FUV Essentials: Andy Friedman on Beck
Our FUV Essentials illustrator Andy Friedman (photo courtesy of Andy Friedman)
The first time that I heard Beck’s earliest hit, “Loser,” from 1994's Mellow Gold, his major label debut, I was in the pitch-black basement of my friend Gary’s house in the midst of a glow-in-the-dark domino fight with a group of friends from high school.
I should have been in the midst of my second semester of freshman year studying art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but I had dropped out after three months. Gary had to report to work in an hour, which soon meant free TCBY frozen yogurt for all. But in the meantime, the frenetic environment of our makeshift battlefield, coupled with a soundtrack provided by Gary’s father’s basement stereo, gave us an ideal opportunity to listen to music loudly while we enjoyed a reliable escape from the predictable stillness of another weekday afternoon spent wallowing in the Long Island suburbs.
Before the glow-in-the-dark battle, Gary loaded Mellow Gold into the rotating tray of the stereo’s five-disc CD changer with the promise that I would love what I heard. He knew that I had been listening incessantly to Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, which was the first to blend acoustic folk and electric blues with abstract lyricism, and he proclaimed that Mellow Gold was somehow cut from the same cloth. I was skeptical of Gary’s assessment. I didn’t see how a record by a twentysomething MTV hitmaker, who was marketed as a "slacker" and a product of the grunge movement (which wasn’t an era that I hadn’t particularly enjoyed due to the sheer loudness of most of its songs), could compare to Dylan.
Following a swift evasion of a rapid succession of attacks that seemed to have been coming from the corner of the basement that housed the family’s rowing machine, I took cover behind a musty sleeper sofa. The stereo transitioned from Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery’s Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo which was Gary’s father’s album, to Mellow Gold, which had just been released. The lazy but menacing opening riff from Beck’s resonator guitar on the album’s lead track “Loser,” which topped the Billboard Hot Modern Rock chart that spring, stopped me in my tracks. It buzzed like the lawnmower of a maniacal landscape artist who was about to give the carefully manicured neighborhood of the "outside world" an unwelcome trim.
I was immediately transfixed. Rather than get up to continue dodging dominos in the dark and risk chipping a tooth (which happened once to Gary) while getting lost in the music, I took advantage of my temporary state of invisibility—and the protection afforded by my position behind the sleeper sofa—to safely process Beck’s dangerous new sound. I had never heard anything like “Loser" because no song like “Loser” had ever been recorded.
Six seconds into the song, when the hip hop beat of the drums kicks in, the musical stew that Dylan created with Bringing It All Back Home had been updated to include the influence of rap, which hadn’t emerged in the musical lexicon until the early '80s. The hip hop influence was prevalent in Beck’s phrasing too. The singer rapped lugubriously through most of the song’s lyrics with a voice that sounded like it belonged to a sleepy teenager from another sphere. Its timbre was strange and otherworldly. I couldn’t tell whether Beck was rapping with his natural tone or if his vocals had been deepened and slowed down in the studio; it was difficult to determine whether the newcomer was a human, alien, or a robot. But the mystery was part of Beck and the song’s appeal.
His surreal lyrics were boggling, as well. They painted pictures that I’d never seen and revealed little more than his penchant for being an Abstract Expressionist painter of words:
Forces of evil on a bozo nightmare
Ban all the music with a phony gas chamber
'Cause one's got a weasel and the other's got a flag
One's on the pole, shove the other in a bag
Listening to “Loser” in the dark on my back, while I watched plastic neon rectangles dart across the blackness of Gary’s basement like Space Invaders in a midnight sky, turned out to be its own art education. Bringing It All Back Home had helped expose me to musicians like Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed, Son House, and other ghosts of the blues who moved with Beck up and down the neck of the resonator guitar in “Loser.” They provided the framework for Dylan’s controversial electric sound, which informed the direction of the future of rock to come.
But Mellow Gold pointed me toward a closer examination of some of the new ghosts of American music who surfaced during the latter quarter of the twentieth century. Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique all live in Mellow Gold's crevices.
I bought the album at Tower Records in Carle Place, New York, the afternoon following the glow-in-the-dark domino fight in Gary’s basement. I’ve been returning to it consistently ever since. Like Bringing It All Back Home, it’s not a record that I expect to outgrow.
- Andy Friedman