As a teenager, Beck haunted a Pasadena swap meet where he’d read back issues of Rolling Stone from the Sixties and Seventies. When he actually landed on the cover himself at age twenty-six, he was so stunned he thought “it looked like one of those parody covers,” he says, “like in a movie – when they show some character’s rise to fame with a sequence of spinning magazine covers. The whole thing happened really suddenly.” He had just won two Grammys for his second album, Odelay, and Rolling Stone had named him Artist of the Year. “I felt like I was joining the conversation,” he says. “And it’s a good feeling.”
The photo session and interview were quickly scheduled in the week following Beck’s Grammy victories. Photographer Anton Corbijn and Rolling Stone senior editor Mark Kemp flew to London where Beck had just landed on tour, and Corbijn shot him in the underground parking structure of the Sydney House hotel. “I didn’t know it was for the cover,” Beck recalls. “But I took note because it was Corbijn, and somebody had sent me a free suit to wear in the shoot.
“I remember being completely exhausted,” says Beck. “I hadn’t slept in five months. I got a call from my manager, and it all happened a day or two later.”
Beck was happy that Corbijn – known for his high-contrast black-and-white shots of U2 – was shooting the cover. For one thing, he had bad memories of the high-concept shoots he’d already endured. “I think it was a Nineties thing – photographers trying to outdo each other – but back then you’d walk in and they’d want you dressed in latex, hanging upside down with a dominatrix and five quarts of milk. Why not throw in some unicorns while you’re at it?”
The hour-long session unfolded smoothly and casually. “Working with Anton, you’re not really aware of being in a photo shoot,” says Beck. “He just has a little camera, and he took a couple of pictures. I could just be myself, and that was pretty important to me.” Kemp’s Rolling Stone interview also came as a relief. “Before this, it took me a while to realize that you can speak your mind sincerely and maybe the conversation will go somewhere interesting,” Beck says. “We talked for a long time, and we definitely dug in. At a certain point, whatever is artificial about doing an interview fell away.” And while Beck notes he “didn’t go down to 7-Eleven and stand in front of their rack, basking” in the glory of being on the cover, it definitely made him proud. “It was fun — all the gigs, all the jokes and all the hanging out with my band,” he says of the time. And he remembers something that kept all the attention in perspective. “A week before we played the Grammys,” he recalls, “our DJ was driving a street sweeper in Cleveland.”
This story is from the May 18th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.