MUSIC CRITICISM: BECK - MORNING PHASE
Reviewed by Kevin Salveson
Beck is in many ways one of the top five emblematic artists of his generation. The journey his career has followed, from cynicism and irony as the default mode to actual sincerity, reflects to a great degree the tenor of Gen X (as they were labelled) entering into maturity.
From the start he was writing checks with his attitude on a bank of promise which his songs were going to have to pay back with interest.
But like the best of his peers (Chuck D for example) he was always beguiling, sincere in his cynicism. Morning Phase simply represents more intricate work with the golden accoustic threads he always insisted were woven into his musical patchwork.
Tto do this right and follow the thread from the beginning we're going to have to go all the way back... if not to the Civil War, at least to the 1980's. I've followed Mr. Hansen's career since I was in college and working at the radio station, KXLU, 88.9 FM in Los Angeles.
As a college station we were pretty disdainful of the commercially released corporate rock of the times (big hair, aquanet, spandex, misogyny). Still, there were the independent labels of the time such as Subpop, Screeching Weasel, and Kill Rock Stars which were putting out Bikini Kill etc etc. So that was the tenor of the times. KXLU and other college stations were about the only place in LA to hear non-commerical stuff.
Back then at the station there was something called a CART machine. This was a giant 8-track sized tape machine that would play one little spot sometimes a minute or less but up to about four minutes before the tape ran out of space in the casing. It was basically a little tape machine sampler. It was used to thow a station-ID or a song into the mix. Just pull the tape, pop it in, hit play, and have Henry Rollins say "You're listening to KXLU" before the next record.
For your jingles jollies only
Meanwhile, KXLU also had a show called Demolisten, started by DJ Agent Ava, which accepted tapes from local bands looking to get played on the air despite not having enough to get their first single printed yet. It was populist and treated the concept of the music as just as important as the fidelity (and the fidelity was sometimes poor). Still, the punk DIY aesthetic founded by Black Flag and Greg Ginn (amongst others) on the West Coast was part and parcel of that zeitgeist.
And so it happened that eventually the low-fidelity janglings of Beck Hansen were championed by the station. KXLU does in fact get name-checked from what I see online. But, of course, he was already fairly well-connected to some other artists with good reputations, his family. That he became an acquaintance of several DJs at the station perhaps was not by accident. He was of a certain pedigree via his mother and father and grandfather and quickly became one step removed from the Warhols and Waronkers and Geffins and other monied players in the industry who could break an artist overnight on sheer expenditure alone. So he had all that going for him. And the DJs at the station recognized that.
Yet he didn't come from money and so his subversive sense of lo-fi and salvaged sounds also had that "from the streets" credibility which was important in hip hop and indie rock at the time. Still, in the end there are a lot of good artists out there and there are many more bad; and then there are the greats. And if the greatness is in the dna somewhere by pedigree then, who knows, the advantages earned by the hardwork of an artist's forebears in terms of reputation may allow for some golden thread to be spun by the next generation... if they set up a loom and start spinning hard.
So one day I came across a CART of a song by Beck stuffed into the rack along with the Spaulding Grey station ID I had made and the William Burroughs ID and such. It was titled "MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack." Ha ha! Good one. We all loved the irreverence. It was an instant hit. By hit, I mean that most of the DJs pulled the cart and tossed it into their playlists. (CARTs were easier to play at the last second than cuing up a new record just right as the last song was ending).
MTV was in fact still playing music at that time but it was Warrant's Cherry Pie they were flogging. Crack, of course, was at its peak in the media as well and was the kind of streetwise but arch little joke every comedian was using back then. But it was, how can we put it? Stuttering, poorly recorded, seemingly somewhat tossed off, a one-joke song, but still... a funny joke. Listeners of the station would surely be amused.
And that is how it started-- the easy jokes. Which was what was a little frustrating at the time. Here was this waif stoner who couldn't take anything seriously.
And that was also a characteristic of Beck's time, Generation X. Jane's Addiciton, despite Lollapalooza and the revitalization of indie rock (along with Seattle), turned into nothing more than Led Zeppelin. Which is great, but the band doesn't tell you anything about its generation beyond the fact that hedonism is a perennial favorite and santeria stylings on top of it are kinda cool wen it gives it an air of mystery and thus unlimited potential.
Beck's career, however, I believe, traces the progression that Gen Xers made over time as well in a way that other bands or artists perhaps don't. That is, we all made a journey towards maturity, which was a good thing. And so did Mr. Hansen. Deep down he always maintained a kind of shambolic integrity that is what this generation really craves after all - the sweet sweet tangs of authenticity and honesty.
Here is Kim Deal of Sonic Youth authentically throwing a shoe as a response to an interview question. If you were a musician and you were less connected and you tried to pull this shit to be off the wall people would never ask you back and they would go out of their way to kill your career, probably.
The promise of youth is the promise of unlimited possibility. You don't have to pin yourself down yet, you can experiment and try on different suits, you can flip off the elders and call them stuffy. The irreverence of youth also masks the fear and knowledge that you are too young and small to really compete with the big boys. So you opt out, you maintain a cynical distance. Sure, every generation has their challenges, but Gen X was in my mind the first generation that grew up without innocence from the beginning. In the 60's the Boomers responded to the information funneled to them by shock-- they were shocked to find that war and politics were corrupt enterprises. They had grown up in the post WWII era where America was held out as a shining beacon of success. Solid Protestant values rewarded you with the American Dream. But they had been lied to. As they came of age they saw that reality as shown on TV was at odds with so much they were taught. And so they rebelled, called their elders out on the hypocrisies of race and military power, and then finally gave up and became Yuppies when they saw you couldn't fight city hall.
