Beck's Got a Brand New Bag

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

You don't envy the photographers waiting to shoot Beck in a Hollywood studio, where he's spending the day in front of cameras rather than the two turntables and a microphone that are the trademarks of his invigorating live shows.

The 29-year-old pop auteur has just left the makeup room, where stylists have fussed over his hair and helped him slip into a sharply cut suit. But there's nothing they can do to help the photographers overcome that classic Beck gaze.

Some rock stars are difficult subjects because they are so used to projecting a particular image that it's hard to get an honest expression from them. The challenge with Beck is getting any expression.

It's this blank, boyish look that made him seem the ideal poster boy for the slacker generation six years ago, when he first caught the rock world's attention with the hit single "Loser." The single came out at the height of the media's fascination with the supposed aimlessness and apathy that it saw in Gen-X. Coupled with Beck's deadpan delivery, the song's signature line--"I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me"--seemed to echo the Gen-X stereotypes.

Despite the success he's achieved since, he still looks like an innocent, waif-like rube in his photos--someone who would have been ideal alongside Deputy Barney Fife in the fictional world of Mayberry.

Yet photographers line up to shoot Beck, because for pop aficionados he is the ultimate in '90s hip. Rolling Stone has already been by for some shots, and now it's GQ's turn.

"Some days it seems like all of Cool World orbits around Beck Hansen," declared Spin magazine. "[He] is cover-leaping, poll-sweeping, chart-hopping, Grammy-copping proof that you can be weird, cool, brainy and popular, all at the same time." An equally enthusiastic Rolling Stone described Beck as "perhaps the decade's most innovative and prolific new voice."

Beck's last album, "Odelay," was an imaginative blend of hip-hop and folk-rock traditions that was named the best album of 1996 by the nation's pop critics.

His new CD, titled "Midnite Vultures" and due in stores Nov. 23, is another artistic triumph, a wildly inventive collection of party delights you can picture as the soundtracks for millennium celebrations in countless living rooms and dorms. Seductive and fun, it features Beck as soul man--part Prince, part Sly Stone, part pure magic.

Behind the magic, however, is an extraordinary degree of artistic commitment. Far from the casual slacker image--an image he's always hated--Beck makes great music because he devotes himself to it in a way that borders on obsession. At the expense of almost any personal life, he worked 12 to 16 hours a day for more than a year making "Midnite Vultures."

In an age of disposable pop, Beck, indeed, is one of the few major players with his eye on the long run. It's that combination of integrity and talent that makes him seem to stand the best chance of the '90s pop-rock arrivals of giving us interesting and influential music for years. The music may waver in and out of the mainstream, but it is likely to be adventurous and substantial in the tradition of Neil Young or Tom Waits.

"I remember when I was 20 and thinking about all the amazing musicians who come out and do a few great things, and then something happens," Beck says. "It's like they go through a door of success and it changes them. The thing I wondered was whether they just burn out or do they get distracted by the success? My dream was to go through that door and still do interesting things.

"I could have very easily come out with another 'Odelay' and been finished in a couple of months. But that would have been obvious and cheap. Besides, I had a very specific thing in my head, and I wasn't willing to stop until it was done. If you hear one single part of the new record, there are probably 40 different ideas we tried before choosing that one. At times it felt like we were going to hell and back on each song, but I knew what I wanted. I don't know if that [drive] is a blessing or a curse. . . ."

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The first thing you notice about Beck as he settles into a booth in a Hollywood restaurant is how fast the blank look gives way to the expressions photographers would love to capture on film. He's personable, smart and quick to smile. He also speaks easily.

So why the stiffness during photo shoots?

"I'm just not a model and I'm not trying to create an image," he says, with a smile. "It's just the opposite, I'm just being me. If you want me to be expressive or catch a personality, take a picture of me cooking breakfast or take a picture of me driving in the car listening to my favorite songs.

"I see a lot of people who play up for the camera so that they'll be 'interesting,' but they seem to be trying too hard. I don't like to appear like I'm 'trying' to be something. It just seems false and it makes me feel uncomfortable."

That doesn't mean Beck is uncooperative during photo shoots. He politely refuses when asked during a brief photo session with The Times to wink at the camera--an easy way to inject some personality into the shot, and a way of underscoring the humor in his work. "Ah, that's kinda corny," he says.

But he goes along gamely when encouraged to show some of his soul-man dance steps to illustrate the party flavor of the new album. He even suggests that someone put a disc into a CD player so he can get the feel of being onstage.

Unfortunately, there isn't a copy of his own album around, and he is only partly successful getting into the spirit of an alt-rock band's sound. Dancing hesitantly to someone else's music, he looks a long way from a commercial pop star. But then, he also feels a long way from that.

Even after two million-selling albums and the acclaim, he frets over whether his music is truly good enough and whether it will find an audience.

"I started out playing folk music, so there was no possibility for any kind of commercial viability," he says. "I was playing Son House songs and Louvin Brothers tunes. I just happened to record 'Loser' and stumbled into some commercial acceptability, and people have stuck around to see what's next."

