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Beck: Tears of a Clown

How Beck went from a broken heart to a masterpiece via 'Zoolander,' in three easy steps

Beck performing at Neil Young's Bridge Benefit 1998 at Shoreline Amphitheater on October 29th, 2000 in Mountain View, California.
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty
October 17, 2002

Beck's new album, Sea Change, is a sustained meditation on heartbreak, a record for night drives and rainy days. But being Beck, the singer-songwriter celebrated the weeks leading up to its release with a theater tour of two-man gigs just shy of improv comedy. Tonight's show is in Phoenix, where the air is hot and the air conditioning arctic. On a stage riddled with arcana – an antique squeezebox, a purple children's toy that spits beats, a weathered piano, an electric organ and a huddle of guitars – Beck and his longtime guitarist Smokey Hormel hold court with new songs, banter, pared-down tunes from Odelay, covers such as John Lennon's "Love" and Skip James' blues classic "Devil Got My Woman," and a spontaneous piano jam about "the middle-class Navajo art for sale in Scottsdale." At one point, Beck strains his neck imitating Hormel's dance moves. In need of assistance, he coaxes a buxom massage therapist from the fourth row to the stage to administer relief. Still a bit stiff, Beck feels the need for emergency aromatherapy. "Anybody have some lavender?" he asks.

"My sperm smells like lavender," a man yells.

"No. No." Beck puts his hands on his ears. "Go to a happy place."

"We're going to need some real therapy now, thank you," Hormel says.

And so it goes for two and a half hours. There isn't anyone else in rock who could do this, and, please, no one try.

But beneath the laughs is Sea Change. Written in just a few days, it was inspired by the end of Beck's eight-year relationship. The songs explore failed love and the questions left in its wake, and are rendered with a pristine queasiness, well nurtured by producer Nigel Godrich – best known for his work with Radiohead. Sea Change combines the orchestral-pop drama of Scott Walker and Serge Gainsbourg with the confessional tones of Joni Mitchell and John Martyn. Throughout, Beck sings with a new directness, sketching the landscape of the brokenhearted with a dear fragility. After the show, Beck sits in a dressing room, clearly in a happy place. Remixed Kraftwerk blurps from a laptop jukebox, and he's still laughing about a show he played in Germany last year in a club that apparently hosted a bondage night. All Beck remembers is his band mates taping a zealous fan to a black cross they'd found stage left. "Germany's great," he says. "They get into things on a whole other plane."

This is a more personal album for you.
I'm always writing personal stuff. This one was written in a short period of time – probably a couple of days. That's why it has such a mood. It's all of one time except for a couple of songs. I always wrote more personal stuff; I just didn't think anybody wanted to hear it. I actually tried to make an album like this right before I did Odelay. But it was a weird time for me, that initial wave after the first record. And then I had a bunch of people around me die in a really slaort mount of time. In seven months, six people I knew died. I really didn't want to do anything heavy at that point.

This album is about heartbreak, which you've recently been through.
I couldn't help it – that's what came out. What else could I say but say it? I wanted things to be direct. Some of my other songs get lyrically obtuse, because I like that style: impressions rather than literal directives.

But I wanted these to be at that point where everything is stripped away. I think every songwriter can appreciate the discipline of Hank Williams. He says exactly what he needs to and nothing else. I needed to do something like that. We recorded the entire band to two tracks, live. It got pretty intense doing these songs. But a lot of it was actually pretty fun. My band are like brothers to me. So we'd record these heavy songs and then go watch Zoolander for a break.

Is it hard to sing them every night?
They're things everybody goes through at one point or another. It's a universal thing, an eventuality in everybody's life – a point of loss, or betrayal or heartbreak. I know this record is melancholy, but I didn't want it to be wallowing. I wanted it to be a straight look at what's happening, without going into the bathos. A bath of pathos. I was almost going to call it that.

From Odelay into Mutations, then from Midnite Vultures into Sea Change, you've alternated upbeat albums with more introspective ones. Is that on purpose?
You get in one mood and you do it, you play it every night and you exhaust it. And then you get in another mood. I'd be listening to Leonard Cohen while we were touring Midnite Vultures, just to get a break from it. I work in those two modes fairly regularly, but these last two records are probably the most extreme back-to-back. At this point, artists are on a scheduled grid. They put out records every two to three years, so there's less room for them to evolve in small steps. That was more clear in the Sixties and Seventies. If the Beatles went from Beatles for Sale to Sgt. Pepper's, people would be like, "What the hell happened to these guys?"

Are you thinking of doing a rock album?
I was. I've always wanted to do an Eighties punk record, and I was going to before all those "The" bands came out. It was time for it to happen. But the next record, I've already started working on it. I'm doing stuff with Dan the Automator, Cornelius, the Dust Brothers, that is ripening well. I have a whole slew of songs in the Odelay vein that I've been hanging onto to see if they're relevant anymore, since that sound has sort of been absconded. If you create a thing and then people hear it in a soda commercial, you feel it's cheesy now. "If I do my thing, I'm going to sound like a commercial, but wait, that's my thing." I could just put a record out of those kind of songs and see what people say. They might think it's exactly what I did seven years ago. Or they might love it.

Your relationship was such a big part of your life. Its ending must have been a huge change.
I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to be in a situation like some of these musicians who might as well not have a front door – anybody can walk in and see anything. I'm about making art and music and performing. I'm not a big believer in the everything's-on-the-table-all-the-time philosophy. I don't understand these people who overexpose themselves. What kind of life is that? Something unpleasant happens to you that might have lasted for one or two days – if it's in the press, it exists forever.

Like your relationship with Winona Ryder?
If you're seen standing next to somebody, you're together with them. I've been keeping to myself mostly. I met her when I was younger, right before my first record came out. I hung out with her for a month or two. But talking about any of this is weird unless you're a complete exhibitionist.

A couple of years ago, I ran into my bass player's bass and bruised my side, and we went to the hospital to check it out. It was just a bruise. It healed in two days. But it was in the newspaper. I probably got more press for that than for my last couple of records. And for nine months, everyone I ran into after that – friends, fans, everyone – asked if I was OK. The truth is, bad shit happens to everybody, and it's called life. I don't see and never thought to make anything special about my problems. Just put the attention on the music. But people need to put down some parameters. I mean, performers decide how it's gonna be. You can cater to the lowest common denominator, but who is creating it?

So no MTV Diary of Beck coming up?
It's fascinating to me, these performers who do those shows where they follow them around. And performers' Web sites where they're writing about what they had for dinner and what the towels were like at the hotel. When I was a kid, I enjoyed not knowing. I wasn't sure if Devo lived in a plastic pyramid and slept in plastic pods or what. My mind was filled with ideas of what went on. Did they have a spaceship? Did they live in a New Wave bunker? I thought they were some kind of army. Or the Cars. When I was ten, the singer was enigmatic. The glasses on, you didn't know what was goin' on. I loved that, though. Now they'd be following him around. And where does it end? "Come on, watch me chop my head off! I'm going to guillotine myself!" Maybe GG Allin was a prophet. He was always saying he was going to kill himself onstage. That'll be the final act. Those people are going to be annihilating themselves. And then everyone will go home.

This story is from the October 17th, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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