The young man behind 'Loser' knows how to nurture a publicity buzz.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service 
April 1, 1994
Tom Moon

The prophet of the scavenger age has arrived. 

He's a small man with a boyish face who could be mistaken for a flower child. His name is Beck (last name: Hansen) and he's 23 years old. His last day job: clerking at a video store. 

Beck's instrument is as much the recording studio as the guitar. He's the latest to emerge from the hip-hop capital of Los Angeles, where, since the dawn of sampling, artists have used a collage approach to comment on the sensory-overload media assault known as life in the late 20th century.

But few have joined the debate with such anarchistic glee: To listen to Beck is to realize just how much useless trivia is crammed into one's brain. A blues-loving master of non sequitur, Beck is blessed with a folkie's verbosity and an encylopedic knowledge of '70s TV, a K-Tel frame of reference and a poet's eye for fault lines. 

It's a powerful combination and it's catapulting young Beck to the pinnacle of Generation X acclaim. You've no doubt heard his single "Loser,'' a folk/hip-hop anthem that's getting played on all kinds of radio. All by itself, the song's bilingual chorus _ "Soy un perdidor/I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me'' _ conveys the pathos of the age better than any 10 books on the slacker condition. 

Naturally, Beck thinks this assessment is a mite overblown. The soft-spoken musician, who grew up with his mother in L.A. and his maternal grandmother and Presbyterian minister grandfather in Kansas City, says his first musical experience was when he ran a vacuum cleaner through a guitar amplifier. He considers what he does not so much art as garbage reclamation. 

"It's like putting some really horrible nylon-polyester clothing on a beautiful statue,'' Beck said in his hotel recently during a break in the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. His voice, which on record is often electronically processed, is naturally deep and belies his waiflike appearance. 

His other grandfather is an artist who makes religious works from cigarette butts and toilet-paper rolls, Beck explained. It seemed logical to apply the same concept to sound. 

"He's taking ancient (images) and readdressing them with what he finds," said Beck, who the day before played with a full backing band for the first time. "That, it seems to me, is what art does best: taking garbage, and instead of getting depressed by it, making something you can stomp your foot to.'' 

While not all of Beck's debut, ``Mellow Gold'' (DGC), is foot-stompable, it is thought-provoking. With little regard for linear thought, Beck shuffles advertising catch-phrases and other artifacts of contemporary life into a recombinant testimonial, an intentionally obscure commentary on things we'd just as soon overlook. It's triumphantly anti-professional, idiot-savant music in which a heartfelt solo can be provided by kazoo as easily as guitar. Though he's somewhat minimalist as a songwriter, Beck clutters his tracks until they become a cavalcade of sonic tidbits: blues harmonica smashed against folk guitar, blasts of indeterminate dissonance wedged next to achingly pretty melodies. 

"Loser,'' originally released in March 1993 and containing a sample from Dr. John's New Orleans spiritual "Walk on Gilded Splinters,'' is the perfect anti-anthem _ a simple, self-mocking rallying cry supported by a near-generic, non-threatening hip-hop beat. It could have been the theme song for the slacker chronicle "Reality Bites,'' except that Beck disagrees with the movie's premise: "Reality doesn't bite, it nibbles, until you don't realize it's eaten the whole thing.'' 

Typically, Beck doesn't like all the attention the song has generated: "It's just a jam. I've been playing it for five years. It feels like somebody keeps putting the tape on rewind and you don't even know who turned the power on.'' 

There is, indeed, more to Beck than "Loser.'' The guitarist, who began playing at age 17 and names rock-guitar wizard Eugene Chadborne as his inspiration, calls his work ``audio plottings,'' and describes "Mellow Gold'' as "my idea of the K-Tel Satan record.'' Half-talking and half-singing, he presents himself as a postmodern troubadour, grabbing at any juxtaposition of images that can help him explain the current condition. When he proclaims, on "Beercan,'' that he's found something "better than love,'' it hardly matters what that thing might be: Just the prospect that this jaded soul might find something is enough. 

For Beck, even the most overworked cliche can take on new meaning. In conversation, he doesn't just say the L.A. smog is oppressive, he says it "microwaves your spirit.'' In song, he makes even greater leaps _ talking about termites and choking on the splinters, making the phrase "crazy with the Cheez Whiz'' sound sociologically significant. 

"It's never been a conscious effort to be weird,'' Beck said just after spending five minutes screaming into a toy microphone/beatbox. "But there's no point in saying something you don't have any feeling for. If you do use cliches, it's good to batter them around, cover them with feathers, put sirens on them and make their presence felt.'' 

An illustration: One Beck song that didn't make the record uses anti-drug rhetoric to comment, subversively, on MTV. Backed by the barest outline of a mournful blues, he confesses ``MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack.'' Other songs can be partially understood simply by their titles: "Soul Suckin' Jerk,'' "Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat),''  "Nitemare Hippy Girl.'' 

Beck says he wrote much of "Mellow Gold'' while in the studio: "I like to get the whole inspiration in one swoop. I'd write them right there, and that way the feel and the original energy you had writing it usually comes through.'' 

This extemporaneous approach wasn't just dictated by the project's shoestring budget _ it reflects Beck's philosophy about music: "All you need is five chords and you've got a song. You dump it into the compost heap, let it ferment, and sometimes you get something.'' 

A homemade-tapes enthusiast who for years distributed his music through an informal network of fans, Beck says that the album was recorded on four- and eight-track tape machines, a far cry from the 24-track method used by most major-label acts. 

"It causes you to be creative with what you have, and it humbles you,'' he explains. "There's a lot of ways music can be made, and I think it's pretty funny that people keep making it the same way. I don't ever want that official sound.'' 

What's more, Beck said, working lean means you don't have to have that deadening two-year interval between projects. 

"We should be putting out music all the time,'' he said. "In the old days, the '60s, those groups put out two or three albums a year. There wasn't so much attention to a single album, and that's why those groups got to where they were. There's a real burden with the big album to make it an event. The music is secondary to the whole marketing thing, until everyone's sick of the person.'' 

It's an astute observation _ particularly from someone who doesn't own a TV set, doesn't read magazines and says he doesn't care about marketing. But Beck and his management team are savvy about the underground and the development of a buzz: They've declined most interview requests, and there are no advance ticket sales for his club shows, which virtually guarantees a long line. Here in Austin, more than 600 people crowded the sidewalk surrounding the 250-capacity club in hopes of basking in Beck's presence.

It's all part of the game, but Beck isn't taking any chances. He's calling this first jaunt the "The Full American Let-Down Tour,'' a hedge against hype-fueled audience expectations. 

He's already had his own brush-with-fame hopes dashed: He heard that Farrah Fawcett was in Austin shooting a movie, and was disappointed when she  didn't show. "We heard she wanted to come to the show. I wore my iron-on T-shirt
and everything.''