From Sexx Laws to Outlaws
Black Book
Fall 2002
pp. 88-92
Rachel Resnick

Throwing another curve ball into the pop stratosphere with his country-fried, stripped-down new album, the protean rock star Beck rifts on the Japanese subculture of Little Bo Peep, mangled language, Dada visions for abandoned strip malls, and why real men wear pink.

Like Alice B Toklas, Beck prefers to sit with his back to a good view. After introducing himself and putting on a Mingus record, he sits in an acid-orange chaise longue with matching footrest. The two arched floor-to-ceiling windows behind him provide a spectacular panoramic vista of the placid Silverlake Reservoir. The air conditioning is the right temperature for a meat cooler.

"LA's a place I can come and shake the dust off," he says of his hometown. In Beck's drowsy, Cali-inflected voice, there is no trace of the world-weary folk cowboy of the latest, as-yet-untitled album, or the funkadelic soul man of Midnite Vultures. "It's such a great nonplace to live. All the experiences kind of dissolve into the slowness. In a stimulating world, it's a nice place to unstimulate."

The white stucco walls of his Spanish-style house are adorned with lots of artwork, including many pieces by his priapic, Zorba-style grandfather Al Hansen, one of the founders of the Fluxus movement and a colorful character from whom Beck learned to rhyme and talk '40s-era hipster jive. Al made collages of the Venus of Willendorf out of garbage--matchsticks, cigarette butts, candy-bar wrappers, girlie-mag pics. I sit on the edge of a mod '50s white couch, my shoes slipping on a blue-green shag yarn carpet that's vaguely reminiscent of the Jungle Room at Graceland. On the far wall is a bandanna Valkyrie. Over the fireplace is a fertility goddess made of cigarette butts.

Beck himself harvested some of the materials for the goddess. At age eight, he and his younger brother, Channing, went on a walk with A] all over Hollywood to find the discarded ends. Each of them carried a plastic shopping bag. They didn't return until they were full. With a fistful of stinking butts in one hand and a blank canvas before him, Al had an epiphany: He was an alchemist, converting shit into gold. Excrement piles up in earlier Beck lyrics--one album's even called Stereopathetic Soulmanure. So does trash--garbage pail skies, rubbish piles fresh and plain, screaming garbagemen, trash-bag kids. Both fertilize Beck's surreal soundscapes, as did his grandfather.

Though Al died in 1995, he and Beck recently had a joint art show that celebrated Al's work and its cross-generational, pollinating influence on Beck's music. Beck himself has been called a junk man, for his habit of using found bits of pop culture in his own music. The Fluxus movement believed that combination and fusion was where it was at, and all media and art were fair game. Combining elements of Bauhaus, Dada, and Zen, it had big ideas, but they were always sauced with burlesque. They never took themselves too seriously.

On his new album, Beck turns the turntables, leaving behind the humor and opting instead for achingly mournful, acoustic-based folk fusions. In person, this prolific and protean artist has rock star presence. Part of it is due to his dairy-fresh skin. He looks shockingly youthful for 32. A pedophile's dream with a long shelf life. A thinking teen's pinup boy. With his Swede-Norwegian visage, similar to Northern Italian, he could be a Borghese princeling with home-cut blond hair. His look is compelling-intelligent but remote, eyes observing everything but also enjoying a private joke-and he seems lightly perverse, or at least mischievous, behind a formal politeness. He radiates a mellow self-containment. Almost feline.

There are pink balloons in a corner of the room, left over from Beck's birthday three days ago. "Yeah, pink balloons," he says, behind pink tinted aviators, "I think it's interesting being American, the expectations for an American guy, and the image that has to be projected. 'Oh, I can't wear pink,' that kind of stuff. There's none of that in Europe." For his birthday, he unveiled a newly revamped website-with a shockingpink background and Beck spelled out in morphable letters that squoosh like a lava lamp when you glide the cursor over them. His website is chock-full of his own artwork. The Beck oeuvre is replete with supplementary works, parenthetical albums, spin-offs of spin-offs.

