“Poetry to me is…just like baring your soul. You’re just saying what’s in you. You’re communicating. I think it’s great to be free like that.”
– Beck, 1986
“If I could talk to the young Beck now I’d say, always go with your instincts, you can get lost listening to the loudly expressed opinions of other people. And I’d tell him to lighten up. I got a lot of grief for any success I had so I was always trying to compensate for that, trying to make records that wouldn’t be too successful.”
– Beck, 2015
In 2015 the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Foundation published the book A Higher Form of Politics by French scholar and professor Sophie Rachmuhl. As its subtitle explains, it’s an investigation of “The Rise of a Poetry Scene, Los Angeles, 1950-1990.” (More details on the book are here and it can be purchased here). The book comes with a DVD that among other footage includes a short segment of Beck at age 16 with friends discussing an art and poetry magazine they co-founded and self-published. The zine was called Youthless, a title he later repurposed for a song in 2008. Watch an excerpt from the DVD of Beck in 1986 along with the “Youthless” music video from 2008 below:
“You have to understand the philosophy of nature and please get your foot out of my way. I’d just like to play a little song.”
– Beck, 1986
Lightfield Lewis – the actor known from early ’90s sitcom sequel The New WKRP in Cincinnati (and for being the brother of Juliette and son of Geoffrey) – is the director of 2006 movie Lightfield’s Home Videos. As its title suggests, it’s a compilation of home videos he filmed growing up in the ’80s. What separates it from a camcorder VHS by anybody else is his Hollywood upbringing resulted in appearance by numerous stars-to-be, including Cuba Gooding Jr., Leah Remini, Giovanni Ribisi and Beck. Though it allegedly received a widespread release in 2012, it appears nowhere for viewing or purchase. A few clips from it were shared on Lightfield’s (now defunct) myspace page back in 2006 however, including one with Beck. As with the top video, this footage was filmed in 1986 when Beck was 16 years old. Watch an excerpt and the trailer to the movie below:
“I sought refuge in the library, the one place I could spend as much time as I wanted and it didn’t cost me any money. Usually I was the only kid there, and that’s where I got most of my education. There was a big music section, so I found out about old folk music and country blues, and those old Library of Congress records – I remember listening to them.”
To put the two above videos of 16 year-old Beck in context, consider this “Letter to my younger self” he wrote for This Big Issue in 2015:
“When I was 16 my family were going through hard times. There was a pile of us living in a little apartment in LA. I found myself retreating from education. I think I fell between the cracks of the system. I was the only white boy in my class and I was harassed a lot. And when I wasn’t being harassed, I was ignored. I was too young to go to a city college but my high school was struggling, there were a lot of problems with gang violence. So I spent a lot of time on my own. And I started thinking about making a living.
At home I had no personal space and you need that as a teenager. I sought refuge in the library. I used to go to the big old city library in LA a lot but when I was 16 it burned down. I still remember watching it on the news. I had a tear in my eye. At home I had no personal space and you need that as a teenager. I sought refuge in the library, the one place I could spend as much time as I wanted and it didn’t cost me any money. Usually I was the only kid there, and that’s where I got most of my education. There was a big music section, so I found out about old folk music and country blues, and those old Library of Congress records – I remember listening to them. Around the same time I started playing guitar, trying to learn these songs. It felt like discovering lost knowledge and forgotten history. At the time popular culture was all about glossy global pop and upward mobility. I was taken with the opposite.
I was writing a lot of very simple, personal songs. But at that time that kind of music was met with a lot of antipathy in LA. The reaction was completely negative. You have to remember, this was the time of the punk movement in LA. It was all about being transgressive. The gigs were, like, fire-eating guys in leather bondage or suits of armour playing speed metal on burning oil cans. So my little personal guitar songs, they didn’t go down so well.
I was pretty independent when I was 16. I guess my mum was pretty laid back, I don’t know. That’s just the way it was. I saw an ad in a newspaper for a plane ticket to London that someone couldn’t use and I knew a kid from school whose father lived in Hampstead Heath. So I took the plane with this guy’s phone number in my pocket and I just showed up at his house with a few dollars. I had no suitcase, nothing, I didn’t even bring a coat. I spent weeks just walking round London freezing. I ended up getting stuck over there until a friend of a friend lent me money to get back to LA. But that trip made a huge impression on me.
I was a highly curious kid, constantly searching for information. There was no internet, of course, so you really had to work at finding things out. There were some people who could help – the old man at the guitar shop would answer questions sometimes. So I felt like I was always looking for clues, keeping my eyes and ears open. I would scour newspapers for free shows ‘cos I had no money. A lot of the big bands of the 1940s gave free concerts on Saturday afternoons. The musicians were in their 70s and 80s but they were still playing great. I went to a lot of those. And I went to repertory theatres to see old movies, they were very cheap – $2 to get in. I saw a lot of old Spaghetti Westerns, and some weird, nonlinear, surreal movies. I took it all in, always thinking – what does this all mean?
I don’t think anything that happened to me when I was a teenager would have prepared me for the life I’ve had. Especially being in the public eye, I had no clue how to deal with that. It was really trial by fire. There were periods when it just felt like insanity, travelling every day, city to city. There was no time to breathe. And after a while I took five years out of it. I didn’t go on tour or put out records, I just spent time in my community and raised my kids. That was really important to me.
