Beck On Odelay, Winning Two Grammys, and Killing the Cliché

"Rock Star conjures up something like a mystic: someone who has the key to the secret that people want to know. I never related to that."

April 17, 1997
Beck on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Beck on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Anton Corbijn

You gotta do the chicken thing again." Beck's manager interrupts the 26-year-old singer's lunch on the set of the British pop-music TV show TFI Friday and shuttles him out a backstage door. It's a typically drizzly London afternoon, and Beck is here to perform his latest single, "The New Pollution," to a gallery of screaming English teens. But first, he has to go outdoors to retape a skit in which he's been asked to scale the side of a massive soup vat and drop a whole raw chicken in it. There's no rhyme or reason to the routine – just one of those wacky British-comedy things. But Beck rises to the challenge. And the performance is Oscar-worthy as he stands at the rim of the vat, a shit-eating grin on his face, and plops the soggy bird into the gooey yellow stew.

Later, after a few other similarly bizarre segments, the show's bumbling host turns to the studio audience and announces, "Ah, heck, it's Beck!" Whereupon the singer, dressed in his familiar snug-fitting blue polyester suit and black dress shoes, appears on the stage, moonwalking, high-jumping, hip-shimmying, tambourine-shaking and head-bobbing to the tune's cool "Taxman" bass line and sax-drenched melody.

"I love British humor," Beck tells me later as we begin the first of two 2-hour interview sessions in a room at the Royal Garden Hotel, high above London's Kensington Palace. "It's just so – surreal." He gazes out the window with an intensity that belies his youthful features – rosy cheeks, pouty lips, fine, wind-swept blond hair and doe eyes, which today have faint circles under them. The past three days have been pretty surreal for Beck, beginning with the two Grammys he won back in New York – for Best Alternative Music Performance and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. The following day, he took the Concorde to England for the TFI Friday gig, as well as a Top of the Pops appearance and a concert performance later in the week.

"I feel lucky," Beck says of his Grammys coup. "It probably hasn't sunk in yet; it's only been a couple of days." When he speaks, Beck does so in slow, measured tones punctuated by long, thoughtful pauses. "I never had any expectations of winning a Grammy," he continues. "It wasn't something I was set on, that I was hoping and praying and starving for." He looks up with a gleam in his eye: "But it is incredible!"

Beck Hansen's journey to the Grammys is one of the odder tales in '90s pop lore. He was born in Los Angeles, in 1970, the son of a bluegrass musician father, David Campbell, and a mom, Bibbe Hansen, who briefly hung out with Andy Warhol's Factory crowd of the 1960s; his late grandfather Al Hansen was a member of the Fluxus avant-garde art movement of the '50s and '60s. Beck quit school in the ninth grade and at age 18 took a bus trip across the country. He spent about a year playing folk music on New York's Lower East Side before returning to Los Angeles in the early '90s. In 1992, after performing regularly at local punk dives like Raji's and Al's Bar, Beck tossed off a folk-based hip-hop tune called "Loser" in the living room of a friend's home. A year later, Tom Rothrock, a local booster who had started an indie label called Bong Load Custom Records, released the song as a single.

What followed was nothing short of miraculous: Taste-making modern-rock radio stations from Los Angeles to Seattle began playing "Loser" in heavy rotation; the song became an instant smash, and major labels, in a bidding frenzy, began knocking at Beck's door. By the time Beck released his first album for DGC, Mellow Gold, in 1994, "Loser" was already in the Top 40, and its video was in MTV's Buzz Bin. The downside of all the hype was that Beck was being characterized as the Loser of his song. It didn't help that his tender features worked right into the myth or that the artful playfulness of his songs suggested to some a vacantness associated with the so-called Generation X. Despite the intelligence and wit in his music, Beck was designated King of Slackers. "It didn't seem like people understood what I was doing," he says. "It was like, 'Is this guy for real? Is he making music that's worthy or valuable?' I felt like I was constantly having to prove myself."

Which is exactly what Beck did. The same year that Mellow Gold came out, he immediately followed it with the much stronger One Foot in the Grave, a mostly acoustic album of country blues, folk and warped pop released on the tiny independent label K. Then he put out the more experimental Stereopathetic Soul Manure on the punk label Flipside. Last year, Beck dropped the bomb with his second DGC release, Odelay, a giant leap of artistic prowess for the singer. Since its release, the album has remained in the Billboard Top 200, where it peaked at No. 16 and currently sits at No. 34; it has since sold platinum. Meanwhile, the videos for his singles "Where It's At," "Devil's Haircut" and "The New Pollution" have become MTV staples.

Beck's irreverent cross-pollination of styles – from hip-hop to country rock to funky '70s soul – has shown him to be one of the most innovative and forward-looking artists of the '90s. And though he is a member of a generation that looks skeptically upon honors associated with previous eras, it seems pretty clear today that winning two Grammys has made a genuine impression on him. When I mention that the Grammy voters seem to be making an attempt to compensate for past cluelessness, Beck's stoic gaze turns to a smile.

"I do think they're opening the umbrella a little bit to include stuff that isn't standard Grammy fare," he says. "On the other hand, I think in my case, I'm somewhat of a traditionalist to them; I'm working from a place that maybe someone who came up on folk rock or singer/songwriter stuff can relate to. Maybe that's it." He furrows his brow. "But maybe not. Because other things that I do are just pure deconstruction, just dismantling the whole notion of songwriting."

With two Grammys and a microphone, Beck should be able to do a lot more dismantling as time passes. "It's exciting for me," he says. "It means more possibilities, and I have a lot of ideas."

I was talking to a friend after you won your Grammys, and she was telling me that when she heard the news, it felt like one more notch on the belt for her generation. It was like validation – or vindication.
Yeah. Yeah. It's hard for us to be recognized and get our foot in the door, you know – just the dominance of the older generation. So I think it's amazing that I get to do that. If my generation was as dominant as the generation of the '60s and the '70s, it wouldn't be me against Sting and Bryan Adams – people who have been around for such a long time. How can we compete? They're 20 years ahead of us. It's hard to measure us against people who've got so much under their belts. And I think it's strange. Not that I'm criticizing them or anything; I mean, it is the way it is. But it's interesting, really, not being able to compete with my peers in the music world.

Do you feel like a rock star now?
To me, rock star conjures up something like a mystic: someone who sees himself as above other people, someone who has the key to the secret that people want to know. The cliché of what a rock star is – there's something elitist about it. I never related to that. I'm an entertainer. I think of it as, you're performing for people. It's not a self-glorification thing.

I remember being really shocked after Mellow Gold came out and going on tour, and all these kids were there. It totally disturbed me. Who are all these young people? I'd been playing Mississippi John Hurt covers in coffee shops to a bunch of 30-, 40-, 50-year-olds. Then all of a sudden there were these teenagers. It was very surreal.

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