Just came across this. Wrote it a while ago, so the beginning isn’t timely. The end still makes sense, though.
Beck came to town last week. This doesn’t seem like it would mean anything special, except that it doesn’t seem Beck sees this part of the country as much as say, LA or Tokyo. My local arts and entertainment weekly covered the show in a brief review, and noted how Beck’s set had the “hits” like “Loser,” and “Two Turntables…” nicely interspersed with his more “folksy” and “introspective” recent work. Here, too, this isn’t really unique. Most artists of Beck’s stature and experience know that you pitch it to the middle. Give the audience a little of the old stuff they want so you can get exposure for the new stuff that you love so much but that nobody else quite does yet, but you’re hoping they will. This is fine, as it goes, and though I love the folksy Beck even more now than I used to like the “loser-y” one of the nineties, the review left me wondering a bit whether we might not be missing something happening under our noses, something good that might be better and more important than we see right now. We might be watching a career, and not just a career, but one that is really working at its highest level. Now I’m not thinking particularly of painting Beck as the next Dylan here, but rather I want to look at this trend we have to boil down our culture to palatable, digestible elements, things we already know. In doing so, we forget that guys like Beck might be trying to take us other places. When we look back wistfully at guys like Dylan, we think we saw what he was trying to do back when, say, he went electric. Like we were all insiders who also thought Pete Seeger was a crazy folk crank and that we saw past the shouts of “Judas!” and into the strange seventies meanderings of new morning and the eighties serving Jesus in a political world.
But, no, the thing is that we would have been back in the crowd booing Dylan with everyone else, then we’d tell the story ten years on like we were the only ones in the room in the know. We’d be so busy with the zeitgeist that we’d fail to listen to the records and see where they took us.
I guess I’m indulging in a little youthful nostalgia about the 80s/90s when I came of age. I remember myself not being able to see the forest for the trees, being so blinded by the bomb blast of Nirvana (or maybe the blast of the press reacting to Nirvana and telling me how revolutionary they were), that I didn’t see this dumb kid stumbling around all ironically trying to mutate the white-boy hip hop into some kind of art form outside of its established boundaries. I want to say I was in the audience and that I got it, saw what that kid was doing, and followed him all the way. But that’s the same lie we all tell in retrospect. I didn’t get it.
When Kurt Cobain shot himself, there was a deservedly short-lived, poor-taste-even-for-gallows-humor joke that came around. Some wag, upon hearing that the body of a short blond guy had been found in Cobain’s home, opined, “maybe its Beck.” I laughed at that, probably in the defensive way we all laugh at bad news, because at the time I thought Nirvana was really something, or at least the beginning of something that everyone said was coming where rock would finally matter again after how many decades of ….not. Anyway, I laughed, and I told the joke again to my friend Chris, and he didn’t laugh. To his credit, because he’s a mensch and he has forgotten more about music and literature than I’ll ever know, he said, “I didn’t think that was funny.” I was properly shamed and to this day the memory of the moment brings back my embarrassment fresh. It’s the kind of shame that teaches you something that you need to remember, so it comes back viscerally just so you will be reminded of the message you so desperately needed to hear. One part of what I needed to learn in that moment was not to be a callous, smart-ass twenty-something in every instance, even though that was the period when I was exactly that person. Sometimes you have to rise above your circumstances. Another part of what I needed to learn only just seems to be coming to me now: don’t fall in line with the culture on a big event right away. Wait and see. And also don’t discount all the slightly oddball and peripatetic artists of an era in favor of the one big wave that takes everyone with it. When you’re feeling all Nirvana all the time, and you’re raging, raging, raging against the walls of your own head even when it looks like culture, don’t forget about workmanlike Beck over here putting together record after record, trying new things, and learning all the time, which means changing all the time.
So, when we see Beck now and we nod all sagely that we saw what he was up to all along, Or when we go see him play and really, really hope that he plays his two turntables jam. We have to realize that both sides of that equation are right, at that none of us got it all and even now none of us are putting it together. We just need to try to follow along with the music. Just listen carefully to the records and try to see where they might be going. That’s the adventure. And only when we get past caring what the zeitgeist keeps telling us is important can we just listen.