Beck enters the sleek Los Angeles restaurant a bit cautiously. If he were a dog, he would be sniffing the wind. For this is not really his sort of place – it pushes food with names like Nice Bass, for starters.
Small in stature but deep in voice, Beck has a slept-in-his-clothes look about him: a few days' beard growth and a striped shirt that emits a gamy but not-unpleasant smell. His deadpan, measured way of speaking also differs wildly from the fast-talking crowd that schmoozes furiously around him. He studies the menu. He looks confused. "I'm . . . gonna have . . . the . . . " he begins – the elegant black-clad waitress leans in closer, straining to hear – "the Lettuce . . . Entertain You . . . salad," he finishes. "Dressing?" she chirps. "Oh . . . ," he says. Tick, tick, tick. The waitress stares. "Um . . . the . . . balsamic?"
A former street musician, Beck belongs in a category all his own. Smart, funny and strange, he floats along in his own time-space continuum. He seems unattached to any particular group or generation despite the slacker albatross around his neck since his 1994 hit, "Loser," off his debut, Mellow Gold.
"Lately, people have kind of stopped asking me about it, which is good," Beck says. His exceptional new album, Odelay, should prove that Beck's "Loser"-driven success is no fluke. Maybe, God willing, Beck will even cease being known as that "Loser Guy."
As he did on Mellow Gold, Beck soaks up music from what seems to be every genre and splatters it spin-art style throughout his songs. Blues, country, rap, jazz, rock – all present and accounted for. In fact, Beck says there is no musical genre he would refuse to take on. "Before, I'd have to say reggae, but I think I might be open to that," he says, thoughtfully chewing his Lettuce Entertain You salad.
There may not be any Bob Marley samples on Odelay, but the new album is still a musical smorgasbord. His music no longer has that guy-noodling-around-with-a-four-track feeling, however. "I had a lot more available to me this time," says Beck. "The last album was recorded at this guy Karl's house. His girlfriend would come home and make food after work, so I'd be hurrying up to finish a vocal before she came in." In the studio this time it was usually just Beck with one or both of his co-producers, the Dust Brothers, toiling at the controls. "You're working on a song for 16 hours straight," says Beck, "and you're not even talking anymore. It's a subhuman state – sort of like an alien. Your skin turns green."
Before proceeding any further, two questions must be answered: (1) Beck, what the hell does Odelay mean? "It's actually a Chicano slang word. It's a word I grew up hearing. Although some people think it refers to the album being delayed." (2) What is that fuzzy thing on your album cover? "I was looking at this dog book, and I came to a picture of the most extreme dog. He looked like a bundle of flying udon noodles attempting to leap over a hurdle. I couldn't stop laughing for about 20 minutes. Plus the deadline for a cover was a day away."
Beck's Nice Bass arrives in a bed of some sort of fluffy white substance. He studies it: "Are those potatoes? You never know in these places what's going on. They're artichokes? Whipped? That is crazy."
Odelay is the inspired result of a year and a half's worth of feverish cutting, pasting, layering, dubbing and, of course, sampling. Sadly, there is one snippet that will never be heard: a fiendish sample from Cell Phone Barbie as she squeaks, "Come to my house Tuesday for pizza!"
"Mattel made us take it off the record," says Beck. "They said if we tried to approximate it in any form, we would be ruined. We thought we may be able to get away with it, but we played it for an 8-year-old, and she immediately shrieked with recognition, screaming, 'Cell Phone Barbie! Cell Phone Barbie!' " He sighs gloomily.
For this album, Beck also worked on his rapping. "On the last record, my attempt at rapping was a free-for-all," he says. "So after it's out, I'm sort of suddenly known as being someone who raps, so I had to think about what I was doing. I've always been fascinated by various preaching styles and heard connections of that to rappers." Witness the praise-the-Lord stylings of the jubilant single "Where It's At": "Bottles and cans and just clap your hands and just clap your hands." No less an authority than Johnny Cash, who has shared bills with Beck, told him that he had a "good feel for that mountain stuff."
The 25-year-old Beck cut his musical teeth by hanging around his dad, a bluegrass street musician, in Los Angeles and by steeping himself in the music of Woody Guthrie and Mississippi John Hurt. While in the ninth grade, Beck dropped out of school. "I'm sure there's something good about high school, but not any of the ones I went to," he says. Thus began a series of crappy jobs, including one as a stock boy. He was canned because "they didn't like the way I dressed. Not that I was dressing outrageously or anything. They just didn't like my style. I was just wearing jeans and a shirt from Sears. I don't know. They had high expectations for stock positions."
Beck got himself a guitar at 16 and started playing on the street. "I just carried my guitar everywhere," he recalls. "I was just kind of ready for any sudden jamboree that might befall me. I used to play down at Lafayette Park, near where I used to live as a kid, and all these Salvadoran guys would be playing soccer, and I'd be practicing a Leadbelly song. The Salvadoran guys would just be shaking their heads. Once in a while a ball would sail over my head."
Beck persevered. And as he performed on the street and on Los Angeles buses, something dawned on him. "It all comes down to 'Hey Jude,' " he says. "I think the most successful street musicians I've seen in my time were the ones who just played 'Hey Jude' all day and all night."
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