By Staff on June 11, 2012
Autumn de Wilde
2012 marks FILTER Magazine’s tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.
Below you will find Issue #14’s cover story, in full, where we documented the life of Los Angeles-native, Beck, and spoke of mixing genres and giving the finger to the corporate music institution.
Beck City (Issue 14, Winter 2005)
By Mike Jollett
Photography by Autumn de Wilde
Boulevard of Broken Themes
It’s an overcast day somewhere in the maze of circuitous streets and labyrinthine neighborhoods that bend and twist through the gridlock maze of Los Angeles, as if toyed with by the hand of a drunken God. Beck Hansen is walking down the block somewhere in the middle of it, his wiry frame silhouetted—even on the tiny avenue—by the rampant inconsistency of L.A. sprawl: behind him sits an English cottage, a coffee shop, a row of bungalow houses, and a one-story industrial warehouse overrun with black and red graffiti. With his jangly shuffle, his quiet, unassuming demeanor, his nearly non-existent eyebrows, he looks for all the world like a blank canvas upon which the city has painted its maddening culture.
He is four miles southwest of Silver Lake, the bohemian enclave where he currently lives, fives miles west of the Salvadorian ghetto where he grew up, eight miles from South Central L.A., two miles from Koreatown, three miles from Little Ethiopia and one mile from Hollywood. You could say he’s in the center of the city, if L.A. was a city with a center. But it’s not. Los Angeles is three cities—a post-Dust Bowl, white Midwestern town, a gutted black industrial town, and an old Mexican sea town. It’s five cities. It’s ten. It’s the home of the largest Iranian population outside of Tehran, the largest Armenian population outside of Yerevan, the fastest-growing southeast Asian immigrant population in the Western Hemisphere—a symbol of globalism, multi-culturalism, fractures, fissures, balkanized neighborhoods all butting up against themselves, mixed together in a kind of civic stew. Gift shops in Chinatown sell statues of fake jade that depict the Virgin of Guadalupe, while corner drugstores in East L.A. sell medicinal artifacts of the Afro-Cuban religion, Santeria. It’s all a bit out of control, this enormous amorphic mass of people and cars and buildings and concrete—and in reality, nothing like that tiny silver (500,000 people, at most) of Hollywood glitterati from whom so many people get their ideas about L.A. That sliver of silicon is dwarfed by the undulating mass of 14 million people that make up the greater L.A. area. Fourteen million people from everywhere else, creating culture and consuming culture and pressing forward, ever outward on the brink of the frenzied future that awaits every other metropolis in the world. It’s a border city. It’s a postmodern city. And Beck Hansen is perfectly at home here.
Oh sure, I know: “The postmodernist take on Beck.” You know, “hip-hop, jazz, tropicalia, urban folk, R&B”—the idea of Beck as the pop avatar of collage art. Been done. The part about a stream of disembodied conscience giving voice to the idea of creating new from combinations of old. Andy Warhol’s wet dream. The thing where you jump around in different voices, different tenses, different perspectives talking about “hermeneutics” and “semiotics” and turntables and fusion in the slapdash attempt to allow your medium to be the message, to merge subject with object. Done. Done. Done.
But there are some who say that postmodernism ended on September 11th. And that’s Beck’s brilliant dalliance with it (he was always the poster boy of our late 20th Century-pop-media culture) ended with his last album Sea Change (2002). It was, after all, an appropriate response for a guy who’s always been something of a cultural barometer. September 11th was like this great cosmic timeout from all of our ironies and pedigrees, lost as we were in our agonies and our tragedies. So there was Beck, making this amazing, soul-wrenching folk record about a painful break up with his longtime girlfriend. It made sense. A personal narrative emerging from all these deconstructed meta-narratives at a time when it seemed every big idea America had about itself was crumbling. But now it’s two years later and we’re still here. The media’s still here. And we’re still inundated with the ceaseless TV, sound bytes, pundits, websites, Fox News merging fact with fiction (a triumph of moral-relativism if ever there was one) that led us to our fragmented mental world to begin with. And Beck is back with a new album and no, it’s not more soul-wrenching ballads (though it is undeniably soulful). Instead it’s a return to the broad eclectic palette of song styling (some hip-hop beats, some electronic beats, some songs that sound like the soundtrack to a late-night strut through the strip malls of Culver City) that made him our avatar, our metaphor, our symbol in the first place. As a general rule, wherever Beck goes, so we go (caught in the early ‘90s notion of Generation X slackerdom, late ‘90s ideas of fusion or post September 11th soul-searching). So if Beck’s up to his old tricks again, does that mean game-on? Is the time-out over? Can we now proceed to become detached again?
