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Don't Get Bitter on Us, Beck : Thanks to his rap-folk song 'Loser,' the 23-year-old musician is one of the hottest figures to emerge from the L.A. rock scene in years. But now that he's going national, how will he hold up under all the attention?

February 20, 1994|STEVE HOCHMAN | Steve Hochman writes about pop music for Calendar. and

A lot of people are eager to give Beck Hansen advice these days.

One cautioned the young musician not to become "angry and bitter."

Another took it even further:

"He said, 'Don't choke on your own vomit,' " recalls the singer, who goes by his first name, sitting in a small Mexican restaurant near his Highland Park home.

Thanks to his song "Loser," a rap-folk concoction with witty wordplay, a catchy beat and an air of electric currency a la Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," he's seen by some as the hottest and most intriguing new figure to emerge from the Los Angeles rock scene since Axl Rose and Perry Farrell in the mid-'80s.

An unknown just months ago and still largely a mystery, Hansen has come out of nowhere to become the young man of the moment. And we all know what's happened to successful young men of other moments in rock, from Dylan to Jimi Hendrix to Eddie Vedder: They become angry and bitter--or worse.

The fact that Hansen seems so young and frail on first encounter--he's 23 but looks about half his age--makes people especially protective of him. There's an almost waif-like air to him, a sense of wide-eyed, vulnerable sincerity mixed with a sparkle of mischief in his penchant for obtuse, stream-of-consciousness statements.

Even the team of professional advisers that has now assembled around him on the eve of the March 1 release of his first major-label album, "Mellow Gold," seems oddly in dread of the very stardom that it feels is inevitable for him.

"I keep telling Beck that he's the guy who has to walk down the street and be recognized," says Mark Kates, the Geffen Records A&R director who signed Hansen to a deal in December after a fierce competition with Warner Bros. and Capitol. "He should enjoy his anonymity while it lasts, because when it goes, it goes."

And it's going fast. Before last summer, Hansen was virtually unknown, and to those who had encountered him he was something of an enigma, jumping on stage between acts at Los Angeles clubs and coffeehouses to play strange folk songs or, sometimes wearing a "Star Wars" storm trooper mask, do what could best be described as performance art.

Then last summer "Loser" started turning up on college stations KCRW and KXLU and eventually commercial outlets around the country, including L.A.'s KROQ. Before long his performances were drawing record-label scouts by the dozens. Hansen's shows were still the unrefined and seemingly uncommercial presentations as before, but there was such a buzz that even before he was formally offered a record deal there was talk of "bidding wars" and "hype."

"I didn't really know what an A&R person was until maybe last July," Hansen confesses. "I thought an A&R person was like somebody who worked at A&M (Records). I had A&R and A&M mixed up."

Now, though, he is on a major label, surrounded by a powerful brain trust that includes John Silva, the manager of Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Lemonheads. It's overseeing a ballooning career that Hansen says he never really pursued and is still not sure he wants.

Hansen seems almost blithely oblivious to the fame that may be headed his way. Though "Loser" has been called "the ultimate slacker anthem," he believes its success is merely a fluke of luck and timing.

"It wasn't intended as (an anthem)," he says. "It was just goofing around at a friend's house on an eight-track. There's a lot of ideas floating around in the song, but it wasn't meant to be some like triumphant message."

In recent weeks, the record, originally released last summer by tiny Bongload Records, has been No. 1 on Billboard magazine's modern rock chart, with the 30 radio stations that report for the chart playing the song an average of more than 20 times a week.

And that raises a second fear: that Hansen will be a one-hit wonder.

"I told him, 'You gotta make sure this isn't the peak of your career,' " Kates says.

But the Geffen executive believes he's dealing with an artist who can take care of himself: "He's a smart guy. I'm not that worried about him."

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."

It wasn't until he was 17 that music entered his life.

"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.

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