Beck in business
Talking with the alt-rock star about his Grammy-nominated album, "Odelay"
What did Beck know, and when did he know it? In the passenger seat of a car snaking its way through Hollywood boulevards, this year’s most unlikely Grammy triple threat recalls the moment when he first heard he’d be competing against the Fugees and Celine Dion, among others, on the Feb. 26 awards telecast. ”Nobody called, because everyone assumed I knew,” says Beck in the laissez-faire deadpan that is his normal speaking tone. With each swerve of the vehicle, his long, bony fingers grip the door handle a little tighter. ”For about a day, I remember walking around not knowing. Someone in line at the supermarket congratulated me. I said: ‘Thanks. That’s nice.”’ Could this be? Alt-rock’s boho prince lands three major Grammy nominations — one Album of the Year for the densely packaged sound-collage pop of his fourth album, Odelay — and no one phones him? ”It’s entirely possible,” says Geffen Records executive Mark Kates. ”I know I left him a message that day. What he probably means is that he wasn’t thinking about it.”
En route to Culver City to inspect the sets for his next video, Beck, 26, doesn’t look the part of awards-show-ready rock star. Start with the wardrobe: sitcom-dad garb of brown cardigan and even browner slacks. In person, Beck appears even tinier than he does in photos, and his horn-rimmed glasses, wispy beard, and sandy, comb-challenged moptop give him the look of a harried high school substitute teacher. ”Next year,” he says, ”I’m going to try to get a nomination for ‘books on tape.’ That’s the Grammy to get, I think.”
Wisecracks aside, the man once considered a novelty act takes pride in his three nominations — which, in addition to Album of the Year, include nods for Best Alternative Recording and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. ”It was a little surreal,” he recalls of hearing the news. ”But it feels good to be validated, to be acknowledged. For a while, I was one of the scapegoats for the whole slacker-Generation X thing. Somehow the perception changed, and I’m grateful.”
In the three years since his mind-expanding folk-rap single ”Loser” made him the flavor of several months, Beck has lived through what many pop stars take a decade to experience: local buzz, major-label bidding war, hit, backlash, and, with Odelay, redemption. All well and good, but through a series of coincidences no one could have predicted, Beck has suddenly found himself among America’s most wanted. In the course of one frenzied week in January, he landed his Grammy nominations (no doubt the result of the more rigorous nominating procedure instituted last year, in which key categories are winnowed down by select 25-person panels instead of all voters), appeared on Saturday Night Live and Howard Stern’s E! show, and did a last-minute trot on The Rosie O’Donnell Show. The combined buzz has given Odelay, released last June, a second wind that would make a monsoon jealous. Even gossip doyenne Liz Smith, while admitting to never having heard his music, had drooled over his ”huge, deep blue eyes and one of those big, red, pouty mouths….There has to be a movie career waiting for this kid.”
Whatever the reason—his loose grooves, his nonthreatening hip-squeak air—Beck has become the voice of a caustic generation steeped in skateboard-culture pop and an ironic appreciation of junk TV and movies. If you hear Odelay tracks like ”Where It’s At” or ”Devils Haircut” the next time you’re shopping at the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, and other youth-targeted emporiums, it’s no accident. These stores ”want to be associated with the pop icon of the generation they’re trying to reach,” says Shellye Poster of AEI Music Network, which programs background music for retailers. ”Beck’s on the verge of mainstream acceptance, and he’s not as scary as Trent Reznor or Billy Corgan since he shaved his head.”
Beck’s reaction to his expanding fan base is typically understated. ”Oh, I thought it was funny,” he says of O’Donnell’s interest. ”I loved it when she said, ‘Here’s this new song ”Loser” off Odelay.’ [The song is on Beck’s 1994 album Mellow Gold.] That really puts it in perspective with how you’re perceived by…ummm…most people out there. Musicians think everyone’s aware of what they’re doing. And the truth is people have no idea. You could be on MTV 30 times a day, and people still don’t know.”
Or do they? The car pulls onto a suburban street lined with drab brick office complexes. ”The sky’s beige and the buildings are beige,” Beck says flatly, surveying the scene. ”It’s the color of resignation.” He strides briskly through a door and onto a warehouse-style soundstage where he’ll direct the video for Odelay‘s ”The New Pollution.” The whir of buzz saws and forklifts fills the air as workers rush to complete the video’s mock-Shindig stage. Beck grins, looking more than usual like a happy little kid.
A beefy carpenter, hammer jutting from his belt, clomps over. ”Hey, I gotta ask ya!” he barks amiably. ”What’s a devil’s haircut?”
”Umm…whatever you want,” Beck replies, flinching slightly. ”All right—right on!” whoops the carpenter, returning to work.
