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The Sunset Views of Beck’s L.A.

Once the shape-shifting, breakdancing king of fusion, Los Angeles’s golden child doesn’t seem to stand apart in today’s musical landscape as much as he used to. But as he heads into the cosmos on ‘Hyperspace,’ where he comes from tells a tale larger than music.

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In 1993, when “Loser” was being bootlegged faster than Bong Load Records could press it, Beck had major-label “executives and people in their BMWs” swirling him at club shows. So he brought out the leaf blower.

“I came out and blew the leaves at these people,” he told The Guardian in 1999. “It was sort of a statement. Like: I know where they come from, and what kind of world they live in. They all have some guy, some undocumented worker, who comes to their house once a week and blows their leaves for them. I wanted to let them know that I wasn’t going to be their leaf-blower. … I wasn’t just some ready, willing musician, just aching to be exploited.”

This was a bit, sure—and a funny one, too—but it wasn’t a blind virtue-signaling gesture with a prop picked up at the Home Depot. The leaf blower may well have actually been Beck’s, and that’s because one of the jobs he had during his rather unglamorous prefame life was leaf-blowing landscaper. (Other jobs he had before getting signed: house painter, factory-truck unloader, bakery dishwasher, house mover, gift-shop stock boy, YMCA photo ID assistant, video store clerk.) Hard, blue-collar work was so ingrained in Beck by the age of 23 that, when “Loser” became a massive hit, rocketing him to fame, he resented the fact that it was being interpreted as a “slacker” anthem. “I was working a $4-an-hour job trying to stay alive,” he snapped at Rolling Stone in 1994. “I mean, that slacker kind of stuff is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything.”

Beck is predominantly referred to as a chameleon-esque character—a Scramble Suit of a musician who can seamlessly slip from folk to hip-hop to Tropicália to funk to country, so much so that any given record is embraced as the adoption of some new identity. But chameleons camouflage themselves only as things that they’re not, and for most of the genres that Beck has channeled in the past 30 years, he hasn’t been doing a cheap copy of something; rather, he’s been reaching into the music of his youth, which he was immersed in while growing up in various working-class neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

Born Bek David Campbell in 1970, this scrawny, blond, half-Jewish kid’s life and career can largely be traced through his neo–David Copperfield history in the city. Originally living out of a boarding house in downtown L.A., Beck and his family moved to Hollywood, in an area off the Walk of Fame behind the Egyptian Theatre. His parents were both artists—his dad, David Campbell, a composer, wrote string arrangements for stars like Carole King, and his mom, Bibbe Hansen, a visual artist and actor, was notable for having starred in an Andy Warhol film at the age of 13—and they were not exceptionally hands-on in monitoring the day-to-day activities of Beck and his younger brother Channing. This allowed the Campbell kids to sneak into the heart of the city, taking in a nascent hip-hop scene as it grew up out of the glittery pavement outside their home. “My funk came from being 11 years old on a Saturday night hanging out on Hollywood Boulevard with all the breakdancers,” Beck says in Rob Jovanovic’s 2000 biography, Beck! On a Backwards River.

Beck performs at the Troubadour in 1994
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After Bibbe and David divorced when Beck was 9 (only then did Beck inherit the Hansen name), his mother took the kids and eventually moved to Hoover and Ninth streets, which is a meeting ground of a number of different communities in central L.A. It’s closest to the vibrant-but-tough area of MacArthur Park, if you had to pick a place, but it’s really something of a no-man’s-land, connecting Westlake with Koreatown and the historically Salvadoran neighborhood of Pico-Union. Beck’s five-person household, which often included his aunt and soon included his first-generation Mexican American stepfather, stayed in a one-bedroom apartment. Beck and Channing slept on the couch or in a sleeping bag on the floor.

“I would say we were economically depressed,” Beck says in Backwards River. “We were basically living in a ghetto. But I wouldn’t want to sell myself as some kind of rags to riches story because that reduces it to something soulless. It was an impoverished childhood, but it was rich in other ways. Where I grew up wasn’t your typical, homogenized, one-track frame of mind—there were a lot of other things going on. Everyone was outside all the time, there were mariachi bands, animals running down the middle of the street.”

As culturally rich and ultimately artistically inspiring as this upbringing was, there’s no getting around the fact that it was rough. Beck stood out aggressively in his neighborhood—hence “Qué Onda Guero,” which means “What’s up, blondie?” in Spanish slang—and has made reference to the childhood reality of “getting chased by kids with lead pipes every day.” By the age of 14, he’d dropped out of school, partially because he didn’t think he’d survive any more of it. Profiles and reviews tend to romanticize his upbringing, but the reality is that he did not have any romantic notions of his hometown until much later in life. (This also partially explains Beck’s unfortunate history with Scientology: The organization has always operated by preying on outcasts, which he still very much was when his family first got involved and introduced him to it, and his abrupt announcement that he “is not a Scientologist,” in a new interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, comes with the significant risk of alienating many of those close to him.)

