A Date With Beck
Fall 2002
pp. 34-39
Pamela Des Barres

The world’s most famous rock groupie talks to the world’s least likely rock star about his art and his heart.

I AM ONE LUCKY CHICK. Here I am on a lovely, sweltering Hollywood afternoon, prancing down Hillhurst in my red velvet sandals, heading toward a funky, trendy Silverlake nosh spot to meet up with a local boy named Beck. I do a lot of interviews, and I usually get a bit excited at the thought of having an intimate conversation with a complete stranger, but on this occasion my heart has actually sped up. I can hear its double thrumthrum, and I'm reminded of just how fucking alive I feel. That's what a good artist does: toasts your own bubbling creative potential, reminding you of the possibility that something great just might come tumbling out of you one day. I've been listening to Beck's newest release, a surprisingly moody, heartaching splat of music called Sea Change, and I feel like I've been confronting my own lost loves, sweetly mulling over several could-have-beens. Sorrowful and hopeful all at once, the album is a flat-out statement that hearts break, and its insistent, crackling sound can cause you to question every star in the sky for months on end.

In his own particular way, Beck is a rebel of huge proportions. At a time when the music industry is churning out inane, tuneless, cardboard replicas, he continues to prod and provoke, delight and confuse, tempt and titillate. Eight years after his slacker delight "Loser" shook it all up, Beck has proven that people are out there listening hard, craving something that could create a little havoc (please!) and alter worn-out, dried-up preconceived notions of what's cool. He redefines it over and over again. I've always adored slightly off-center, androgynous guys who stray from the norm. If I had lived a few less years on the planet (although I would never give up my stellar experiences), Beck would be my type of guy. Maybe that's why my heart still does old-fashioned cartwheels when he arrives, tousled and smiling, a few minutes late. After the initial get-to-know-you, we talk up a storm like people who already do know each other.

Pamela: You're in such an amazing position.
Beck: You think so?

Oh my God, yeah. You are such a rare, free, stand-alone person who gets to do what he wants, and is completely accepted by the audience. They expect you to do something different every time.
That is kind of a weird thing.

I thought only David Bowie was allowed to do that.
You just do it, you don't ask.

You don't fit any mold. You're just being yourself, right?
It's hard for me to quantify. On the first record, I knew there were a lot of things I wanted to do, so I tried to put in as many elements as I could. It has the folky stuff, the progressive...

You always get the folky thing in, how about on Midnight Vultures, the fucking banjo with the rapping?
I want to take that to the next level. I want some banjo electro!

You've lived in this neighborhood a long time, right? People don't seem to look at you anymore.
Yeah, they say, "Oh, there's that guy again." They are not impressed; it's a hometown thing. They probably still can't believe I got a record deal.

And you have such longevity. Eight years!
Yeah, it's weird, right? You make it past four or five, and that's saying something.

Is it because you take people in directions that are unexpected?
You have to be willing to waste it to have it. That's what the last album was about. We could have come out with something real obvious that would have worked commercially. You know when you're 14 and you have a favorite band and they come out and start getting a little cheesy?

My favorite band at 14 was the Beatles.
They didn't meddle with bands then, they let them do their thing. I remember growing up, that would happen over and over again. I've always been attracted to the idea [that you should] waste it! Say something wrong, do something you're not supposed to do. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself on stage, on record-you have to be willing to stay alive.

Up your own ante.
Yeah, exactly-to get to that place where you're vulnerable.

There are a few musicians making real soulful music today...
...instead of cranking out product. The last two years it's been getting better. It's like you hear so many good records, you don't need to make one.

Oh, don't say that! Tell me, what have you listened to more than five times that's come out in the last couple of years?
Hmmm. Five times? Well, you got me there.

So how great can it really be? I used to listen to records until they wore out the Flying Burrito Brothers, Hendrix. Is there anything like that being made now?
I don't think so, but at least it's heading in a better direction. For awhile there, I thought "there's going to be a generation where cool, early, New York punk stuff, or the Velvet Underground, won't be a factor." Then all these bands came along and I thought, "OK, at least it's going to stay around for another 10 years." They'll influence a whole slew of kids and it will perpetuate itself.

The Hives, the Vines, the White Stripes.

So tell me, how do you feel about being the cover boy for this exciting sex issue?
I feel good about it. I'm flattered. I didn't know about sex being a factor when we took the photos. We were at the car seat cover place, and that wasn't very sexy.

The idea of being a sex symbol is not off-putting to you?
Uh, well, uh, no. It's fine.

Women are always objectified that way.
I had really long hair as a teenager, and I grew up in a Salvadorean neighborhood, and I would get whistled at every day by guys on the corner. I have a history of being objectified by migrant workers.

You seem to be pretty in touch with your female side, right?
I guess so, yeah.

You don't pull any of those macho posturings-unless you're kidding around.
I like playing with it on stage. When I first started touring, especially in the Midwest, back when grunge had really hit, it was sort of a male energy: all guys with backwards baseball caps, uniforms.

Do you think it was a response to "Loser," the slacker thing?
I guess. They'd see people moshing on MTV and they'd want to do that. We'd get these (fist up, growling, "Yeah!!!") guys, and we'd come out in these pink pants. We had so much fun! I'd come out with one of those white feather fans and fan myself.

Did you do that to confuse them?
It was just fun. I don't know what they thought.

Do you read your reviews?
I used to. I don't anymore. You don't want to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about somebody saying you've lost the plot.

I have a lot of friends who don't read their reviews.
The smart ones. There was an article called, "He's a Loser and We Want to Kill Him." It was three pages long. It was the worst thing. And when you're 23, you believe it. "Oh, I'm horrible, what am I doing!" Hari-kiri!

