Beck In The Saddle Again
Published Oct 01, 2002In the mid-90s, an unsuspecting punk folkie with a broad-based musical love of country-time blues, rap, mariachi, and Kraftwerk helped remind us all that music could be exciting again, that it hasn't all been done before. Mellow Gold and Odelay put Beck on the map, but the 32-year-old has been spreading the gospel of his open-minded musical approach since his days of burning guitars in the coffee shops of Los Angeles and busking in the streets of New York. And he's accomplished this by simply playing us what he likes, whatever his muse is hearing. A unique and important creator on the pop music landscape, his fascination with all music has always been boundary-less and his ability to make those sounds refreshingly, well, Beck-like near boundless. Perhaps the next generation's Bowie, though from One Foot in the Grave to Midnite Vultures, Beck has been more about channelling the multitude of sounds that inspire him than being a conscious chameleon. He's continuing to surprise fans with his latest, the mature, focused song cycle, Sea Change, though he assures us that we haven't heard it all from the complicated artist. The album that reveals the "real" Beck? "I don't think I've made it yet," he teases.
David Campbell, the son of a Winnipeg minister, is born in Toronto. He goes on to make a living playing bluegrass strings and moves around to Seattle, New York, and eventually Los Angeles, where he meets and marries Bibbe Hansen. Bibbe is the daughter of Fluxus artist Al Hansen, and Al and his daughter spend a brief period of time hanging out at Andy Warhol's Factory when Bibbe is in her young teens. Their attitude to their involvement in the early Factory ('64 to 65) is apparently nonchalant. "Y'know, that's just what was going on at the time," says Bibbe's son Beck. "It's not like my mom talked about the Factory and Warhol that much; it's just that we found the Velvet Underground records and started asking about them." Occasional on-camera appearances with scenesters like Edie Sedgewick help solidify the bohemian mythology of Beck's maternal background.
Bek David Campbell is born on July 8 in Los Angeles. After Bibbe and David split, Beck and younger brother Channing continue their childhood in the presence of his mother's friends in the Los Angeles bohemian community. Beck remembers a childhood surrounded by open-minded individuals. "It was just being around people who were interested in things, in life. It wasn't passive. It was a family where you could sit and talk about history or film or politics for five hours. That environment is pretty rare." It was also conducive to his personal creativity. "I was encouraged to be curious," he says. "If I had an interest in something, there was nobody telling me no, don't do that, that's stupid.' It was ok to explore."
At the age of 14, Beck drops out of the inner city public school system, discouraged by the apathy there. "I wanted to go to school. I liked school. I actually tried to get into one of those performing arts high schools and they wouldn't let me in. I was so distraught. So I just did it on my own." He self-educates by voraciously reading, watching French New Wave films, and listening to old blues and country records scrounged from the library and yard sale bargain bins. The sounds of Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, and Woodie Guthrie leave an indelible imprint on young Beck. Early hip-hop and rhythms from Latino neighbourhoods are also sources of inspiration.
Beck is flown to Germany by his grandfather for a visit, where their relationship is reinforced and Al Hansen teaches him about his artistic background. Grandfather Al's interaction with the Pop Art scene was one group with whom he created, "But he was a part of all scenes. Actually, he had his own scene going on," Beck qualifies. It's open to interpretation whether or not the elder Hansen's free-form collage art has a direct influence on the younger's, yet there remains the general influence of various art movements. "I get more inspired by going to a gallery than listening to a CD," Beck admits.
After drifting from odd job to odder job, the teenage Beck gets bitten by the wanderlust bug and decides to make an extended cross-country trip to New York. Armed with a $30 Greyhound ticket, a girlfriend, and his guitar, he embarks on a long journey through the heartland of America that ends up being less romantically Kerouacian than it would seem, dotted with threats of throat slitting and tiresome hitchhiking. Once in New York, his girlfriend ditches him, and his lack of funds means plenty of busking and couch surfing. Yet his time in the Big Apple proves fruitful; he stumbles across the still embryonic anti-folk scene, where he fits right in with the likes of John S. Hall of King Missile, Michelle Shocked, and Roger Manning. Their lively, punk-influenced yet reverential approach to folk sparks Beck's creativity, and he makes his first recording, Banjo Story.
