"I didn't have that social know-how, I didn't have those cliques. I was on...my own island....It really liberated me to just form my own universe, really form my own view of the world. I wasn't influenced by what all, the other kids did. I was able to step back from the culture at the time."
The man we know today as simply Beck was born in Los Angeles at 11:59 P.M. On July 8, 1970, as Bek David Campbell. His parents, David Campbell and Bibbe Hansen, were an artistically inclined couple who would prove to be a considerable influence on Beck's art. He was the younger of two; and his brother, Channing, would follow his own creative path over the years.
Born and raised in the Great White North of Canada, David Campbell grew up the son of a preacher man. His father, a Presbyterian minister, filled the young lad's head with classical and choral music from the get-go, and Campbell's future began taking root. At the age of nine, he moved down to Seattle where he began taking violin lessons. At one point, he performed with David Harrington in a string quartet (Harrington would later go on to lead the critically acclaimed Kronos Quartet). In the mid-sixties, Campbell relocated to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music. After this burst of formal education, the young Campbell switched coasts to L.A. to pursue a career in music. It was there he began to appreciate the pop maestros of the time, falling in love with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Leonard Cohen.
Campbell's big break came when he was chosen to back Jackson Browne on the viola for "Song for Adam," a tune that ended up on Browne's massively popular eponymous debut. Soon thereafter, he hit the road with Carole King's traveling band, an opportunity which led to him arranging strings on King's Rhymes and Reasons album. This record plucked Campbell out of virtual obscurity when it peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts, while the single "Been to Canaan" hit the Top 25. This resume builder was the cornerstone of his professional career, and he ultimately went on to become one of the music industry's most called-upon studio musicians and string arrangers. He has contributed his skills to over eighty gold and/or platinum albums for artists as diverse as Joe Cocker, Leonard Cohen, Green Day, Neil Diamond, R.E.M., Dolly Parton, Alanis Morissette, Linda Ronstadt, and Aerosmith, while playing on such timeless slices of pop memorabilia as Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" and Bill Withers's "Lean on Me." Beck says that his father "always had an ear for the weirder harmonies. That's probably what he passed to me."
Beck's mother Bibbe is an equally compelling artist. Born in New York, she was Warhol's youngest star when her fifteen minutes started at the tender age of thirteen. She starred in Warhol's unreleased 1965 film Prison opposite Edie Sedgwick, as well as in a production for avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas. After a chance trip to L.A., she moved out West and continued to be a part of the art scene -- acting in B movies, founding a theater company, rocking out with the gender-bending band Black Fag, and serving as a documenter of the area punk-rock scene. When she married Campbell, the couple moved to Hollywood, where she soon gave birth to Beck (then Bek).
It may have been Al Hansen, Bibbe's father and Beck's grandfather, who had the most influence on Beck. He was most likely the family member from whom Beck learned the most, as well as the artist who most inspired Beck's later work. A native of Queens, New York, Hansen was an avid fan of drawing and sketching from an early age. Due to World War II, he wasn't able to follow his artistic muse throughout his early adulthood, and instead joined the air force. While stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, he pushed a grand piano off the top of a bombed-out five-storey building and listened to its cacophonous crash. This explosion of noise was a life-defining moment for him, and it would later serve as the impetus for his performance-art piece "The Yoko Ono Piano Drop," in which he would push a piano from a great height.
Upon his return Stateside, he studied at New York's Art Students College League, Brooklyn College, and the New School for Social Research, where he met his mentor John Cage. Hansen later wrote, "One of the things John Cage taught was, that if you began to compose music, or paint, or make a dance and you knew what the end product would be, then you were not experimenting. To experiment one sets out to do things without knowing what the end result will be. You must agree in advance. John always said to accept whatever happens. So the end product is a 'happening.' This is exactly the way I did all my Happenings. Free form, No rehearsals."
Hansen became heavily involved in the Happenings scene and in 1965 wrote A Primer of Happenings and Time/Space Art, which came to be widely regarded as a must-have tome in artistic circles. The gifted avant-garder was a part of Warhol's Factory; in fact he was one of the first people to discover the injured pop artist after SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) leader Valerie Solanas shot him (Hansen bumped into her in the elevator as she made her hasty retreat, smoking gun still in hand). He later made a book about the incident entitled Why Shoot Andy Warhol? In another Pop-Up Video aside, Hansen is even responsible for Velvet Underground's moniker: "It was a few weeks before their first gig, and they were calling themselves Falling Spikes or something and desperately looking for a better name," Beck remembers. "Al had this semi pornographic book called The Velvet Underground, and he was having lunch with their manager one day, and he said, 'Well, this is a good name. Why don't you use it?' The manager ended up taking credit for the whole thing and said it was his book."
