The Heartbreak Kid
Blender
October 2002
pp. 58-62
Dorian Lynskey

It's been a difficult couple of years for Beck: He's split with members of his band, his longtime manager and, most devastating of all, his girlfriend of nine years. The result: his most emotionally naked album. "I like being in peril," he tells Blender

IN JUNE 2000, three weeks.before he turned 30, Beck Hansen separated from costume designer Leigh Limon, his girlfriend 0f nine years. He met her when he was an unknown 0n the Los Angeles punk scene, long before "Loser," Odelay and his iconic status as pop culture's most celebrated magpie. He turned up to his thirtieth birthday party a single man.

In the following months, further upheavals set the Los Angeles rumor mill churning. First he was linked with Winona Ryder. More significantly, he parted company with his longtime manager, John Silva, as well as regular band members Smokey Hormel and Joey Waronker. Then a comment by his bassist, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, triggered speculation that Beck (who was raised Jewish) had converted t0 the controversial Church of Scientology, with which his father, David Campbell, has connections.

This month Beck releases his seventh album, Sea Change, a collection of gorgeous, downbeat and unusually direct songs full of confusion and loss. One track, the country-flavored "Guess I'm Doing Fine," runs: "It's only lies that I'm livin'/It's only tears that I'm cryin'/It's only you that I'm losin'/I guess I'm doing fine." Another, "Lost Cause," sighs: "I'm tired of fighting for a lost cause."

Some might infer a connection between Beck's music and recent events in his private life. Beck, however, is not one of them.

"Um, yeah," he says slowly. "It's a thing that everybody goes through. Those breakup moments. Y'know."

We're in a grand, old-fashioned steakhouse in downtown L.A., the kind that offers artery-jamming food at walletemptying prices. Beck is sawing away at a plate 0f lamb chops and looking unhappy at the direction the interview has taken.

Listeners will naturally assume that some of these songs are about Leigh Limon. Were they written after you separated?

"Er, a little before ... after, but before. I don't know. [Sarcastically] I'll send you the dates. I have them written down on my calendar at home."

Has she heard these songs yet?

"No. [The album] hasn't come out."

We know. We meant, are the two of you still in touch?

His voice goes quiet, his mood arctic. "That's none of your business."

*****

THESE ARE confessional times. We know in graphic detail about the troubled childhood of Staind's Aaron Lewis, we know that Papa Roach's Jacoby Shaddix wet the bed until he was 16 and we know almost as much about the twists and turns of Eminem's family life as we d0 about our own.

Beck is different. He'll talk at length about perfecting a specific string sound, but quizzing him about any aspect of his personal life is like wrestling a shadow. He interrupts, misunderstands, sidesteps 0r just plain ignores countless questions. He must be the only American songwriter since Bob Dylan to write a beautifully moving heartbreak record, then seem perplexed, even annoyed, that anyone might actually be interested in the heartbreak behind it.

Then again, Beck has always specialized in mixed messages. He arrives at the restaurant with his rail-thin frame wrapped in a torn, faded, blue-and-white striped sweater and topped with a tangled mop of hair. At first glance he looks goofy and ageless, with the soft, open face of someone s0, maybe 20, years younger, almost too young to shave. But his ice-blue eyes and the smirk that plays around his lips betray a steely, biting intelligence. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore once described him as "a zombie fawn guided by a translucent face with sci-fi eyes."

You can see what Moore was getting at. When you retrace Beck's career, it reads like an guidebook to not getting pinned down. After the surrealist bluespop of "Loser" shot him from obscurity in 1993, he released three albums in one year: a chaotic punk set (Stereopathetic Soulmanure), a clutch of hushed folk songs (One Foot in the Grave) and a boundary-busting hybrid of country, pop, hip-hop and psychedelia (Mellow Gold).

He's followed an equally wayward path since. On 1996's Odelay, he advanced Mellow Gold's genre-tampering with 2 million-selling, Grammy-winning results, only then t0 deke fans with the subtle, lo-fi Mutations (1998) and the technicolor R&B maneuvers of Midnite Vultures (1999). As a cultural figure, if not a chart force, his ability to flip the script ingeniously with each successive album has made him the heir to 1970s David Bowie or 1980s Prince.

"I respect musicians who put out the same record over and over again and develop some thing. I do. You know, my grandfather [Al Hansen] was an artist, and in the early '60s he started doing images of the Venus figure. He spent 35 years doing that figure over and over and over. He explored every aspect 0f what that figure could do and every material you could apply to it, and there's something beautiful about that. But I just decided to cast my net a bit wider. Maybe I won't catch as much."