“I grew up hating it,” Beck says of L.A. in Backwards River. “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.”

Growing up as a scrawny, blond, half-Jewish kid in Los Angeles myself, I can relate to the sentiment. Not to the direct circumstances of Beck’s upbringing, mind you—my childhood was much more privileged than his—but more in the generalized “hating L.A.” sense. Having the impossible cement sprawl of the city be what you consider your “home” from birth can be an overwhelming experience. It felt like my environment was 50 different cities mashed together with no rhyme or reason or cohesion. Beck’s 2005 album Guero helped change that for me. Here was a record that took the clashing songs that you’d catch coming from the different cars at stoplights—hip-hop, Latin, rock, electronic, etc.—and lovingly crafted it into something that wasn’t just a huge mess. Instead of feeling like all the cultures of L.A. were at odds with one another, it made 14-year-old me see how they all belonged together, as long as you managed to find the right balance. It made me see the city as one.

Guero isn’t really close to being the best Beck record (that’s Mutations), or his most enduring (that’s Odelay), but it was his most impactful one (it’s the highest-charting album of his career to date, having reached no. 2 on the Billboard charts)—and it’s also the clearest distillation of what made his music such a fresh force in the ’90s and 2000s. His extreme melting-pot style was the type that only a gigantic, weird city like Los Angeles could create, and Beck capitalized on that opportunity at the exact right time when he arrived, embracing the worlds of others, finding ways to incorporate them into his music. (It bears repeating that the first words of the chorus in “Loser” are in Spanish.)

While piggybacking off the grunge movement, getting an artist-friendly deal from a major label desperate not to lose the next alternative moneymaker, Beck was presented as a youth product of the ’90s, which he truly was, of course. But, possibly more importantly, he was also laying the groundwork for the next century of youth music, in which acts regularly blend previously disparate genres so much that we find ourselves at a point where we’re arguing intensely over what genre the no. 1 song of the year even is.

Naturally, Beck was far from the only one playing around with genre-hopping in the ’80s and ’90s, and it’s also crucial to remember that his success is based on a variation of an industry-old story of a white man being used to present nonwhite music in a safer package. (The way Elvis rose to fame was not all that dissimilar.) But looking back on Beck’s dizzying career, he feels more like an architect of contemporary style-splatter than perhaps anyone else—and, thankfully, his music itself has for the most part aged wonderfully, and still is respectful of the styles and cultures that it dips into.

Particularly in his extended prime, from 1994 to 2008, Beck was a projection of the various phases and personalities of pop music, effortlessly dancing his way through a variety of histories that were traditionally told separately. He did so with humor, too, regularly satirizing the industry while also paying tribute to it, while also ushering it into a new era; Beck’s style was so predictive of the face of pop to come that, when he released an absurd song in 2016 with a chorus that was literally “It’s like, wow,” nobody seemed to notice that he was making fun of the fusion-filled landscape that he was now simply blending into.

Beck albums tend to come in twos: Odelay pairs with Guero; Midnite Vultures pairs with Colors; Sea Change pairs with Morning Phase. (If we’re lucky, he’ll make a sibling record for the vastly underrated Modern Guilt next.) But all of his official releases could reasonably be argued as being unified by something of an L.A. vibe (with the exceptions of Mellow Gold, which carries with it his brief stint in the anti-folk scene in New York, and One Foot in the Grave, which is a distinctly Pacific Northwest experience, having been made with Calvin Johnson in Olympia, Washington). Or at the very least, it can reasonably be argued that they’re representations of various types of life in the big city, and all the sounds and people you might find in one. Hyperspace, Beck’s new album, does not fit into this category. Hyperspace doesn’t even fit onto the terrestrial plane.

As the title implies, the album is more of an intergalactic experience, defined by glistening synths, heartbeat drums, and Kevin Parker–worthy hand snaps. Largely a collaboration with coproducer Pharrell Williams, Hyperspace sounds like what you might hear in a terminal on the moon base of the future. But like the moon base in James Gray’s Ad Astra, which was portrayed as being plagued by earthly tackiness like Yoshinoya and Applebee’s, Beck’s outer space feels vulnerable to the inescapable gravity of commercialism. It’s not for nothing that Beck recently referred to the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood as his “mothership.”

A central narrative that will likely get tied to Hyperspace is that it’s Beck’s first release since his divorce from actress Marissa Ribisi, his wife of nearly 15 years and the mother of his two kids. And given that the post-breakup soul-searcher Sea Change remains the closest thing we’ve ever seen of “the real Beck,” that is indeed an intriguing angle to explore. It’s a little more lyrically vague here than it was 17 years ago, but if you look for his thoughts on the split, they seem to be there: “Everything has changed / Nothing here feels right,” he sings on “Uneventful Days”; “Time moves on and on / And love it goes,” he sings on “Dark Places.” It’s no wonder he wanted to leave the planet for a bit.

