Laws and Disorder
Beck's rolling. Liberated from the ass upwards, he's leaving behind his history, cruising away from his novelty neighbourhood, in a chocolate coloured Mercedes, tyres voluptuous with silicone. No more the jokey collage kid, he's got his own ride now.
Ranked up on the vista of irradiated malls, beautified zomboids, macrobiotic hairstyles, and priapic palm trees dripping tropical oil'n'dollars, he's woozey in the head and steamed up like a hot tub. Cock teasing the San Andreas fissure. Or at least, you might go so far as to think so, after a perusal of his latest work.
For half a decade now, ever since Mellow Gold's striated Americana brought him close enough to the global ear trumpet, Beck's been squashed under a dialectic. He proclaimed the joys of two turntables and a microphone. He knew his Woody Guthrie. He was the non-hippy, hippy kid from Latino east LA, standing at the confluence of banjos and breakdancing and thus he was raised up before us, a cultural totem and all-round interesting guy. A thousand crinkley assessments followed. "It's the novel blend of contemporary and traditional that makes Beck such an ever-fascinating figure," they said. Shit, no.
Looming Sonic Youth vinyl junkie Thurston Moore stumbled into Beck in his pre "Loser", pre-Geffen Records deal days when the pale rapper was playing blues harp and beats at barbecues and raggedy support slots in LA. Beck would end up touring with the alt tuning Youth on Lollapalooza, and Moore notes in his account of Beck's progress that in a couple of years he went from some kind of weirdo spaceboy fawn to a "real person".
The condensed biography of real person Beck Hansen configures him as fringe bohemian refusenik. Grandpop on his mum's side, Al Hansen, was an avant garde artist connected to the Fluxus anti-movement in the '60s. The teen Beckling would help with AI's scrap collages and then drift down to Kansas where his paternal grandfather was a Presbyterian preacher. Poppa was a violinist and arranger who worked with The Stones and Linda Ronstadt, but Beck was raised under his mother's Hollywood eaves which also gave temp crashage to a shifting cast of punkesque musos. Bibbe Hansen hung out briefly at Warhol's factory aged 14 and Beck was born four years later after relocation to LA. The art drive wasn't however particularly fostered by mom. Beck oiled his own compass, ("We were left to cause as much havoc as possible.") left school at 16, cross coasted to New York where he busked with the "fast folkies" and interfaced with the beer can soul of the nation as a hot dog waiter.
"Hmmm, shrimps?" Way, way down the dusty road of arena shows and MTV gauged significance, Beck has pulled over at a neo-decadent restaurant in SoHo, NY. He wears a straw hat and undersized girls blouse and as he surveys the menu his manner is tentative, considered and drawling weary. An effete hick in a metropolitan power bar, he looks distinctly uncomfortable, sitting candlelit amongst the Saturday night cocktail carnivores and corporate sex predators. "This room's a joke," he says picking up his hat and heading for a quiet alcove, "but they're having a good time, so the laugh's on them." The interim years marked by Odelay and last year's tradmorphing songwriter side project Mutations have seen a throng of Hillybilly Beastie whiteboys Join' hip hopped country jostling in on Beck's highway, but what allows late '99 Beck to wear his straw stetson with incongruent pride, is he's about to issue his boldest and most seamless record yet. Midnite Vultures is gaudy lubricated soulfunkbootiejam, a fly and Sly (Stone) freak record way too sexy to enter into a conversation with dry deconstruction. If Beck's status as hip icon depended on the likeable amateurism of his so called slacker R&B, then this baby should blow it for him. Cuz it's a full on sexjam of funk surreal.
To the accompaniment of loud Stan Getz (Shall we talk in syncopation? Beck: "I'll take a solo right here. Lay it down for you.") B Hansen, midnight culture vulture cowboy, tries to render himself opaque.
How did you feel about being accounted for as this post-modern kid, old shit and new shit, stuck together?
"I think it cheapens the music. I think certainly they're right, I'm the first to admit, a lot of what I'm doing has been awkward, but I'm learning as I go and at this point I'm getting closer. I've been saying for five or six years now, I'm trying to get to something."
