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Junkman’s Journey 

Beck at the crossroads

Wednesday, Jun 21 2000
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Photo by Charlie Gross

It’s just a few blocks from the Greek Theater to the former site of the Onyx, the underground petri dish and artists’ hangout that flourished in Los Feliz in the early ’90s. It’s funny, though, what a long trip those few blocks can be.

Beck Hansen used to hang out at the Onyx in its golden days, which stretched from 1989 through 1994, but back then he got around town on city buses, worked a succession of crappy jobs and crashed on various couches. When he made his first record, “Loser,” on an 8-track machine in Karl Stephenson’s living room in 1992, it probably never crossed his mind that in less than a decade he’d be headlining the Greek.

“Me and my friend Steve Hanft used to sneak into the bushes at the Greek and listen to the shows,” Beck says over lunch at Nettie’s in Silver Lake. “You could only see a little of the show through the bushes, but you could hear the music.”

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Dressed in jeans, a zipped-up sweatshirt and one of those goofy fisherman’s hats favored by Walter Matthau, Beck is pretty low-key for a guy who’s sold more than 4 million records. He drives himself where he needs to go, and doesn’t travel with an entourage, despite the fact that he looks rather fragile and could probably use the protection. He’s rail-thin, but doesn’t eat a bite of the fish he orders for lunch, and takes just the occasional sip of bottled water.

Beck speaks in a slow drawl, measures his words carefully and tends to be a bit reserved in conversation, but his manner changes dramatically when the subject shifts to music. He forgets himself when he talks about music, because his love of the subject is stronger than his natural introversion. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of dozens of popular forms, including country, blues, folk, bluegrass, funk, R&B, punk, glam, techno, rap, tropicalia, show tunes, pop and metal, and you get the feeling that he remembers every note of every song he’s ever heard.

This is impressive when you consider that he must be rather tired. In the midst of a tour that began last October and ends in September, he’s just returned from San Diego, where he performed the previous night, and at the conclusion of lunch he’ll head out to Universal Studios for a taping of Farmclub.com.

“Beck is definitely over the edge in terms of how much he’s working right now,” says drummer Joey Waronker, who recently ended a six-year stint in Beck’s band to play with R.E.M. “But there’s always the fear that opportunity doesn’t last forever, and he’s determined to strike while the iron is hot.”

Beck says: “I do feel like I have to prove myself again and again, and sense that the ground beneath me is constantly shifting. People no longer relate to music the way they used to, and there are other options now. The economy is the new entertainment, and music isn’t even part of the equation in many people’s lives. I read somewhere that the rollerblade industry is bigger than the music business, so I’m a few notches below skating as a cultural force.”

People who care about music probably don’t agree with that. Approaching his work with the soul of a junk man, Beck has a dazzling knack for recycling discarded musical idioms and transforming them into something new. Having hammered out a fresh approach to music that synthesizes rap, sampling, country, rock and funk, he’s one of the most significant creative forces to emerge during the ’90s. He’s achieved a lot, and he started absolutely from scratch.

Born in Los Angeles in 1970, Beck had a childhood that was both privileged and difficult. His father, David Campbell, is a musician and arranger, and his mother, Bibbe Hansen, could be described as underground royalty. The daughter of avant-garde artist Al Hansen, who was a founding member of the international art movement Fluxus, Bibbe grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in a world of artists. Her parents divorced shortly after she was born, and she was raised by her eccentric father, who had no interest in conventional notions of child rearing. “I can remember going to events Al Hansen was involved in, and there would be Bibbe, this tiny little girl, asleep on a pile of coats,” says New York performance artist Carolee Schneemann.

Bibbe recalls her youth as having lots of different artistic disciplines happening simultaneously, and says she tried to raise Beck and his younger brother, Channing, in a similar fashion. Bibbe did indeed create a world rich with ideas and freedom for her boys, but it was a bit rough on the material plane. For most of the ’70s, the family lived in a building that’s since been demolished, behind the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. At the time, this neighborhood was a vital part of L.A.’s nascent punk-music community, and it was immediately adjacent that the first local alternative club, the Masque, opened in 1976.

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