The late great rock critic Lester Bangs used to imagine what his records would say to one another if they could talk. Butted up against each other on his less-than-organized shelves, how would they get along? Like, what would Marvin Gaye's What's Going On say to Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Going On? What would the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street make of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks? How would Miles Davis relate to Sir Lord Baltimore? Could pre-Elvis pop get along with the rock and roll that replaced it? Could the shelves hold the egos of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis without collapsing in all-out war? Bangs's daydream casually extended his rabid fandom into playful pathological fetishism -- a wish to turn popular entertainment into popular discourse.
No one these days is more interested in such popular discourse than folk-rapper Beck. After a slew of records, including the 1994 DGC release Mellow Gold, which repackaged his indie novelty hit "Loser," Beck hit pay dirt with last year's Odelay. Fusing R&B grooves with Stones-style country riffs, loopy funk chants, and wry, detached stoner lyrics, Beck has carved out a musical territory that Leonard Cohen might call "the holy places where the races meet."
We like to credit Elvis Presley for the first widespread musical miscegenation, but mostly because it makes clean and easy what is essentially messy and impossible to document. Besides, we are nothing if not Twentieth Century-centric.
Same with Beck. Everyone from Grandmaster Flash to the Beastie Boys to Public Enemy to a couple of hundred kids no one's ever heard of have liberally sprinkled their records with samples from here, there, and everywhere. But for reasons of timing (right place, right time) Beck has come to us in a vacuum -- a time when once again everything is up for grabs and whoever's got the most nerve gets to take home the future in the form of critical appreciation, album sales, and industry awards.
Odelay does have power. In a less forgiving year it might have been a curio; 1996, however, was a year of holding action, so Odelay means more. Its grooves go deeper and its playfulness transforms into higher consciousness.
David Lee Roth once made the spot-on joke that critics liked Elvis Costello more than Van Halen only because they all looked like Elvis Costello (to this I must take umbrage; I've been compared to Martin Barre of Jethro Tull -- yikes!). Most critics nowadays probably bear more than a passing resemblance to Beck -- and have record collections to match. So it's no surprise to learn that Beck topped the Village Voice's annual nationwide Pazz and Jop Critics' Poll by a landslide, and was named Artist of the Year by both Spin and Rolling Stone. Why wouldn't he? Where's the competition?
We all keep our private passions, whether they be the fading glory of yet another Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen release or the sounds emitting from some bizarre indie-rock outpost, and in many ways they are what matter most. Because they're private. Because they're alive with personal connections. But pop music is also shared experience.
There's an undeniable rush in hearing a song that everyone around you knows the words to and can mimic the guitar solo of. That's what makes hearing the likes of the Eagles and Steve Miller tolerable in a sick sort of way. And that's what makes Nirvana more potent than the countless punk bands before them who tapped into the same essential rock energy.
Throughout 1996 there wasn't a party I attended where at some point Beck's Odelay wasn't put on the stereo. The reasons for this varied: For some there was genuine excitement; for others it was the calling card of perceived cool. In any context, the record kicked.
It begins with a riff from "I Can Only Give You Everything" by Van Morrison and Them and eventually works through to the off-kilter observation, "I've got a devil's haircut in my mind." The hip-hop beat gains in power, and Beck's voice gets across to us via distorted filters. A blues harmonica cuts through the mix; the eclecticism takes shape into something far greater than mere eclecticism. The result is a synthesis of style, a way of wearing the same old clothes as a brand-new fashion statement. In these days of regurgitation and redux, anything that shows a sign of life gets done to death.
Beck is not a great rapper by any means. Words for the most part come out distractedly, but that's part of the charm. I've heard it called "slacker posing," but I think the reason for his delivery is simpler and less affected than that. I think that, in classic rock-singer style from Bob Dylan to Jonathan Richman, Beck understands the limits of his unmusical voice and has found a way of sidestepping the issue by drawling in apathy. It certainly sounds a lot cooler than huffing and puffing in earnest only to sound like an idiot.