Look at him. He’s walking into a low-slung office off Melrose (where we’ve agreed to meet for the interview) in green cargo pants, checkered Vans, two T-shirts and a wool military jacket. He’s got ice-blue baby eyes and a button of a chin and, seriously, no eyebrows. Look at the picture on the page, right there. Look at the angelic face of that 34-year-old musician/technician/scribe who still can’t grow a full beard. The guy is begging for projection. So let’s project.
Let’s imagine him at age 16 as this folk scribe, high school drop-out that wanders the streets of Downtown L.A. with a guitar on his back, surrounded by all that frenzied humanity pushing shopping carts, and eating from taco stands, playing Kool Moe Dee on ghetto-blasters, blasting ranchero music from the back of lowered El Caminos with a Mexican flag on the bumper. Let’s watch him as he stands on stage between rock sets in half-empty rooms singing Woodie Guthrie covers on a pogo stick with a storm-trooper helmet on—the son of David Campbell (a popular string arranger who worked with everyone from Jackson Brown to Aerosmith), the son of Bibbe Hansen (a product of Warhol’s Factory scene who starred in a Warhol flick [Prison] at age 13 opposite Edie Sedgwick, the grandson of Al Hansen (a contemporary and close friend of John and Yoko who hung with everybody in the late ‘60s, suggested the name “Velvet Underground” to a guy managing a Lou Reed band called “Falling Spikes,” championed the Fluxus art movement, wrote a must-read on the Happenings scene in 1965 called A Primer of Happenings and Time/Space Art, and spent 30 years making “Venus of Willendorf” [a prehistoric fertility icon] figures out of cigarette butts, candy wrappers and whatever other detritus happened to b e laying around). And let’s just think of our young Beck, the product of all that nonconformity, that freely expressive environment as a sponge or a canvas or a collector of scraps of culture. He is quite literally the son of postmodernism. So let’s see him walking the streets of our city that borders the future, talking all that culture home and merging it into something intelligent and fun and rhythmic and familiar and new. let’s seriously watch him breathe in our culture (as we mix metaphors) and breathe out something new from something old. And let’s not pretend that an artist like Beck could have existed 50 years ago. And, where the rubber meets the road let’s just come out and say it: Beck is as tied to the ideas, music, attitudes and style of Los Angeles as any artist has ever been to any city.
“I don’t have a perspective on it,” he says, taking a bite of a chicken burrito while his fingers tap the desk in the middle of a small room in the back of that office off Melrose in the middle of that unending sprawl. He chews for a moment, then proceeds to contradict himself, showing, instead, that he does, indeed, have quite a bit of perspective on it. “I completely take for granted what I’ve grown up around, as I think everybody does. I have such a fondness for the Armenian neighborhood and the Korean neighborhood, Monterey Park where there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese straight from Hong Kong, Guatemalan neighborhoods... I have a connection with that, even as an outsider. It’s something nostalgic for me.”
He picks up a tortilla chip, studying it in his hand, seeming to consider its shape, wondering what to do next. His voice is just above a whisper and, yes, he holds his thoughts rather the way he holds that chip: considering each one slowly as if to glean some sort of insight, some sort of deeper knowledge of its origin—then dips it in guacamole.
“Something typical of the neighborhood I lived in would be a store that was a butcher, but they also sold cassette tapes and somebody in the back would do your income taxes. That’s a certain mentality that’s just fluid. It’s open. I think that’s a big aspect of how I see music-making. And there was a time, maybe when I was younger, where I wished everything were just one thing or sort of a normal, what-you-see-on-TV- kind of thing. I remember going to London and seeing all these row houses and there was a certain uniformity that said ‘This is London,’ ‘This is England’ and there’s nothing like that in L.A. It’s just this amazing collision—complete randomness—and you eventually just embrace it. Even across the street from where we are right now, there’s this amazing English cottage right next to an industrial building with graffiti all over the front.”
