By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Beck agrees that his year in New York was a turning point. “Around the time I turned 18, I began to feel like there was nothing going on for me in L.A., so I took the bus to New York. Maybe it was all those years of reading Kerouac and Bukowski, or the stories of my grandfather, or being descended from nomads, but I wanted to get out there and see what was going on.
“I stumbled onto this whole anti-folk scene of musicians who’d been listening to Woody Guthrie, the Clash and Public Enemy and putting it all together,” he says of New York’s late-’80s neo-folk scene, which included Cindy Lee Berryhill, Kirk Kelley, Paleface and Roger Manning, who became the keyboardist in Beck’s band. “I was there for a year, and it was like a crash course that solidified what I was doing, but I had lots of ups and downs. New York City chewed me up and spit me out, and I had the bleakest moments of my existence there. It’s hard when you don’t have connections and you’re not the most outgoing, charming person, and after a while, my friends got tired of me crashing on their floors.”
Returning to the floors of L.A. with a renewed sense of purpose, Beck embarked on a period of continuous gigging that led to a new network of friends.
“He was just always around, this little hippie kid with a guitar slung across his back,” says Patti Peck, who owns Millie’s diner in Silver Lake. “He was always singing folk music, and everybody knew who he was, but because I knew Bibbe, .I just thought of him as her teenage son. I never paid much attention to what he was doing, so I was completely surprised when he became a huge star.”
Says Ross Harris, a member of DJ Me DJ You, “I met Beck 10 years ago through Channing, who I worked with at Greenpeace. I was having a party, and Channing said, ‘My brother plays guitar and sings, so you should have him come to your party,’ and he did.
“Then, in 1993, my wife and I opened a store on Virgil called Folk You that sold junk and thrift-store stuff, and Beck came by and asked if he could leave copies of a tape he’d made called The Banjo Story on the counter to sell. We never sold any, but they all wound up being stolen.” (Harris also stars in Recycler, an upcoming film co-starring Beck that was directed by Steve Hanft.)
In another part of town, Beck hooked up with guitarist Smokey Hormel, who later joined Beck’s band for the Odelay tour. At the conclusion of that tour, in 1998, Hormel was in the studio band that contributed to Beck’s next record, Mutations.
“I first met Beck years ago, when I was playing the Iguana Caf√© in North Hollywood with Duke McVinnie,” says Hormel. “This guy came over and told us the owner said he could play while we set up. He played these crazy folk songs and did some pretty cool shit, so at the end of the night we asked the owner where he found him. The owner said, ‘I didn’t find him — he told me he was your friend.’ That’s a perfect illustration of the kind of guy Beck is. He appears to be kind of spacy, but he’s supermotivated and a real go-getter.”
Meanwhile, the scene at the Onyx was going into full bloom. The Onyx first opened in January 1982 next door to the Vista Theater, then moved to its final location, on Vermont, in the summer of 1988. Owned by John Leach, it was managed by Michael Whitmore, who booked music and curated art shows there until December 1998, when its lease expired and it closed.
“Channing was 13 and Beck was 15 when I met them hanging out at the √Ę Onyx,” recalls Whitmore, who’s now the sound man at Spaceland and fronts the Michael Whitmore Some’tet. “We let them hang out with us, because they were funny and were more sophisticated than most kids their age. Beck started playing regularly at the Onyx when it moved to the Vermont location. He was into a Woody Guthrie folk thing then, and that was definitely not popular at the time. I remember a gig he played at the Onyx shortly before ‘Loser’ broke when there were 11 people in the audience, all of whom were friends of his.
Says Steve Abee, a poet and teacher who was an Onyx regular, “Beck was playing this kind of psychedelic citybilly music then, and he used to get up at poetry readings and improvise stuff that was just amazing. Beck’s always handled language brilliantly, and is articulate on a level most musicians never even get to.”
So, Beck made his way to Karl Stephenson’s living room and recorded “Loser,” which was originally a 500-pressing single issued on Bong Load.
“I can remember the exact moment when I realized my life was about to change,” he recalls. “It was in August of 1993. I hadn’t released an album yet, but ‘Loser’ was a hit on the radio, and I’d gone up to Seattle to record One Foot in the Grave [his 1994 acoustic album of slightly twisted country-blues and folk tunes]. I was on a bill with four other bands for a Sunday concert, and I spotted a girl in the audience who was about 14 years old and had my name written on her forehead in Magic Marker. It absolutely terrified me, and I don’t know why. Maybe if I’d been a little older or was in a band with some friends, I would’ve enjoyed that moment, but for me, it all happened so fast and so awkwardly.”