A new thing?
"Yeah, I'm trying to get to a new thing, I work hard at it, really, it's not about cut and paste, it's not about sounding post-modern, that's not the point. I don't care about what it refers to. It's like, just listen to the music. Does it turn you on? Do you hate it? I just want to get to the basic human reaction, not the preconceived ideas, not the prejudices, not the categories, not placing the music on a linear time line and writing it off that way. Which is difficult now. We've seen so much, done so much and heard so much. You know, it's really hard to do something new.
"I think you can just keep playing the same thing over and over, and rock'n'roll will never die, people will always like electric guitars, people need electric guitars. And on the other side of the coin you can start playing techno and electronic music and that is a sound that doesn't have anything to do with 1965, but it's limited to a certain amount of sound. I don't want to be limited. I want to be able to use any musical texture that makes sense and makes the song interesting.
"But it's difficult to do that in such a way where it doesn't confine it to being novelty or cut and paste or the sort of haphazard terms that, erm... segregate them from the rest of perspective."
What's it done to you, the process of being propelled from maverick unknown artist to global power artist with leverage?
"I don't really have a lot of leverage. I'm still required to play the radio shows or they won't play your song on the radio. I'm still treated like a new artist. It's not like I can do whatever I want. I do. I've always done whatever I want. But it's not like I'm in some Alanis Morissette position where it doesn't matter what I do. I don't see myself that way. For me to put out an album is a lot of work, and my music isn't formula music, so if I want to reach people and I want people to get into it then I'm just going to have to play a lot more shows and talk to a lot more people, and it's part of the thing.
"It took me two and a half years to convince people that they liked Odelay. I don't think they wanted to. But once it made sense, once they saw us play and saw where it fitted in, then sure."
So as far as you're concerned not much has changed.
"I'll just put it this way, I've never stopped having to prove myself. Any musician - or anybody - that's mostly what we do in this life, proving your ability or your worth, it's just maybe a little more heightened as a musician, or an artist or an athlete. I mean I don't think that's ever going to go away. It's part of the equation."
Somebody said about you that five or six years ago when you started off in LA, you used to be this weirdo spaceboy, and you've turned into a real person. Does that mean anything to you?
"No it doesn't, I mean I'm exactly the same as I've always been. I don't think I've changed much since I was about 14 or 15, I haven't even grown any. I stopped growing when I was 14. I feel the same. Most of my friends are the same. You can't trust anything you read, you should know that... I'm a little spaced out right now, because I've been rung out and dried and rung out again. I'm a little punchy. I'm not as perky as I was four days ago. But you can't really judge my whole being on one sitting. Everybody's different hour to hour." Everyone has the spectrum of possibilities within them, expressed at certain points, sure. You used to yodel didn't you?
“Yodel? Oh yeah. I was a huge Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers fan, and The Carter Family. The falsetto voice is a very expressive musical device and sometimes you just have to let it loose. I'm much more expressive in that range than in my normal range which is baritone I guess. And er, a lower voice is like a bigger car, it's not going to move like a sports car, it's not going to be as agile, it's not going to take the curves as well."
Beth Orton sings too doesn't she?
"Yeah she sang some vocals on 'Beautiful Way'."
Is she a friend or did you particularly like her voice?
"Oh she has a great voice, I love the quality of it, but also she was going out with one of my best friends at the time."
She burps well too. She's a really good burper.
"She is, I know. She has many skills, many talents."
As a showcase for the many talents of the slightly underestimated Beck, Midnite Vultures is comprehensive. There are big brassy motoring soul review songs, unmuzzled sleaze rap grooves, screeched ballads, Beatles tinctures, glazed country ambience and a subliminal aside in "Milk And Honey" where a woman asks Can you show me the way to the Soviet Embassy? Preeminently, however, it seems to be lyrically concerned with the notion of gettin' butt naked'n'concupiscent.