“I went down to record street sounds from this neighborhood I grew up in. Because the song felt kind of empty. In the song, I was talking about all these impressions from the neighborhood—just snapshots—so we went down there and one of the things on the recording was, sure enough, this guy yelling from across the park, ‘Eh, guero!! Que honda?’”
“Guero” (pronounced “wear-o”) means “white boy” in Spanish. Beck is talking about a song on his new album by that very name, an exceptionally Beckish rap/speak piece of ear candy that has all the makings of a big hit and may introduce a new word into the mainstream American lexicon. Twenty years from now etymologists will probably trace the word to him, but it’s been common slang in East L.A. for a long time now, a sort of affectionate namesake for the Anglo outsider in the barrio. Beck has always been something of an outsider. Unlike, say, Eminem, he’s never really tried to co-opt Latino or African-American culture. He openly admits that he’s the worst rapper he’s ever heard (that idea is in fact what inspired the famous chorus to his 1993 break-out hit “Loser” from his first major release, Mellow Gold: “Soy un perdidor” means “I’m a loser,” which is exactly what he vamped in the studio after hearing himself rap). He sings R&B like it’s karaoke, and of course part of the charm of a song like “Debra” (from his 1998 tropicalia, neo-soul record Midnite Vultures) is its simultaneous parody and celebration of over-sexed rhythm and blues. How could you not be entranced by this skinny, blonde white boy in a crushed velvet suit putting on his best falsetto croon and singing, “I want to get with you/Ohhhh yeah/Just you.../and your sister/I think her name’s Debra”? It’s like the best talent show skit ever.
The thing is, it’s also a good song. Something Prince might have sung in a moment of levity. But Beck is always honest, unafraid to be the one white boy in the room—whether he’s rapping or playing funk or mispronouncing Spanish—who just doesn’t care that he’s the one white boy in the room. The title of his second major release, Odelay (from 1996, which included “Where It’s At,” another half-slung homage to white guy nerdery) is actually misappropriation of the Spanish term “Orale” (meaning, essentially, “I hear you”) which was left in its misspelled form after an engineer wrote it that way on a studio master. Beck left it in its improper spelling because he liked the way it sounded—as if to imply that it’s all farce and it’s all fantasy and it’s all art, so let’s just dispense with the posturing, put a lampshade on our heads and get crazy with the cheese whiz.
“Guero” has the potential to be a crossover hit, something you might hear on an actual hip-hop station. This used to be a goal of Beck’s, a territory he wanted to call home in the late ‘90s.
“I’d meet some of the DJs from those stations,” he says. “And they were so friendly and into what I was doing, and sometimes they would say, ‘When are you going to do something we can play?’ But I think I gave up on that notion years ago. There is so much emphasis placed in hip-hop on being ‘real’ hip-hop and having certain skills, a certain flow, which I never pretended to embody or pursue.”
Though Beck has always been loosely tied (rather hamfistedly) to indie rock, much of his music is more spiritually related to, say, OutKast than to Pavement. In fact, OutKast is probably the closest thing to Beck on the radio. It’s as if they are two cars speeding toward each other from opposite directions. Beck, the indie(ish) folk troubadour experimenting with the rhythmic and melodic sing/speak of hip-hop OutKast, the southern new school rhyme-sayers experimenting with the irony, wit, artistry and melodies of indie rock. “Those OutKast records are amazing,” Beck says, in a moment of pure reverence. He shakes his head, “I felt like the last few records defined something that I was trying to get to, something that they just nailed. Maybe there’s less of a need for me to even attempt anything like that when they just do it so well.”
But respect for OutKast aside, it is actually a rather unconvincing argument. Because Beck does it well too and for his new record he seems content to let the folk of Sea Change be Sea Change—in the classic Beck Theory of Album Vacillation (which states that he follows every oddball party record with a more earnest one)—and return to his entire genre-defying songwriting arsenal. He’s teamed up once again with the Dust Brothers (John King and Mike Simpson who produced Odelay, as well as Tone-Loc’s “Wild Thing,” the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and various tracks and albums with everyone from the Rolling Stones to A Tribe Called Quest). The result is an album that sounds like a musical revue of all his earlier styles. “This time there wasn’t a lot of criteria,” he says. “Other than it was with the Dust Brothers. The idea was just to go in and keep things as stripped back and simple as possible. And just let whatever comes out, come out. And not judge it or say, ‘Oh we’ve done that before’ or “‘Oh, that’s not really cool.’”