This is a solid record, to be sure, and one that confirms Beck’s ongoing genius as a hook writer (“Star” is a funky little New Beck Classic—like Dr. John doing Japanese city pop), but inevitably, and perhaps a little unreasonably, the whole release doesn’t feel all that relevant. That was the same issue with his last record, 2017’s Colors, though at some point you’ve just got to give the guy a break for not causing a cultural tidal wave with every release, especially as he enters his fourth decade of releasing music.

But there feels like something larger at play here, which has less to do with the quality of Beck’s music and more to do with that now-diminished novelty of his approach. Look at some of the current titans of music—the ones major labels are desperate for in the same way that they used to be desperate for Beck: Tame Impala, Lorde, Drake. Or look at some of the key players in the indie scene: Vagabon, (Sandy) Alex G, Chai. It’s so tough to categorize so much of what comes out now that people are starting to lose interest in genre designations altogether. It truly doesn’t matter. More and more, everyone does a little bit of everything.

And that’s largely because you don’t need to have the same kind of upbringing as Beck to be able to effectively capture a smorgasbord of sound. If you ask him, he’ll be the first one to emphasize this, too: “With the internet, now you can think of a piece of music and find it online and it can lead you to a hundred other things and it all falls into your lap within five minutes, whereas pre-internet you had to keep your eyes and ears open and you had to find clues,” he says in an interview in Autumn de Wilde’s 2011 photography book Beck. “The day the downtown [Los Angeles] library burnt down [in 1986] was the worst day of my life.”

When the ironically iconic Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles stopped spinning once and for all in September, one story in particular stuck in my mind: In his Echo Park–Silver Lake years in the early ’90s, Beck lived close enough to the then-new podiatry clinic on Sunset that he and his friends would use the sign to dictate their lives on certain evenings. If it stopped spinning at night with the Happy Foot facing them, they’d go out. If it stopped with the Sad Foot facing them, they’d stay in.

In recent years, I felt robbed of the opportunity to personally use this system, due to the fact that at some point the sign was changed to continue to spin throughout the night. But the real pain has hit now that Happy Foot/Sad Foot, which was a relic of a more bizarre, more attainable Los Angeles, is gone from where it stood for the past 35 years. I drive past the sign now, the frame of it still hanging with a black canvas sheet covering the sides, and it feels like looking into a void—the beginning of a black hole that will inevitably swallow everything from Alhambra to Santa Monica.

Instances like these of this lame-ification of the city are symptoms of a much larger problem: As the housing crisis reaches a level of complete dysfunction, the people who live in Beck’s old neighborhoods, just to highlight a few, are getting resoundly priced out, with no real options within the city to go when they do. Every time an affordable building gets taken down in the city, a luxury one seems to be put in its place, driving the costs up everywhere even as wages stay stagnant, especially for working-class people. The margins of survival have been getting slimmer in Los Angeles by the year, and the cultural cost—let alone the humanitarian one—cannot be stressed enough.

A few years ago, I was in Pasadena, an area that might as well be the exact opposite of Ninth and Hoover, when I saw Beck in traffic. I’m almost certain it was him, because I got a great look: He was blocking the intersection directly in front of me, just for a few seconds, having misjudged whether he could clear it before the light changed. I’m also fairly certain it was him because he was driving a Mercedes station wagon; looking at him in that situation, with my jaw just about on my lap, the first line of Beck’s 2006 song “Strange Apparition” came to mind: “Lord, please, don’t forsake me / In my Mercedes-Benz.”

Beck in 2002

It must be odd, having once worked so hard for so little, to be able to trade in your Hyundai for a luxury vehicle—whether a Mercedes or a BMW—and have people recognize you when you’re stuck in traffic. Beck may not be the force that he once was in the musical world, but in his city he still is, and always will be, a deservedly mythical figure, representing so much of what makes it great—and also what can be really tough about it too. To me, he’s the L.A. equivalent of what Prince was to Minneapolis.

In that spirit, he continues to show flashes of being someone who makes their own rules and lives life their own way, regardless of what the mothership might prefer. Personally, I’ve taken a liking to his Instagram page, which you can tell he posts to himself somewhat regularly, unlike most major-label stars his age.

He recently posted a video that really caught my eye—of him noodling around with an acoustic guitar, barefoot and cross-legged in the backyard of a beautiful home, which seems like it could be a Greene and Greene–style Pasadena craftsman. The video is captioned, “Serenading the sirens,” because, as he’s searching for a melody, a siren begins to wail in the distance. When the siren enters in, he kind of looks into the camera and grins. And then he plays on.

Nate Rogers is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Billboard, and elsewhere.

This piece was updated on November 22 to reflect Beck’s recent comment that he is no longer a Scientologist.