When talking about his music and image, the only term Beck likes less than slacker is channel surfing. But a little clicking helps to understand his zigzag life. Click. Born Beck Hansen, raised in a Latino section of L.A. by his mother, Bibbe (his parents split up when he was 3). Click. Learns how to rhyme at age 5: ”Two words that sound the same, and you put them at the end of the line. It’s this perfect formula—all the questions of the universe.” First rhyme: ”’Pull down your pants and do the hot dog dance.’ At the time, I didn’t really get what I was saying.”
Click. Drops out of high school, takes menial jobs, hops a bus to New York (circa 1989) at age 18, where he falls in with a fledgling punk-folk scene. ”He was into his Woody Guthrie mode, and he was really good at it,” recalls New York underground folkie Roger Manning, who knew Beck at the time. Click. Back in L.A., hits the folk-club circuit and, out of necessity, develops his absurdist approach to traditional music. ”I’d be banging away on a Son House tune and the whole audience would be talking,” Beck recalls. ”So maybe out of desperation or boredom, or the audience’s boredom, I’d make up these ridiculous songs just to see if people were listening. ‘Loser’ was an extension of that.”
That song, an admitted “fluke” tossed off in a few hours in a home studio, became a way-left-field sensation in 1993. “I was blown away,” recalls Manning. “Here’s this timid little guy on the edge of the scene—he’s the last person we would have guessed to succeed.” In addition to a deal with Geffen’s DGC label, “Loser” led to Beck’s despised slacker tag. “I don’t come up with this easily digestible, what-you-see-is-what-you-get thing: ‘This is my hairstyle, this is my outfit,'” he says. “So people made up the slacker image for me. Being attached to a highly disposable segment of the popular culture—the one-hit wonders, the cartoon slackers, the video phantoms—it’s a little troublesome.”
“What drives him crazy is people thinking of him as a goofball,” says Geffen’s Kates. “He’s very serious about his music, but he thinks there’s too much angst in rock. He’d rather entertain. He doesn’t feel the need to share his pain with the world.”
Beck isn’t a goofball. A dry chuckle emerges only occasionally, usually at his own puns and in-jokes. Behind his stoner demeanor and thoughtful comments (punctuated with numerous umms) is a brain absorbing the world like a thick paper towel. Tooling around L.A., he takes note of numerous oddball road signs and deadpans about a recent snub by ZZ Top in a hotel lounge. (“Maybe they can’t hear. They’ve been touring for a long time.”) When En Vogue and Ice Cube hits come on the radio, he stops. “Oh, I dig this jam,” he says, punching up the volume and doing a few of his robo-break-dance stage moves.
Such immersion in the good, the bad, and the ugly of pop culture runs rampant through Beck’s music. Emotionally aloof, slicing and dicing its way through hip-hop, sound-effect samples, and hippie-tonk, Odelay is a Cuisinart very much of its time. But it may be more than that. Beck’s life has been filled with escapes: from school, from his native L.A., from America (as a teen, he took solo trips to Europe). Along the way, he’s continually reinvented himself—as Guthrie-esque troubadour, as indie scuzz rocker, as white rapper. With Odelay, he may have fashioned his greatest escape: a perfect, idealized sonic playground into which he can retreat at any time.
“I don’t know what it developed out of,” Beck says of his music, as he’s dropped off in front of his modest white-stucco house in L.A.’s lo-fi-hip Los Feliz section. “It just makes sense to me. It’s modern sensibility. It’s the way the world is presented to us. People watch TV all night and get this imprint of cutting images. It’s in the air. You can see it in people’s eyes.”
Call it mellow platinum. On the soundstage the next day, a rep from Geffen approaches Beck. “Congratulations,” he announces eagerly. “You just went platinum.” Beck’s head drops shyly. “Cool,” he says. A nearby friend cheers at Odelay‘s million-sales success, but Beck cautions her. “That means they shipped platinum,” he says. “We still have to sell another 200,000.”
There’s little time for celebration, whether they hover around one million or not. Ambling over to the video set, Beck slinks behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce, which has been rented for the clip. As the crew sets up camera angles, he stares ahead blankly and waits for filming to begin. The concept of the “New Pollution” video is, he says, “a cross between McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Lawrence Welk Show.” Such pop-cult references reel constantly, casually, off his tongue. The original backdrop—vertical stripes—was changed because, he says, it was “too Dick Cavett.”
His work won’t end once the video shoot wraps. Two days later, he will continue his Odelay tour—a trek that began last summer—for another six months, with a stopover in New York for the Grammy ceremony. In what is news to Geffen executives, he also talks of releasing an album this year, devoted to his folk and country sides. “Stylistic consistency isn’t really my forte,” he cracks.
The assistant director yells “action,” and the crew makes the Beckmobile bob up and down—too much so, though, for a Rolls. “It’s got to be a smooth ride,” Beck instructs quietly from inside the car. With or without a Grammy, Beck’s own route looks pretty smooth itself and as wide open as a freshly paved highway.