When I moved here 10 years ago, Beck’s Odelay was a constant companion, like the sun, the smog and the Tapatío sauce in which I’d drown my tacos.
Being a newbie, it seemed necessary to me that I digest Odelay, in the same way that other arrivistes feel like they have to read City of Quartz. It wasn’t that I loved all the kitchen-sink sampling and polyglot cultural poses so much; sometimes, as with the city itself, I wondered what, if anything was at the center of all that shiny stuff. But Odelay was such a part of the landscape, I felt like I needed to understand it if I was going to understand my new home. What’s that reference? Who’s he talking about? Am I supposed to understand this?
Then there was the matter of Beck himself: the young, flaxen-haired waif; the wide-eyed, backpack-kid-turned-improbable-boy-wonder who had pockets full of fairy dust and eyes that pierced your heart. The smart chicks wanted to take him home, and the smart guys all had stories about knowing him, you know, before. Everybody loved what he seemed to represent. He was an icon for the new, golden age of discovery.
The landscape has changed immensely since that time — much more than a mere 10 years gone by would suggest. Los Angeles doesn’t feel as wide open as it once did to me, thanks to dot-com crashes, gentrification’s relentless drive toward homogeneity, a culture that holds celebutante status as the pinnacle of aspiration and a post-9/11 Bush era that has instilled gloom into the atmosphere in equal parts with the sun and the smog (and the Tapatío sauce). Musically, the golden age of discovery seems to have given way to the golden age of pale imitation. All the young dudes have gone missing. Hell, even the Beastie Boys packed it up and headed back to New York. Remember when Grand Royal, the magazine and record label, were the height of fashion? Hip-hop has died and gone to hell three times since then.
For me, coming to termswith Beck now is like coming to terms with Los Angeles now. Some of my wide-eyed wonder is gone — how could it not be? — but L.A. is home now more than ever. And Beck is still a native son, the one you took in all those years ago, even if he’s no longer the one on whom you project whatever it is you once projected on the make-good kid who didn’t seem all that different from you. No, he’s not that anymore, not after the personal troubles and trappings of adulthood and success — the house in the hills, the wife, the kid — and especially not after his return to the fold of that ascot-wearing superfreak L. Ron Hubbard, from which he had seemed so headily to stray.
Instead, he’s transformed in our minds from innocent wunderkind to lightning rod. People take sides: One person will mention his Scientology leanings and call him a charlatan. Another will insist upon his unwavering genius. Still another maintains he’s the same as he was when he was playing in front of disinterested crowds with just a guitar and a mike while the real band was setting up.
Why do we still care? And lots of us still do, despite his uneven and sometimes inconsequential output since Odelay. Is it Beck, his art or the trajectory of our own lives in this city that we’re concerned with? Is it because he’s become such an indelible part of the story that we can’t help but read some of ourselves into it?
Part of me knows the confusion has more to do with my own penchant for cheap romanticism and threadbare myth making than with him. It’s a lot to throw on a guy who couldn’t weigh more than 130 pounds in scuba gear. But in some ways it can’t be helped, because the heart still beats and the music keeps coming: five albums since he shocked us in that summer of ’96, the latest being his just-released The Information, following closely, if not hotly, on the heels of last year’s Guero.
Sometimes that music has seemed frustratingly frivolous, a cluttered box of empty jive, and I’ve wondered if he (or we) have any of that old magic left. But other times, like when I recently drove around Elysian Park on a burnished afternoon listening to the beautiful “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” and “Cold Brains” off Mutations — it’s like riding shotgun with an old friend. And the magic is back. On another occasion, as I was heading back from the ocean on a full-moon night, playing Sea Change from start to finish, it felt like Los Angeles itself — the thing that will always break your heart and keep you coming back for more. Those are the times when the music melts away the layers of projection and prejudice laid upon it over the years, and I believe once again that there has to be something sweet in the center of this Tootsie Roll Pop.