Songs like “Hell Yes,” “E-Pro,” “Guero” and “Go It Alone” (on which Jack White plays bass) would have been perfectly at home on Odelay as they bump along between stream-of-consciousness lyrical refrains and hip-hop breakdowns, fusing all the elements of verse and beats that Beck has always fused so well. In a mind-numbing feat of genre defiance, “Scarecrow” actually sounds like a Tom Waits song with the bass-line from “Billie Jean.” “Black Tambourine” is very much like the Prince song “Tambourine” and could have easily snuck into the neo-soul of Midnight Vultures. And then there’s “Broken Drum,” the one song on the record that the Dust Brothers didn’t touch. It has all the mood and vulnerability of a Sea Change song (without the help of Nigel Godrich, who produced that record). “One by one, we’ll shoot our guns,” Beck sings in that now-mature, sad baritone of his, over a mechanized drum beat and one of the loveliest piano-in-a-well sounds ever put on record, while a “Three Days”-era Jane’s Addiction guitar echoes in the background. It’s haunting. It’s catchy. It’s like Gram Parsons meets Alan Parsons on a spaceship bound for the sun.
“We don’t really talk about what we’re doing that much, when I’m working with the Dust Brothers,” he says, nearly finished with the burrito, sitting back in his chair. “We just get in there and see what happens and try not to over-think anything.” And it’s true: there is a sense throughout the album (despite all present evidence to the contrary) that it’s music not really meant to be thought about too much—something to be enjoyed. “That’s one of my criteria: does it feel good? There’s a certain value in that—just getting pleasure from hearing something. That’s why you see people breaking down the rigidity of their opinions about what’s cool music and what isn’t. You know, this band and that band are cool and this other band is totally cheesy. I always wanted to sidestep that and do what felt good, even if later I thought it was bad.”
Beck has never been particularly self-possessed. And his as-of-yet untitled new record is something of a coming of age, mixing the, um mixing of his ‘90s albums with the bare honesty of Sea Change. That seems to be a contemporary project for all of us as we collectively mix the heady changed of the last four years (terrorist attacks, an unfounded presidency followed by its unbelievable triumph in the latest election, dire circumstances in tow) with the now familiar media saturation of the ‘90s, trying to make sense of our loss of believable meta-narratives (in post-modern speak: the loss of belief in the order of science, religion, nationalism) with personal narratives in an attempt to create order out of the chaos around us. There’s a line to be drawn from Bright Eyes to David Sedaris, from, hell, Dave Eggars to the rise of subjectivity in journalism. And that line is all about the power of basic honesty in a world so fraught with bombastically produced, art-directed messages that have an agenda.
“Most of the stuff you hear is the first take,” Beck says of his new record. “I would keep writing or changing lyrics and in a lot of instances the Dust Brothers would say, ‘No, those rough ones you did the first night were the best.’ To me, it sounds wrong or I know I could do better, but I think it’s important to recognize when it feels right as opposed to when it’s exactly how it should be. Because there’s a certain unfinishedness that is personal and invites you in.”
It’s not as if that’s the only way to write a song or tell a story. It’s just that in a world where every poster, billboard, pop-up ad, telemarketer, infomercial and politician is trying to sell you something, there’s a real power to things that feel as if they’re not. “When something’s so perfect,” the angel-headed hipster says, staring off into space, it can cancel itself out.”
Performance, Art Among Mass, Media
“Sometimes I wonder if we really know how much of a presence it is.” Beck stands and stares at the poster on the wall, then looks around the room at the computer, the phone, the television. There’s a photo shoot with the Mars Volta going on in the next room and another journalist waiting to interview him. His publicist waits in the lobby and the city (the home of mass-media after all, another indelible characteristc of Los Angeles’ symbology) swells around him, a symphonic wave of wi-fi signals and cell phone transmissions. He’s talking about all that static and white noise. All that consumerism and message. Internet, television—all of the things that we take for granted, that even in their most basic form, would have overwhelmed your average caveman. “If you could just take it away for 10 minutes [he snaps his fingers] that’s when we’d notice what a presence it is—because the absence would be so gaping. It would be just like a black-out where you sit there and you feel your body relax and your shoulders fall down.”
