Date With Beck
Pamela Des Barres
The world’s most
famous rock groupie talks to the world’s least likely rock star about
his art and his heart.
I AM ONE LUCKY
CHICK. Here I am on a lovely, sweltering Hollywood afternoon, prancing
down Hillhurst in my red velvet sandals, heading toward a funky, trendy
Silverlake nosh spot to meet up with a local boy named Beck. I do
a lot of interviews, and I usually get a bit excited at the thought
of having an intimate conversation with a complete stranger, but on
this occasion my heart has actually sped up. I can hear its double
thrumthrum, and I'm reminded of just how fucking alive I feel. That's
what a good artist does: toasts your own bubbling creative potential,
reminding you of the possibility that something great just might come
tumbling out of you one day. I've been listening to Beck's newest
release, a surprisingly moody, heartaching splat of music called Sea
Change, and I feel like I've been confronting my own lost loves, sweetly
mulling over several could-have-beens. Sorrowful and hopeful all at
once, the album is a flat-out statement that hearts break, and its
insistent, crackling sound can cause you to question every star in
the sky for months on end.
In his own particular
way, Beck is a rebel of huge proportions. At a time when the music
industry is churning out inane, tuneless, cardboard replicas, he continues
to prod and provoke, delight and confuse, tempt and titillate. Eight
years after his slacker delight "Loser" shook it all up,
Beck has proven that people are out there listening hard, craving
something that could create a little havoc (please!) and alter worn-out,
dried-up preconceived notions of what's cool. He redefines it over
and over again. I've always adored slightly off-center, androgynous
guys who stray from the norm. If I had lived a few less years on the
planet (although I would never give up my stellar experiences), Beck
would be my type of guy. Maybe that's why my heart still does old-fashioned
cartwheels when he arrives, tousled and smiling, a few minutes late.
After the initial get-to-know-you, we talk up a storm like people
who already do know each other.
You're in such an amazing position.
Beck: You think so?
my God, yeah. You are such a rare, free, stand-alone person who gets
to do what he wants, and is completely accepted by the audience. They
expect you to do something different every time.
That is kind of a weird thing.
thought only David Bowie was allowed to do that.
You just do it, you don't ask.
don't fit any mold. You're just being yourself, right?
It's hard for me to quantify. On the first record, I knew there were
a lot of things I wanted to do, so I tried to put in as many elements
as I could. It has the folky stuff, the progressive...
always get the folky thing in, how about on Midnight Vultures, the
fucking banjo with the rapping?
I want to take that to the next level. I want some banjo electro!
lived in this neighborhood a long time, right? People don't seem to
look at you anymore.
Yeah, they say, "Oh, there's that guy again." They are not
impressed; it's a hometown thing. They probably still can't believe
I got a record deal.
you have such longevity. Eight years!
Yeah, it's weird, right? You make it past four or five, and that's
it because you take people in directions that are unexpected?
You have to be willing to waste it to have it. That's what the last
album was about. We could have come out with something real obvious
that would have worked commercially. You know when you're 14 and you
have a favorite band and they come out and start getting a little
favorite band at 14 was the Beatles.
They didn't meddle with bands then, they let them do their thing.
I remember growing up, that would happen over and over again. I've
always been attracted to the idea [that you should] waste it! Say
something wrong, do something you're not supposed to do. You have
to be willing to make a fool of yourself on stage, on record-you have
to be willing to stay alive.
your own ante.
Yeah, exactly-to get to that place where you're vulnerable.
are a few musicians making real soulful music today...
...instead of cranking out product. The last two years it's been getting
better. It's like you hear so many good records, you don't need to
don't say that! Tell me, what have you listened to more than five
times that's come out in the last couple of years?
Hmmm. Five times? Well, you got me there.
how great can it really be? I used to listen to records until they
wore out the Flying Burrito Brothers, Hendrix. Is there anything like
that being made now?
I don't think so, but at least it's heading in a better direction.
For awhile there, I thought "there's going to be a generation
where cool, early, New York punk stuff, or the Velvet Underground,
won't be a factor." Then all these bands came along and I thought,
"OK, at least it's going to stay around for another 10 years."
They'll influence a whole slew of kids and it will perpetuate itself.
Hives, the Vines, the White Stripes.
tell me, how do you feel about being the cover boy for this exciting
I feel good about it. I'm flattered. I didn't know about sex being
a factor when we took the photos. We were at the car seat cover place,
and that wasn't very sexy.
idea of being a sex symbol is not off-putting to you?
Uh, well, uh, no. It's fine.
are always objectified that way.
I had really long hair as a teenager, and I grew up in a Salvadorean
neighborhood, and I would get whistled at every day by guys on the
corner. I have a history of being objectified by migrant workers.
seem to be pretty in touch with your female side, right?
I guess so, yeah.
don't pull any of those macho posturings-unless you're kidding around.
I like playing with it on stage. When I first started touring, especially
in the Midwest, back when grunge had really hit, it was sort of a
male energy: all guys with backwards baseball caps, uniforms.
you think it was a response to "Loser," the slacker thing?
I guess. They'd see people moshing on MTV and they'd want to do that.
We'd get these (fist up, growling, "Yeah!!!") guys, and
we'd come out in these pink pants. We had so much fun! I'd come out
with one of those white feather fans and fan myself.
you do that to confuse them?
It was just fun. I don't know what they thought.
you read your reviews?
I used to. I don't anymore. You don't want to wake up in the middle
of the night thinking about somebody saying you've lost the plot.
have a lot of friends who don't read their reviews.
