Culturespill » Beck

Beck: Modern Guilt

28th June


On Monday, June 9th, Beck decided to do what he always does in advance of a new album: hit the stage at the Echo in L.A. and play some crazy shit no one’s ever heard before. He continues to refer to these outings as “surprise” shows, but how much of the element of surprise Beck’s able to retain after pulling off the same thing nearly every year is probably up for debate. At this point, it’s about as surprising as that unspeakably hideous tie you gave your father this past Father’s Day (you know who you are.) In any event, Beck & Co. delivered the usual reworkings of older material–the culprit this time being tunes like Sea Change’s “Lost Cause,” dressing the song in what Stereogum calls “a My Bloody Valentin-ey fuzzed-up” sound. But the thing that made this latest “surprise” gig particularly remarkable was that Beck used it to unveil a new album which, as bits and pieces trickle down to youtube, myspace and iLike, sounds more and more like the next great Beck album: the Danger-Mouse produced Modern Guilt (out July 8th, his 38th birthday–yes, beck is 38. I know, I know. Guzzle down some Prozac with your coffee this morning and try to think about something else.)

Looking a lot like the exiled leader of some “back to the land” Hippie cult in the Santa Cruz mountains where the wife bakes loaves of macrobiotic bread inside the family tent as he guides the children through prayers to Demeter in the hope of a bountiful harvest, all Beck needed to complete a triumphant return to the original sin of rock ‘n roll that night was a dashiki, a flower in his hair, and a smoking fatty lodged in the head of his guitar . It’s easy to dismiss the whole get-up merely as Beck being the freaky mofo that he is, but when you listen to what’s available of the as-yet unreleased album on his MySpace Page, you quickly realize that there’s a reason he’s passing himself off as the ghost of Skip Spence these days (he did, after all, contribute a track to a Skip Spence tribute album back in ’99.)

Beck at the Echo: “Modern Guilt,” June 9th, 2008

Chemtrails,”one of the few tracks Beck’s teased the public with in advance of the album’s release, opens with Beck’s eerie whisper accompanied only by the hauntingly psychedelic siren of a keyboard before the whole song bursts into a funked-up shuffle of percussion and piano that exemplifies exactly the kind of aesthetic restraint we’d expect of a Danger Mouse production (an aesthetic he delivered with astonishing power on The Black Keys’ recent Attack and Release.) In a creative flourish that’s at once predictable and stirring, the whole thing is then thrown down the winding stairs of Beck’s imagination with an amped-up crescendo that is equal parts space-rock and funk, the musical equivalent of dinner at Neil Young’s house with Pink Floyd, Prince and the full line-up of Crazy Horse. It may well be the most interesting piece of music Beck’s produced since “Loser.”

Beck’s early work is brilliant because it documented the arrival of a relentless creative anxiety that had been absent from music since Elvis Costello put out My Aim is True in ’77. No one was making the kind of sound he served up with Odelay in 1996, but plenty followed suit, and that succession of imitators sent Beck on a prolonged and fascinating pursuit of another sound to call his own. never has that journey sounded so complete as it does now, as tracks like the great “Gamma Ray” reach for where he’s been as much as they arrive at where he wants to be. Like a gypsy who’s roamed the world for decades with a laundry bag of all he’s picked up along the way slung over his shoulder, “Gamma Ray” synthesizes every creative detour of Beck’s recording career, from Odelay’s “Devil’s Haircut” to that bizarre cover he did for a tribute album in the name of the aforementioned Skip Spence.

Beck’s Modern Guilt: A Preview

Modern Guilt is not so much a new album as it is a catalog of every album Beck’s ever done. It is “new” in the sense that these songs shadow every corner of Beck’s creative vision at once rather than lingering over a single passing indulgence, as steeped in the folkish flare of Mutations or Sea Change as it is in the sonic massiveness of Odelay or Midnite Vultures. The occasionally unlistenable eccentricities of The Information–a fascinating if unfocused project–are reigned in but never abandoned on Modern Guilt, a kind of grounded madness that may have made for Beck’s most accessible album in 12 years.

