[The Guardian, 1996]
AT the age of 25, Beck Hansen has the air of a man who is surprised by nothing. Either that, or he is surprised by everything. The wide-eyed calm with which he treats the world around him might be the result of a life which has already startled him beyond measure. Or it might stem from an imperturbable belief that whatever happens next, he won't be expecting it.
Beck is a rock star who never planned to be one. Most would-be idols, whatever they are driven by - a hunger for vengeance or adulation, the need for public psychotherapy, a simple desire to make good - know what they are driven towards. Beck has arrived at their destination seemingly by accident. Two years ago, he was being lauded as the new spokesman of a generation. He genuinely appeared to have no idea why.
Chances are you remember Beck for his 1994 hit, Loser, which was adopted as a backward anthem by self-acclaimed underachievers on both sides of the Atlantic. Nailing a memorable slide guitar riff and a sample from Dr John's Walk On Gilded Splinters to a rickety hip hop beat, Loser wandered through reams of amiable gibberish before hitting the pay-off line in the chorus: “I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me?” What nobody knew or cared was that Beck and a friend had recorded the song “kind of as a joke”.
Growing up in Los Angeles, the son of Bibbe Hansen, a onetime habitue of Andy Warhol's The Factory, Beck had an upbringing that was unorthodox by most standards, although it didn't seem strange to him. “It was not the major fact of my life that my mother used to hang out with Andy Warhol,” he points out. “Doing flaky stuff in the Sixties was pretty normal. It's not like it really colours your upbringing.”
Perhaps of more significance are the facts that his mother was 18 when he was born, that she brought him up to do pretty much as he liked, and that he spent his childhood in a Hispanic district of LA.
“I didn't really grow up in a white world. I was raised by Mexicans. When I went to school I was the only white guy.” With his pale skin and blond hair, Beck must have stood out, but he displays none of the scars on his psyche that are de rigueur for today's twenty something icon. Those who had him pinned as the successor to Kurt Cobain picked the wrong man. “People's one-dimensional idea of what you are,” he demurs, “that sort of slacker idea, or the goofy hip hop guy, I just think it's silly, it's not me. It's like a cartoon. I'm never going to come up with a synopsis, a shorthand version of myself that somebody can just glance at and say, ‘That's it.&lrquo;”
At 15, Beck took up the guitar, but even then he was out of step with his contemporaries. “I started playing after hearing some Mississippi John Hurt and Leadbelly records, getting inspired by folk blues and country blues - Carter Family, Woody Guthrie. Spent a lot of years playing that stuff and really immersing myself in it. Went out to New York around 18 and got involved in the so-called anti-folk scene, a response to this sort of easy listening thing that folk music had come to mean. Folk had this negative connotation, and I was surprised that it wasn't really so when I heard a lot of the older kind of folk music.
“So I started performing back in New York. There was this cool scene happening in the mid-Eighties, this sort of free-for-all thing, poets and performance people.”
Returning to LA, Beck found it all but impossible to get a gig, sneaking onto the bottom of whatever bills he could, glad just to have a chance to play. He would write silly songs to amuse his friends, with titles like MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack, and record them on home studios in the belief that nobody would ever hear them, bar his immediate circle and the few dozen people who bought them from tiny labels with names like Bong Load. After Loser took off, those tracks which hadn't already made it to vinyl would become the core of his major label debut, Mellow Gold. He had plenty more in the pipeline; he remains so prolific that his contract allows him to carry on making records for anyone else he pleases.
THE first warning of Loser's impending success took the form of phone calls to Bong Load from college radio stations across the USA, trying to track down an original copy. After one DJ happened upon the record, he sent off taped copies to fellow jockeys; the song was then pirated even unto the fourth and fifth generation, rapidly becoming the most requested number on college radio. In stepped Geffen records to snap it up, and Beck with it.
Beck is now onto his second album for the label, Odelay, the title taken from a Latino cry of joyous approval. “I was trying to get the sense of having a celebratory aspect that I've heard in Mexican music. What's called Alternative music, it's very narrow. You've got your angst, you've got that sort of cynical thing, and then your sort of moody sex thing. It's all really kinda obvious, and there's nothing really new or expansive about it. It's easier to put on the heavy guitars. I mean, I love heavy music, but some of the songs on this album are kinda light, almost anti heaviness.”
Modern by default rather than design, Odelay follows the same simultaneously gleeful and deadpan tack as Mellow Gold, a mish-mash of scatterbrained tunes, talking blues, hip hop and acoustic guitars. It is just as entertaining as its remarkable predecessor, even if it features fewer close-to-the-bone character studies and hilariously sour sagas of low-rent LA life.
“One of my friends I wrote a song about went to this street fair and got drunk, went on the Ferris Wheel and threw up all over everybody. I think he wrote a song about me. Sort of in response. The other thing comes out of a feeling of working in a dead-end job, where you're this subhuman grunt, and your boss doesn't even know your name, kind of looks at you without knowing you, and you're not getting paid enough to even eat, really. That sort of frustration. Also, the tradition of work songs - ‘I ain't gonna work for the boss man ’&, and those jailhouse songs.
“My older songs were more in the tradition of that, but it doesn't really apply to the way life is now, so I'm sort of writing these songs in a vacuum. I have to embrace the larger scheme of things and the life that applies to me now and incorporate that. I guess they're just flakier and less substantial times, and it's kind of reflected in the music.”
In typically low-key, sardonic fashion, Beck says he thinks of himself “as a folk singer gone wrong.” Anyone else you'd suspect of fishing for a compliment. But he looks truly puzzled, and equally unimpressed, when you suggest that he's a folk singer gone right.
Beck once again
(with the renegade master)
[Melody Maker, 1996]
THE man looks like he's been hit by a truck. He slumps into a chair at the bar, chin on chest, and you don't need to ask him how he's feeling. Somebody does, anyway, and he gives as courteous a reply as can extract itself from his weary body. At the best of times he has the look of a frail 12-year-old. This isn't the best of times.
Exhaustion. A derided euphemism for vicious in-fighting. Temper tantrums. Too much coke. “Dates cancelled owing to exhaustion.” Uh-huh. Exhaustion of goodwill, patience or bugle. But Beck is genuinely, unmistakably, plain exhausted. Quite literally sick and tired. Every morning he gets driven to a Japanese doctor for two-hour sessions. Spends the day mustering just enough energy to play in the evening, because you don't abandon gigs in Japan. Not when you're bigger there than anywhere else in the world. Not when the entire music business - record companies, promoters, press - is interwoven like a spider's web and a tremor at one end will set the whole thing shaking. Not unless you're dead. And not when you're Beck, who has proven himself deceptively rugged over the years.
“I just haven't had a day off in about eight months,” he says, in his mild, slow way. “That'll kind of wear you out. It takes a lot. You spend eight months making a record, in the studio for 18 hours a day. Then once you're done, you work on the artwork for a few weeks. Once you're done with that, you make a couple of videos. Then once you're done with that, you do four months of interviews. Then once you're done with that you do a year and a half of touring. Then you start it all over again. I mean, I love it. I just had a long stretch. I don't think anybody expected the album to do as good as it's doing. That's why I haven't been able to take a break.
“There's a lot of people's well-being involved in what I do,” he adds. “It's a different game, you know. Mentally, I'm still enjoying it. But a body can only take so much. It's a little bit toxi . . . uh, taxing. I know my limitations and sometimes I'm forced to exceed them, so I can see it coming.
“My treatment has mainly been laying out flat in my bed with my eyes closed. Sleeping. Beautiful, blissful, wonderful, um, sleep. Some acupuncture. Japanese massage. Lovely lady. I've needed all the help I can get. In Japan, do as the Japanese do, I guess.” He brightens for a second. “I got two months off coming up.”
BECK's a Property now. He's sold enough records, had enough time and money invested in him. His schedule is mapped out. If he has somewhere to be, he'll be taken there. If he's ill, he'll be tended to. He moves through it all with a wide-eyed amiability that belies both his history and his firm control on what really matters to him; his music.
“I've seen about two-thirds of this planet in the last two years,” he says. “It's been more like 10 years for me. About four or five years ago, I was probably a lot more wide-eyed. Not that I've lost my appreciation for things. I don't feel jaded at all. I don't think I'll ever be jaded. I was raised that way. I didn't have as much, so whatever you had you appreciated a lot.”
Beck was born in LA 26 years ago and brought up, by many people's notions, unconventionally. His mother, Bibbe Hansen, had an unorthodox background herself; her father was a Scandinavian avant-garde sculptor of some renown in Sixties America. She became a habituee of Andy Warhol's Factory and a sometime actress in Warhol's films. As the films were naturalistic to the point of complete enervation, even their most challenging roles amounted to little more than a hard day on the sofa.
