When I do 'Loser' now," says Beck Hansen of his big hit record, "I should go, 'I'm a schmoozer, baby, so why don't you rock me?'"
If he's a schmoozer, Beck, 23, is definitely an alternative schmoozer. The baby-faced singer – who goes by his first name professionally and whose "Loser," a quirky, winning anthem of downward mobility, has become an unexpected pop smash – is sitting in a dimly lit Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, attempting, in his own charming and eccentric way, to shed a little light on who he is. That is, by striking a mock rock-star pose and gleefully parodying his own surreal, hip-hop-inflected breakthrough hit so that it better reflects his current chart-topping status. "If all this ridiculous stuff keeps on happening to me," he says, shaking his head, "I'm really going to have to change those lyrics."
"All this ridiculous stuff" is by far early '94's most unlikely overnight-success story, one bound to destroy any claims this likably offbeat guy may have ever had to lower status. Not long ago, Beck was an underground – way underground – Los Angeles act whose indie recordings included a 1993 single entitled "MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack." But in today's brave new alterna-rock world, Beck has a Top 40 hit and has become a major-label priority for DGC Records. And now that his ingenious video clip for "Loser" is safely ensconced in MTV's Buzz Bin, Beck better break out his crack pipe.
As he drums with a tortilla chip in time to a Muzak version of Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat" blasting on the restaurant sound system, Beck remembers seeing the "Loser" video on MTV for the first time and being pegged as a new spokesman for the grunge generation.
"I was up in Olympia, Wash., and someone called up and said they were going to premiere the video," Beck says. "The guy on the air was talking about all this slacker stuff, saying that 'Loser' was like some slacker anthem or something. I was like 'What?' I said, 'Turn off the TV.' I was like 'Slacker my ass.'
"I mean, I never had any slack," Beck continues. "I was working a $4-an-hour job trying to stay alive. I mean, that slacker kind of stuff is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything."
To hear him tell it, Beck's sudden rise has come with little effort or even inclination on his part. And before the small Los Angeles-based, guerrilla-style label Bong Load Custom Records put out a 12-inch of "Loser" last year, things were looking mighty bleak for him.
"A year ago I was living in a shed behind a house with a bunch of rats, next to an alley downtown," Beck recalls. "I had zero money and zero possibilities. I was working in a video store doing things like alphabetizing the pornography section for minimum wage.
"Believe me, all of this has fallen in my lap," Beck says. "I was never good at getting jobs or girls or anything. I never even made flyers for my shows. And until, like, six months ago, I didn't know that you could get paid for playing."
Beck hopes Mellow Gold – his first album under an unusual deal with DGC that allows him plenty of creative freedom and the right to continue releasing various indie releases – will prove that there's more to him than just "Loser." A low-budget effort recorded at home on an eight-track recorder, the record freely blends folk, blues, rap, country and just about everything else Beck found around the house. Funny, folky, funky and freaky (often at the same time), Mellow Gold is a trip to a strange place where Woody Guthrie meets Woody Allen. Tracks like "Nitemare Hippy Girl," "F---in With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock)" and "Soul Suckin Jerk" make it clear this LP is not a calculated pop cash-in.
"The whole concept of Mellow Gold is that it's like a satanic K-Tel record that's been found in a trash dumpster," Beck explains, quite matter-of-factly. "A few people have molested it and slept with it and half-swallowed it before spitting it out. Someone played poker with it, someone tried to smoke it. Then the record was taken to Morocco and covered with hummus and tabouli. Then it was flown back to a convention of water-skiers, who skied on it and played Frisbee with it. Then the record was put on the turntable, and the original K-Tel album had reached a whole new level. I was just taking that whole Freedom Rock feeling, you understand."
Sure we do.
So where exactly, you might ask, did this guy come from? From Los Angeles, of course. Though he has traveled quite a bit, Beck spent a lot of his wonder years living with his office-worker mother and half brother in some seedy but lively sections of town, riding his bike around Hollywood Boulevard to check out all the punks, who intrigued him, listening to early hip-hop and even doing a little break-dancing along the way. Beck apparently comes by his taste for street music honestly: As a baby, he says, he hung around with his father, a bluegrass street musician.
As a young boy, Beck was sent for a time to live with his maternal grandparents in Kansas. "I had kind of a weird home," he says convincingly. "I think they were kind of concerned."
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.