April 4, 1994
Issue 680, p79, 2p
THANKS TO "LOSER," THIS HIP-HOP FOLK ROCKER IS THE MOST UNLIKELY SUCCESS
STORY OF THE YEAR
"WHEN I DO `LOSER' NOW," says Beck Hansen of his big hit record, "I should go, `I'm a schmoozer, baby, so why don't you rock me?'"
If he's a schmoozer, Beck, 23, is definitely an alternative schmoozer. The
baby-faced singer--who goes by his first name professionally and whose "Loser," a quirky, winning anthem of downward mobility, has become
an unexpected pop smash--is sitting in a dimly lit Mexican restaurant in
Los Angeles, attempting, in his own charming and eccentric way, to shed a little light on who he is. That is, by striking a mock rock-star pose
and gleefully parodying his own surreal, hip-hop-inflected breakthrough hit so that it better reflects his current chart-topping status. "If all
this ridiculous stuff keeps on happening to me," he says, shaking his
head, "I'm really going to have to change those lyrics."
"All this ridiculous stuff" is by far early '94's most unlikely
overnight-success story, one bound to destroy any claims this likably
offbeat guy may have ever had to lower status. Not long ago, Beck was an
underground--way underground--Los Angeles act whose indie recordings
included a 1993 single entitled "MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack." But in today's brave new alterna-rock world, Beck has a Top 40 hit and has
become a major-label priority for DGC Records. And now that his ingenious video clip for "Loser" is safely ensconced in MTV's Buzz Bin,
Beck better break out his crack pipe.
As he drums with a tortilla chip in time to a Muzak version of Al
Stewart's "Year of the Cat" blasting on the restaurant sound system,
Beck remembers seeing the "Loser" video on MTV for the first time and
being pegged as a new spokesman for the grunge generation.
"I was up in Olympia, Wash., and someone called up and said they were
going to premiere the video," Beck says. "The guy on the air was talking
about all this slacker stuff, saying that `Loser' was like some slacker
anthem or something. I was like `What?' I said, `Turn off the TV.' I was
like `Slacker my ass.'
"I mean, I never had any slack," Beck continues. "I was working a
$4-an-hour job trying to stay alive. I mean, that slacker kind of stuff
is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything."
To hear him tell it, Beck's sudden rise has come with little effort or
even inclination on his part. And before the small Los Angeles-based,
guerrilla-style label Bong Load Custom Records put out a 12-inch of
"Loser" last year, things were looking mighty bleak for him.
"A year ago I was living in a shed behind a house with a bunch of rats,
next to an alley downtown," Beck recalls. "I had zero money and zero
possibilities. I was working in a video store doing things like
alphabetizing the pornography section for minimum wage.
"Believe me, all of this has fallen in my lap," Beck says. "I was never
good at getting jobs or girls or anything. I never even made flyers for
my shows. And until, like, six months ago, I didn't know that you could
get paid for playing."
Beck hopes Mellow Gold--his first album under an unusual deal with DGC
that allows him plenty of creative freedom and the right to continue
releasing various indie releases--will prove that there's more to him
than just "Loser." A low-budget effort recorded at home on an
eight-track recorder, the record freely blends folk, blues, rap, country
and just about everything else Beck found around the house. Funny,
folky, funky and freaky (often at the same time), Mellow Gold is a trip
to a strange place where Woody Guthrie meets Woody Allen. Tracks like
"Nitemare Hippy Girl," "F---in With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock)" and
"Soul Suckin Jerk" make it clear this LP is not a calculated pop
"The whole concept of Mellow Gold is that it's like a satanic K-Tel
record that's been found in a trash dumpster," Beck explains, quite
matter-of-factly. "A few people have molested it and slept with it and
half-swallowed it before spitting it out. Someone played poker with it,
someone tried to smoke it. Then the record was taken to Morocco and
covered with hummus and tabouli. Then it was flown back to a convention
of water-skiers, who skied on it and played Frisbee with it. Then the
record was put on the turntable, and the original K-Tel album had
reached a whole new level. I was just taking that whole Freedom Rock
feeling, you understand."
Sure we do.
So where exactly, you might ask, did this guy come from? From Los
Angeles, of course. Though he has traveled quite a bit, Beck spent a lot
of his wonder years living with his office-worker mother and half
brother in some seedy but lively sections of town, riding his bike
around Hollywood Boulevard to check out all the punks, who intrigued
him, listening to early hip-hop and even doing a little break-dancing
along the way. Beck apparently comes by his taste for street music
honestly: As a baby, he says, he hung around with his father, a
bluegrass street musician.