At heart, Beck is a folk-based singer-songwriter in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. It's a side he showed in last year's "Mutations," an introspective, folk-based side project that explored the issues of longing and doubt that troubadours and bluesmen have sung about for generations.

As much as he loves the folk, country and blues roots of rock 'n' roll, Beck, like Dylan, finds more excitement and challenge in the musical language of his generation, which for him means hip-hop and, at times, a touch of techno-based electronica.

But Beck's shift from the rather soothing, traditional acoustic world to a more jarring and unstructured contemporary canvas invariably left some pop fans wondering just how committed Beck was to any direction.

"I was writing in a traditional vein for years and years, and I started experimenting mostly for my own amusement," Beck explains. "Then I did 'Loser' by a fluke and it's the thing that everybody responded to, and it felt liberating. It was like you had been sketching in pencil and suddenly you realized you could work with all these colors. I still like sometimes to go back to the discipline of a pencil. But working with all the colors gives you so many possibilities. It's hard to know they're there and not use them."

Mark Kates, who was Beck's artists & repertoire director at Geffen Records until 1997, when he was named president of the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal Records, acknowledges the danger in shifting directions.

"A lot of people think that it's a sign of weakness when an artist is constantly going in different directions--and it is, if you don't do them well," says Kates. "But one of Beck's strengths is his extraordinary range and depth."

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As with Dylan, Beck Hansen's first love was rock 'n' roll. In his case, it was a mixture of '60s and '70s bands (ranging from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Devo and Kraftwerk) rather than Dylan's heroes Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.

But, also like Dylan, Beck found his first musical voice in the blues and folk artists he discovered in his teens. The breakthrough came one afternoon when he was so intrigued by the intense, sweating face on an album cover at a friend's house that he slipped the album under his coat and took it home with him. The album was by bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, and Beck's eyes widen as he recalls the awe of the moment. "The music was amazing," he says. "So pure and straight from the heart."

Beck had an acoustic guitar by this time, and he spent hours teaching himself the songs on that and other albums, including an Elektra Records folk compilation featuring the Minneapolis trio of Koerner, Ray & Glover.

"My brother and I were obsessed with that record," Beck says. "I would sit and listen and try to figure out the songs. They were in the folk world, they were doing this folk music, but they were doing something different with it. They were putting this rock 'n' roll energy into it. That's what attracted me."

Beck had plenty of time to study folk, blues and country artists because he never went to high school.

Born in Los Angeles on July 8, 1970, Beck David Hansen was actually named Bek, a fact he attributes to the '60s generation's fondness for new names and new spellings.

His father, David Campbell, was a bluegrass musician who in recent years has become an in-demand string arranger. His work has been featured on scores of albums, including "Midnite Vultures." Beck's mother, artist Bibbe Hansen, is the daughter of Al Hansen, a member of the influential Fluxus avant-garde art movement of the '60s.

Beck's parents were divorced when he was around 9, and he and his younger brother Channing, now a performance artist, lived with his mom, who later married artist Sean Carrillo. In 1990, the couple opened Troy Cafe, a downtown spot that became a center of the art community.

"I guess you'd call it an artistic home," he says of his upbringing. "It wasn't like 'You Can't Take It With You,' where people were sliding down the banisters doing ballet and somebody was down in the basement inventing something. But if you showed up with weird hair or did something funny with clothes, it wouldn't be out of place."

Living in a small MacArthur Park-area apartment during his teen years, Beck didn't go to high school because the closest school, Belmont, had a tough reputation. "It was the first school in the city with airport security detectors at the doors," he says. Unable to get into the city's magnet schools for the arts, he just prowled the city, working at odd jobs (including unloading boxes at a garment factory near Watts) and spending long hours educating himself in the downtown public library.

In 1988, after playing his music at small clubs and coffeehouses, he headed for New York, the scene of the '60s folk explosion. "I wanted to check it out," he has said. "I wanted to see what kind of ghosts were hanging around."

Beck disliked the East Coast winter and returned to Los Angeles after a year, but he got some valuable experience playing traditional songs in New York clubs, and some even more valuable advice. A club owner said he liked Beck's "Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers impressions," but he ought to start writing his own songs if he wanted a future in the music business.

Beck heeded the advice. The songwriting was clumsy at first, just new lyrics to some of his favorite old songs. But within two years, he had written the song that would make him a star.

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Beck was just a speck on the underground L.A. club scene in the early '90s, slowly building a buzz with his strange mix of traditional and original songs, sometimes singing them straight, sometimes mixing them with odd bits of costuming or instrumentation that pushed the music into the area of experimental performance art.

Record company executives were impressed, but they didn't know if his unconventional approach could be commercial. They found the answer once they heard "Loser," a strange but seductive mix of hip-hop and folk he co-wrote and recorded with producer and songwriter Carl Stephenson in the latter's living room.

The song was released by the Hollywood independent label Bong Load Records in 1993, and it ignited a bidding war among the major labels, with Beck finally deciding to sign with Geffen Records.

John Silva, who manages Beck and has worked with such other noteworthy talents as Nirvana and the Beastie Boys, recalls the enthusiasm about Beck around town at the time.

