, getting into Beck albums was not only a joyful explosion of the senses, but a life-long infection of curiosity for the encyclopedic landscape of pop-music history.

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While I was hopelessly submerged in the bowels of Christian Rock throughout the "Loser" phenomenon, I eventually discovered Beck in January of '97 during his Saturday Night Live performances. This was in support of the Odelay album, and seeing this skinny, soul singer in a tight suit and ascot slide about the stage like a fashionable Golem at The James Brown Review was a dramatic departure from the 2Pac and Marilyn Manson that my school-mates were into. He was effeminate, glamorous and performed art with a silliness at the core and straight-faced sobriety on the surface.

Naturally, I ran out and bought Odelay the next day. The experience of listening to the album (three or four times a day, for the next year) was as close to a psychotropic mind-fuck as my sober, fifteen-year-old brain had ever encountered. By then, I'd been exposed to all the decaffeinated punk that the Jesus Freaks had to offer, and while there was some of that raw-energy and unrelenting tempo in Odelay, there was also '60s soul, bar-room blues and classic hip-hop, all peppered with surreal, dadaist cut-up lyrics that could make you laugh and become horny at the same time.

Predictably, an Evangelical boy from the Midwest had little exposure to all this. And I had little idea that as I scoured libraries and traveled long distances to record stores to investigate all these new sounds, I was mimicking the behavior of a young Beck Hansen in L.A. Despite the fact that his grandfather, Al Hansen, was a major icon of the Fluxus art movement, and his mother, Bibbe Hansen, was a go-go dancer for the Velvet Underground and maternal figure for the L.A. punk scene, Beck still ventured past this rich history, spending hours soaking up the 78 rpm records of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie that he checked out from the local library.

That exposure, mixed with a local exposure to the blossoming hip-hop and punk scenes, and eventually the Gen X anti-folk movement, gave Beck an eclectic musical vocabulary that he democratically injected into his own work with a playfulness that infected his audience with all genres simultaneously. In addition to discovering a wealth of great artists through Beck's music, his choice in producers like the Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys Paul's Boutique) on Odelay and Nigel Godrich (Radiohead's OK Computer) on Mutations and Sea Change added further entries to my musical check-list.

While Guero exposed us to a bit of unprecedented Latin flavor, by this album, Beck had seemingly exhausted his bag of retro tricks and began repeating himself. Other than a few one-off French-pop collaborations and last year's brilliant sheet-music-only album release (harkening back to an era that predates recorded sound, when the only way to hear music was to make it yourself), in the last decade, Beck has rarely been a gateway source to new bands or genres. But as long as I live, I will always owe an incalculable debt to the boundary-crossing eclecticism of that slim-hipped dancing boy from L.A.

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse