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Beck: The Soundtrack of My Life

The ultimate indie-rock chameleon, 45, just released his 12th studio album, ”Morning Phase”; here he reveals the varied tunes that shaped his musical mind — and the perfect song for a Viking funeral

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My earliest musical memories
“The first song I remember hearing on the radio was ‘Hot Child in the City’ by Nick Gilder. The adults who were driving the cars I was in usually had the radio off and were chain-smoking, and it was just long hours of looking out the window at stucco houses and being in traffic in the hot California sun with no air-conditioning in the back of a Toyota Corolla. [But at home] my mother played a lot of soundtracks — like Camelot and later The Harder They Come and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

The first album I bought with my own money
“I remember walking a pretty long way from my house by myself to an old record shop that was probably from the ’40s or ’50s. It had the listening booths, and it was just vinyl; I don’t think they had cassettes yet. I was drawn to the Beatles records for some reason. I wanted to get the White Album, but it was a double record so it was more expensive. I remember playing Rubber Soul on my portable turntable extremely loud — well, as loud as the single speaker would go. I would play badminton in my room with a balloon with my brother, and then the badminton racket would turn into a guitar.”

The song that reminds me of my first kiss
“There was no music playing, I remember that. I think we were hiding on a roof. In my part of town, there would have been some ranchero music, some banda playing from an old Chevy Nova or something. But the music that reminds me of that time would probably be something by Tom Waits, because this girl I liked, she would play Blue Valentine and Small Change.”

The first song I sang in public
“When I was a teenager, I used to play in coffeehouses and bars and open-mic nights, pretty much anywhere people were allowed to come in off the street and play. I was learning a lot of traditional blues songs: Robert Johnson and Skip James and Blind Willie McTell. There were a lot of hellhounds and devils and things like that. I didn’t get into heavy metal as a teenager, but I still got all the demonology; it just came in a different guise. That definitely works on a 16-year-old, that kind of mythology. [Laughs]”

The album that changed my life
“I can say Computer World or Purple Rain or Psychocandy or Pink Moon or Hank Williams’ greatest hits, and any of those would be right. But for some reason I remember The Velvet Underground & Nico really striking me. I had seen La Dolce Vita, so I put it together that Nico was in this Fellini film, and it was a kind of awakening to this idea that there was a place where art and music meet. It felt very much like they got together and somebody just happened to record it, which is probably pretty close to true. I think that’s the quality that made them a band that launched a thousand bands.”

The music I play before a show
“For years, it was ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ by Michael Jackson. Just the beginning, where the strings come in and the beat kicks in. Or ‘Windowlicker’ by Aphex Twin. And then ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’ by Daft Punk came out. I have to say, I feel bad for the audience, because the real show would be what was happening backstage when that song was playing. Couches were getting upturned, people were doing flips over each other, food was flying. It was this unchoreographed chaotic ballet.”

The music that people might not expect me to like
“I remember when my first record came out, people would ask what I was listening to and I’d say, like, Steely Dan or Carcass. Those were things I was actually listening to, but people might have thought I was just playing around. But especially in the ’90s, I listened to a lot of New Age relaxation music. After being pummeled by sound day after day on stage and playing festivals and opening for anybody from Sonic Youth to the Prodigy, my ears really couldn’t take anything else, they’d be ringing so badly. I’ve had periods of time when I’d just listen to sounds of the jungle or a waterfall or something — I just didn’t want to hear any music.”

The songs that make me cry
“The first thing I think of is the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss. There’s one called ‘Im Abendrot.’ That always gets me. It was written at the end of the composer’s life, and there’s a grandeur to it, but there’s also something harmonically that will just launch you into a kind of melancholic, beautiful sadness.”

The song I wish I’d written
“I’ve got thousands. But I think ‘Kiss’ by Prince. If you’re anywhere where people are celebrating something, that will get played. It’s of its era but it never goes out of style, which is not something you can say about a lot of pop records from the ’80s.”

The music I want at my funeral
“You could go the counter-programming route, like the theme to Sanford and Son or Barney Miller, or you could go with something that doesn’t make a statement. A funeral is a tricky one. Maybe something from Bing Crosby; he’s sort of the voice on the other side. ‘Swinging on a Star’ would probably be too jaunty. Maybe ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,’ or Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust’? Or Carcass. Their song titles are really foul: ‘Excoriating Abdominal Emanation.’ ‘Cadaveric Incubator of Endoparasites.’ I wouldn’t recommend those, actually. Maybe for a Viking funeral. I am Scandinavian, so that’s a real possibility.”

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