But you're a critic's darling. Critically, you basically have won.
I have? Yay! You're making me feel good. I need a tiara.

Are you a perfectionist?
I can be, but a lot of this record was one take – a live vocal and a couple of background vocals at most

It seems like you go out of your way to keep your fans guessing. Or are you doing what comes naturally?
Yeah, it's just what comes-the mood. Certain records are incubating for a few years. This one has been brewing for about four years at least.

Because of the somber tone, people may think it's a response to September 11th.
When we were doing it, I thought people might think it was some sort of reaction to that

It sounds like you're talking directly to one person, maybe a lost love?
Yeah, its kind of got that thread to it. They're specific situations, things that everybody goes through. It takes a few years to hear what a record is.

I'm sure it's annoying when people try to get you to spell it out. I'm not trying to do that!
(Much laughter) I'm not good at that, I just make it I know artists don't like to have to articulate in a specific way, it cheapens it, makes it less than it is. Its just very simple, direct songwriting.

Are you a romantic person?
Yeah, definitely.

Do you believe in foreverness?
Oh yeah.

I deep down believe in foreverness, but it hasn't been proven to me yet.
I don't know how to say this, [but] there are things I like about courtship. The way it was before, in history, it was clearly defined. There's not a lot of convention these days. There's a dialog, an openness, and that's good, but there's not really any sides or edges to the road. It's like, "Oh, I can be with anybody." It's almost like you have 2,000 channels, but you don't watch any one of them. You just go click, click, click.

So you feel the respect of courtship has faded away?
Yeah. I'm not a big subscriber to jumping in and out of relationships. I think it's fascinating. I don't really go on the scene much, but I was in a bar with this photographer I worked with, watching people hooking up, doing the whole thing, like buzz buzz buzz. Like, wow, you know, the meat market thing? Crazy. I never did that.

Do you think this is a hard time to be alive?
There are times I'd like to have lived, but I love being here right now. It's pretty amazing if you think about tens of thousands of years ago, just somebody turning a stone gristmill, and the quiet. [There was] no music even a couple hundred years ago, [just] all this accretion of non-activity and silence. No wonder there were so many wars, that was like a party! "Let's get a bunch of armor and go kill some people, yeah!" They were just bored out of their minds.

But now there's too much distraction.
Yeah, but I like activity. I can't really watch TV, I can't get into it at all, but I like activity. I like doing it, being part of it, not just in taking it. Attention spans are so short these days.
I hate that I think losing interest in things is one of the saddest by-products of our time-people who aren't interested in anything.

Somehow, rock and roll has kept people interested for over 50 years now. Do you think in order for rock to work, there has to be that steamy sexual element?
Yes, in order to qualify as rock and roll in the sense of the physicality and the visceral turning on [of] all the senses in your body. There are schools of more cerebral rock, people looking at their shoes, but it's still music, its still sound projecting from human beings.

Touching hearts.
Yeah, we're getting hit by physical frequencies. I think great performers have something that they putout-it's sort of a mixture, the sex is definitely there.

Dylan and Leonard Cohen are sexy to me.

They touch all parts of me, like you were saying.
Yeah, they get you up here (points to his head) and down here (his heart) Yeah, I need that too. Maybe that's the feminine. I don't connect to music unless it hits something up here too, when it all starts to feel good.

Oh it's a great combo when it hits. I was eight when I first heard Elvis. I'm also a James Dean fanatic.
About 20 years ago, I saw Rebel Without a Cause at the Egyptian theater, a 70 millimeter brand new print I was about 13.

Did it affect you?
Oh yeah, how could it not? 70 millimeter!

He was a breakthrough guy. I'm always drawn to iconic people who up the ante.
He was the coolest. Yeah, people who loosen things up, take the formality out of things. That's really important

They raise the bar. Like Henry Miller.
I've read all of it Sexus, Nexus, Plexus. They're amazing.

I'm just finishing Tropic of Cancer again. You see where Kerouac jumped off.
You see all that stuff when you read him – that whole hipster culture.

Were you raised in a religious or spiritual family?
My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. I think art has always been spiritual to me. Not to sound airy-fairy or anything, but to me that's the closest I get to expressing day-to-day diurnal (I have to ask what this word means, and he tells me "normal, everyday, menial kind of life") existence-expressing something that's close to who I am. The art helps you transform what's ordinary into the whole alchemist idea the possibility. Otherwise we're just sitting hereon Hillhurst with cars going by. And that's not any fun, just sitting waiting for something to happen.

That's what you do. You transform the ordinary, you remind people of their own potential, who they can be.
Wow, well, I hope so. You were talking about James Dean, Henry Miller - you see them and feel like you can do something. It's not a closed door, like, "You can never get in here!"

It's so true! When you're touched by art, there's this opening, and you feel inspired.
Yeah, that's so important You get affected by it, and you want to contribute. I can't go to the museum and passively look at some pictures and go, "Oh, those are nice colors."

I'm gonna change the subject here. I'm curious, how do you feel about groupies?
I never really had them. I always get the eccentric kids who dress funny and sit and write poetry for three months in their bedrooms...

I don't believe you! I'm sure they're around. The energy of creative people is addicting. When I was hanging out with bands, I just wanted to be right in the middle of that amazing scene.
I was looking at that picture of you and the GTOs (My all-girl Frank Zappaproduced group) and if you guys had come out now-that's the female Strokes right there!

Ha! You should hear our album!
I think you hit it right there, you just wanted to be part of this thing. I was going to see tons of shows when I was a teenager, so if I was a girl, would that have made me a groupie? If I wanted to shake Thurston Moore's hand or something?

Maybe if you wanted to take it a step further and hang out with the bands. Who doesn't?