Nobody's Fool

Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

'Wow--I've been looking for a guitar like that." Beck Hansen gazes up at the sculpture hanging on the restaurant wall--a Cubist rendition of a Silvertone guitar, its head, neck and body reconfigured at odd angles.

Perfect--a droll quip from Generation X's musical prankster.

But Beck isn't joking. And when you realize that he's talking about wanting a real, intact Silvertone, you've got a clue that all the stereotypes--Beck the slippery put-on artist, Beck the slacker spokesman, etc.--might be a little shaky.

That's fine with Beck, 26, who has chafed under these images since he arrived out of nowhere in 1993 with the hit "Loser," an infectious hybrid of folk and hip-hop that he'd recorded a year earlier in the living room of its producer.

He was instantly the most intriguing mystery figure in pop--a baby-faced, apparently naive kid with a prolific backlog of songs that covered the musical map and a vague past on L.A.'s bohemian rock club and coffeehouse scene.

Major record companies began circling, and after he signed with Geffen's DGC label, the debate was clearly framed: Genius--or joke?

His debut DGC album, 1994's "Mellow Gold," was a collection of unrelated recordings, but it drew acclaim and sold nearly a million copies. But the debate raged, fueled by Beck's elusive image, his inconsistency as a performer and his tendency to pop up all over the place--his contract allows him to release albums on independent labels, accounting for "Stereopathetic Soulmanure" on Flipside and the acoustic "One Foot in the Grave" on K.

But suddenly the questions seem to be answered with Beck's new album. "Odelay" has received across-the-board rave reviews, and album of the year predictions are rolling in. The single "Where It's At," a seductive hip-hop celebration with a wry, Beckian twist, is an inescapable radio and MTV presence, and Beck's recent shows with his new band were a winning blend of daffy charm and sheer aggression (he's expected back for a formal L.A. concert in October).

The album has sold a robust 181,000 copies in its first three weeks of release, but beyond the numbers is the sense that this abrasive, whimsical, tender and ferocious collection is one of those records that matter, springing from shared experience and striking a nerve with the artist's contemporaries.

"I feel like the music that we make is very much a product of growing up in [the era of] TV and media," says John King, 31, one of the album's producers and co-writers. "Very fast, fast-switching edits on TV, attention spans getting shorter and shorter. . . .

"I feel like I've definitely grown up in it, and Beck's even younger, so he's probably grown up with more diversity and quicker switching between different things. Maybe it's just thinking faster. Not a shorter attention span but just thinking faster."

For his part, Beck resists analysis.

"A lot of what I'm trying to do is intuitive," he says, looking up from his menu. "Surrendering to, I don't know, some other kind of logic, so it doesn't become forced. I tend to do better when I just let the album take on a life of its own. It usually has its own plan somehow. Almost as if you're the transmitter, the facilitator of this whole thing. . . .

"When you're in the studio 16 hours for the 20th day in a row, it's so unconscious at some point, you don't know what the hell's going on. I think the real music starts to happen when you get to that point where you're just letting go and you're creating some sort of monster."

Beck has picked this Pasadena Thai spot on a friend's recommendation. Success may have its price, but for this restaurant aficionado, the rewards include a chance to sample a variety of the area's offerings while taking care of interview obligations.

He orders steamed vegetables and rice and asks for a Thai beer.

"This is the first year I haven't been carded," he says as the waiter leaves without asking for an ID. "That's the coming of age, when they don't card you. You know you've made it to the other side."

Beck's youthful appearance has been one of his trademarks, and the mutton-chop sideburns that sprouted a few years ago don't age him much. Associates cite his humor, intelligence and humility as prominent traits. But while he's unassuming and friendly enough, he can also seem guarded--his face inexpressive except for an occasional wry smile, his nasal voice close to a monotone.

His passions, though, run deep, and instead of the ironic eccentric depicted in the media shorthand, he's actually an idealist, going against the flow of his alternative-rock habitat as much as his Sears-rack khaki shirt flouts fashion dictates.

"I'm sick to death of so-called alternative music being so narrow," he says. "The only acceptable things seem to be very basic irony or this faux anger, angst. . . . I look at all the music I love--country music, blues, samba, hip-hop, Moroccan, whatever. There's that element of celebration in the music that is so sorely missing.

"I'm not saying that angst and irony aren't valid. They're so much a part of our time. But the musicians I admire--Willie Nelson, Chico Hamilton, Hank Williams, Maybelle Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, there's dozens--there's something that reaches me in that music that has this real multilevel range to it that a lot of the music I hear now doesn't."

The transition from unknown video store clerk to nascent pop messiah wasn't all dog food skulls and beefcake pantyhose (to grab two images from the torrent in "Loser") for Beck.

"The whole experience of 'Mellow Gold' was sort of the opposite of everything he'd experienced in his whole life," says Mark Kates, the Geffen artists and repertoire executive who signed him to the label. "He was sleeping on people's couches and just screwing around, and then all of a sudden he had one of the biggest singles of the year.

"He spent a lot of time trying to figure out psychologically how to deal with that. The experience has definitely hardened him. . . . He's a lot different now. He's got this level of confidence that's just unbelievable."

Even now, Beck finds that he's still shackled to the legacy of his breakthrough hit, which was adopted by the media as an anthem of youthful disaffection.

"I was in a record store today and they had my section--the sign said, 'Beck, that wacky loser.' " He rolls his eyes. "I love the song. It was a great thing to do, I had the time of my life, and I hope that's what communicates to people.

"But people making it into some kind of theme or anthem, there's something really dangerous about that--to think that a song could really speak for a wide range of people. . . . It's not music's job to represent a person's life, their thoughts and everything summed up in a dumb little song.

"All [the success] has done to me is make me want to work more, put more of myself into it, put as much as I have into it."

What he is putting himself into is his vision of an embracing, "inclusive" music. He pursues it by recording constantly, in different circumstances and configurations, and by remaining dedicated to spontaneity and experimentation.

"Most of the best parts of the record are accidents," says Mike Simpson, King's teammate in the Dust Brothers production duo, recalling the day they inserted an old recording of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony into the middle of "High 5 (Rock the Catskills)." "Just drop the needle in the right place at the right time. It's like, 'Wow, this kind of sounds cool.' "

The coherence and focus of "Odelay" don't really compute when you consider the range of musical elements: '70s garage rock fuzz-guitar riffs, whooshing hip-hop drums, psychedelic freakouts, liquid burbling, burrowing groans, back-porch blues guitar, squawks and bleeps, backward gasps, vocal fragments, punk rock and ragtime, sitar and pedal steel, monster roars. . . .

"Maybe growing up in a Korean-Salvadoran neighborhood," says Beck, who hails primarily from the Pico-Union district near downtown L.A., "walking on the street and hearing hip-hop coming out of one car and ranchera music coming out of another. This sort of intersection of culture might have a lot to do with what I'm doing.

"I'm building stuff with big bricks right now. It's very easy to see what's from where, how it all fit together. Eventually I'd like to be working where you can't really tell how it was put together, where it came from, what it is. You just look at it and it is what it is. . . . It's just getting to a place where it's music and it's dynamic and it's enjoyable."

Of course, that will make it even harder to pigeonhole him, but he's not complaining.

"Who in their right mind wants to be pinned down and summed up? . . . To be the 'this' guy or the 'that' guy, the 'Loser' guy--it's tiring."

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