To the outsider, Beck's career is like a jigsaw puzzle - and he's withholding half the pieces. He has been habitually misunderstood ever since critics inaccurately dubbed "Loser" a "slacker anthem" (in fact, Beck's industriousness verges 0n the workaholic). It happened with Midnite Vultures, a horny love letter to commercial R&B but also a slippery satire on the glossy excesses of late-'90s culture. Aware that it was a "weird record," Beck originally planned to release it as his jiggy alter ego, Surrealius, but decided to use his own name. It sold half as much as Odelay and left many listeners wondering what, beneath its chilly, polished surface, Beck was trying to say. Where does a playful grin become a knowing smirk?

"I didn't spell it out," he concedes with a sigh. "There was a certain ambiguity, going into that nether zone of meaning or non-meaning. Is it sincere or not? Is it funny or is it just stupid? I enjoy that. I like being in peril. You're not playing it safe. You're not saying, 'I'm Eminem and I come from here and this is what happened to me and this is how I see the world, in big block letters. But we don't live in subtle times culturally."

He admits in retrospect that Midnite Vultures was a deliberately perverse move. "I was at a point that I felt an urge to ... waste it a bit. Do some things you're not supposed to do, say some things you're not supposed to say."

If Beck is at all concerned about how his commercial and critical stock has dipped since, he hides it well.

"I think I gave indications early on that mine wasn't just going to be a commercial, er, career. If that were the case, then the first record would have been 10 versions of `Loser.' I always thought it would be interesting if there was no such thing as gold and platinum records or record deals, and people were just making music. What would the music sound like?"

*****

ALTHOUGH HE RECOILS from attempts to attribute his maverick inclinations to his background, Beck vas bohemian blood in his veins.

He was born Bek David Campbell 32 years ago in downtown Los Angeles, just minutes away from where he lives now. His father is a respected string arranger who worked with his son on Sea Change's elegant orchestration; he also lists Aerosmith, Alanis Morissette and Green Day on his resume. Beck's mother (whose surname he took when his parents divorced) is Bibbe Hansen, an L.A. scene fixture who acted for Andy Warhol at age 13 and now owns a restaurant with her second husband, artist Sean Carillo, who she began seeing when Carillo was only 15. Then there's Bibbe's late father, Al Hansen, a contemporary of Yoko Ono in the avant-garde Fluxus art movement. A family like that was never likely to raise a cynical unit-shifter.

"Art is important," Beck avers. "It's just an integrity thing. Somebody else is satisfied by five Bentleys. I'm satisfied by a beautiful string arrangement."

Beck is not a natural celebrity. Downtown L.A. is a world away from the Hollywood party circuit, and his idea of a good night out does not involve champagne or velvet ropes.

"I mainly go to parties to dance," he says, eyes brightening. "It's funny - I never got invited to parties until about a year ago. I was pretty much gone throughout the '90s, out on tour. I go once every month or two. It's probably that syndrome of looking at a car crash. It's interesting, but at the same time it's repelling." He blinks and smiles.

That sentiment might have something to do with his weary lament on Sea Change's "Lost Cause": "This town is cruel; nobody cares."

"Yeah, it's an L.A. line," he says regretfully. "I wanted to take that line out, but I was too lazy. It is, though. People are very, I don't know, blase."

He'll say no more about it, but the door on the pain that inspired Sea Change seems to have opened, if only a crack.

Anyone who vas ever liked Beck but wished he would give a little more of himself might decide that Sea Change is a career high. It's a record to wrap yourself in on a long, lonely night, one to file alongside Join Mitchell's Blue, Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left and Leonard Cohen's debut.

"It's almost like those early James Taylor singer-songwriter records," he says. "I don't like them. I just like the sound." He's a full-grown man, but he's not afraid to cry. He is, however, afraid to tell you about it, and makes laying bare his emotions seem like nothing more than simply a clinical exercise in genre hopping.

"It's just a different part of myself," he says bluntly. "I don't believe that one thing tells you more about a person than the other thing. When somebody is crying, that's no better an indication of them than when they're laughing. They're all different pieces."

But surely these lyrics are more personal than, say, "Hot like a cheetah, neon mamacita" (from Midnite Vultures' "Hollywood Freaks")?

"The lyrics are in the tradition of songwriting that uses plain language," he says, slamming the door on the subject.

Beck pushes his plate away. He vas a 10 P.M. appointment with dance producer Felix da Housecat, a key player in clubland's current electro revival. ("Speaking of introspection ... " he jokes). His cultural antennae are always twitching. Maybe he and Felix will make a record together: a colorful, playful electropop album with no explicit references to love or loss, and nothing to endanger his fiercely guarded privacy. You can be sure that would suit him just fine.