The Man Who Fell To Earth
Q
April 2000
pp. 58-62
Rupert Howe

You know Beck: indolence, arty mum, ironic breakdancing. Or maybe you don't. On tour in America's Midwest, he reveals the post-ironic "truth" in his inpenetrable funk album, buys some nice gloves and gets shirty about drugs. "I try to provide a multi-level service," he tells Rupert Howe.

A large silver bus with blackedout windows pulls up outside the Flying J truckstop on Highway 70, Missouri. Overhead the sky is pale and grey. A light snow is falling. It's freezing.

The Flying J is a trucker's haven; with cafe, shop and TV room whose refreshments and entertainments are targeted solely at the men who steer giant 18-wheelers across the American plains. There are bumper stickers aplenty, CB radio sets, work boots and deep-fried chicken livers.

Beck Hansen emerges from the bus in a cream Diesel puffa jacket and black Nike trainers, and steps gingerly through the slush. Once inside the shop he starts rummaging through a stack of padded gloves. "These are only six bucks," he announces. The giants heaving past in baseball caps and faded tattoos pay him no attention. Beck settles on a pair of plain black gloves and his bass player, Justin Meldal Johnsen, points him in the direction of the novelty baseball caps in the corner: "They got ones saying I Love Mommy."

Beck grins. "I'm looking for A Hard Man Is Good To Find," he says.

Sadly, the Flying J doesn't stock them so we browse the magazine rack instead, where Beck wants to show us a copy of Easy Rider magazine. A publication devoted to custom motorcycles, Beck is apparently a keen subscriber. They don't have that either. Instead, the racks are packed tight with multiple copies of American Survival Guide, Truckin' and a special edition of Musclemag devoted to the abdominals. Right at the back, wedged behind the sports publications, is a single copy of Rolling Stone.

"Music has been pushed to its rightful place," says Beck with a grin. "It's not at the centre of our culture anymore. Music is less popular than inline skating."

BECK HANSEN, 29, has occupied a curious, in between position in this sub-skating world since Loserwas a hit in 1992. None of his subsequent offerings - including double platinum MTV favourite Odelay and quixotic folk set Mutations - has made him any easier to pin down. Neither hip hop nor folk rock, mainstream nor alternative, he has now turned another corner, down the recklessly funky, R&B-flavoured boulevard that is Midnite Vultures, and no-one is any the wiser as to his intentions.

Endlessly portrayed as an enigma, Beck these days seems a little weary of his own mystery. Stretched out across the leather back seat of the bus, you sense he's tired of trying to explain himself, however opaque his background, family or music may appear to the outside world. Really, he would rather be left alone for a while and talk no more about his grandfather who was a Fluxus artist, his mother who made a film with Andy Warhol age 13, and his high school drop-out childhood on the streets of Hispanic LA.

"It's kinda exhausting," he says of raking over his past. "And my grandfather [Al Hansen] was very convenient because they can just write a lot of it off on him. But the most time I spent with him was when I was about 19 and I was doing my music so I can't count him as a sole influence. But people like to say, Oh, it's in the blood. But art comes from nowhere. It comes from a vague, scary place. It's scary because you don't know when it's coming or if it will ever come again. It's this Other."

Out of the Flying J and on the road to St Louis, Missouri - home of Chuck Berry, the winners of Superbowl XXXIV and the elliptical arch known as the Gateway To The West. In between mouthfuls of cheese crackers, rye crispbreads and mineral water (the three essentials of the Beck tour bus if the quantities in the kitchen cupboards are anything to go by), Beck, Justin Meldal Johnsen and keyboardist Roger Manning Jr talk, variously, about how Beck needs a faster Internet connection in his house, those clarinet-shaped plastic MIDI controllers which were going to revolutionise music back in 1986 and multicoloured retro fashion staple the Kensington Rayon shirt.

Eventually, the talk turns - as it often will when two or more men are gathered together - to bars. The consensus is that a good bar is hard to find. Beck says he rarely bothers with those in his native LA. There are no surprises left; always the same crowd drinking in the same way, waiting to get noticed. Going out to a bar in LA, he says, isn't about finding somewhere to drink anymore. "It's like, making a statement."

BECK TOO HAS been accused of attempting to make a statement. It goes back to 1994 and the crossover of his breakbeat blues anthem for doomed youth, Loser. From that moment on, every move he made was pin-pointed and analysed as a distillation of white slacker culture. Two years later, once Odelay had been nominated for a Grammy and put on course for worldwide sales of three million plus, Beck was not only a counter-cultural icon, he was a star. Now he's a star who has knickers thrown at him.

"That happened for the first time last night," he shyly smiles. "I told them I'd have them pressed, laundered and back for the end of the show. We try to provide a multi-level service. Laundry to daycare to guitar solos and nutritional advice."

So far, the Midnite Vultures shows have brought a welcome dash of funkadelic colour to the US alt.rock circuit. Besides the usual guitar, bass and drums, Beck is now backed by a three-piece horn section, two backing singers and a scratch DJ (the hirsute turntable wizard, Swamp); all framed by a stage set whose coils of plastic ducting and reflective backdrop look as if they were left over from the laboratory scene of a no-budget sci-fi film.