In "Peaches And Cream" he's on the good ship menage a trois, on "Hollywood Freaks" he's hunting for hot sex in back rows and a bitch from Korea, in "Mixed Bizness" she can really do you we're told. No great shock there maybe, but those R&B, funk, gangsta conventions are awry enough to make you wonder. The album opens with a brass party stonkathon called "Sexx Laws", which is partially why for the past month Beck's been quizzed across Europe about his newsexi-musicsound. As the culmination of at least three years of Beck's thinking, Vultures was never, however, going to be anything as simple as the dumb humping record he claimed he was making. "I've been trying to make a point of where it's coming from and that this isn't some kind of Madonna style take on sex," he expounds. "You know, people come out and say they're making 'a sex record', this really isn't. It's more about the absurdities of sexuality, maybe more about the prevalence of body consciousness, especially in a place like Los Angeles.
"I mean, I'm pretty cut off from it. I live in a different part of town where that's not really an issue but the west part of LA is where all the entertainment people and all the TV and movie people live and it's pretty common, so tapping into some of the, er... the absurdity and sadness of that.
"There were themes of decadence coming into it, but I know that's kind of a cliche, and I know that to write about the kind of decadence that's maybe associated with the '20s or turn of the century Paris, or the decadence of the rock scene in the '60s, the only real decadence I could see as contemporary was this decadence of body enhancement and indulging in trendy spirituality, with a cell phone in every hand. You know, it's not the kind of excess that serves as a launching pad into exploring your psyche, it's not a derangement of the senses, it's er, a surgical manipulation of the senses."
You're talking about moronic lifestyle packages people are encouraged to live out, but on the other hand, in the lead up to the record, you said you wanted to make a dumb party record, so how does that fit together?
"I was looking for things from the culture that were stupid. There's plenty of other imagery and themes at work, and I didn't use it to look down my nose at it, but it's just present in my environment.
"I don't live in a perfect idyllic place, I don't live around a lot of beauty, so I've always taken things from my environment and tried to turn them askew and re-sculpt it, and make it fit how I perceive the world aesthetically. Reupholster it, and put it back in the world. That's what art tends to do. Andy Warhol and his soup cans, in the supermarket those giant towers of soup cans, so he made paintings from them. You know, this notion is not new. So, I dunno." All the stuff about sex in the back row and satin sheets and bitches from Korea, is that someone else's fantasy or is that your fantasy?
"Er That's my fantasy. If I could create the world as I see it, that would be Puff Daddy's new single, so when you get to create something you get to recreate your own version of the world in it, and that song is what I would want to hear in a hip hop song. "
There's a playfulness to Beck's pop re-skewing of his environment that causes nerves to jangle. He has a contrary way with the (LA) sub-culture, an ability to pan the Zeitgeist for nuggets of ambiguity. "Loser" was widely thought to be an anthem of white male self-pity, but it was written as a parody of grunge whining. Now comes "Sexx Laws" yelling I wanna defy the logic of all sex laws as the chorus, but the phrase came from a forgotten bootleg of a live show where Hansen was simply hollering for release. "That phrase just kind of describes our energy on stage," he says. "It doesn't have much to do with sex laws, or sex, really, it's just wanting to explode, and wanting the music to explode and wanting to er, go beyond any ideas of what's tasteful what's distasteful, and of inhibitions, socially, any kind of prejudices or preconceived notions. It's kind of the point of the music in that it doesn't subscribe to one style and it's listening to music and being conscious of the game of style. What it is is a desire to get to the raw nerve, music, that's rock'n'roll, that's the best element of rock'n'roll that sort of energy."
The primal, exalted thing beyond rationality?
"Sure, that's what the best music does."
So the sex stuff is a metaphor for that?
"Yeah. Well... I was listening to a lot of R&B and hip hop music over the past five years, more so than rock or alternative music, and sexuality is the main focus in that music. And slowjam is about, it's double up girl I want to see you with you panties off and the girls are singing I want to be your freak on the weekend, you're going to turn me over and slap me on the ass. And it is in a playful way, it's not as cheap as it sounds, it's playful and there's an ease and realness there that you never hear in the 'alternative rock' world, that kind of sexuality is more guitar, masculine thrusting. It's not an invitation it's more like it's being flexed for the audience."
Who's more sexy - Marilyn Manson or Michael Jackson?