Beck returns to L.A. musically inspired but penniless. He hops from one shoddy boarding house to another and goes through a series of soul sucking day jobs (painter, video store clerk, hot dog vendor, leaf blower). His hunt for night gigs is relentless and the small venues diverse. Everywhere from all-ages punk clubs to coffee houses let Beck onto their stages, no matter how confused they are by his blend of folk, hip-hop, blues, mariachi and country, melded with bizarre stage antics (wearing Star Wars stormtroopers masks, setting fire to guitars). He performs regularly at Highland Grounds and the Troy Café, co-owed by his mother. Bibbe also runs a vintage clothing store, where Beck meets Leigh Limon, his soon-to-be girlfriend of nine years and stylist of his stage outfits. This time is also spent bonding with those in the L.A. music scene: Carla Bozulich of the Geraldine Fibbers and Ethyl Meatplow, and Martha Atwell (with whom he has a short-lived Carter Family/Louvin Brothers cover band called Ten Ton Lid). He meets Joey Waronker, his future long-time drummer and brother of That Dog's Anna Waronker. Despite these like-minded individuals and occasional shows, his discouragement is inevitable. "I had so many years of just being rejected or people just not interested in what I was doing; people passing on stuff, people having my music and not putting it out."
Rob Schnapf of the small, local label Bong Load Custom Records drops by the Sunset Junction Street Fair while Beck is performing and is intrigued. About a week later, Schnapf's partner Tom Rothrock independently checks out a show at the Jabberjaw coffee club where Beck happens to hijack the stage in between billed bands. He sees the same potential in Beck's battered guitar and tattered rags. Rothrock introduces Beck to Carl Stephenson, a producer for the Geto Boys and head of the diverse musical project Forest For the Trees. They share a fascination with a possible hip-hop/folk hybrid and hit it off over several brainstorming sessions. One day Beck starts rapping a sarcastic jibe at slackers with a Spanish chorus. One Dr. John sample and a slide guitar riff later, and an unlikely anthem is unintentionally born. It's forgotten about for roughly a year.
Recording continues with Carl Stephenson on Mellow Gold tracks. Flipside Records releases "MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack" (later to appear as a B-side to the "Loser" single).
A very limited edition cassette, Golden Feelings, is put out by the tiny Sonic Enemy label in January. Bong Load finally presses 500 copies of "Loser" and distributes them to a small number of radio DJs across the U.S. The label is overwhelmed with requests for more pressings. "Loser" fever begins. Somehow the tune strikes a chord with those who identify themselves with Gen-X slackerdom and Beck is soon crowned as spokesperson for the nation's malaise. The irony of this label is glaring; Beck, whose less-than-comfortable socio-economic status and creative ambitions never allowed him to be lazy, explains in interviews that he's actually poking fun at those who are. Beck's popularity skyrockets, and courting by a slew of major labels begins. Beck agrees to sign with Geffen in November, on the condition that his contract allows him freedom to release work on independent labels and to make "uncommercial" music. He finishes Mellow Gold by August, yet label negotiations and haggling stall the release. By the end of the year, Beck begins work with Calvin Johnson and Scott Plouf (later of Built To Spill) and produces an unreleased mix tape for his mother's birthday (Fresh Meat And Old Slabs).
Geffen finally releases Mellow Gold in March. Bong Load is given the rights to put out the record on vinyl, but the consolation-prize nature of the compromise is the beginning of years-long tug of war between labels. Reaction to Mellow Gold is overall positive, and the diversity of the album helps eradicate the idea of Beck as a one-trick-pony. Nonetheless, the "slacker" label persists. The album's somewhat hallucinatory lyrics lead some to question the influence of drugs on his work, which Beck sometimes skirts and other times ambiguously refutes. This year sees the release of three other Beck full-lengths. Stereopathetic Soul Manure is released in February on Flipside, and its hodge-podge of recorded impromptu street performance and hallucinatory comedic narratives gets a confused, lukewarm response at the time. Fingerpaint Records puts out a 2000-pressing ten-inch vinyl, all with original artwork, called Western Harvest Field By Moonlight. Finally, the more "traditionalist" One Foot in the Grave is released on Calvin Johnson's K Records. With his fan base growing exponentially, Beck remains sceptical about the speed of his new-found fame. "I just mistrusted; I didn't take it seriously," he reflects. "I said Uh-huh, they'll be on to something else in two months.'"