As a young boy, Beck was sent for a time to live with his maternal
grandparents in Kansas. "I had kind of a weird home," he says
convincingly. "I think they were kind of concerned."
Beck's grandfather was a Presbyterian preacher, and the church music and
hymns Beck heard growing up had an impact. "That music influenced me a
lot, but not consciously," he says. "There's something biblical and
awkward and great about all those lyrics." Beck also spent time in
Europe with his other grandfather, artist Al Hansen. "He collects
cigarette butts and glues them together and makes pictures of naked
ladies, then sprays the whole thing silver," says Beck. "His stuff was
taking trash and making it art. I guess I try to do that, too."
While Beck bravely confesses that his first record purchase may have
been the Olivia Newton-John-heavy soundtrack to Xanadu, he soon
graduated to far rootsier stuff like Mississippi John Hurt. "I'd never
heard anything like that," Beck remembers. "This wasn't some hippie guy
finger picking in the '70s, singing about rainbows. This was the real
stuff. I stopped everything for six months and wasin my room finger
picking until I got it right."
Feeling, he says, like "a total outcast," Beck dropped out of high
school in ninth grade, worked some lousy jobs and started playing in
public. "My first shows were on [city] buses," says Beck. "I'd get on
the bus and start playing Mississippi John Hurt with totally improvised
lyrics. Some drunk would start yelling at me, calling me Axl Rose. So
I'd start singing about Axl Rose and the levee and bus passes and
strychnine, mixing the whole thing up."
In 1989, Beck, then 17, took off for New York City. "It was the whole
cliche," he says. "Went on a fucking bus. I had, like, $8 in my pocket
like a total idiot with a guitar and nothing else." He spent a summer
looking for a job and a place to live, with little success, before he
started hanging out on Manhattan's Lower East Side and luckily stumbled
on to the anti-folk scene going on there.
"That scene was the whole punk-rock thing, which was right on for me,"
Beck says. "Punk was always sort of my favorite. But all I had was an
acoustic guitar, and no one wanted to play with me. Here was a whole
scene with people with just acoustic guitars punking out really hard."
Finally, after more than a year in New York, Beck got on the bus back to
Los Angeles. Though he doesn't want to discuss whether or not he was
ever homeless--"I don't want to exploit anything"--Beck admits things
were tough. "I was tired of being cold, tired of getting beat up," he
says. "It was hard to be in New York with no money, no place, no honey,
no thermostats, no spoons, no Cheerios. I kinda used up all the friends
I had. Everyone on the scene got sick of me."
At first, things didn't exactly explode for Beck back in Los Angeles,
either. After days working at a video store in Silverlake, he would jump
onstage with his guitar and play a few songs between bands at local
clubs and coffeehouses like Al's Bar, Raji's and Jabberjaw. "I would
always sing my goofy stuff, because everybody was drunk, and I'd only
have two minutes," he says. "That was my whole shot."
Eventually, Beck gained key boosters in Margaret Mittleman, the West
Coast's director of talent acquisitions for BMG Music Publishing (which
now publishes Beck's songs through his own Cyanide Breathmint Music),
and the partners behind Bong Load: Tom Rothrock, Rob Schnapf and Brad
Lambert. "What hit me about Beck was that here was this self-contained
folk artist who'd be great to make records with," says Rothrock. Beck
expressed an interest in rap, and Rothrock hooked him up with hip-hop
producer Karl Stephenson. Together, Beck, Rothrock and Stephenson cut
"Loser" more than two years ago.
Although it took more than a year for Bong Load to finally release the
single (it came out last summer), the reaction to the song was
instantaneous. "Before the record even got pressed, there was all this
excitement," Rothrock says. "There were bootlegs right away." Hip radio
stations in Seattle and Los Angeles were soon jumping on the record with
"The whole thing got crazy after a while," says Beck. "I mean, David
Geffen called me at home just to express his interest and stuff. I kept
thinking the record companies would go away after a few months."
Finally, around Thanksgiving '93--just before releasing another Bong
Load single, "Steve Threw Up," and a 10-inch LP, A Western Harvest Field
by Moonlight, on Fingerpaint Records--Beck signed with DGC. "I'm taking
things as they come," he says. "I'm trying not to be too conscious of
it. Or constipated by it."
Instead, Beck still lives in "a pink, stucco monstrosity on the edge of
East L.A." His only rock-star indulgence has been to rapidly increase
his breakfast-cereal collection. He's also thinking of buying a toaster.
"It's pretty funny, if you ask me," Beck says of all the attention and
success. "It kinda seems like anybody can just get up and make a racket
these days. Anything goes now, I guess."