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’s career gathered steam at a rate that left the Silver Lake musical community a little stunned. “Beck broke out with a song that was made in a very low-key situation, and I can’t even imagine the position it catapulted him into,” says Steve Abee. “Bong Load released ‘Loser,’ Jac Zinder played it all the time at Fuzzyland, and the next thing you know he’s on the Grammys. Once you start that thing, you can’t say okay, stop, I’ve had enough, because your life has been irrevocably changed. It got so big it just took him to another world.
“You can’t say he lost touch with the community where he started out, because that community doesn’t exist anymore,” says Abee. “The musical underground that became the Silver Lake madness existed in back yards and a few tiny clubs, and you’d go to parties and see the same people night after night. That began to end in 1994, as the original crowd moved on to other things.”
Says artist Anthony Ausgang, who was part of that community: “There was a whole posse of Silver Lake musicians who were around when Beck was coming up, and few of them have any resentment toward him, because he didn’t cut anybody’s throat to get where he is.”
Among the places Beck got to was the office of David Geffen, who signed him in 1993. “I was just 23 the one time I met David Geffen,” he says, “and I was very uptight and shy — not because he was David Geffen, but because being in somebody’s office meant I was getting fired.” He laughs.
Beck wasn’t getting fired; rather, he was about to experience a media blitz that attempted to shrink-wrap him for mass consumption. “When ‘Loser’ became a hit, people started referring to Beck as King of the Slackers, but nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Ross Harris. “People didn’t realize how hard he’d had to work. I’ve never gone to Beck’s house and found him staring at the television, because he’s one of those people who’s always doing something. If he wasn’t trying to figure out somebody else’s song, he was trying to figure out something he was writing, or making a tape.”
Says Steve Abee, “When it looked like Beck was gonna be pigeonholed as this slacker loser, he pulled out the stops and blew some minds with Odelay, which is an incredibly complex and textured piece of music.”
He actually did more than that: Odelay was preceded by Beck’s debut album of 1993, Golden Feelings; 1994’s Mellow Gold; One Foot in the Grave; and Stereopathetic Soul Manure, an experimental album released on Flipside in 1994. All those records have much to recommend them, but they didn’t prepare anyone for the double-Grammy success of Odelay in 1997.
“It’s stressful to have a major change in your life, and Odelaywas a huge change for Beck, but he dealt with it really well,” says Joey Waronker. “He went from crashing on people’s couches to being a rock star, and now he’s trying to be a rock star and keep his ideals. It’s a little bit false, this integrity that everybody ascribes to the indie community, because most of those people would welcome success if it came to them. And at the end of the day, Beck is one of the few people I know who’s actually trying to uphold the ideals associated with the indie scene.”
Adds Hormel, “I’ve worked for lots of successful people who worked their way up gradually. They didn’t become Artist of the Year from out of nowhere, but that’s basically how it happened for Beck. This isn’t to suggest he hasn’t paid his dues, because in his own way he has. But his success did come down really fast, and I think it’s taking him a while to catch up to his own fame.”
Beck agrees. “I wrote a song in 1996 called ‘Readymade’ that has to do with being a sentient being in a business that requires you to be a machine that’s sensitized and human to an extreme, yet is capable of dispensing energy and emotion on demand. When you’re meeting 80 people a day and swimming in a fast-moving river of faces and conversations, then playing for an audience every night, and living on a schedule that tells you where you’re gonna be in six months, to the hour, part of you wants to just surrender and go through the motions. I still try to make connections and feel related to where I am, but it’s a struggle.”
Having proved he was no slacker lazybones, Beck was next dubbed the King of Irony, as critics mistook his wit for cynicism. “It’s unfair to pick on Beck for his use of irony, because if you turn on the television or open a magazine, it’s obvious that everyone is caught up in irony,” says Harris. “A lot of Beck’s music is pretty straightforward, too. People think he’s being ironic on the song ‘Debra,’ for instance, but he’s just trying to express an emotion to the best of his ability. People have a hard time accepting the ‘I wanna get with you’ thing from a young white cat, so they dismiss it as irony.”