Beck performs his first large stadium show at Lollapalooza and has an altogether horrible time. He tests out material from his forthcoming album and it falls flat; the sea of unenthusiastic response to his non-"Loser" work is discouraging. Beck is accompanied on the Lollapalooza blitz and other dates by bassist Abby Travis (later to spend some brief time in Elastica), guitarist Sunny Reinhart, and childhood pal Mike Bioto on keyboards. Grandfather Al passes away while Beck is on tour this summer. Beck meets the Dust Brothers (John King, Mike Simpson), and they begin loosely recording the sounds of Odelay. The non-hierarchical structure and undefined roles lead to the creation of Beck's careful blending of sounds from various genres (including some Schubert). During recording, there is apparently a horrid response from everyone to the mixing of "oil and water" elements. "At the time I had people like Rick Rubin coming by telling me not to put it out, that it was a mistake, that the record wasn't good," Beck remembers. "I had nobody I knew saying that it was a great record, nothing that gave me any idea that people were going to like it. So I resigned myself that it was going to be just an interesting footnote. I was working in a vacuum in that way."
Beck ignores the outside criticism and wraps up Odelay. It's released in June, along with the single "Where It's At." The album enters the charts at #16, and it's lauded as a groundbreaking happy marriage of blues, rap, Casios, country, and pop, and Beck's trademark lyrics full of colourful, fragmented imagery match the sonic collage. Fanfare and a media juggernaut soon follow, with both Spin and Rolling Stone bestowing him with "Artist of the Year" and "Album of the Year" accolades. "That was the first time I had some huge acknowledgement and acceptance, but it was totally unexpected," Beck says. A few naysayers dismiss Odelay as unfocused pastiche, yet unlike with the intentional irony of "Loser," Beck maintains that the eclectic grab-bag of sounds is nothing but a sincere representation of his diverse musical background. "That's the sound I always had in my head," he explains, "so I guess it gives something that feels like my life." The Odelay tour is full of showmanship and flash, complete with costume changes (from rhinestone cowboy to seafaring sailor in one set) and robot-popping dance moves. Beck gives continual props onstage to his newest band line-up: guitarist Greg "Smokey" Hormel (nicknamed "Smokestack"), bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Theo Mondle (dubbed "Hounddog"), and drummer Waronker ("Showboat").
Beck wins two Grammys for Best Alternative Music Performance (Odelay) and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance ("Where It's At"), a Brit Award for Best International Male, a MTV Video Award, and a VH1 Fashion Award. In October, long-time drummer Joey Waronker splits his time between Beck's tour and the recently drummer-less R.E.M. Other changes to the line-up include keyboardist Roger Manning Jr. (christened "Shotgun") and the addition of DJ Swamp.
Without rest after a year-and-a-half long tour, Beck jumps into the famed Oceanway Studios (Beach Boys, Mamas and the Papas) with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. In a measly but intense two weeks they finish recording Mutations, and it's ready for release on Bong Load by June. Yet Geffen nabs it instead for November, striking again the compromise that Bong Load will release the vinyl. But the conflict over this helps fuel the animosity and tension between all three parties. Also, Geffen's parent company, Polygram, is bought by Universal and Beck is not happy with his new representation. Mutations quietly gathers acclaim. Composed mainly of years-old songs selected from his notebook by girlfriend Leigh, the album full of slow, melancholic ballads tinged with bossa-nova beats and sitars surprises many after the frenetic Odelay. It also surprises with its lyrical intimacy and heartfelt emotion, which help garner critical praise from those who see the album as closer to the "real" Beck. Mutations has the highest chart entry so far at #13.
A collective of anti-corporate activists/artists called "art mark" put out an unauthorised remix CD called Deconstructing Beck. With blatant and proud copyright infringement, their admitted conceptual intent is to critique and subvert "Beck the Product," not to make good-sounding remixes. Beck is not happy with this particular project. Though, as a musician who owes much of his success to sampling others' work, he generally encourages the democracy of sound, going so far as to hold remix contests online (as he later does with Midnite Vultures tracks). It's around this time that Beck realises the internet's potential: several shows are broadcast on the web, and weekly video updates are given on the site about work on the "official" follow up to Odelay. Production starts in January, yet computer glitches at the Dust Brothers studio and the Mutations hubbub temporarily stall recording.
