As a teenager, I was wild for Beck. It started with “Loser,” a song I liked so much when I was 12 that I bought the Mellow Gold album and started collecting everything else I could find by the musician. I think that the larger opinion of Beck at the time was that he’d probably turn out to be little more than a one hit wonder, and Mellow Gold is certainly an uneven record, but on the strength of tracks like Loser, Pay No Mind, and Beercan, I decided that Beck was my favorite musician.
I was the kind of kid that collected things (I had a tiny stamp and coin collection and had been really into collecting trading cards–basketball, football, and baseball cards especially) and around this time I started to try and build a respectable collection of anything Beck had put out that I could get my hands on. As a teenager living in Edmond, Oklahoma and Boise, Idaho in the era before digital music and largely before the interwebs, this was sometimes a bit of a challenge. I started visiting a couple of fan sites run by a Beck superfan that went by Truck on a site called Whiskeyclone. One, called Almost a Ghost, collected lyrics to all the songs Beck had recorded or performed live along with a brief song history and provenance, another, Hijacked Flavors, catalogued live shows and had information about bootleg recordings, and a third, Disco Quebrado, contained a thorough discography of all known Beck recordings. I immersed myself in the world of Beck arcana, bought two of his lesser known pre-Mellow Gold records, Stereopathetic Soul Manure, a lo-fi noisy mess of a record with some typically crazy early Beck stuff–my favorite track was probably Satan Gave Me a Taco, and One Foot in the Grave (mostly folk songs that he put on on K records)–which I picked up on vinyl (his cover of Skip James’ He’s a Mighty Good Leader is probably my favorite track from that record).
In time I started buying Beck’s singles, amassing b-sides and alternate recordings, trading bootlegs, and trying to collect rarities and live-only songs he recorded. I generally thought Beck was pretty rad. That feeling grew considerably when he came out with Odelay, which blew my mind when I first heard it weeks before my 14th birthday. It was the best album I’d ever heard, and I played it almost nonstop for weeks. I was really into old-school rap at the time (think Grandmaster Flash or anything from Sugar Hill Records–I bought their boxed set when it came out the next year) and loved the way that Beck moved so fluidly between so many styles and genres, how he did white boy rap so lazily, so funkily, so eccentrically. I saw his performance (in a white suit, natch!) on Sessions at West 54th Street (you have to check out the sick cover of Keith Mansfield’s Soul Thing his band plays as his intro and their closing number, an unbelievable 10-minute long version of Where It’s At) and tried to model all my dance moves at Mormon Saturday Night Dances (SNDs) on his performance. A couple years later Beck put out Mutations, a solid, mostly acoustic album that was initially supposed to be come out on K Records as a kind of follow up to One Foot on the Grave, but ended up getting poached by Geffen due to the massive commercial success of Odelay. I liked it a lot, but couldn’t help feeling super excited for the album that was supposed to be the proper follow up to Odelay, one that was rumored to have heavy funk influence, one on which Beck morphed into a tongue-in-cheek Prince worshipper, one which I was sure would be awesome.
That happened a couple of months into my senior year of high school, when he released Midnite Vultures. To 17-year old me, this album was the greatest thing that could have ever happened, musically speaking. My favorite part of the record was pretty much all of it, but if I had to pick one thing that pushed it over the top it was the release of Debra, a song that Beck had been performing live for several years in all kinds of various forms and in several funky variations (see this performance for a taste, and this one for dessert) but which had never made it on to any of his albums. I have never seen Beck live–one of my greatest musical regrets, particularly since I might have seen the dude in the cape doing something crazyawesome like all the stuff he does in this video–but I will say in my defense that I haven’t had many reasonable opportunities to do so. Despite Beck’s crazy touring schedule in the late 90’s and early 00’s, he didn’t play any shows in Oklahoma until after I had already moved to Idaho, and the closest he came to Boise while I was living there was a show in Salt Lake City in April 2000. He played three shows in 2008 in Chicago while I was living in Madison, but I didn’t make it to any of those, and he’s not touring much these days. Despite having never seen Beck myself, when I was a teenager the brother-in-law of my high school girlfriend gave me a pale blue Beck t-shirt from an early tour (thanks Jared Williams!) that I wore on special occasions, mostly when I needed to look especially awesome. I’ve still got it in a drawer, awaiting the day when I finally see the man live and in person.
So this post is finally getting to the time of my life that I wanted to write about when I first embarked on detailing my abiding love for Beck, namely the masterpiece that is Midnite Vultures. As a freshman at BYU, my closest friends were my roommate Spencer, and the two guys who lived in the dorm room next to us, Mark and Jordan. Jordan was a guitar performance major and a tech/noise/sound wizard, Mark had been the lead singer in a rock band in high school that pretty much defined his identity, and Spencer was a sneaky good guitarist/songwriter. So I was surrounded by music and we were always sharing music and weird things we found on the internet. Mark spent probably the equivalent of two months watching U2 videos, air drumming, and kicking in doors with his Bono-inspired enthusiasm, Jordan beat Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 probably 50 times and recorded a whole album of experimental dance music with a little USB turntable thing his uncle sent him (here’s a sample track), and Spencer just kept changing my wallpaper to animal-on-animal humping pictures. My contribution was staying up until 3 in the morning winning a title on NBA 2000 with teams like the Bucks and sharing Beck videos. They were all awesome, but the greatest Beck video, and quite possibly the greatest music video of all time was the extended version of Sexx Laws (if you want to download the file, it’s here). We probably watched this video a thousand times–all of us had the whole Vision Warrior’s men’s power group dialogue memorized, and it was the source of inexhaustible laughter.
The video itself is a gem and seems like the kind of thing that would have been super fun to make, with the cast featuring a young Jack Black (this was before High Fidelity you have to remember, at a time when we was making things like Heat Vision and Jack) talking about his glorious washerboard abs and his dolphin fetish (while wearing a beeeeea-uuu-tiful t-shirt), Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Beck’s then bassist, talking about his belief that his spirit was so large it just might be able to plug up the hole in the ozone layer, and Neil Strauss, the journalist who gained a measure of infamy after reinventing himself as a pick-up artist while participating in and writing about the seduction community in the NYT and his best-selling The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, appearing as a decidedly unsexy angel lover who wants “angel answers” and who yearns to write a book about angels and then give it away. In short, it is impossibly funny, incredibly strange, and really really good.
And before you go, I just want you to remember one thing: I know what you are. … You’re a ficus.