Along with his Happenings, Al was closely associated with Fluxus, an art movement of the late sixties and early seventies that challenged conventions with playful games, odd performances, and a willingness to push all boundaries. In his own essay on the matter, Al describes a movement that is founded in its lack of structure or definition: "Anyone who thinks Fluxus is serious misses the point. One who thinks Fluxus is not serious is closer to the point, but still misses the point. A unique thing about Fluxus is it is also not 'in-between.' Fluxus is not between 'this' and 'that.' Fluxus is everywhere at once. And nowhere. Its secret is -- it does not really exist -- but it exists. In that way Fluxus is like God -- it might not exist. But we talk about God and we talk about Fluxus." Or, as Ben "Obi-Wan" Kenobi once intoned, "The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." The movement's critical players included George Maciunas, Ben Vautier, George Brecht, Robert Watts, Allison Knowles, and even John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who became close friends of Hansen. In 1970, the trio collaborated on a piece entitled This Is Not Here Show in Syracuse, New York. Despite all this, Hansen may have garnered the most public attention for his collage work, in which he created a variety of Venus figures out of Hershey wrappers, cigarette butts, lighters, or whatever found detritus he could incorporate.
Beck was probably most literally influenced by Al's Intermedia Poems, in which the poet would take random headlines and put them together to form collagist poems. A sample of one piece steals poetry from the headlines: "The rooster, the hawk and the phoenix/The McMiracle Continues: A Coot Head Wins a Heated Crapshoot/Bills Find New Way to Pain Raiders: The Boot in Overtime/Monetary milestone on a European two-speed road to ruin." Beck would later mimic the form in his own lyrics -- the opening lines of "Loser" read like an Intermedia Poem; "in the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey/Butane in my veins so I'm out to cut the junkie."
These three figures in Beck's early life brought an incredible amount of creative and artistic energy to bear on his childhood circumstances. There was always something different going on in the household when Beck was growing up. "There was definitely an environment where it was coo( to sort of do your own thing and be interested in whatever," Beck said. As involved as his parents were in his well-being, Beck's mother had a very hands-off approach, "I take no credit for Beck's creativity -- he came into the world with it, and I recognized early on that he was gifted. But I did create a similar environment for him." "I guess you'd call it an artistic home," Beck offered. "It wasn't like You Can't Take It With You, where people were sliding down the banisters doing ballet and somebody was down in the basement inventing something. But if you showed up with weird hair or did something funny with clothes, it wouldn't be out of place."
It was only in retrospect that Beck realized what a privileged childhood he had had from an artistic standpoint, "Some people would put a lot of value into certain family customs, like a yearly picnic or Bar Mitzvah. With my family, it was a Truffaut movie or some art object by Joseph Beuys -- things which I certainly took for granted. The more I talk to other people about their backgrounds, the more I realized I had a whole other experience."
Growing up, Beck was always a prolific and dedicated artist. Longtime family friend Brendan Mullen remembers, "Bibbe told me that when Beck was nine years old he started making his own cassette albums out of found sound, poetry, writing, and banging on the guitar. He'd come home after school and go into his room, which he kept very neat, and just write, write, write. He was dedicated to being an artist at a very young age, and when he was still a child, told his mother, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.' "I To prove his commitment to his vocation of choice, Beck produced a small literary and art magazine called Youthless that he circulated amongst friends and family. His grandfather didn't ignore this interest and enlisted the aspiring artist to scour Sunset Boulevard for cigarette butts for one of his endless stream of projects when he was in town. Al even went as far as to fly Beck to Cologne, Germany, several times for visits and impromptu tutoring while he worked on founding his own art institution, the Ultimate Akademie. Beck's brother, Channing, began to take an interest in their grandfather's work as well, and would go on to become a second generation Fluxus artist.