"We researched these special holographic backdrop curtains which refract the light, and to me it's totally fresh. People performing with prismatic light coming up behind them," says Beck proudly. "That's original, something new."

Beck has been described as being a dazzling, if somewhat soulless, entertainer. But at the ornate and expectant American Theatre in St Louis he seems totally immersed - whether locked in communion with his microphone or body-popping, spinning and jerking his skinny hips across the stage to Get Real Paid, Mixed Bizness and Nicotine & Gravy.

For the encore the band stumble on stage wear ing props left over from the madcap Sexx Laws video: cricket pads painted with glitter stars, a card board nurse's hat, a gas mask. A red plastic robot head bobs up and down in front of the drum riser. Devil's Haircut is started, only to disintegrate into a howl of feedback and clashing guitar strings as the band start spinning, twisting, falling over. Beck stumbles around blindly on a personal mission, collecting guitar stands from around the stage and attaching them to his collar until exoskeleton. The last person left onstage is the trombonist, who stands blowing a series of random notes into a microphone. There's something rum, almost pornographic about it.

"It's funny you say pornographic," says Beck. "Not that it was overtly sexual, but I did feel the awkwardness and wrongness of people falling over and sticking mic stands in their groin. There is something pornographic there. Not because ofany lewd acts, but because of the awkwardness of it and the awkwardness of the audience watching it. There's something vulnerable there. That's what I enjoy, subjecting the audience to vulnerability. Audiences are put at ease by confidence and having something presented to them with complete conviction. And to give them something that's unprofessional -I love that. That's what punk rock is for me. This element of anti-professionalism."

There's enough professionalism in the world as it is.

"Yeah, right now it's sickening.'

UNFORTUNATELY for Beck, record companies often see things differently. In the spring of 1999, with Midnite Vultures taking longer than expected to finish, his record labels, Geffen and LA based independent Bong Load Custom Records, teamed up to sue him for breach of contract. The problem had apparently arisen over Beck's attempt to sever relations with both labels, citing a seven year limit on personal contracts in California.

The labels sued, and Beck countersued for breach of copyright, claiming the labels had colluded to release his album Mutations on Geffen against his wishes (it was originally intended as an independent release on Bong Load). The case was eventually settled without recourse to the courts in October 1999 - just in time for the release of Midnite Vultures in November.

"Legally," Beck told MTV afterwards, "that was just a bunch of paperwork. There wasn't really any actual human conflict, you know. It was totally amicable, and it was never a desperate situation. On paper, it probably sounds more like that."

On paper it sounds like Geffen are trying to keep a close eye on their investment. Not that Beck appears overly concerned right now. He cheerfully admits that Midnite Vultures has not done as well as hoped in certain areas. "We were supposed to tour through the South, but nobody bought the record in the South. So it was like, All right, we'll go north! Cancel Tennessee and Florida!"

Ultimately, he says, sales charts don't interest him much. He was shocked when, on a radio call-in show last year, the kids started to plague him with questions like, How old were you when you had your first gold record?

"They were all so goal-minded, so sales-oriented," he says. "In the US there's a real obsession with what were the Top 5 movies, the Top 5 books. It's like a sports mentality which has overtaken all areas of public life and it's real sad. It's nothing new, but at least we used to have some distance. We knew it came from greed or whatever. I meet these kids and they've had no struggle their whole lives, no discomfort. It makes you a puppy, I think. People shouldn't suffer, but sometimes if life hits you over the head with a two-by-four it wakes you up in a good way. That's how you learn."

CONSISTENCY AND professionalism is Celine Dion. Beck is change, reinvention and duets with Elvis-wigged rap eccentric Kool Keith. Beck and Keith have so far met just once - through their respective DJs, Swamp and Kutmasta Kurt - when they recorded a brief session at Beck's home studio in Silver Lake last year.

"We did two or three songs. Had a lot of laughs," he says. "I'd never met him before. He was very hygienic, very clean and meticulous. A fresh $40,000 Rolex, fresh sneakers, fresh cologne. Growing up, all the Salvadoreans and Mexicans in my neighbourhood were meticulous. They were starched and pressed and spent three hours in the bathroom every morning."

What are the tracks like?

"One was very like what the Jay-Z records sound like," says Beck. "I want to do a whole record with him, but he's hard to track down."

It doesn't sound very ironic.

"I feel that I left irony behind four or five years ago. I'm trying to reach something that's true. If you get me in a club and put on a Rick James song, that's like an emotional experience. There's some joy and emotion there. I just think we have a really backwards hierarchy in music, that one thing is serious music and gets to be elevated and something that makes people three times happier isn't."

So lines like "Ooh lovely lady, you know you drive me crazy" in Debra aren't just a joke?

"I think a lot of people didn't understand this new record because it does have these real R&B elements, and a lot of it is R&B on its own terms. When I'm singing it, I never have a thought in my head that, This is so funny! I'm so committed. I really believe it. I do."

Maybe it's hard for other people to believe that you believe.

