At 17, Beck boarded a bus to New York and began gigging around, sleeping on friends' couches. After about a year, he returned to Los Angeles and did short sets at local clubs. Finally, the folks at tiny Bong Load Custom Records snapped him up and released "Loser." When it became an instant hit on local radio, major labels set upon Beck like starving rats in a peach barrel. He eventually signed with DGC, a subsidiary of Geffen, which gave him free reign to release indie projects (including the more out-there One Foot in the Grave, his best effort to date, on K Records). This was a welcome perk for an intensely prolific guy who has "a good amount" of tunes stored up in the archives.
Beck's life did a 180 about the time "Loser" cracked the Top 10 in 1994, aided by MTV's obsessive airing of the video. This threw him into some surreal situations – England's Top of the Pops, for instance. As on American Bandstand, artists do not perform live – they lip-sync over a soundtrack. In Beck's case, an aging house band "gigged" with him. "It was a group of 80-year-old men playing; some were dapper, sprightly elderly gentlemen who still had hair," Beck recalls as his sorbet arrives. "There was a portly guy with a Friar Tuck [hairdo] playing guitar. Then we had a hunched, slightly demonic old man, and he was playing drums. There's a genius part where the camera cuts to him like there's a break on drums, and he does the slowest drumstick spin ever executed in the history of rock drumming." Clearly moved, Beck pauses for a moment. "It was really beautiful."
Beck's stint on last year's Lollapalooza tour evokes similarly warm feelings. "What comes to mind?" he asks. "Oh, blue plastic seats. Empty. Very empty. And it's 105 degrees, and there's a small cluster of youngsters who are displaying their energetic support, but they're about a mile and a half away, and there's 10 security guys closing in on them. I think at that point there was a lot more happening at the falafel booth than where I was standing." Still, Beck chooses to accentuate the positive. "It was a good experience because the other bands were really bored, too. We played a lot of pingpong."
It should be noted that Beck's live performances are something of a crapshoot: He may play tunes from his album. He may not. He may play obscurities from the Carter Family or Mississippi John Hurt. He may chant the same word over and over. He may sing "Loser," but he may sub "I'm a softie, baby, so why don't you squeeze me?" for the chorus, as he did at a few of the Lollapalooza shows.
This riles some folks. At one concert in Europe last year, Beck played at a snowboarding convention. "A bunch of strapping brutes," he says, shaking his head. "We got up there, and there's no snow – it's all mud." Factor in that the show was sponsored by an energy-producing sports drink and you've got trouble. "So we have several thousand disgruntled snowboarders tanked up to the max," he says. "We were giving it our all. There was a 40-foot gap between them and the stage, and they were still able to nail us all pretty directly with empty cans. After a few songs I was using my guitar to bat cans from disgruntled sports enthusiasts back into the audience." He shudders. "It felt like we were Flock of Seagulls opening up for Napalm Death."
For every unpleasant experience, however, there's a flip side. For instance, Beck has been able to meet some of the blues artists he has admired. "Last summer I went to Junior Kimbrough's place," he says, grinning, "and watched R.L. Burnside record in his shed/ juke joint on the side of the road. It was a fluorescent-light affair." Beck contends that you're not playing blues unless the room is lit by fluorescent lights. "Which is the first mistake of the House of Blues," he says, referring to the $9 million Sunset Strip monstrosity, in Los Angeles. (Builders roughed up the interior to give it that going-down-to-Memphis feel.) "I have an open offer to take my Brillo pad down to clean the place up," he says with a smirk. "It's lookin' a little dirty. I went there to see [African bluesman] Ali Farka Touré, and the audience was just eating and talking and answering their cell phones. Ali Farka Touré was just shaking his head. It left a bad taste in my mouth. Like Utah."
Come again? "The Osmonds had a great song about going back to Utah," Beck says. "It's off this one heavy record they had in '72 called Crazy Horses. It's their [Black] Sabbath record. Pounding drums and heavy guitars. I think 'Utah' is going to be our encore song on the tour." From another artist, this might be for laughs. From Beck, it's an all-too-real possibility.
Beck's lyrics zig and zag at the same rate that his mind does in conversation. With his folkish roots he has earned comparisons to Bob Dylan: Upon first listening, Beck's rambling, poetic lyrics are pretty much nonsensical. "Heads are hanging from the garbageman trees," he sings on "Devil's Haircut," "Mouthwash, jukebox, gasoline." After a while, the words achieve their own skewed meanings, unique to each listener.
"I remember talking to some journalist in Hong Kong," he says. "And he read me out lyrics to one of my songs that weren't anything close to the ones I wrote. They were so much better. I've been kicking myself ever since that I didn't write down what he thought they were."
Beck should get the chance to hear even loopier interpretations of his work when his world tour commences in Europe come July. He hits the States at the beginning of August. In the meantime he is planning a video for "Where It's At," which, at least at this stage, is based on those dubious community celebrations often backed by the chamber of commerce. "A Value Days banner will be displayed, and there will be some line dancing featured," he adds, hoping to correct a sad under-representation of country boogieing in today's rock videos. "We don't know if we're going for the full TNN experience, the full stone-washed kind of affair. It may be more Urban Cowboy – sort of a sad effect."
Eventually, Beck wants to incorporate the overused fade-to-black conceit in one of his clips. "Maybe that would be the whole video," he says. "I'm, like, buying a paper, then it fades to black. Then it comes up, and the guy's giving me my change. Then I'm waiting for a bus, and it fades to black, and it comes up, and I'm still waiting for the bus."
And because Beck is always writing songs, there is the next record to consider. "Once, someone at Geffen sent me the complete Guns n' Roses Making of Fuckin' Videos," he says. "My favorite was Part IV of the trilogy. I think my next album's going to be Part IV of the Trilogy. For Guns n' Roses, I think it was the making of 'November Rain.' You have to see this. At one point, literally, I think Axl starts crying: 'I was going through a lot of heavy shit then.' " Beck's expression offers only the faintest hint of a grin. "I remember I was crying, too, because my feelings were so hurt trying to watch this."
This story is from the July 11th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.
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