Beck & Roger Manning: "set your guitars and banjos on fire."
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The acoustic guitar has a way of winding up in subversive hands. From
Depression-era union rabble-rousers to the '60s protest singers, the hollow box has
always encouraged and accompanied free speech and radical views. The '90s have
their own group of steel-string dissidents, imaginative, confrontational
performers like Ani DiFranco, Roger Manning, and Beck, who take their cues
more from punk's do-it-yourself iconoclasm than the gentility of much contemporary
folk. Ironically, many of these songwriters are deeply in touch with traditional folk, blues, and even bluegrass roots.
"Set your guitars and banjos on fire," advises Beck Hansen, "and before you write a song, smoke a pack of whiskey and it'll all take care of itself"
At 23, the irreverent Beck is the new darling of modern rock, his sudden
high profile largely the result of his smash hit "Loser," a clever, instantly
memorable blend of gutbucket acoustic slide, twangy sitar, and a funky drum loop, over which Beck "raps" a post-beatnik puzzle-poem with references
to "dogfood skulls and beefcake pantyhose."
In addition to his Geffen debut LP, Mellow Gold, the prolific songster has released the stripped-down, bluesy One Foot In The Grave on K Records
and the noisy Stereopathic Astromanure on Flipside - his unique contract
with Geffen allows independent, outside projects. And though his loopy sense of humor, punk spirit, and ragged eclecticism may suggest a musical
naif, don't be fooled; from Blind Willie Johnson, Leadbelly, and Sonny Terry (Beck blows a mean harp) to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family,
Beck knows his stuff.
In 1989, Beck, the son of a music arranger father and an artist/musician mother, moved to New York City, where he lived on a shoestring and
eventually hooked up with the burgeoning "anti-folk" scene, a loose posse of
acoustic musicians - including Cindy Lee Berryhill, Kirk Kelley, Paleface, and Lach
- whose raggedness and eccentricity placed them well outside the acoustic
mainstream. ("The whole folk scene is way too holy," shrugs Beck.) Roger
Manning, their defacto spiritual leader, was just releasing his debut album
on SST (he has since released a second LP on Shimmy Disc) when Beck arrived,
and the two frequently crossed paths at the Lower East Side's Chameleon bar open-mike night and at casual all-night jams in Tompkins Square Park.
"It was like seeing the ghost of Woody Guthrie," Manning recalls of Beck's
first shows, at which he played mostly Guthrie and Mississippi John Hurt
songs. Manning, also deeply influenced by Guthrie, is steeped in the bluegrass
of Del McCoury, the Johnson Mountain Boys, and Bill Monroe, but like Beck,
he finds subverting and recombining his influences more enjoyable than aping them. "The whole mission was to destroy all the cliches and make
up some new ones," says Beck of his New York years. "Everybody knew each
other. You could go up onstage and say anything, and you wouldn't feel weird or feel any pressure." Inspired by that freedom and by the
brash realism of Manhattans spoken-word performers, Beck began to pen songs
about pizza, MTV, and working in a McDonalds, allowing even the most apparently
mundane thoughts to become songs. It's a free-associative urge shared by
Manning, who, though less surrealistic than Beck, addresses sex and politics
with equal directness and lack of pretense: "People think lyrics have to
be poeticized and formal," Manning says. "My lyrics are the way I talk;
if I wouldn't use a word in a conversation, I won't use it in a song."
"I just let whatever comes out, come out," agrees Beck. "Some of it I keep, some I toss out, some I turn into giant cigarettes and smoke
'em. Everybody's got their own songs too. Everybody should turn off their TV
machines and make up their own songs about whatever comes to mind: their
couch, their friends, their loaves of bread. There should be so many songs
out there that it all turns into one big sound, and we can put the whole
thing into a pickup truck and let it roll off the edge of the Grand Canyon."
As he told the Los Angeles Times, "It's not such a holy thing. Y'know, eat a burrito, write a song." Also an adherent of the
write-about-what-you-know school, Manning has described his songs as movies. "The words are the movie,
and the music is the soundtrack," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "They're true movies about things that really happened, because life is
the best story there is."
Neither artist belabors craft; both feel comfortable releasing material
with relatively crude production. Manning's first album was recorded on a home four-track, and Beck's "Loser" was recorded on 8, track in an afternoon;
the engineer made a loop of Beck's slide part, grafted it to a hip hop beat, and Beck scribbled down some stream-of-conciousness lyrics.
Whammo. It's unlikely that he'll get any more methodical. When BAM magazine asked
Beck about his writing process, he joked, "I open up a big cabinet, and
I have a collection of helmets. I put on the different helmets, and I take
three bottles of Robitussin and drink them really quickly. Then I set my
hand on fire - I have to write down whatever comes to mind pretty fast,
before my hand burns off."
Though Beck often uses a Silvertone acoustic, both he and Manning generally
play no-name acoustics - Manning swears by "good-quality plywood guitars"
- and adorn their axes with various stickers: Beck has a classic seventh-grade
schoolgirl's unicorn-and-rainbow sticker on his Telecaster, and like Manning,
affixes an upside-down American flag decal to his acoustic, as well as a hilarious
"Jazzercise" sticker. Insignificant, you say.? "It's taking your guitar as a tool," explains Beck. "It's not some priceless object.
It's something you're supposed to make noise on." Manning, who runs his acoustics through an EQ and preamp for extra bass and more than a touch
of distortion, agrees: "It's a very liberating thing. It's not, 'Oh, be
careful of that, it's fragile.'"
Fragile they ain't. But that lack of preciousness is part of what makes both songwriters' work so refreshing. To keep things vital, Beck suggests
following any and all avenues to songwriting inspiration: "A good word of advice is, if the guitar doesn't work out, bust out the Casio and put
it on auto-pilot. You'll have a good jam going, anyway. Or go to Radio Shack and pick up a Karaoke. It's all music."