"Well, I think that's their own limitation. I relate more to the culture that R&B conies from. I didn't grow up around a lot of white people. About 80 per cent of those I grew up around were Latino, black and Asian. I don't know how that bears on my music, but I don't feel like an outsider to music like R&B.

"With typical white alternative rock, I feel like an outsider. All the great moments in music are when the white music and the black music come together. Those are powerful moments. Those are the moments when you have the Stones and Hendrix. Here it's so separated it's really a shame."

Presumably that can get fairly frustrating.

"I don't care. I don't like going the easy way. I always make things 50 tinges harder for myself."

Beck has evidently been thinking hard about his position in the scheme of things. About how the personality-driven routines of 21st Century stardom - awards shows, commercials, interviews - often seem to work against him. Can he really be a proper star without a seven-figure clothing contract, a three-picture deal at a major studio and his own-label cologne?

"I've been reading this Martin Amis book, The Information," he says, "and he deals a lot with celebrity and the trappings of it. It articulates a lot of things I see every day... I'm not going to name names, but you see certain people in Calvin Klein ads and you think, What the hell are you doing that for? They're all licensing their image to Levi's or getting sponsored by Tommy Hilfiger. There used to be a real sense of scruples in music. I remember in the early '90s that it was really important to have credibility, almost to the point where it was annoying."

You must have been offered the chance to go the same way.

"Oh yeah, every week. I've been offered more money than I'll ever make off my music. I could have retired with ungodly sums of money. But with some of these people it's like, Come on, you don't need that money. You've got a couple of million dollars. You don't need that extra ten million from Tommy Hilfiger. It's ridiculous."

THE FOLLOWING week, VH-1 are to interview Beck for their sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll documentary series, Behind The Music. Leaning against the kitchen counter on the tour bus, he jokes to Justin Meldal-Johnsen that it won't make for a very exciting episode. At the very least, there won't be much in the way of drugs and debauchery for them to uncover.

"I did all that five years ago," he says, crunching a plain rye crispbread. "It gets boring. It becomes a crutch after a while."

Yet when Q raises the issue with him later, pointing out that he has seldom been connected with major drug use of any kind, his voice turns hard and cold.

"What, have you been with me the last 15 years?" he snaps. "I'm not the kind of person who looks for, who publicises sensationalism or sensational happenings in my life or past. Who doesn't get wasted when they're 20 and do crazy, stupid things? It's like, so what? You can put that in your article and it'll colour it this way or that, but it doesn't have anything to do with my music."

Well, there have always been drugs in music.

"Yeah, but growing up I didn't have money to fucking eat! Where was I going to have money to buy drugs? I'd drink a couple of 40oz bottles of beer with my friends seems suburban to me. It's not that I didn't take drugs, but I didn't belong to some drug culture. I was just doing my own thing."

But people who do their own thing are often considered to be out of their mind on something.

"Must be," he says, smiling to himself. There follows a long pause. "That's another one of those things that's comforting to people, I think. I remember that when I first came out people thought I was a total drug animal or something. I have my day, but I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you if I was wasted and drug addled. I wouldn't be making records. I would have crashed and burned a long time ago. Not that I'm precious or anything. I'm all for drink and loosening the social fabric, things that take people out of themselves.

"Me, I get lost in my music. It's the same with a movie. How much do you love seeing a movie where you're not even conscious of where you are or what time it is? It's a good feeling, right? Human beings need to be taken out of themselves. We're hammered into ourselves, our lives and our problems 24 hours a day. It's not escapism, it's just relief."

So do you have any indulgences these days?

"Indulgences? I'm in the army, man. It's not an indulgent place. Being a musician means you're in the army. You're up at seven in the morning. But I get to play music for two hours a day, that feeds me."

IF BECK IS IN an army, he's fighting a guerrilla war. At a recent televised show for the 27th Annual American Music Awards, Beck took his place on a bill which included Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz. Due to sing a version of Mixed Bizness, he decided to turn the performance on its head and along the way interrupt what he calls a "parade of manufactured personality".

While he stood and sang, the band would fall apart behind him. "I just told most of my band to stop playing," he says. "One of them was doing push-ups, another was talking on a cellphone, another one kept running across the stage."

It was not so much a protest against the awards ceremony itself, but the medium through which it reaches the suburban homes of America. Beck doesn't much like TV His early 7-inch MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack was more or less a joke. But these days he's feeling the deadening effect of the sofa-bound, TV-saturated lifestyle more and more.

"Because with TV," he says, "there's something about being lulled into this pacified state. They say that when you're watching TV, your metabolism levels are lower than when you're sleeping. You're really in suspended animation. So if you can put something through the filter and disrupt the pacifying flow of the television transmission... Everybody grew up remembering some TV moment where somebody did something fuckedup. And it's like a little crack opened up and there's some light shining through."

The tour bus pulls up at a rest stop beside the freeway. Beck, who has been gazing out the window at the near-identical houses which line the road in this part of America, stands up and stretches. Trashing mainstream culture suits him. He looks more alive than he has done at any point on our journey.

"Our whole culture in this country now is so conformist," he says with a wry smile, perhaps sensing hes now one of a dying breed. I dont even meet that many freaks any more.