"I went to see him at Raji's maybe two or three weeks after getting a tape of 'Loser, and I was so excited," he says. "I remember coming home and my wife asking what I thought. I told her, 'I don't know what this guy is doing, but he's doing something important.' "

Thanks to the interest in "Loser," Beck's "Mellow Gold" album broke into the national top 20 and sold more than 1 million copies in 1994. The only downside was the slacker stereotype that caused some skeptics to dismiss him as just another in the '90s parade of one-hit wonders.

"It was difficult, but I tried to embrace it with a certain amount of humor," Beck says of the slacker tag. "Besides, I knew that it would blow over because anything the media focuses on, they'll eventually burn out on and move on."

Meanwhile, Beck served notice of his artistic independence with a series of small-label, often offbeat releases, including the country/blues-rooted "One Foot in the Grave" on Olympia's K Records and the experimental, distorted "Stereopathetic Soulmanure" on L.A.'s Flipside.

Beck's next official album, 1996's "Odelay," earned a Grammy nomination for album of the year. Though it lost to Celine Dion's "Falling Into You," Beck did win two Grammys--best alternative performance and best male rock performance.

Nevertheless, "Odelay" was something of a hard commercial sell. Beck toured for nearly two years trying to build support for it and to put the album's varied textures into context so audiences could see the music wasn't just some studio gimmick.

While he was waiting for audiences to catch up to him, he was already outlining in his mind--and in the increasing soul-revue shape of the "Odelay" live show--the dramatic shift he would make in the R&B-shaded; "Midnite Vultures."

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It's a week after the Hollywood photo shoot, and the fans down front for Beck's concert at the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana are enthralled as he goes through such new songs as "Peaches & Cream," the kind of sexy pop confection the Artist gave us when he still called himself Prince.

During a scorching funk workout, Beck spins around deftly and drops to the floor in a dramatic scissors-step a la James Brown and Prince. Later, he mocks rock star cliches by picking up a guitar and going through a jam with other band members.

But the highlight is "Debra," a longtime concert staple that combines the dark humor of Randy Newman with a soul-revue punctuation topped off by a dazzling falsetto. On "Midnite Vultures," the song is a funny, lecherous tale of seduction--complete with such SoCal reference points as Glendale and Zankou Chicken.

Live, however, he turns it into a desperate tale of romantic rejection, a torch song during which Beck acts out the part of a rejected suitor so completely that he throws down the microphone stand and collapses in despair.

It's a moment of emotional chaos.

"I like chaos . . . taking yourself and the audience into the unknown, so no one is quite sure of what's going on," he says after the set, sitting in the nearly deserted club. "I love the kind of abandon that you feel onstage when your own will has been removed and you are completely vulnerable and no longer in control. You may look vulnerable. You may even look idiotic, but there's something honest and revealing going on."

There's something courageous, but also dangerous, in Beck's approach--from the chaos on stage to the torturous months in the studio. He seems under constant time pressure. He was shadowed at the photo shoot, the restaurant and the club by an assistant, who periodically reminded him of his next obligation.

Mickey Petralia, an engineer and co-producer who spent hundreds of hours in the studio with Beck, testifies to Beck's singular focus.

"There are always a lot of cool things going on around town that you get invited to, and you see a lot of bands cancel sessions to go to the parties or whatever, but Beck never even thinks about it," Petralia says. "He never loses his momentum or motivation to keep improving the music."

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Beck, who lives in Silver Lake with his longtime girlfriend, stylist Leigh Limon, worries that his dedication puts a strain on his relationship.

"It's like the story of the lobster in the water," he says with a sigh. "If you turn up the heat gradually, you don't notice that it's suddenly boiling. I worry about that.

"There are periods in a musician's life where you don't have a day off for months. . . . I know that can be frustrating for those around you. I'd like to spend some time with friends who I have been neglecting for the last year and a half."

Any break, however, will be short. On the day after the Galaxy performance, Beck and his band head to New York to tape an MTV special, and then on to Europe where they'll do promotional duties for a month. The "Midnite Vultures" tour will start in mid-January.

"On some days, I feel like I've been doing this forever," he says. "And I have, in a way. Time isn't the same in a musician's life. Three years on the road is like 15 years in a normal life span. Everything is so disorienting, and there are so many distractions. You wonder how long you can maintain your discipline. . . ."

Beck is interrupted by his assistant, who reminds Beck that some friends have come down from L.A. for the show and they're waiting to see him backstage. It's already midnight, and he's due to catch a flight in the morning for New York and the MTV special.

Before going backstage, however, he pauses and continues his thought, maintaining creative focus, the way a Young or Waits has done.

"I was looking the other day at this Japanese magazine that runs little photos of an artist's albums along with stories, and I look at someone like Neil Young or David Bowie and there are 30 or 40 there, and it makes me realize I'm still just beginning.

"I'm just at four real albums, which would put me, where, at 'Ziggy Stardust' or 'Aladdin Sane' in terms of Bowie's albums. I'd like to think I'll have 30 or 40 someday, but who knows? Maybe there'll only be four or five, and you want to be proud of each one. You never know when it's your turn to go through that door."

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Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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