The smart ones. There was an article called, "He's a Loser and
We Want to Kill Him." It was three pages long. It was the worst
thing. And when you're 23, you believe it. "Oh, I'm horrible,
what am I doing!" Hari-kiri!
you're a critic's darling. Critically, you basically have won.
I have? Yay! You're making me feel good. I need a tiara.
you a perfectionist?
I can be, but a lot of this record was one take – a live vocal and
a couple of background vocals at most
seems like you go out of your way to keep your fans guessing. Or are
you doing what comes naturally?
Yeah, it's just what comes-the mood. Certain records are incubating
for a few years. This one has been brewing for about four years at
of the somber tone, people may think it's a response to September
When we were doing it, I thought people might think it was some sort
of reaction to that
sounds like you're talking directly to one person, maybe a lost love?
Yeah, its kind of got that thread to it. They're specific situations,
things that everybody goes through. It takes a few years to hear what
a record is.
sure it's annoying when people try to get you to spell it out. I'm
not trying to do that!
(Much laughter) I'm not good at that, I just make it I know artists
don't like to have to articulate in a specific way, it cheapens it,
makes it less than it is. Its just very simple, direct songwriting.
you a romantic person?
you believe in foreverness?
deep down believe in foreverness, but it hasn't been proven to me
I don't know how to say this, [but] there are things I like about
courtship. The way it was before, in history, it was clearly defined.
There's not a lot of convention these days. There's a dialog, an openness,
and that's good, but there's not really any sides or edges to the
road. It's like, "Oh, I can be with anybody." It's almost
like you have 2,000 channels, but you don't watch any one of them.
You just go click, click, click.
you feel the respect of courtship has faded away?
Yeah. I'm not a big subscriber to jumping in and out of relationships.
I think it's fascinating. I don't really go on the scene much, but
I was in a bar with this photographer I worked with, watching people
hooking up, doing the whole thing, like buzz buzz buzz. Like, wow,
you know, the meat market thing? Crazy. I never did that.
you think this is a hard time to be alive?
There are times I'd like to have lived, but I love being here right
now. It's pretty amazing if you think about tens of thousands of years
ago, just somebody turning a stone gristmill, and the quiet. [There
was] no music even a couple hundred years ago, [just] all this accretion
of non-activity and silence. No wonder there were so many wars, that
was like a party! "Let's get a bunch of armor and go kill some
people, yeah!" They were just bored out of their minds.
now there's too much distraction.
Yeah, but I like activity. I can't really watch TV, I can't get into
it at all, but I like activity. I like doing it, being part of it,
not just in taking it. Attention spans are so short these days.
I hate that I think losing interest in things is one of the saddest
by-products of our time-people who aren't interested in anything.
rock and roll has kept people interested for over 50 years now. Do
you think in order for rock to work, there has to be that steamy sexual
Yes, in order to qualify as rock and roll in the sense of the physicality
and the visceral turning on [of] all the senses in your body. There
are schools of more cerebral rock, people looking at their shoes,
but it's still music, its still sound projecting from human beings.
Yeah, we're getting hit by physical frequencies. I think great performers
have something that they putout-it's sort of a mixture, the sex is
and Leonard Cohen are sexy to me.
touch all parts of me, like you were saying.
Yeah, they get you up here (points to his head) and down here (his
heart) Yeah, I need that too. Maybe that's the feminine. I don't connect
to music unless it hits something up here too, when it all starts
to feel good.
it's a great combo when it hits. I was eight when I first heard Elvis.
I'm also a James Dean fanatic.
About 20 years ago, I saw Rebel Without a Cause at the Egyptian theater,
a 70 millimeter brand new print I was about 13.
it affect you?
Oh yeah, how could it not? 70 millimeter!
was a breakthrough guy. I'm always drawn to iconic people who up the
He was the coolest. Yeah, people who loosen things up, take the formality
out of things. That's really important
raise the bar. Like Henry Miller.
I've read all of it Sexus, Nexus, Plexus. They're amazing.
just finishing Tropic of Cancer again. You see where Kerouac jumped
You see all that stuff when you read him – that whole hipster culture.
you raised in a religious or spiritual family?
My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. I think art has always
been spiritual to me. Not to sound airy-fairy or anything, but to
me that's the closest I get to expressing day-to-day diurnal (I have
to ask what this word means, and he tells me "normal, everyday,
menial kind of life") existence-expressing something that's close
to who I am. The art helps you transform what's ordinary into the
whole alchemist idea the possibility. Otherwise we're just sitting
hereon Hillhurst with cars going by. And that's not any fun, just
sitting waiting for something to happen.
what you do. You transform the ordinary, you remind people of their
own potential, who they can be.
Wow, well, I hope so. You were talking about James Dean, Henry Miller
- you see them and feel like you can do something. It's not a closed
door, like, "You can never get in here!"
so true! When you're touched by art, there's this opening, and you
Yeah, that's so important You get affected by it, and you want to
contribute. I can't go to the museum and passively look at some pictures
and go, "Oh, those are nice colors."
gonna change the subject here. I'm curious, how do you feel about
I never really had them. I always get the eccentric kids who dress
funny and sit and write poetry for three months in their bedrooms...
don't believe you! I'm sure they're around. The energy of creative
people is addicting. When I was hanging out with bands, I just wanted
to be right in the middle of that amazing scene.
I was looking at that picture of you and the GTOs (My all-girl Frank
Zappaproduced group) and if you guys had come out now-that's the female
Strokes right there!
You should hear our album!
I think you hit it right there, you just wanted to be part of this
thing. I was going to see tons of shows when I was a teenager, so
if I was a girl, would that have made me a groupie? If I wanted to
shake Thurston Moore's hand or something?
if you wanted to take it a step further and hang out with the bands.