Rock: Reasons to be cheerful
Beck fuses hip-hop, folk and underground rock to memorable effect. Ben Thompson listens in
Sunday 15 September 1996
Since it came out at the start of the summer, Odelay has sold three-quarters of a million copies in America alone. This figure may not make Beck humanity's answer to Alanis Morissette, but it is still remarkable for a record of such unabashed sophistication. Hitching the enhanced corporate outreach capability of the post-Nirvana generation to the unfettered creativity of the days when alternative music really was alternative, Beck Hansen seems to have achieved the ultimate goal of all sentient beings: not just having his cake, but eating it too. (His contract with Geffen allows him to release records for other companies as and when he feels like it - an unthinkable luxury in any other times but these.)
At the back end of the summer-festival trail, Beck sits in his tour bus. The location could be anywhere in the MTV- speaking world. On the other side of the corrugated-iron boundary, paying hedonists wallow gleefully in their own detritus. Here in the artists' sanctuary, the air-conditioning is heavenly. And that's not the end of the celestial connection. The man across the table, conversing in a courtly bohemian drawl, has the sort of angelic good looks one might expect from a secret love-child of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lady Diana Spencer.
Beck's actual ancestry (he is the son of Warhol acolyte and LA punk-scene godmother Bibbe Hansen) is almost as colourful, but it is the less-oft- remarked-upon Kansas-presbyterian-preacher-grandad aspect of his upbringing that seems to have shaped his attitude to music. Compared to the folk and blues which first inspired him to pick up an acoustic guitar, music that uses computer and sampling technology is, Beck insists, "not all that substantial". But isn't music music, no matter how it's made? "It's the difference between a Styrofoam cup and an old porcelain crafted thing - they both perform the same function, but in terms of richness, there's no comparison."
If it seems strange that a young man whose music surfs the floodtide of modernity with such blissful ease should vouchsafe such a conservative opinion, that's because it is. Surely today's Styrofoam receptacle is the antique china of tomorrow: isn't it always the music that is most easily written off by contemporaries - Phil Spector, punk, Abba, Black Sabbath - that proves most enduring in the end? "Exactly. I'm sure when John Lee Hooker came out he was regarded as disposable, but now he's like the earth - something you'd plant seeds and grow things really deep in. That's why I'd never fool myself into romanticising the music I love: making it clean and nostalgic would seem very vulgar."
In mid-1980s New York, when a teenage Beck fell upon the music of Blind Blake and Woody Guthrie as a hungry sheepdog might fall upon a discarded pancake roll, folk was a four-letter word. "I remember just being so immersed in it and so passionate about it," he says, "and everyone around me not having the slightest interest." Oddly enough, it was the cacophonous iconoclasm of New York noise band Pussy Galore that convinced him that "purism was a dead end", and there was more to continuing the tradition of country pioneers the Carter Family than learning to play note-perfect approximations of Maybelle's guitar solos.
"I guess every few years some band comes along and connects to the primal violent energy that is the essence of rock," Beck observes solemnly. The musical style he pioneered on 1994's Mellow Gold and refined with Odelay (which he still considers "really crude") is an intoxicating hybrid of ancient and modern - lazy drum and slide-guitar loops, harmonica flourishes, whistling - frenzy and languor. He now finds himself the unelected figurehead of a loose coalition of principled mavericks - Ben Harper leads the blues division, Vic Chesnutt and Will Oldham boss the country/folk paddock, the Fugees rule the rap school - currently showing American music the way out of the grunge and gangsta malaise.
This makes it doubly ironic that those who failed to see the sarcasm in his hilarious 1994 breakthrough anthem "Loser" (written two years before Nirvana's Nevermind came out, but not released till two years afterwards) should persist in crowning Beck "King of the Slackers". He rolls his eyes. "Someone asked me the other day what it felt like to be a part of the grunge world and I was like 'Wow, I didn't know ... [with withering irony] Maybe in 1996 I'm really gonna go with this grunge thing - I think it has a big future.' "
Like Bob Dylan - with whom the unfettered free associations of his lyrics have earned frequent comparison - Beck is both of his time and out of it, mixing millennial modernity with a fearless rejection of current orthodoxy. Like Elvis Presley and Little Jimmy Osmond, Beck is a contradiction on legs: both the gracious recent recipient of the cultural imperialist's legion of honour - an MTV video award - and the author of the immortal line "MTV makes me want to smoke crack".
"That's why people like Leadbelly and Elizabeth Cotton are so important," he insists, "because their voices speak so directly to us of all the things we've lost with the advent of mass media and global communication. It used to be you'd go to different parts of the world and things would be developing in their own rich traditions. Now it's all melding together and kind of homogenising, but at the same time completely splintered."
But doesn't Beck's God-given knack for splicing genres in the studio make him Mr Meld and Splinter? Beck looks pained. "I guess so, but I don't do it for the sake of doing it. A lot of people embrace technology in order to dismantle everything. There's something disturbing about that to me - that's why I was attracted to folk music in the first place, because technology scared me. Now I've embraced it, it feels sort of powerless."
! Beck's new single, 'Devil's Haircut' (Geffen), is out next month. He will tour later in the year.
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