Beck enters the sleek Los Angeles restaurant a bit cautiously. If he were a dog, he would be sniffing the wind. For this is not really his sort of place – it pushes food with names like Nice Bass, for starters.
Small in stature but deep in voice, Beck has a slept-in-his-clothes look about him: a few days’ beard growth and a striped shirt that emits a gamy but not-unpleasant smell. His deadpan, measured way of speaking also differs wildly from the fast-talking crowd that schmoozes furiously around him. He studies the menu. He looks confused. “I’m . . . gonna have . . . the . . . .” he begins – the elegant black-clad waitress leans in closer, straining to hear – “the Lettuce . . . Entertain You . . . salad,” he finishes. “Dressing?” she chirps. “Oh . . .,” he says. Tick, tick, tick. The waitress stares. “Um . . . the . . . balsamic?”
A former street musician, Beck belongs in a category all his own. Smart, funny and strange, he floats along in his own time-space continuum. He seems unattached to any particular group or generation despite the slacker albatross around his neck since his 1994 hit, “Loser,” off his debut, Mellow Gold.
“Lately, people have kind of stopped asking me about it, which is good,” Beck says. His exceptional new album, Odelay, should prove that Beck’s “Loser”-driven success is no fluke. Maybe, God willing, Beck will even cease being known as that “Loser Guy.”
As he did on Mellow Gold, Beck soaks up music from what seems to be every genre and splatters it spin-art style throughout his songs. Blues, country, rap, jazz, rock – all present and accounted for. In fact, Beck says there is no musical genre he would refuse to take on. “Before, I’d have to say reggae, but I think I might be open to that,” he says, thoughtfully chewing his Lettuce Entertain You salad.
There may not be any Bob Marley samples on Odelay, but the new album is still a musical smorgasbord. His music no longer has that guy-noodling-around-with-a-four-track feeling, however. “I had a lot more available to me this time,” says Beck. “The last album was recorded at this guy Karl’s house. His girlfriend would come home and make food after work, so I’d be hurrying up to finish a vocal before she came in.” In the studio this time it was usually just Beck with one or both of his co-producers, the Dust Brothers, toiling at the controls. “You’re working on a song for 16 hours straight,” says Beck, “and you’re not even talking anymore. It’s a subhuman state – sort of like an alien. Your skin turns green.”
Before proceeding any further, two questions must be answered: (1) Beck, what the hell does Odelay mean? “It’s actually a Chicano slang word. It’s a word I grew up hearing. Although some people think it refers to the album being delayed.” (2) What is that fuzzy thing on your album cover? “I was looking at this dog book, and I came to a picture of the most extreme dog. He looked like a bundle of flying udon noodles attempting to leap over a hurdle. I couldn’t stop laughing for about 20 minutes. Plus the deadline for a cover was a day away.”
Beck’s Nice Bass arrives in a bed of some sort of fluffy white substance. He studies it: “Are those potatoes? You never know in these places what’s going on. They’re artichokes? Whipped? That is crazy.”
Odelay is the inspired result of a year and a half’s worth of feverish cutting, pasting, layering, dubbing and, of course, sampling. Sadly, there is one snippet that will never be heard: a fiendish sample from Cell Phone Barbie as she squeaks, “Come to my house Tuesday for pizza!”
“Mattel made us take it off the record,” says Beck. “They said if we tried to approximate it in any form, we would be ruined. We thought we may be able to get away with it, but we played it for an 8-year-old, and she immediately shrieked with recognition, screaming, ‘Cell Phone Barbie! Cell Phone Barbie!’ ” He sighs gloomily.
For this album, Beck also worked on his rapping. “On the last record, my attempt at rapping was a free-for-all,” he says. “So after it’s out, I’m sort of suddenly known as being someone who raps, so I had to think about what I was doing. I’ve always been fascinated by various preaching styles and heard connections of that to rappers.” Witness the praise-the-Lord stylings of the jubilant single “Where It’s At”: “Bottles and cans and just clap your hands and just clap your hands.” No less an authority than Johnny Cash, who has shared bills with Beck, told him that he had a “good feel for that mountain stuff.”