A track such as "Lord Only Knows" underlines Beck's charitable sense of humor. As a country-rocker he sways along with Stones-like affection, but juxtaposes a hip-hop break and a heavy-metal tap-guitar solo. He's out to rub our nose in it, break down our elitist biases and make us accept all music as worthy entertainment. As someone who has worked as a volunteer DJ and spent more than a fair amount of airtime arguing with fellow DJs over the merits of Gordon Lightfoot (I championed him, of course), Beck's call for open communication between the genres is a noble cause. And for that I salute him.
But while there's a part of me that obviously enjoys his music, I still get the uneasy feeling I'm admiring it more than loving it. It's entertainment, but I realize the music I love has staying power beyond mere amusement. I want something more. Maybe it's because I was brought up to understand music not as a commodity but as a friend who knows the right things to say yet never talks back: Your girlfriend dumps you, listen to Hank Williams or Joy Division; you get a new girlfriend, listen to Van Morrison; a friend moves away, listen to the Replacements; you lose your job, listen to the Stooges. It all makes perfect sense and it's all deadly serious, even when it's a joke.
There's no sense of the forlorn in Beck's music. He's got his "two turntables and a microphone" and he's "Where It's At." (My friend, noted critic David Sprague, pointed out to me that since Beck does not actually have two turntables to accompany his microphone, he's admitting he's not where it's at at all and is, therefore, extending his "Loser" persona into the next round.)
As a child of parents who were part of the Fluxus art movement, Beck may be waxing romantic for a suburban past he never knew. No matter; he still intimates a shopping-mall sophistication where substance remains secondary to the surface. Which is to say, listen to Odelay in a few years and former novelty may sound quaint.
Judging from the relative amateurishness of his releases not produced by the Dust Brothers (Flipside's Stereopathic Soulmanure, and K Records's One Foot in the Grave, both from '94), you get an uncertain sense of where collaboration ends and auteurism begins. Since Beck is a bit of a lovable wiseass, he'd probably use the postmodern argument that all art is collaboration, blah, blah, blah, and use the argument not out of any deeply felt belief but because it's there, and why not?
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Option editor Jason Fine claims Beck's live show ranks among the more exciting he has attended in quite some time. Apparently the awkward gestures and bad posture have metamorphosed into endearing stage play. Beck's obvious penchant is for spoofing concept, and where better to spoof concept than in a large room with a bunch of people who share the joke? And since Beck's irony lacks the usual jaded rancor, it's easier to join in and party up.
And for that, you will be well served. I grudgingly admit you must never discount the party. Lester Bangs understood the need for it and, in fact, was disturbed enough in the early Seventies to pen a diatribe railing against the overseriousness he saw corrupting the junkyard soul of great rock and roll. So screw me. Certainly performers today, from Eddie Vedder to Sting to Eric Clapton, would score immediate pies-in-face for their pompous acts of faith. (The pies-in-face were Bangs's twisted idea of comeuppance). I'm certain Beck would not warrant one but would wear the pie over his devil's haircut anyway.
The nation got a chance to see his moves firsthand at the Grammy Awards a few weeks back. Sandwiched between the agonizing sit-down seriousness of Babyface and Clapton, the unbearable histrionics of Celine Dion, and the thick concept and thin sound of Smashing Pumpkins, Beck's goofball theatrics took on added significance. Billy Corgan may sing about being a geek, but Beck personifies geekiness. And we deserve an end to the false advertising, the constant bait-and-switch the music industry pulls with annoying chutzpah. We deserve the real thing. And like it or not, for better or worse, Beck is where it's at.
Beck performs Wednesday, March 19, at 7:00 p.m., with opening acts the Cardigans and Atari Teenage Riot, at Chili Pepper, 200 W Broward Blvd, Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-0094. Tickets cost $15.