Beck plays down his mother's past: “Doing flaky stuff in the Sixties was pretty normal. It's not like it really colours your upbringing. It was not the major fact of my life that my mother used to hang out with Andy Warhol.
“I didn't really grow up in a white world,” he continues. “I grew up in a Latino neighbourhood, was raised by Mexicans. When I went to school I was the only white guy. Visually, where I grew up was such a collage of culture. The business on the corner, it wouldn't just be a video store, it would be a video-store-slash-furniture-slash-accounting-income tax.”
It was here that Beck met Manuel Ocampo, the Filipino artist whose paintings, full of Mexico's wry and lavish religious imagery, have been montaged on the sleeve of his album, “Odelay”. It's not too fanciful to trace Beck's own densely packed and wide-ranging musical style to these origins.
“Maybe it's ingrained in me. It's a process I'm interested in,” he allows, “but ultimately it has to be organic. It has to work. I don't just throw a bunch of things together and hope it flies. In the back of my mind I have this thing printed, this basic thing that I can always go back to when things get too muddy or lost. I like chaos, but I like it to have a basic grace and balance and musicality. I'm pretty rooted in the folk song, the basics of the folk song.”
IT WAS Beck's love for folk and blues, inspired by Mississippi John Hurt and Leadbelly, that led him to take off for New York to seek out the so-called anti-folk scene at the age of 18, back when he really was the open-faced nšif he still does such a good impression of. It must have been a test of endurance.
“Nothing special. Just mostly lack of means. Lack of places to live. Lack of food, that kind of basic stuff. How did I live? I don't know. Just the kindness of strangers. Later on, I just had different jobs. Moved around a lot. Lived in a lot of rooming house-type places in Los Angeles. I think I've actually found my place, got a foothold. But there was a couple of years that were not too smooth.
“New York, that's where I had it the roughest, probably. Everything else is cake after New York. If you're in New York and you've got no friends, no money, no place to live - I think you're just plain stoopid. Which I was at the time. Trying to find places to crash. Living off . . . in the East Village they have these little stores with 25-cent food. Living off these dubious food products, food units. Getting jumped by different gangs. It was a pretty rough neighbourhood, got thrashed a few times, it wasn't too fun. Rough winter - the winters are really harsh.
“I always had a lot of faith in people, so I guess that's why I felt it was okay to go ahead and to show up somewhere. For the most part there was a lot of people who were very helpful, who took me in and helped me get shows. A lot of those people on the anti-folk scene were really kind to me. Several more weren't so kind.
“I have a pretty strong survival instinct,” he concedes. “I always thought my pain threshold was higher than most people's. That's the reason I can endure a lot. I don't know why that is.”
SOME people want to be stars for the acclaim. Some want revenge. Others, money, sex or power. Some just want success for its own sake. Beck's view of his mounting fame is more pragmatic, although at first, he didn't want it at all.
“Initially, I was definitely carried along by events, because I didn't have much ambition at all. I knew tons of people who desired the attention I was getting, and I couldn't stand it. But after a while I saw it as an opportunity to do something different and to try some things I never got to do before. It turned out to be really enjoyable. But if attention's not something you're seeking, it makes you a little uncomfortable. If you've spent your whole life working for it, telling people, look at me, look at me, you'll have thought of a hundred different ways of using it. But me, I was just trying to dodge it all the time. I don't have any insight into it, why some people get noticed and others don't.
“You're constantly challenged to somehow subvert the situation so it isn't turned into quite the gross thing it could be,” asserts Beck. “I never turn it into a star ego-feeding thing. It's more interaction with people who like your music. I don't think I make the kind of music that causes havoc, or where it's stupid, and people are chasing after you.”
At this moment, the van we're riding in makes a turn and finds itself nosing through a throng of Japanese girls screaming for “Beck-ah! Beck-ah!” Beck grins.
“Here I get two syllables. That's nice. But this is Japan. It isn't like here anywhere else. And you know what, they do this for anybody. If you sold five records in England and you come here, you'll have people chasing you up the street. It doesn't really have much to do with you. It's a hobby, almost, the way some people go to the karaoke bar. There's little sub cultures here, and one of the things you do, you pick four or five bands and you're a fan, that's your job, that's the thing you do for fun. I look on it all as in a spirit of fun, in a Japanese way. I love their culture and they way they go about everything. I think it's really refreshing and charming and alive. In America, it's all jaded and people have seen it all and experienced it all. Here there's still excitement. It's really invigorating, I think. It's silliness, but . . .”
