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

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Your music is about taking remnants from other periods and recycling them for a new era. And you grew up during a very transitional time in L.A. – the '70s and '80s – when developers came in and destroyed the face of old Hollywood.
Yeah, I spent my childhood watching the decline of Hollywood Boulevard, watching the dying embers – the final light of the Hollywood era – fade into decay. I remember certain relics of the '40s and '50s Hollywood eras [being] still around when I was growing up. They had the lunch counters, shoeshines and family owned businesses, which have now turned into rock-poster shops and bad souvenir shops.

We lived near Tiny Naylor's, which was a monument from the age of the '50s drive-in coffee shops. It was just a megalopolis of hamburgers and milkshakes, that whole – you drive up, and the waitress puts the tray on your car. They still had that up into the '70s. And right next to that was Ali Baba's, a Middle Eastern restaurant with belly dancers, and on top of it was a two-to three-story statue of Ali Baba.

Then in the early '80s, all that was suddenly gone. The developers came in and tore it all down and turned it into giant condominiums and block apartments. I remember seeing L.A. just transformed within a couple years. All of a sudden there was minimalls everywhere. The '80s came and conquered. And it erased a lot of the heritage of that city. It's not the same city at all.

It was around that time that your mother and father split up, and your family moved away from Hollywood, back to the downtown area where you were born. How did that transition affect you?
I spent the rest of my childhood there – all my teenage years. By that time it was a little Salvadoran neighborhood bordering on Koreatown. I was the white boy on the street. A lot of drugs, a lot of refugees from the Central American wars. It wasn't the safest place, but it was definitely a community. I remember walking to the bus in the morning to go to school and there'd be roosters and chickens running through the street and mariachis passed out on the sidewalk. There was an anarchy there in the neighborhood, but still, it was a neighborhood.

It's just east of South Central. I remember meeting the Cypress Hill guys, and we were talking, and we realized we grew up within a mile of each other. They were saying, "Shit, man, we thought you were from England or something."

A lot has been made of the fact that at 18, you took a bus from Los Angeles to New York. What prompted that?
There was a special on Greyhound: You could go anywhere in the country for 40 bucks. It must have taken at least a week to get there. I stopped off here and there. Went through the South.

Any wild experiences on the road?
At some point in the middle of west Texas, the sun was going down, and I realized that all the straight people – all the working people – had gotten off the bus and everyone left was a drug fiend or an ex-con. I remember one of them whispering in my ear as soon as I fell asleep: He was going to slit my throat. I knew I was descending into the heart of America. I was discovering the heartland at that moment.

That sounds scarier than living in downtown L.A.
I don't know about that. At that point I'd seen some fucked-up shit: People machine-gunned on my front lawn; coming out in the morning and playing with the bandages when I was a little kid.

You saw someone machine-gunned?
No. It happened on my front lawn overnight. But back then it was nowhere near as bad as it is now. L.A.'s an incredibly violent place.

How did your journey across America fit into the evolution of your music? I mean, that's a pretty romantic thing to do – go across the country on a bus.
There was no romanticism left in it by that time. As a teenager I'd read all the Beat literature; I'd read all about the folk revival of the '60s. I knew that was all gone. It wasn't about that. I was intensely into the blues, country blues, but I knew it wasn't a romantic thing. [The blues] came out of hardship, misery. I think in the '60s it was romanticized – the wise-old-bluesman thing – but I didn't really have any illusions about it. You spend about two minutes in the downtown L.A. Greyhound bus station and your romanticism about taking a bus trip across America will be eradicated and exterminated immediately.

You mean to tell me that at 18, you felt absolutely no thrill in taking to the highway? I mean, now you have the benefit of hind-sight: You've grown up, seen things and put things into perspective. But then, you were a teenager. Were you already so hardened that you didn't even get a rush from it?
See, I'd known that kind of thing. I quit school early, and I was working jobs, and I had already taken trips by myself. By the time I was 16, my mom was treating me like another adult. I was just someone else living at the house. I came and went as I pleased. I'd traveled through Europe on $150, you know, so – I was used to going somewhere with no means, not really knowing anybody, sort of making my way through it. I dunno, I was naive. I tend to trust people.

Why did you quit school?
I wanted to go to school more than anything. I would never want to give the idea that I left because I didn't think school was important. It was just the circumstances that I was in. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and it was pretty crowded in there. There were sometimes five or six people at a time when I was a teenager. I have a brother. He's younger than me. And when you're a teenager, you want space, you want time alone. Also, the part of Los Angeles where I was going to school, it wasn't exactly the safest.

Do you wish you had finished school?
Oh, yeah, definitely. More than anything. I envy my friends that got to go to college. I thought maybe I would work for a few years and save money to go to college, but that never worked out. I went to New York instead and was playing music. I thought I would eventually go back to school, but I never have.

What was it like when you arrived in Manhattan?
I remember getting to New York, and there was this anti-folk scene happening. I remember literally standing on the street and running into some people, and when they saw I had a guitar, they'd say, "There's an open-mike night – why don't you come?" And I was probably scared to death to play.

What did you live on?
I just trusted that I'd find somebody who'd let me crash here or someone who knew about a job, and I'd get a job for a while. I never pushed to get anywhere. I just always trusted that I would end up where I was supposed to go. That was always my belief. And that would happen to greater or lesser degrees. If I ended up in a weird place, I'd just make the best out of it, you know.

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