"I don't think those are the right examples. I'd say neither. They're both examples of non-sexuality."
Who's more sexy - Serge Gainsbourg or At Green?
"Er, they're both sexy in their own ways, I wouldn't put them in a contest. They both exude different kinds of sexuality. Al Green represents exuberance and Serge represents a perversity."
Do you have to have some new dance moves to go with the new album?
"The old ones are good enough I think."
It could be the opalescent quality of his skin and his pale blue eyes, or the way he talks at half-pace, but there's something vessel-like about Beck. You meet him and you don't meet him. It's been a source of bother to people writing about him that the personal doesn't figure much. He won't be drawn. His songs are at arms length. Some of them are about America and its strangeness. Even more revealingly, some of them are about songs (how a Puff Daddy song would be, how a screaming soul ballad would be). Deep down inside, maybe that's what he is the most; a commentator first, and only remotely a personal narrator.
That would explain the dressing up. Beck becomes Beck a little more in the course of a photo shoot. His clothes place him at the edge of things but not too far out. His longtime girlfriend Leigh helps with his vague-ish styling. In a downtown studio she arrives before Beck, petite and alert and carrying a big bag of clothes. One T-shirt from Japan has the slogan "Troops Out" and above the words, a fold of cloth which lets down plastic soldiers when you pull (troops out!). Another grey top has an identical quarter size clone shirt sewn at an angle. It's reminiscent of Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Leigh explains that she and Beck recently sneaked into the Chapmans' NY show for a late private viewing.
That's not a bad way of thinking about Beck, taking in sexy confusion art, before heading off to kick out sexy confusion on America's stages. He showed his own collages recently at the Santa Monica Museum Of Art. When the world stops staring at his banjo, maybe they'll start to appreciate him for what he is - the renegade framer of American strangeness, a cowboy riding against the herd.
Didn't you used to do a song called "MTV Wants To Make Me Smoke Crack"? "Yeah when I was about 20 I wrote a song called that. That's like / want to defy the logic of all sex laws. It sums up a feeling more than being literal. Just the feeling you got seeing six, seven years of cheesy hair metal being drilled into the eyes and minds of young America, and it was enough is enough. Once Nirvana got on MTV, the song was sort of permanently obsolete. It's just reacting to images and media and TV."
You avoid television?
"I'm not blaming TV or people who are watching, you can't only blame guns, you blame the circumstances around them and the people who fire them, it's just, I don't know... It's very...I dunno, it makes you want to see something real, that's all."
Where does your mind wander to when it wanders?
"When it wanders. Er, I don't know, shady groves and foggy bogs. Places of mist and moss, and these days tranquil places. I've spent most of my life living in a desert. I kind of feel like a stunted transplanted.. plant."
You should go to Iceland for the moss.
"Yeah I know. I should, I should. Mine dried up."
Does it bother you much that the career obstructs other areas of your life?
"Yeah, but you know this is mostly my life, it's what I do, what I love, so. It is my life."
If the career arc trailed off would that be alright?
"I could live without the career, I don't think I could live without music though."
Aside from that, fading into obscurity wouldn't be so bad?
"It's not really something I think about much. I fade into obscurity every night, when I go to sleep. I'm not that conscious of having a career and being a successful musician. I just, you know, when I go out on the road for a year I'm pretty sick of it, but the rest of the time it's not something I really linger over. It doesn't impinge on my life that much. Occasionally somebody waves and you're not sure if you're being rude because you can't remember meeting them, or if they're a fan. That's the extent of it, really. It's just a..."
Midway through one of his long and parenthetical thought pauses, Beck's schedule runs out of time.
Is there anything else you'd like to say about anything?
"Er... People should take more naps."
But just before he lopes out, a regular looking guy in his 30s, stubbly and solid, detaches from the cocktail war, introduces himself to Beck as a fan and tells him he loves his work. On a planet of stars bemused by their adherents, I've never seen anyone look so stratospherically non-plussed. That would be Beck then. People should take more naps. Non-plussed in the face of adulation. He's a snoozer baby. So why dontcha dream along.