The cap doesn't fit

The most inventive American musician of his generation would rather stare at a wall than watch television. His name is Beck, and he's no slacker. By Ryan Gilbey

The ruddy-faced Kensington porter with the flapping coat-tails is peering at the pretty young American reclining on a sofa in the hotel lounge. The scruffy 25-year-old is toying with a pink Barbie telephone and sipping mint tea (some of which sits in a small puddle in his saucer). He wears jeans, Kickers and a thatch of blond hair. The clash of cultures is so loud that it drowns out the chug of traffic crawling outside the windows.

"Are you staying with us, sir?"

"Uh, yeah," the American replies, looking up from his tea-cup.

"Your room number, sir?"

"Um... 818? Oh, that was the last hotel. No, wait, that's my area code... um...139?"

The most inventive and original American musician of the Nineties is in town. And he doesn't know which room he's staying in. That's fitting. Listen to his songs and you can't tell which era begat Beck Hansen. Talk to him and you'll have a hard time determining which planet he's from. He gleefully blasts his Barbie phone at my tape recorder - "Let's get together and eat ice-cream!" it trills - and scrawls the message "Good luck with your bones" over my CD cover. He does things differently; he lives life... well, slowly. He talks in a hypnotic, measured drawl rarely heard outside maximum-security psychiatric care, and his sentences meander and drift off on to other planes, much like his songs.

Part of his demeanour has been shaped by his immunity to the inflections and rhythms of TV-speak - it's refreshing to meet someone so detached from media influences ("I'd rather stare at a wall than watch television," he admits). When he was in his teens, wedged in a series of menial jobs, he felt alienated by his workmates. Then he caught a glimpse of a TV sitcom at a friend's house and suddenly it all made a terrible kind of sense.

"I realised, `Oh my God, everyone I'm working with is imitating a sitcom.' That's why I couldn't relate to them." He stretches, exposing a taut midriff which suggests that TV isn't the only thing he's starved of.

I ask what makes him happy. "Looking at a tree," he says. Yet he's no naive hippy-child. You don't imagine that much upsets his serene composure but he bristles at the thought of a caricature that Rolling Stone published. "They drew me in some stupid beany cap and it was like, `Ooh, the wacky guy!' They think that's the whole story."

But it's not. The whole story would take years to unravel. So here's what we know: Beck was raised in Hollywood and Kansas by his mother (a sometime actress and Warhol stooge) and grandfather (a surrealist sculptor); he ducked out of school at 16, zig-zagged between dead-end jobs, learnt guitar "as a hobby" and hung out with middle-aged "blues collectors and freaks" who taught him to play Blind Blake numbers; he aired his own improvised folk and blues material in cafes and clubs, becoming a minor local legend, releasing 4-track recordings on independent labels until one tongue-in- cheek song turned him into an overnight star and resident wacky-guy-in- a-stupid-beany-cap.

In a moment of rare cosmic synchronicity, everyone in the world clued into Beck at exactly the same second. Or at least that's how it felt. Whatever you were doing when you first heard the stuttering beatbox and twanging slide guitar motif which announced "Loser", you stopped dead and your heart leapt. The next time around, you caught the free-form lyrics: there was a slab of turkey neck hanging from a pigeon ring; there were beefcake pantyhose and cocaine nose-jobs; time was just a piece of wax falling on a termite (which obviously made watches a bit of a waste of time). Beck had arrived and nobody knew what the hell he was on about.

Impossibly, Mellow Gold, the album that followed, was even better. It tossed country, psychedelic rock, blues and hip-hop at the wall, and everything stuck. Beck was crowned the new Prince, and he had been just as prolific. His exceptional deal with Geffen allows him to complement his major label releases with as many independent albums as he can muster. Which is a lot - before 1994 was out, Mellow Gold had been joined by the more folky and eccentric collections One Foot in the Grave and Stereopathetic Soul Manure (Beck still has hundreds of unreleased songs languishing on tapes and inside his head).

Such is his prolific nature that it seems unlikely that he will ever catch up with himself. Although it isn't released until June, his daring and fruity new album, O-de-lay, is already yesterday's news; some of its songs are two years old. But there is one thing it will be hard to out- run: the success of "Loser". This amiably absurd singalong still haunts him, and has somehow been adopted as a "slacker" anthem. Beck remains sober and sceptical about it all.

"I never aligned myself with that slacker thing," he sighs. "It's insulting, the idea of poseurish apathy. I always think of it as a middle-class thing. I don't come from a place where we had the time or the money to `slack off'. It was always just a struggle to survive.

"But `slackers' were a marketing invention. At the start of the Nineties it was fun because the marketing people were fumbling. Their idea of youth culture was New Kids on the Block. It's kinda sad that in the last few years they figured it out. Now what used to be the fringe is acceptable and palatable, to the point where middle-of-the-road seems almost radical. In the face of this `alternative culture' and everybody being so `different' it can be more on-the-edge to say you like Boyz II Men than the latest body-pierced hardcore dance band.

"I always look back to the late Eighties," he muses wistfully, "before alternative music was called alternative.

"Those were..." - his mouth curves into a self-mocking smirk - "... innocent times."

n `O-de-Lay' is released on 17 June on Geffen. Beck plays the Phoenix Festival on 19 July (0171-344 0044)

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