THIS might seem patronising coming from someone else, but it fits in neatly with Beck's own persona, eternally intrigued by the world around him. Two years ago, when “Loser” hit the charts around the world, he was feted as the new slacker king. He's since spoken of the song as “kind of a joke”, and given his work-rate - even then, he was issuing his prodigious output on various indie labels - the idea of Beck as a slacker does seem like kind of a joke. He didn't go out of his way to comment on it, unless anyone asked him; and as everyone asked him, he spent a lot of time denying it.
“The slacker thing seems hilarious now,” he says. “It doesn't even cross my mind any more. I didn't want to disprove it. I would never try to disprove anything. Once the word ‘slacker’ went out of vogue, people stopped calling me that. They'll have to come up with something else. It's okay. This fine country's poet Basho would be considered a slacker. He got to sit in his little banana hut and meditate on the beauty of bamboo for months on end. I don't get to do that. I'm probably the extreme opposite. This lifestyle doesn't really afford much in the way of meditation. You have to get time off to write music, to dig down and pull out what's going on inside, put it in a song somehow.”
Beck left school early, which perhaps was a good thing, as it saved him from the derision of those who would have been his peers. California in the Eighties was not the best setting for one with his interests.
“When I was a kid, I thought anything that had a synthesiser was like the coolest. Gary Numan, Kraftwerk. 'Cause I had this calculator watch and it made all these sounds, sounded like the music. When I was a teenager, though, I got really into folk music and blues and became something of a purist. That was '84, '85, the height of generic music and Eighties production values. I guess I'd say that made me something of an outcast. But I didn't go to high school, so I didn't have to deal with it that much. ‘Ah wuz a workin'man.’ But a lad. A working bloke.
“I'm going to start using British slang in interviews,” he sidetracks. “I did an interview for an English magazine earlier this year. They rewrote my answers and had me saying the most outrageous slang words. ‘Diamond Geezer’. ‘Top Bollocks’. These are things it would never occur to me to say, so I'll take that as my cue to get on the slangwagon. British slang is far more superior to American slang. Much more colourful and diverse and outlandish. ‘Bloody’ is really . . . bloody good. ‘Bugger’ is awesome.”
Top bollocks? What in the devil's name are top bollocks?
TALK of the devil . . .
“I thought ‘Devil's Haircut’ was a really bad lyric,” confesses Beck. “If I can't finish a song, I'll just put in something temporary. That's what ‘Loser’ was. Then the temporary one always becomes the best one, because it wasn't all thought out.
“The song is just a really simplistic metaphor for the evil of vanity,” he explains. “Devil imagery seems to crop up in my songs a lot. Or it has in the past. I try not to recycle imagery too much, but I'm always interested in the various faces of the devil, and I'm always drawn to historical incarnations of the devil. And I think it's funny-peculiar how at this point the devil is purely just this evil entity, this ominous, dark, foreboding entity, and in the past he was always incarnated as this trickster, or a comedian, or clown - he had many different traits, characteristics, so I play a lot off of that. I like Mephistopheles, the more literary devil, more than the heavy metal devil. Although the heavy metal devil was fun. Ozzy Osbourne's devilries were always satisfying as a younger person. But,” he muses, “one must graduate onto higher levels of - devilness.”
Maybe it's a symptom of my evil vanity, but I thought of a devil's haircut as one of those appalling scissor jobs you wish you'd never had. Beyond a bad hair day. An unholy hair day, perhaps.
“The worst I ever had wasn't really a haircut,” recalls Beck, “it was just a lack of care and attention to the hair, and a lack of washing, at one point, when I think I was about 19. The hair at the back all started to grow together into this giant dreadlock. It was pretty hideous. I think it drove me insane one day and I just cut it off. It looked wretched, because there was a huge gouge in the back of my hair and the rest was still long. It was a bad hair affair. Actually, my favourite hair salon is in South-Central LA: Before And After Hair Affair.”
And does Beck believe in the devil?
“I believe in different forces,” he replies, “different extremes. I've got a kind of Eastern take on it. I think you need both good and bad. It's a matter of balance. I couldn't take up arms in the battle between light and dark. I'm not that heroic.
“At least,” he reconsiders, “most days I'm not.”
That's probably for the best. I can't imagine where he'd find the time.
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