I got a lot of grief for any success I had so I was always trying to compensate for that. If I could talk to the young Beck now I’d say, always go with your instincts, you can get lost listening to the loudly expressed opinions of other people. And I’d tell him to lighten up. I got a lot of grief for any success I had so I was always trying to compensate for that, trying to make records that wouldn’t be too successful. It was a very convoluted way of being. Now I do what I want and I don’t care if it’s too weird or too mainstream. I just care that it works.
There was a real schism in the press in the late 1980s, early ’90s between how young people were represented and how they really were. Older people, civil rights advocates and members of the previous generation’s counter culture talking about disengaged slackers. The way we were presented was way out of touch, like a bad movie from the 1960s when an establishment who just didn’t get it negatively characterised young people. Now the same thing was happening to us. The late ’80s were a tough time to be young, we were really challenged. The most iconic child of that time was Linda Blair in The Exorcist. We didn’t live in a time when young people were celebrated. Almost everyone I knew worked menial labour on minimum wage – we all had jobs, we took whatever we could get. We didn’t have any money. The whole slacker thing was just incredibly condescending and wrong. It was a way to marginalize an entire generation.
I tried to be very conscious of the time passing when my kids were very young. I knew it would go by fast so I paid attention. But if I could go back and relive any time, I’d choose that. No matter how hard you try, it just goes so quickly. I remind myself to stop and look around as much as I can. It’s hard to remember sometimes but I try to find something memorable in the moment, something that won’t ever be the same again, so it gets locked in my mind. I tell myself, this person is only going to be seven years old once. And then you turn around and they’re 12.”
Beck’s origin story is nothing new: he’s been telling it since his early twenties. Below are a few excerpts from various articles over the decades discussing Beck’s teen years:
“Beck spent a lot of his wonder years living with his office-worker mother and half brother in some seedy but lively sections of town, riding his bike around Hollywood Boulevard to check out all the punks, who intrigued him, listening to early hip-hop and even doing a little break-dancing along the way.”
“As a young boy, Beck was sent for a time to live with his maternal grandparents in Kansas. ‘I had kind of a weird home,’ he says convincingly. ‘I think they were kind of concerned.’
Beck’s grandfather was a Presbyterian preacher, and the church music and hymns Beck heard growing up had an impact. ‘That music influenced me a lot, but not consciously,’ he says. ‘There’s something biblical and awkward and great about all those lyrics.’ Beck also spent time in Europe with his other grandfather, artist Al Hansen. “He collects cigarette butts and glues them together and makes pictures of naked ladies, then sprays the whole thing silver,” says Beck. ‘His stuff was taking trash and making it art. I guess I try to do that, too.'”
“Beck soon graduated to far rootsier stuff like Mississippi John Hurt. ‘I’d never heard anything like that,’ Beck remembers. ‘This wasn’t some hippie guy finger picking in the ’70s, singing about rainbows. This was the real stuff. I stopped everything for six months and was in my room finger picking until I got it right.’
– “Meet Beck: The Unlikely Success Story of a Hip-Hop Folk Rocker”
Rolling Stone, April 21, 1994
“Hansen has plenty of experience taking care of himself. His childhood was spent shuttling between his office-worker single mother in Los Angeles and his grandparents in Kansas, where his grandfather was a Presbyterian minister.
‘I was left to my own devices a lot,’ he says of his youth.
He dropped out of school after junior high (‘I woulda got my ass kicked in high school’) and worked a stream of menial jobs including loading trucks and being ‘a leaf-blower guy.’
“I was at a friend’s house and we were hanging out and his dad had a bunch of records,’ he recalls. ‘He had this Mississippi John Hurt record and the cover was just a close-up shot of his sweating, old face and it looked pretty cool. So I stole it.’
‘It totally blew me away. I’d never heard music like that before, but it was exactly the kind of music I wanted to hear. I wasn’t into that much music before. I was into some punk bands, I liked Pussy Galore when I was like 14 or 15. But this was so great.’
Inspired by the venerable singer-guitarist, Hansen explored blues and folk music further, learning how to finger-pick guitar and discovering such icons as Woody Guthrie and Blind Willie Johnson.
‘All these old people, they were the original punk rock,’ he says.”
– “Don’t Get Bitter on Us, Beck”
LA Times, February 20, 1994
“While in the ninth grade, Beck dropped out of school. ‘I’m sure there’s something good about high school, but not any of the ones I went to,’ he says. Thus began a series of crappy jobs, including one as a stock boy. He was canned because ‘they didn’t like the way I dressed. Not that I was dressing outrageously or anything. They just didn’t like my style. I was just wearing jeans and a shirt from Sears. I don’t know. They had high expectations for stock positions.’
Beck got himself a guitar at 16 and started playing on the street. ‘I just carried my guitar everywhere,’ he recalls. ‘I was just kind of ready for any sudden jamboree that might befall me. I used to play down at Lafayette Park, near where I used to live as a kid, and all these Salvadoran guys would be playing soccer, and I’d be practicing a Leadbelly song. The Salvadoran guys would just be shaking their heads. Once in a while a ball would sail over my head.'”
– “Beck, Resident Alien, Talks ‘Odelay’ and His Short Ride Up”
Rolling Stone, July 11, 1996
“He frequented the L.A. Community College and its library, perusing records and books and old sheet music. He secured a fake I.D. in order to sit in on classes. He befriended a literature instructor and his poet wife. The students were largely foreign. By the time he was 15, he felt ‘mentally’ like an adult.
This was what he tried to bring to his early work. ‘In my mind, it was as a teenager reading about Fluxus and action artists and Warhol and Yoko Ono and performance artists. But to everyone else, it was just wacky.'”
– “Listening to Beck”
New York Magazine, December 31, 2012