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Junkman’s Journey

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.”

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.

 

“Bibbe used to bring Beck to the Masque,” says DJ and historian Brendan Mullen, who remembers seeing Beck as a 7-year-old boy padding around the dank confines of the infamous club. “In fact, Bibbe has a picture of Beck dressed in a Fonzie jacket and watching the Controllers rehearsing there. Whenever I see that picture, I always think the caption should be, ‘Beck, the young prodigy, taking it all in and learning how not to be.’ Most kids would be destroyed by the kind of bohemian upbringing Beck had, but he seems very well-adjusted, and the credit for that goes to Bibbe. She struck me as a very responsible mother.”

Responsible though she was, Bibbe Hansen did raise Beck in an unstructured environment, and children brought up in that manner tend to go one of two ways: They fall apart, or they become intensely focused. Beck obviously falls into the latter camp, and was blessed with an ability to take the best of what was around him and leave the rest. The best includes a belief in the power of DIY, an open mind, and a finely honed sense of irony and irreverence. (The rest includes drugs and a compulsion to shoot oneself in the foot.)

“Bibbe told me that when Beck was 9 years old he started making his own cassette albums out of found â sound, poetry, writing and banging on the guitar,” says Mullen. “He’d come home after school and go into his room, which he kept very neat, and just write, write, write. He was dedicated to being an artist at a very young age, and when he was still a child, told his mother, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”

In 1980, Beck and his family relocated to an apartment at Hoover and Ninth. A Salvadoran community that borders on Koreatown, the area has lots of Central American refugees, gang warfare and plenty of drugs. “I loved our neighborhood, but I definitely didn’t fit in,” says Beck, who remembers seeing chickens running in the neighborhood streets and mariachis passed out on the sidewalk. “Sometimes it was hard for me to walk to the bus stop, but I wouldn’t trade what I had as a kid, and I didn’t think of my childhood as hard, because it was all I knew. Plus, I could take the bus to LACMA, or to the downtown library and check out a book by Borges, and I could ride my bike and sneak into Raji’s and see Thelonious Monster or Firehose.

“I was going to Anti-Club when I was 10 years old, and I felt comfortable there, because I’d grown up surrounded by music. My dad used to play gigs with me on his back in a knapsack, and my mom had been in summer stock, so she constantly played show tunes when I was growing up. Like it or not, I had the opening to Sweeney Todd embedded in my 8-year-old brain.

“My mother was mistrustful of the education system, so it was all right with her if we didn’t go to school,” says Beck, who dropped out of school in the ninth grade. “She was taking us to Truffaut films, and I was busy getting through a Knut Hamsun book or something, so she felt satisfied we weren’t wasting our lives watching The Brady Bunch. Because of where we lived, I would’ve had to go to Belmont High, so the year I was supposed to start high school I tried to get into the High School for the Performing Arts, which had just opened. I sent them a tape of me playing blues guitar and some short stories I’d written, but they didn’t want me.”

Beck’s adolescent angst was ratcheted up a notch in 1980, when his parents divorced. “I knew they were going through something, and it never occurred to me to be upset and demand their sympathy. I just felt worried about two people going through troubled times. My dad started another family, so I was mostly with my mother.

“Channing and I were raised to be completely independent, and our family was always going in four different directions. My brother and I used to hang around LACC, where I met Austin Strauss and his wife, Wanda Coleman. I was about 14 then and was too young to attend classes, so I started just showing up at his classes and hanging out with Wanda.

 

“Around that time, Channing and I started a zine called Youthless that was devoted to poetry and collage. In 1975, my grandfather came to stay with us, and he was always working on collage books, so he bought me a book, and I would work on it alongside of him, just to hang out with him.” Beck’s collages were exhibited with his grandfather’s in the spring of 1998 in “Playing With Matches,” an exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

It was at LACC that Beck met David Brown, a poet and saxophonist who joined Beck’s touring band in 1998. “He was pretty shy and reserved when we first met, but he was much more animated after he went to New York,” Brown says. “He got to hang out with a bunch of New York freaks and make weird thrash-folk music, and it had a major effect on him.”

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 Café 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 â 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.”

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 Odelay was 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.”

“Debra” is one of the key songs on Beck’s current album, Midnite Vultures, a lavishly produced homage to funk that represents his attempt at a full-on dance record.

“As a producer, Beck never uses anything in its entirety — he picks things apart and uses elements, and that’s his genius,” says Hormel, who played on the record. “The title of this album, Midnite Vultures, says it all — Beck approaches art like a vulture. He waits, then when he sees something he wants, he goes in and gets it. â The weird thing about Beck is that he can also sit down with an acoustic guitar and write a beautiful folk song worthy of Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash.”

“The fun of playing with Beck is that he’s so diverse that I got to try my hand at lots of different styles of music,” says Waronker, who also played on Midnite Vultures. “Beck has the amazing ability to get an idea and just do it, without second-guessing it, and he’s totally fearless in that way. He has gotten a bit more self-conscious in the last few years, because when you’re on magazine covers you have to think about the possible repercussions of the things you do.”

While working overtime to learn how to keep a major career on track, Beck struggled with another radical change — he wasn’t poor anymore.