Beck is constantly being described as hip. This is due in part to his aesthetic sensibilities. He's a natural born cool hunter. In an age where taste is the new determinant of class lines and hierarchies, then someone with strong prescient choices will sometimes shoot to the head of the ruling class. Beck once said he considered himself a conductor. He is also a fast-shifting modern man, a connoisseur of highbrow and low life, hi-fi and lo-fi, a vital bargain hunter, able to sort out garbage that can be turned into gold-or platinum records.

If Beck were a mall, he would be at least a triplex. He talks animatedly about the strange abandoned-mall epidemic. Because developers keep building new designs, they abandon old malls. "I think it would be great to have a mall that looked like stores but you weren't selling things," he says. "You were just going to hang out or do things. Or if somebody bought a mall and turned it into a house that people could kind of come to and you could build rooms, and it's all orange furniture. Or you could just build environments. Reclaim a mall just in the name of aesthetics or to make something beautiful or something that has no real purpose. Wouldn't that be amazing?"

Maybe the abandoned mall idea is a total dadaist goof. Or maybe Beck digs the flip side of Fluxus pranksterism: reshaping social and political aesthetics. On his glass coffee table, there are neat piles of mostly art books: Hundertwasser Architecture, Y E S Yoko Ono, Al Hansen, I've Got the Neutron Bomb by Spitz and Mullen about the LA punk rock scene, a couple by Chandler (The Little Sister and The Long Goodbye). And tucked underneath the Chandler, a Fruits 51 Japanese catalog for Anglo-American eyewear. In the bookcase, more art books: volumes I and II of Art of Western Civilization, William Klein's Films, Roadside Japan, Toward a Simpler Way of Life. The latter seems to sync with his new musical offering. And on one shelf, a can of Campbell's tomato soup, a nod to Warhol and Beck's mother, Bibbe. At the tender age of thirteen, Bibbe was the youngest Superstar in Warhol's factory, acting in a flick with Edie Sedgwick. Grandpa Al was there the day Andy Warhol got shot. In his reminiscences, he recalls seeing Andy's blood on the Factory floor and thinking it was Campbell's tomato soup. Campbell is also the surname of Beck's father, David, an arranger and composer who's worked on some of Beck's music and produced some early punk bands.

With his industry and success, Beck may be rebelling against his genuinely boho mother. In the '70s, she hooked up with a considerably younger Latino man, artist Sean Carillo. They've been together since. Bibbe is now in a wildass parodic band called "Black Fag" with local drag queen/performance artist Vaginal Creme Davis. "Vag" is seven feet tall in platforms while Bibbe is a pixie. She's Jewish. Beck's dad is a Scientologist. Bibbe's mother, Audrey, was a dancer/model and sometime stripper. The night Al first met Audrey she was with an entourage, dressed in a trench coat, wearing only pasties underneath; her hair was green and she wore violet shadow on her eyes. She did the Thumbelina dance in Perry Como's hand on the old Perry Como Show. It sounds like pure Fellini. Is it any wonder Beck often thinks in collage?

Beck is consummately polite, carefully modulating his voice, pausing as he thinks. Explaining the abundance of Japanese art books, Beck mentions that he tours in Japan frequently and that he even cut a special CD for the Japanese market. He has just gotten back. "I saw this gang of three or four girls dressed like Little Bo Peep, with big white staffs and ribbons and ringlets and all in white. The Japanese catch on to something and they just take it all the way. They're completists. I love that. It's a freak show. We're so conservative compared to them. They're so loose and groovy."

Beck explains that a completist is somebody who, for example, collects everything ever recorded of Mahler. He remembers reading all of Truman Capote's work when he was younger. The Bo Peep girl gang sighting was probably in the Harajuku section of Tokyo, where every Sunday teens gather to show off outrageous costumes, from goth to Barbie to Little BoPeep. The Little Bo Peep trend dovetails with the Japanese Lolita-obsession-many girls there dress in schoolgirl uniforms on their days off, and until recently, soiled Japanese schoolgirls' underwear could be purchased from vending machines. The Japanese like to curate the West, hijacking ideas, leaching out any kind of threat, then playing up what's cute. Beck is big in Japan, but made in America; he drives a black Lincoln Town Car, not a Daewoo. But the word is that he buys his clothes in Japan. 'Japan's the cultural way station," he explains. "Everything ends up there ... all the obscure cool stuff."