“Sellout”: In Defense of Tom Petty

6th June

Petty T-Shirt

Image of a Tom Petty T-Shirt, Courtesy of Vintage T-Shirt Store

“I’ve already passed on so much money I don’t worry about it anymore.”
— Tom Petty

We’ve all been there at one time or another: the local artsy coffee joint where the proprietors gather signatures for petitions to legalize hemp, serve organic soy-milk cappuccinos in “Friends Don’t Let Friends go to Starbucks” mugs, and house “open mike” events where, as Leonard Cohen puts it in a song, “all the lousy little poets come around trying to sound like Charlie Manson” as an audience of six-and-a-half timidly munch on a feast of macrobiotic brownies. It’s where the pseudo-punks come to be seen with their hair carefully greased into a towering cascade of freshly shaped spikes, and you wonder how many hours they spent studying themselves in the mirror to appear so carefully disheveled as they curl up with their lattes and laptops and still, somehow, count themselves among the countercultural (without even the vaguest sense of irony.) I can’t help the feeling that, if he were still around, Joey Ramone would also see something just a bit mutually exclusive between punk rock and wifi connections.

There’s something else that the indie coffee joint houses: impassioned popularity contests in which a gaggle of 17-year-olds demonstrate the magnitude of their hipness by declaring profound affection for as many obscure bands as they can name–usually with as much conviction as they can muster, however insincere the whole spectacle may be. Back when I spent many nights a week at one of these places because it was just up the block from my apartment, the “in” bands to name-drop were acts like Deadboy & The Elephant Men, Apples in the Stereo, and Death Cab For Cutie (before your mother listened to them.)

Tom Petty: “Something in the Air”
(Check out Ringo on drums at 0:49)

I guess you can call it a cultural revolving door, whereby you rebel against one culture by conforming to another–and these gatherings of indie hipsters, pseudo-punks and the disciples of Emo Nation happily clamor along in a desperate search for identity at an age when, more often than not, you figure out who you are by figuring out who others want you to be.

Though the courage to be ourselves tends to come later, it doesn’t come to everyone–when you think about it, actually, it hardly comes to any of us. I know I’m no priest of pure authenticity–are you? The point is that, in those rare moments when we permit the discomfort of total honesty with ourselves, we realize that we’re all sellouts in one way or another, each and every one of us, and that this is a totally unavoidable circumstance of human nature.

As Daphne Carr so astutely points out in a great LA Weekly piece on Tom Petty, this is exactly the reason why the fictional “Eddie” in Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open” busts into a tattoo shop in L.A. to acquire his own insignia of rebellion, “only to find a girl ‘with a tattoo too'” (a brilliant piece of word play, the more I think about it.) It’s natural to wonder why all the rebells before you look the same as you peak over your book in that hip cafe tonight, but if you think you yourself have never been among them–one of the many crestfallen Eddies in the middle of an L.A. tattoo parlor trying to get a clue–you’re lying to yourself.

Tom Petty: “Any sort of injustice just outraged me.”

The presumption behind the scene described above appears to be this: You’re either an indie rock hipster or an establishment tool, a comprehensive rebuke of any conceivable gray area that reminds me of Dubya’s “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” creed. It’s the same ethic that caused a friend of mine who introduced me to some of the greatest indie bands I’ve ever heard to scoff disdainfully the minute I indulged a craving for–GASP!–Tom Petty in his presence.

Though a minor share of guilt has accompanied my moments with the music of Tom Petty ever since, it’s a pleasure I pursue without shame to this day. Why? Well, it’s like Jessica Grabert wrote in a piece for Blend Music recently: “juxtaposing Tom Petty’s voice with Mike Campbell’s guitar rifts is like having sex between Egyptian cotton sheets—it may not be the most technically astounding collaboration, but it sure fucking feels good.” It’s not possible to put it any better than that; and anyway, all the guilt in the world wouldn’t do a thing to temper my belief that, contrary to the now-revered indie label’s name, we don’t always have to “Kill Rock Stars.” Well, not all of them, anyway.


It’s easy to overlook the human being in a guy when he takes the laser-lit stage of a half time show at the Super Bowl as a crowd of young people–desperate to be looked at and wholly indifferent the music of Tom Petty–crowd around to perform their most sincere fits of adoration before a glittering frenzy of TV cameras. And it’s just as easy for those kids at the cafe–or my indie-rockin’ friend–to spew chants of “sellout” on their way to another laptop-‘n latte love-in with their cadre of poster punks and Emo clowns, all of them desperate to belong by pretending that they couldn’t care less about belonging anywhere at all–no, honest they don’t. I swear!