Beck's parents split up when he was nine, leaving the youngster to spend his childhood shuttling between two very different worlds -- Kansas City, where he lived with his father's father, the Presbyterian minister; and his mother's home in Los Angeles. His name had changed from the irregularly spelled Bek to Beck because grade school teachers continually misspelled it, and he chose to keep his mother's maiden name after the divorce. Beck lived most of his younger life up in Hollywood Hills, but then his mother decided to make the move down to the lower class area around 10th and Hoover upon her divorce. This meant a change of districts down to the less-than-desirable Belmont High School, which was the first high school to actually have airport security detectors installed at the doors. Years later he half-joked, "I'm sure there's something good about high school, but not any of the ones I went to." So, before even starting the 9th grade, Beck dropped out.
"The year I was supposed to start high school I tried to get into the High School for the Performing Arts, which had just opened. I sent them a tape of me playing blues guitar and some short stories I'd written, but they didn't want me." Undaunted, the fifteen-year-old pursued his growing love of music on a personal level. After hearing the blues at a friend's house one day, Beck stole his unopened copy of a Mississippi John Hurt album and his fate was sealed. "It was shrink-wrapped, it hadn't even been opened, and it was this insane close-up of his face, sweating, this old, wrinkled face, and I took it. I was going to return it, but I didn't. I loved the droning sound, the open tunings, the spare, beat-down tone. And his voice was so full. He just went through so much shit, and it comes across really, really amazing." Beck nearly wore the vinyl out, listening to it over and over. Before long, he picked up the guitar and started tracing the blues family tree. Records by Mance Lipscomb, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Son House, and the slide blues of Blind Willie Johnson all found themselves on the spindle in Beck's room. An accidentally discovered Woody Guthrie LP infected him with the folk bug as he continued his self-taught guitar tutorings.
Beck's record collection was at odds with both the popular music of the time and his neighborhood. "I grew up in a Salvadoran ghetto. Me and my brother and mother were the only white people in the area. I don't come from a privileged background. I didn't relate to the shiny eighties bands like INXS and Huey Lewis and the News. I grew up hearing ranchero music and hiphop....It's not like I'm usurping this stuff because it's suddenly cool -- I've just gone where gravity has pulled me musically."
His predominantly Latino neighborhood acted as a veritable melting pot of sounds and stylings. His bus rides turned into mini-music education classes; "...there'd be some kids in the back who got on way down on Vermont in South Central. And they'd have their boom box blasting [Grandmaster Flash's] 'The Message.' Then, coming up through Wilshire, some white girls would get on. Then, you get up to Hollywood and some freaks would get on. And soon everybody on the bus would be singing the lines, doing the moves. It was great."
Despite the intriguing variety of characters and influences growing up, Beck was somewhat at odds with his surroundings and socializing, "I grew up hating [L.A.]. Sometimes it has this feeling of a deserted place; there's millions and millions of people but they are all in their cars and houses....As an adult, I came to realize it was a part of me. If you hate it, you end up hating a part of yourself. So eventually I was reconciled with the fact that this is me whether I like it or not."14 He was a self-described loner: "I didn't have that social know-how, I didn't have those cliques. I was on...my own island....It really liberated me to just form my own universe, realty form my own view of the world. I wasn't influenced by what all the other kids did. I was able to step back from the culture at the time."
Without a prototypical family or schooling situation, Beck was mostly left to fend for himself when it came to education, entertainment, even cooking. This unorthodox but artistically appreciative environment, combined with his strong personal will, was the perfect situation for the young artist. Indeed, it was probably Beck's alienation from, yet close observance of, popular culture that was the largest philosophical stepping stone in his evolution as an artist.
Copyright © 2001 by Nevin Martell
Beck: The Art of Mutation
When Odelay hit shelves in the summer of 1996, it was clear this eccentric young man was a musical force to be reckoned with. Born Bek David Campbell in 1970 to a Warhol Superstar mother and a bluegrass musician father, Beck spent his adolescence recording audio oddities and learning to strum old blues songs on a pawn shop guitar -- planting the seed for his critically acclaimed outings Mellow Gold, Odelay, Mutations, and Midnite Vultures. Mixing funk, folk R&B, soul, hip-hop, and rock 'n' roll into a heady sonic cocktail, Beck has crafted a singular sound that is as hard to pin down as it is recognizable.
Exploring his musical history, live performances, and recording sessions -- and featuring a complete discography that includes hard-to-find collaborations and appearances -- this is a comprehensive and fascinating inating look at the inimitable and ever-evolving Beck.
- Pocket Books |
- 144 pages |
- ISBN 9780743424486 |
- June 2002