Beck's grandfather was a Presbyterian preacher, and the church music and hymns Beck heard growing up had an impact. "That music influenced me a lot, but not consciously," he says. "There's something biblical and awkward and great about all those lyrics." Beck also spent time in Europe with his other grandfather, artist Al Hansen. "He collects cigarette butts and glues them together and makes pictures of naked ladies, then sprays the whole thing silver," says Beck. "His stuff was taking trash and making it art. I guess I try to do that, too."
While Beck bravely confesses that his first record purchase may have been the Olivia Newton-John-heavy soundtrack to Xanadu, he soon graduated to far rootsier stuff like Mississippi John Hurt. "I'd never heard anything like that," Beck remembers. "This wasn't some hippie guy finger picking in the '70s, singing about rainbows. This was the real stuff. I stopped everything for six months and was in my room finger picking until I got it right."
Feeling, he says, like "a total outcast," Beck dropped out of high school in ninth grade, worked some lousy jobs and started playing in public. "My first shows were on [city] buses," says Beck. "I'd get on the bus and start playing Mississippi John Hurt with totally improvised lyrics. Some drunk would start yelling at me, calling me Axl Rose. So I'd start singing about Axl Rose and the levee and bus passes and strychnine, mixing the whole thing up."
In 1989, Beck, then 17, took off for New York City. "It was the whole cliché," he says. "Went on a fucking bus. I had, like, $8 in my pocket like a total idiot with a guitar and nothing else." He spent a summer looking for a job and a place to live, with little success, before he started hanging out on Manhattan's Lower East Side and luckily stumbled on to the anti-folk scene going on there.
"That scene was the whole punk-rock thing, which was right on for me," Beck says. "Punk was always sort of my favorite. But all I had was an acoustic guitar, and no one wanted to play with me. Here was a whole scene with people with just acoustic guitars punking out really hard."
Finally, after more than a year in New York, Beck got on the bus back to Los Angeles. Though he doesn't want to discuss whether or not he was ever homeless – "I don't want to exploit anything" – Beck admits things were tough. "I was tired of being cold, tired of getting beat up," he says. "It was hard to be in New York with no money, no place, no honey, no thermostats, no spoons, no Cheerios. I kinda used up all the friends I had. Everyone on the scene got sick of me."
At first, things didn't exactly explode for Beck back in Los Angeles, either. After days working at a video store in Silverlake, he would jump onstage with his guitar and play a few songs between bands at local clubs and coffeehouses like Al's Bar, Raji's and Jabberjaw. "I would always sing my goofy stuff, because everybody was drunk, and I'd only have two minutes," he says. "That was my whole shot."
Eventually, Beck gained key boosters in Margaret Mittleman, the West Coast's director of talent acquisitions for BMG Music Publishing (which now publishes Beck's songs through his own Cyanide Breathmint Music), and the partners behind Bong Load: Tom Rothrock, Rob Schnapf and Brad Lambert. "What hit me about Beck was that here was this self-contained folk artist who'd be great to make records with," says Rothrock. Beck expressed an interest in rap, and Rothrock hooked him up with hip-hop producer Karl Stephenson. Together, Beck, Rothrock and Stephenson cut "Loser" more than two years ago.
Although it took more than a year for Bong Load to finally release the single (it came out last summer), the reaction to the song was instantaneous. "Before the record even got pressed, there was all this excitement," Rothrock says. "There were bootlegs right away." Hip radio stations in Seattle and Los Angeles were soon jumping on the record with astonishing speed.
"The whole thing got crazy after a while," says Beck. "I mean, David Geffen called me at home just to express his interest and stuff. I kept thinking the record companies would go away after a few months."
Finally, around Thanksgiving '93 – just before releasing another Bong Load single, "Steve Threw Up," and a 10-inch LP, A Western Harvest Field by Moonlight, on Fingerpaint Records – Beck signed with DGC. "I'm taking things as they come," he says. "I'm trying not to be too conscious of it. Or constipated by it."
Instead, Beck still lives in "a pink, stucco monstrosity on the edge of East L.A." His only rock-star indulgence has been to rapidly increase his breakfast-cereal collection. He's also thinking of buying a toaster.
"It's pretty funny, if you ask me," Beck says of all the attention and success. "It kinda seems like anybody can just get up and make a racket these days. Anything goes now, I guess."
This story is from the April 21st, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.
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