But do you think that relying on humor and cynicism can be corrosive?
Oh, definitely. It shouldn't be the oxygen; it should be lubrication, a way of easing things. I think it can become a crutch. I have no problem being direct without depending on humor to mask some sort of fear of emotion. Everything has its balance. It just seems like more music could take itself less seriously. I think that in the hip-hop and R&B world, that's not necessarily the case. Mixture is allowed. Ambiguity is allowed.
Midnite Vultures embraces a masculine energy that doesn't run on the same grade of testosterone that fuels, say, Limp Bizkit. It's boasting and sexual, but eager to please.
Oh, yeah. That was a major part of the album. I enjoy toying with masculinity. It's one of these strange nether zones in our purposes. Strange in that you're compelled and repelled at the same time. It's a real push and pull.
Place yourself on a span of masculine archetypes.
I don't know. Somewhere between Noam Chomsky and Rick James [laughs]. I mean, that's anybody. You've got your machismo testosterone on one side and on the other side, an equally self-involved discovering-the-innerman-child – the twelfth insight of the seventh gate of the fifteenth threshold to the third golden key to the inner father-child. Those are the extremes. But I guess when you don't really identify with either of those, you start trying to find out areas where you feel comfortable.
In terms of masculine role models, I appreciate a lot of the scoundrels – the guys who didn't necessarily carry themselves in a politically correct manner. Maybe I admire them not so much for their character but for their whole attitude. It's rare when you can embrace someone completely. There are certain womanizing aspects of Leonard Cohen or Serge Gainsbourg that I wouldn't really relate to, but there's another quality that I can admire. So maybe you admire the attitude but not really the intention of the attitude. I don't know. I'm not really here to judge them.
The record is done, but now you have to go on tour for the next year or two. Do you resent it?
No. I'm ready. It's just a different mode: You know, bivouacking at sunset, finding some kindling, heating up some canned beans. That's the mentality of being on tour – it's very survivalist.
You've got a funky-white-boy side that does splits onstage and hooks up with Puffy in the studio, and this quieter side that unites the country-blues songs of Mutations and does duets with Emmylou Harris. Are there two Becks?
Yeah. Sometimes I have to go solo from myself. I'm sure it confuses some people. A few of them probably enjoy the confusion. I'm sure some people love one half and hate the other.
You say L.A. constantly reminds you of its impermanence. Have the places you grew up in been razed?
Yeah, a couple of them. It's a little painful. Most people have a house to go back to, to say, "Yeah, I lived there when I was five." It's a drag.
Do you wish you'd documented those places?
No. I'm not that precious about memories. I enjoy the here and now. I'm interested in the past, but I love being in 1999. I don't want to be in 1968 or 1978. I definitely don't want to be in 1988. That thing can't recede far enough away for me. It was just a nadir.
OK, if you really love being here, I've got a 1999 quiz. Question One: Name one of the four teams left in the baseball playoffs.
I couldn't name one. I know it's not the Dodgers.
Question Two: Do you know who Melissa Joan Hart is?
No. Who's that?
She's Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Question Three: Name one album in the Top Five that isn't by the Backstreet Boys.
I was gonna say Backstreet Boys. You know what? I can't.
I would have accepted Santana.
Santana? Wow. Good for him.
You said earlier that you hated L.A. when you were growing up. Why? It's such a car city. If you can't drive, you can't go anywhere, you're just stuck on an island.
What was your first car?
A '63 Ford Falcon. It was red, a station wagon. In the Eighties, those were the cheapest cars: Darts, Valiants, Ramblers. They were all two or three hundred bucks. It would take you two months to save up, you'd drive it until it broke down, sell it for scrap and get another one. I went through tons of them.
OK, why the Town Car?
I decided I needed something reliable, and I couldn't see myself in one of those compact economy things, and I really couldn't get over the some-kind-of-status-symbol car. I couldn't do the Lexus or what have you. Also, I like the senior-citizen aspect of it. Besides, they were on sale. The planets aligned, the numbers added up, and I wound up with that ride.
In "Mixed Bizness," on the new album, there's that lyric about making "all the lesbians scream." It's not ironic, and it's not literal, so maybe you're in that ambiguous zone. But do you ever worry that people just won't get it?
What? You're not supposed to sing about lesbians? I don't know. I really don't want to be careful. I'm confident in what I believe in and that I know the music comes from a good place. It's not exploitative, it's not coming from any hatred or intolerance. It's a non-issue for me. I'm just not a literal person, you know?
By now, Beck is sitting up straight and his voice is rising, confused as he is by the idea, even the hypothetical one, that some people would take offense at his crazy-ass songs. "What happened to the provocateur?" he asks forcefully. "That's a huge part of an artist's job. It's become a little bit of a dead end in a way – certain artists that are just trying to rub people the wrong way. It's not too much about that, it's more about . . . uh . . . it's definitely about . . . " There's a long pause during which Beck tries hard to be understood in his defense of being misunderstood. " . . . letting loose."
Among the rare criticisms of Beck is the complaint that for such a gifted, articulate performer, he writes lyrics that don't always make sense. People get huffy about his verbal high jinks, as if he's got some deeper message that he won't translate for them. "I've heard some criticism," he says nonchalantly. "Even from my own girlfriend. She gives me shit: 'Why don't you just say what you feel?' And I say, 'That's as close as I could get. Take 'em for what you want.' They can be nonsense if you want. They can be decoration, or they can be the skeleton of someone's soul. They can be whatever you want."
Beck's rule on lyrics is as follows: "If it doesn't bug me in the song, then it's all right. Does it stick out and make me cringe, or is it going to go by and feel good? But I work on 'em," he says, his voice rising again. "They're not necessarily throwaways, but they're not intended as the almighty word. Besides, I don't think this is the time or the place for the poet to descend from the hilltop and give the people the word. Thirty years ago, that was OK. But at this point, there's no place for that to even take a foothold."
Even thirty years ago, being a generational spokesman could be a real drag, a burden Beck tasted when "Loser" blew up in '94. "Yeah," he says. "You're either living up to it or living it down. I'm glad I don't have to deal with it. Ultimately, I think someone like Dylan just wanted to turn it up and blast through. You know?" he asks, and he's really asking. "I can get into the words and have fun with that, but also," he says, his face now showing the beginnings of a hopeful grin, "I like turning up the drum machine and putting down a fat bass line."
This story is from the December 9th, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.
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