It is ironic that Beck, the most culturally literature, culturally diverse pop musician of our generation—who reveled in, toyed with, celebrated and subverted so many ideas about genre and multimedia—is hellbent on revealing its superficiality. No, no, not ironic. It’s charming. It’s endearing. He was never a “Loser”—just a guy messing with ideas about slackerdom. Never a witty soul-singer, just a guy with wit and soul trying to sing. Sometimes a joke is dead serious. And though he’s half-smiling, one gets the sense that he takes all of this very seriously. “I feel like, early on, there were a few attempts made to try to throw something random out there that would make you look a little sideways, make you think that it’s not just regurgitation of pre-programed content. Something it can backfire. I got a bit of a tag of being ‘wacky’ or something. But it was always a bit of an attempt to somehow subvert, or just do something weird that would make somebody wonder what they just saw.”
And sure, it’s a wacky thing to do, but there is some real subversiveness to his wackiness. I mean, postmodernism is essentially an attempt to deconstruct meaning and form, to sweep away the artist, the craft and expose the artifice beneath (the artificial as artificial). And as a theory, it’s essentially self-defeating, because you’re basically defining a theory by saying that theories are bullshit. It’s an inherent contradiction that one must be hyper-rational in order to create a math equation to prove that math doesn’t work. Or using mass media to prove that mass media is poppycock. But Beck pulls it off. There are heavy tomes and deep, abstruse philosophical discussions about how the idea relates to art, architecture, music, media, anthropology, science—but they all basically boil down to an attitude that can be seen in any pimply indie kid in a hoody singing along at a Beck show, thinking: “Jesus, there is a lot of shit out there and I have no idea what to believe. So I believe nothing. Or I believe pieces of things. And if there is any meaning, it’s personal... so, like, whatever man, let’s be wacky.”
“We did the American Music Awards, like five years ago.” Beck Hansen leans forward in his chair, his face lit up, and tells the story of his favorite moment, a moment which seems to capture something about the odd forces which drive him. “And you know, it was like, Garth Brooks sitting in the front row and ‘N Sync was there with Lenny Kravitz.” He’d been told that he could sing but that his band couldn’t play—which he found ridiculous. They’d choreographed the whole thing with the producer during sound check: when they were going to cut to the horn, when they were going to cut to the guitar—so all of the TV shots were already in the queue. “So before we went on I told various members of the band to do various things, almost as if it was an art action performance where the performers are given a prescribed series of procedures and things to enact, but the rest of it’s kind of random and dictated by chance.” The producers were unaware of the changes and when Beck came on with his band, mayhem ensued as the cameras cut around to find the drummer in a turtle neck sweater and a ski mask, playing his cymbals with his hand. The horn section was in the audience doing sit-ups.
“So the music kept going—because they wouldn’t let us play live—they cut to the horns and there were literally three empty mike stands—which was amazing. You know, ABC primetime Tuesday night, cut to the horn section—and there was nobody there. And that to me just represented the whole phantom behind the veneer of the whole thing. There’s all this movement and action and cool looking stuff and girls and cars and God-know-what—but there’s nobody there.
“I remember at the end, we were sort of whisked away and nobody said anything. I saw it later, and what had happened on the broadcast and within the first 30 or 40 seconds they realized that all hell had broken loose and half the band was in the audience and the rest were just kind of crawling around on stage.”
He laughs, his mind momentarily occupied by the farce, by the playground called “culture” that he inherited, suffered through, reveled in, toyed with—then wrapped up in a big bow and gave back to us. “So they just cut to my face,” he says, a bit giddy. “A tight close-up of my face for the rest of the song. But just by my left earlobe, just on the side there, you could see somebody doing jumping jacks or running across the stage with an umbrella. It was just enough to make you feel like the universe, the real universe behind the television, was somehow winking at you.” F