Work progresses throughout the year on the new album, yet the beginning of the year sees Beck publicly focusing on his extra-musical interests, namely an exhibition of his and his late grandfather's artwork. "Playing With Matches" opens at Vancouver's Art Beatus Gallery in February and features much of Beck and Al's collage and mixed-media work, including the latter's famous cigarette butt sculptures (for which the young Beck apparently collected the raw materials). Also, he films his role in friend and video director Steve Hanft's feature-length movie, Southlander, about a quest to find a lost synthesiser. Beck plays himself in the early '90s a scruffy, pauper punk.
Beck also gets involved in a trio of lawsuits. His dissatisfaction with Geffen buying off Bong Load's rights to Mutations, as well as a general itch for more freedom, leads him to opt out of his contractual obligations, citing California's "Seven Year Rule," in which personal service contracts can only exist for that length of time. Both Geffen and Bong Load end up suing him for attempting to opt out of his obligations Geffen claims that he owes four more albums according to his contract. Beck slaps back with a counter-suit over copyright infringement for their release of Mutations and the money still owed to him for that album. Also, he requests $500,000 in damages from Bong Load; their agreement to be bought off for Mutations caused general hassle and meant his fulfilment of requirements to the small label is stalled. Meanwhile, he stays mysterious about the sound of the new album, describing it ambiguously in the press as "sexscapades in the biosphere" and "the fuschia album." Midnite Vultures is released in November; it's a funkadelic R&B jam dominated by dual themes of sex and food. "It was just one of those fantasies: What if Leonard Cohen got together with Rick James in '78? It would have been amazing!" Live shows successfully capture the album's over-the-top vibe. Sharing the stage with zebra-headed robots and red plush beds descending from the ceiling, Beck outdoes himself as a testifying preacher of carnal knowledge, being both smooth n' suave Prince and shaking n' shimmying James Brown. At one frantic show at Wembley Stadium, Justin's bass harshly wacks Beck in the hipbone, nearly putting him out of commission. He's again faced with some line-up changes in his band; Joey Waronker officially leaves after several years of juggling Beck with R.E.M., and Smokey Hormel also departs. Lyle Workman (who'd previously worked with Todd Rungren and Frank Black) takes over guitar, while Victor Indrizzo (Scott Weiland, Chris Cornell) fills in behind the skins.
Beck wins a Grammy for Best Alternative Performance for Mutations and, for the third year in a row, a Brit Award for Best International Male Artist. After a short break from touring, he plays a series of benefits and festivals, including the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund (with Patti Smith), the Sunset Free Clinic benefit (with Rufus Wainwright), Rock in Rio (with Britney and Iron Maiden), and a fundraiser for car crash-inflicted old friend Petra Haden of That Dog. He also breaks up with his long-time love Leigh in July. Rumours of her infidelity and his rebound fling with Winona Ryder fly, yet none are confirmed; Beck is, as usual, reticent about his personal life.
Beck busies himself with contributions to the new Air album, 10,000 Hz Legend ("The Vagabond" and "Don't Be Light"), the Moulin Rouge soundtrack (a cover of Bowie's "Diamond Dogs"), a Hank Williams tribute album ("Your Cheatin' Heart"), and Marianne Faithfull's 2002 album Kissin' Time.
Beck plays at February's Concert Artist's Rights, where he duets with Thom Yorke for a rendition of the Velvet Underground's "I'm Set Free." He's also a key player at a related January rally in Sacramento, along with Don Henley, Tom Morello, and Stevie Nicks. Yet-to-be-released recording with Dan the Automator and William Orbit takes place, and Hanft's Southlander is finally screened in select cities in June. Throughout the summer, Beck's web site reveals a song a week from the new album, Sea Change, which is released in late September. Consistently full of straight-forward melancholic ballads about heartache, it's somewhat of a reversion to his mellow folk and blues roots, with even less flair and sonic decoration than Mutations. (The album is again produced by Nigel Godrich.) It's a change that Beck claims is a conscious one. "The last record we were really trying to reinvent things, to do something totally new, see how much we could get away with, how far we could push things. And at the end I felt like, Ok, now I want to write some really simple, simple songs, some really direct, emotional songs.' That's closer to where I am every day. It's one of those records that has a lot of breathing room. There are certain records for me, like Joni Mitchell's Blue, where you just put it on and it's one mood that kinda washes over you. Not necessarily easy listening, put pretty and light, something you can decompress with. And I always wanted to make one of those kind of records."