The 25-year-old Beck cut his musical teeth by hanging around his dad, a bluegrass street musician, in Los Angeles and by steeping himself in the music of Woody Guthrie and Mississippi John Hurt. While in the ninth grade, Beck dropped out of school. “I’m sure there’s something good about high school, but not any of the ones I went to,” he says. Thus began a series of crappy jobs, including one as a stock boy. He was canned because “they didn’t like the way I dressed. Not that I was dressing outrageously or anything. They just didn’t like my style. I was just wearing jeans and a shirt from Sears. I don’t know. They had high expectations for stock positions.”
Beck got himself a guitar at 16 and started playing on the street. “I just carried my guitar everywhere,” he recalls. “I was just kind of ready for any sudden jamboree that might befall me. I used to play down at Lafayette Park, near where I used to live as a kid, and all these Salvadoran guys would be playing soccer, and I’d be practicing a Lead-belly song. The Salvadoran guys would just be shaking their heads. Once in a while a ball would sail over my head.”
Beck persevered. And as he performed on the street and on Los Angeles buses, something dawned on him. “It all comes down to ‘Hey Jude,’ ” he says. “I think the most successful street musicians I’ve seen in my time were the ones who just played ‘Hey Jude’ all day and all night.”
At 17, Beck boarded a bus to New York and began gigging around, sleeping on friends’ couches. After about a year, he returned to Los Angeles and did short sets at local clubs. Finally, the folks at tiny Bong Load Custom Records snapped him up and released “Loser.” When it became an instant hit on local radio, major labels set upon Beck like starving rats in a peach barrel. He eventually signed with DGC, a subsidiary of Geffen, which gave him free reign to release indie projects (including the more out-there One Foot in the Grave, his best effort to date, on K Records). This was a welcome perk for an intensely prolific guy who has “a good amount” of tunes stored up in the archives.
Beck’s life did a 180 about the time “Loser” cracked the Top 10 in 1994, aided by MTV’s obsessive airing of the video. This threw him into some surreal situations – England’s Top of the Pops, for instance. As on American Bandstand, artists do not perform live – they lip-sync over a soundtrack. In Beck’s case, an aging house band “gigged” with him. “It was a group of 80-year-old men playing; some were dapper, sprightly elderly gentlemen who still had hair,” Beck recalls as his sorbet arrives. “There was a portly guy with a Friar Tuck [hairdo] playing guitar. Then we had a hunched, slightly demonic old man, and he was playing drums. There’s a genius part where the camera cuts to him like there’s a break on drums, and he does the slowest drumstick spin ever executed in the history of rock drumming.” Clearly moved, Beck pauses for a moment. “It was really beautiful.”
Beck’s stint on last year’s Lollapalooza tour evokes similarly warm feelings. “What comes to mind?” he asks. “Oh, blue plastic seats. Empty. Very empty. And it’s 105 degrees, and there’s a small cluster of youngsters who are displaying their energetic support, but they’re about a mile and a half away, and there’s 10 security guys closing in on them. I think at that point there was a lot more happening at the falafel booth than where I was standing.” Still, Beck chooses to accentuate the positive. “It was a good experience because the other bands were really bored, too. We played a lot of pingpong.”
It should be noted that Beck’s live performances are something of a crapshoot: He may play tunes from his album. He may not. He may play obscurities from the Carter Family or Mississippi John Hurt. He may chant the same word over and over. He may sing “Loser,” but he may sub “I’m a softie, baby, so why don’t you squeeze me?” for the chorus, as he did at a few of the Lollapalooza shows.