“It was a big adjustment for Beck to have money, and at first he sort of ignored it, because I don’t think it seemed real to him,” says Harris. “Now he’s working so much that he doesn’t have time to spend it.”

“The minute you’re on TV, everyone assumes you’re a millionaire,” Beck laughs, “but I’m not living any better than my neighbor up the street who owns a flower shop. There are certain things I don’t have to worry about anymore, but I just traded those things in for 10 other things.

“The life of a musician isn’t as exalted as it seems from the outside, but entertainers are supposed to help maintain the fantasy that it’s a special kind of existence. It’s not healthy.”

 

Asked if he could recall the weirdest rumor he’s heard about himself, he says, “I’m not a gossip at all, maybe because I’m a Jew, and Jews believe you shouldn’t talk shit about people. I’m the same way about stealing — I’m absolutely unable to steal. My family weren’t observant Jews, but I wanted a bar mitzvah, and when I was a teenager I used to go to synagogue and study Torah with a friend who lived in Tujunga. If I have children I’ll raise them as Jews, because it’s a great religion. I like to look at things from as many different angles as possible, and one of the things I love about Judaism is that it gives 100 different interpretations of a single line of Torah.”

The weirdest rumor everybody else has heard about Beck is that he’s a Scientologist. Nearly every source contacted for this story confessed to having heard that rumor, then added that they’d never seen concrete evidence that there was any truth to it. For the record: Beck is not a Scientologist. His biological father, David Campbell, has been deeply committed to the Church of Scientology for several decades; however, Beck’s parents divorced when he was young, and he was largely brought up by his mother, who’s been with artist Sean Carrillo since 1984.

“I’m at a crossroads,” says Beck, “because I have lots of ideas, but you’re only allowed to put out 10 or 12 songs every two or three years. I’ve lost count of how many songs I’ve written — it could be up in the thousands — but if you put out too much music it tries people’s patience.

“I had an obsession with R&B, and I got it out of my system with Midnite Vultures. I know that record wasn’t exactly what a lot of people wanted to hear, but I loved making it, and I have a whole other album’s worth of songs we recorded for it. I also have several tracks I’ve been working on with the Dust Brothers over the last two years, and we still have unreleased stuff from Odelay in the can. I want to do an album in Spanish, and I’ve wanted to go to Nashville and do a straight country record since I first picked up a guitar.

“I also have a record of solo acoustic finger-picking songs that I’ve been working on for 10 years. Then I have an obnoxious rock record I’ve recorded, and there’s a record I want to make with Kool Keith that we’ve finished three tracks for. I’d also like to do a covers album. Then, my favorite thing is to just go into a studio with nothing in my head and see what comes out.”

Being in the studio is obviously where it’s at for Beck, but he realizes it’s a privilege he earns by being on the road. He loves performing, but at this point he’s performed everywhere in the world with the exception of South America, India and Africa, and the novelty of touring has worn off.

“Once you’ve played that same gig in Cleveland for the fourth time, or you’re in Scandinavia, and it’s snowing, and you’re in some hotel with three channels on the TV and a view of an industrial development, it feels like you’re in jail. You do the things people in jail do, too. I’m doing a series of drawings of my hotel rooms, so I’ll draw, write a letter, meditate or do push-ups.”

Gee, sounds like it’s lonely at the top. Is it? “That’s sort of a trick question, because I don’t see myself operating from the top. This country is so multitiered that there are always 20 levels above you no matter how far up you get, so I don’t feel like a permanent fixture.”

 

Later that afternoon on the Universal lot, the hours crawl by as the studio audience loiters outside a sound stage, waiting to be allowed in for the taping of Farm club.com. An online music site and weekly TV show that airs on the USA network, Farmclub.com presents unsigned bands and established acts in performances that are broadcast live over the Web.

Suddenly the energy of the crowd shifts so as to signify the presence of a celebrity, and a cluster of people approaches, surrounded by a moat of cameras and microphones. At the center is Beck, who appears to be longing for a moment of peace. For one split second he looks exhausted. When it’s showtime an hour later, however, he’s positively electric.

Breaking between songs for the obligatory chat with Farmclub.com host Matt Pinfield, Beck goes into full goof mode and begins talking about the series of cookbooks he’s writing. Pinfield looks momentarily confused, then gets down to business and angles for a plug for the Internet. He mentions the huge impact the Web is having on music, and Beck flatly replies, “You’re asking the wrong guy about that. I don’t have a cell phone, and don’t know much about the Net.” This subtle stroke of anarchy flies over the heads of the studio audience, who send up a vigorous cheer when the applause light flashes. But it’s not lost on those of us who hope Beck maintains the irreverence central to the early days of his career.

 

“I still see Beck around occasionally, and he seems like the same guy I used to know,” says Michael Whitmore. “I like the fact that he uses musicians who are basically local, and he hasn’t hired slick studio cats. He’s always been serious about music, and I always thought he was talented, but I was surprised when he became a star. Beck wasn’t one of the pushy, obnoxious guys obsessed with being a rock star — he was the quiet one.”

He still is, according to the people who know him best. “Beck was, and continues to be, a tender individual who has a lot to give,” Ross Harris concludes. “He’s also a good dresser, and he’s really good at cutting his own hair.”


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