Generation X started off without innocence from the beginning. There was no anger at something lost, just resignation. It was the Saturday Night Live generation grown up in the blue glow of the cathode ray tubes. As 1970's television started to become self-referrential and thus tried harder and harder to spoof itself, with the TV always on and always blaring some commerical jingle, Generation X realized that they were bought and sold a thousand times before breakfast, that anything in the media couldn't be trusted and served corporate interests even when it was doing so using the tones and techniques of the counter-culture itself. It was all meaningless, it was all hopeless. (Sure, It was a big generation, and there were a lot of factions. The Minor Threat Straight Edge contingent started off on the idealistic side of the spectrum, espousing values from the beginning, and you had Billy Bragg and Rave/Dance culture, etc, but in general the tone was one of frustration, cynicism, and irony.) You couldn't beat city hall, but you could "Culture jam" them. This was the environment that produced Pavement, another band that glorified low-fi anti-corporate rock with an attitude of detachment from sincerity and amaturism as the solution to the problem of maybe not being good enough to compete in the commerical world or maybe finding that world too crass to worth with willingly.
And that is what Beck represented, or appeared to represent, anyway: an ironic response to it all. He lived in a world where nothing could be taken seriously, not even his own efforts. (Even if he was in fact doggedly persuing it in a lot of ways, you couldn't be seen to be too earnest or careerist in your persuit of a career).
About a year after that CART appeared on the racks at KXLU, I went to a backyard "show" where Beck was to play. It was just off the 405 freeway in Santa Monica, next to a vacant lot. It was a white-trash kind of run down squat looking house, and outside they had set up some mics and amps and people were smoking their ciggarrettes and having beer on a summer day. The band Possum Dixon, one of the darlings of the time who were slated to be a next big thing, played and they were decent , had some decent but not standout songs. Still, as kinda pretty boys, I could tell were going to get over on their looks and style. (However, despite getting Ric Ockasik onboard, they couldn't produce a pop success and eventually broke up). Then it was Beck's turn to play. The song Loser had just been released, and it was getting some play on KROQ, the station that KXLU often handed the baton to in the Los Angeles music scene when a band was breaking out of the indie ghetto. He seemed to be showing us how to integrate hip hop with other genres.
But it was simply the worst show I had ever seen. I mean, I coudn't tell if he was taking anything seriously at all or not, because twice he started songs and then seemed to get distracted and stop. He didn't look high or anything, just, what, bored? The signals he was giving were "I don't even know what I am doing up here." He got a kid's toy pop gun that made a Zow! sound and fired it into the mic a couple of times. He then played one complete song or two accompanied by his accoustic guitar which had the "Jazzersize" sticker. I was waiting for him to get a band and play the song of his which was getting radio airplay. He didn't, until at the end he got a tape player out. He started it playing the backing track to Loser, and he started to sing the lyrics, and then he again just trailed off out of mic range and then eventually the tape stopped, he fipped the toy gun in the air, and walked back into the house.
That's when I started wondering exactly why it was that everyone at the station was going out of their way to promote him (KXLU had sponsored the backyard party). I mean, there are a million musicians out there, and they all play well and write their own songs and have some smart lyrics. Maybe they went to music school, maybe they can even read sheet music. Maybe they deserve recognition more than this Hansen, who couldn't even make it through a show without getting bored with his own shtick.
But that is not the way the music world often works. Just like in a lot of things, who you know and how much money you have might be more important than your songs. Some powerful people pull for you, and they don't pull for the other less-connected guys. Fame is fickle. You're telling me the industry can make a star --in a kind of a way-- out of The Shaggs? But meanwhile, there are a million other grapes that die on the vine despite being sweeter.
During that era I met a thousand different characters. Some died their hair green to stand out (hi, Zander), some liked to wear leather and spikes as an image choice, some pretended to be white trash, some were white trash, some were into rap and fronted that they were hard, some worked out and played rock they hope would get them laid, and there were some like Beck that seemed to be that D student in Public School who would wear long sleeve surfer t-shirts under another t-shirt in the middle of summer and lacked focus.
Collaborations with famous people can also help your career
There always seemed to be some kind of jockeying amonst all off the "personalities" who thought they had to brand their behavior to stand out. Everyone thought of themselves as characters of irrefutable incandescence. They were stuck having to ask themselves the unsavory. How deep should they wade in? Who should they pose for? Who's worth sucking up to? Would they lose their "indie cred" if they signed to Hollywood Records? So, even when the tenor was anti-corporate... the drive, I think, was still to succeed. You just had to do it in an authentic way, or at least appear to do so.
And yet here was Beck, with success being handed to him, and he left the table without eating half of what was on his plate. So why was everyone clamouring to bring him dessert?
Well, turns out, we weren't that stupid after all, and neither was Hansen. There was always more to him than his slacker tendancies. If he was such a slacker, why was he coming out to Pomona to sing his songs at the Haven Coffeehouse in 1990 for little to no pay, or busking his tunes on city busses? He did seem to play a lot of shows, he was always showing up somewhere. It was almost like he was trying to not try.
Then there were his professed musical roots. He had obviously picked up a knowledge of the folk music of the 1930's and 40s, Arlo and Woodie Guthrie, Leadbelly, Peet Seeger, which a lot of other punk rockers and metalheads had no clue about. At least he had some science behined his shtick. Also, he did the troubador show (emulating them); at least it's easy to put up and take down the tent.