This riles some folks. At one concert in Europe last year, Beck played at a snowboarding convention. “A bunch of strapping brutes,” he says, shaking his head. “We got up there, and there’s no snow – it’s all mud.” Factor in that the show was sponsored by an energy-producing sports drink and you’ve got trouble. “So we have several thousand disgruntled snowboarders tanked up to the max,” he says. “We were giving it our all. There was a 40-foot gap between them and the stage, and they were still able to nail us all pretty directly with empty cans. After a few songs I was using my guitar to bat cans from disgruntled sports enthusiasts back into the audience.” He shudders. “It felt like we were Flock of Seagulls opening up for Napalm Death.”
For every unpleasant experience, however, there’s a flip side. For instance, Beck has been able to meet some of the blues artists he has admired. “Last summer I went to Junior Kimbrough’s place,” he says, grinning, “and watched R.L. Burnside record in his shed/ juke joint on the side of the road. It was a fluorescent-light affair.” Beck contends that you’re not playing blues unless the room is lit by fluorescent lights. “Which is the first mistake of the House of Blues,” he says, referring to the $9 million Sunset Strip monstrosity, in Los Angeles. (Builders roughed up the interior to give it that going-down-to-Memphis feel.) “I have an open offer to take my Brillo pad down to clean the place up,” he says with a smirk. “It’s lookin’ a little dirty. I went there to see [African bluesman] Ali Farka Touré, and the audience was just eating and talking and answering their cell phones. Ali Farka Touré was just shaking his head. It left a bad taste in my mouth. Like Utah.”
Come again? “The Osmonds had a great song about going back to Utah,” Beck says. “It’s off this one heavy record they had in ’72 called Crazy Horses. It’s their [Black] Sabbath record. Pounding drums and heavy guitars. I think ‘Utah’ is going to be our encore song on the tour.” From another artist, this might be for laughs. From Beck, it’s an all-too-real possibility.
Beck’s lyrics zig and zag at the same rate that his mind does in conversation. With his folkish roots he has earned comparisons to Bob Dylan: Upon first listening, Beck’s rambling, poetic lyrics are pretty much nonsensical. “Heads are hanging from the garbageman trees,” he sings on “Devil’s Haircut,” “Mouthwash, jukebox, gasoline.” After a while, the words achieve their own skewed meanings, unique to each listener.
“I remember talking to some journalist in Hong Kong,” he says. “And he read me out lyrics to one of my songs that weren’t anything close to the ones I wrote. They were so much better. I’ve been kicking myself ever since that I didn’t write down what he thought they were.”
Beck should get the chance to hear even loopier interpretations of his work when his world tour commences in Europe come July. He hits the States at the beginning of August. In the meantime he is planning a video for “Where It’s At,” which, at least at this stage, is based on those dubious community celebrations often backed by the chamber of commerce. “A Value Days banner will be displayed, and there will be some line dancing featured,” he adds, hoping to correct a sad under-representation of country boogieing in today’s rock videos. “We don’t know if we’re going for the full TNN experience, the full stone-washed kind of affair. It may be more Urban Cowboy – sort of a sad effect.”
Eventually, Beck wants to incorporate the overused fade-to-black conceit in one of his clips. “Maybe that would be the whole video,” he says. “I’m, like, buying a paper, then it fades to black. Then it comes up, and the guy’s giving me my change. Then I’m waiting for a bus, and it fades to black, and it comes up, and I’m still waiting for the bus.”
And because Beck is always writing songs, there is the next record to consider. “Once, someone at Geffen sent me the complete Guns n’ Roses Making of Fuckin’ Videos,” he says. “My favorite was Part IV of the trilogy. I think my next album’s going to be Part IV of the Trilogy. For Guns n’ Roses, I think it was the making of ‘November Rain.’ You have to see this. At one point, literally, I think Axl starts crying: ‘I was going through a lot of heavy shit then.’ ” Beck’s expression offers only the faintest hint of a grin. “I remember I was crying, too, because my feelings were so hurt trying to watch this.”