Petty, notorious for a longstanding anti-corporate bias that has brought upon numerous lawsuits and a mysterious blaze at his house ignited by a still-unidentified arsonist, took a lot of heat for appearing at the Super Bowl this year, an event sponsored by Bridgestone Tires, which hires children at a Liberian factory where the environment is destroyed and workers’ rights are non-existent. For many it was an easy excuse to pan Petty as a “sellout.” But those who would do so–like those kids in search of themselves at the cafe around the corner–unfairly dismiss one of the greatest stories rock ‘n roll has to tell.

Tom Petty: “Swingin’,” Echo (1999)

Growing up as poor as a stray dog in Gainesville, FL, Petty traded in his slingshot for a stack of Elvis LPs after a personal encounter with Presley that left him star-struck in awe, and later defied his deeply abusive father, who berated him severely for being “a mild-mannered kid who was interested in the arts” (read “queer”), by “driving up in a van full of Florida stoners onto Sunset Boulevard in 1974, cruising for labels“–a 3,000 mile road trip from his Florida hometown. It was only after Petty struck it rich, of course, that his Dad–by most accounts an outright monster–suddenly embraced the rock ‘n roll he claimed to despise for so many years, “which really sort of insulted me,” petty explains in a scene from Peter Bogdanovich’s fascinating documentary about the band, 2007’s Runnin’ Down A Dream.

It’s no wonder Petty found it insulting that his father, a man who swung with closed fists at his mother and offered much of the same to his brother Bruce whenever he tried to come bewteen Tom and the latest ass-whoopin’ his father had to hand down, suddenly found the entirety of his ego invested in his son’s success. “He was just crazy,” Tom explains in the film, “he would give me pretty good beatings most of my life . . . the house could erupt into a fist fight” at any moment.

In a particularly stirring connection, the film establishes a long line of rock legends who, like Petty, either lost their mothers young or had abusive fathers. It really is amazing how many have been treated to one or both of those pleasantries–Bono, Larry Mullen, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Sinead O’Connor–you name them, they’ve dealt with it. As someone says of Petty in the film, “You don’t get to where he got to from where he started out unless you have something to prove to somebody who’s not listening to you.”

Tom Petty & Playboy Records

This tragic combo of a lost mother and monstrous father is the peculiar fuel that both filled Petty with an irate drive for success–“I just turned my anger into ambition,” he says–as well as a disdain for the compromises that ambition requires. We’re talking about the guy who turned down his friend Stevie Nicks’s request to join the band because “there are no girls in the Heartbreakers,” who took his own label to court when they sold out to MCA and tried to dump him in their lap without his consent, then sued his new label for upping the price of his then-upcoming album Hard Promises by applying a $1 “Superstar Pricing” hike, as the company called it–exactly the reason you saw petty tearing a dollar bill in half on the cover of Rolling Stone back then.

Even Petty’s got to get a chuckle out of the irony that it’s a tire company his critics now point to in defense of their case against him as a “sellout.” It was, after all, another tire company (B.F. Goodrich) that he sued in 1987 for using a song that sounded conspicuously like Petty’s “Mary’s New Car” in a commercial–especially “conspicuous” since Petty had just taken a request from the company to use the song and asked them to kindly shove it up their asses. The case was “settled out of court.” In other words, the bastards paid up and shut up.

And if an artist’s relevance is measured by how many bands try to steal his shit, then Petty’s pretty fucking relevant. By now it’s not exactly news that The Red Hot Chili Peppers–on an album that captured the sound of a band totally out of ideas–pilfered the groove to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” for their derivative hit “Dani California.” The Strokes, who were described playing Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” with Ryan Adams during a Rolling Stone interview a few years back, admitted borrowing from “American Girl” for their hit “Last Nite.”

Tom Petty Covering “Asshole” by Beck

“That made me laugh out loud,” Petty says, “I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’ If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe [I’d sue]. But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.” In other words, he’s too old and rich to give a shit. But it’s worth keeping in mind, next time you think about sneering at a buddy who deigns to hold you hostage to a Petty tune, that he may be old and rich, but he’s got a hell of a story to tell, and was defending artistic integrity when all the younger bands you want to name were crawling their cribs in diapers.