Beck's verbal and musical vocabulary is certainly formidable, especially for an autodidact who dropped out of school after the ninth grade. Beat poet and legend Allen Ginsberg called Beck's lyrics "wonderful poetry." I ask whether he has a background in poetry. He says he read a lot of poetry as a kid, when he would hang out at the library. He also checked out a lot of albums, concentrating in his youth on country blues. Now he's more into Brit folk musicians and their intricate guitar fingering, which is evident on his new album.

About eight years ago, Beck thought about publishing a book of poetry. "I'd written these really crude poems as a German street guy," he remembers. "He was sort of a composite of people that I've known, real crazy street characters mixed with that aggroGerman thing, all written in broken English, with German. All malapropisms. There's a poem called, 'Mein Finger I Give.' It's all about German-English. I love mangled language. I grew up in LA, y'know, around Koreatown, or Salvadoran neighborhoods, where people spoke English as a second language, so I was used to hearing words sort of sideways. And my mom had a lot of European friends, from Belgium or France. I always loved the way they spoke because it made the language fresh again."

Give the finger to the rock 'n' roll singer. A garbage truck grinds by outside. Beck has a jukebox brain. Give him a selection and he drops down a different thought, that keen mind pressing the needle to the wax to make his point. But when asked about the emotional impulse behind the new album, he avoids anything specific, even though this is probably his most personal and impassioned record yet. Every song is infused with romantic exhaustion and melancholy.

"This one," he says, "the songwriting's very disciplined. I was trying to do songs almost, like, Hank Williams simple. I was trying to walk that line where it's not too clever. Just pure emotion. It was going back to a style when I was younger, you know. Just trying to be direct and concise, which is a discipline. That's the kind of songwriting I really respect. It's almost harder for me. It's easier to put in all these ideas and just stack 'em up and see what happens."

In the same way Beck is able to coexist with commercial and avant-garde sensibilities, with high and low culture, he also seems relaxed with his own integrated gender-blending-like a good rock star should. When he's on stage during one of his famous, electric performances, he has every audience member (like Thumbelina) in the palm of his herky-jerky hand. He channels some fearsome bzooty force. "If anybody could know what it's like to play behind a twelve piece band," he says. "Shit. You've got a PA going up to the sky. Y'know. It's loud as hell. It's like trying to ride a typhoon. You're trying to not fall over. There's a derangement of the senses."

When Beck talks about performing, it's a helterskelter moment, joy-filled, unalloyed, and unmediated. He takes off his aviators for the first time. His eyes are rinsed-clean hydrangea blue and huge. Striking. Hypnotic in their appraisal and blankness-not a Warholian blankness, but one that seems to come from self-control. Behind them the satellite thoughts are busy spinning around planet Beck, but they are not all for public consumption. I imagine Beck dreams in snapcrackle imagery, Dada departures, speaking in tongues, abstract detours, trips down treacherous roads with desolate views.

He says it "depends on what I ate the night before. I think dreams are just based on indigestion." He laughs, loosening up again. His laugh is as infectious as his music. Get crazy with the Cheez Whiz. "I don't really remember them. Unless I'm woken up, y'know. But I always think of dreams as the garbage disposal of your experience and your past and your hopes."

The sewer drain is glowing. How is it possible with his hallucinatory sonic wordscapes that Beck does not acknowledge his dreams? Garbage and shit, funeral fires and cinders are just so much lyrical compost. Songs shift from haunting, dead man melodies to celebratory soul. The black balloons of Mutations give way to pink birthday balloons. And then there's Beck, playing mediator in an abandoned mall filled with orange furniture and technical equipment, can of Cheez Whiz in hand, cranking out the tunes as they come. Art always wins! as Al said.

Or is this just a rose-colored view, an interpretation? Maybe he can't be pinned down, this constantly mutating butterfly of an artist, because he isn't one of us. When he could have worn the crown of the anthem boy for the slacker generation after "Loser," he refused, successfully avoiding the fifteen-minutesof-fame trap. Beck's identity is happily in Fluxus. Maybe the truth is, with his hotwaxed California backdrop where life dissolves into the slowness. Beck dreams all the time while the rest of us are just breathing.