Beck, or the soundtrack to falling in love with your city as a teenager

Hi Friends,

I have been feeling especially blue this past week, not sure if it’s pregnancy hormones, every tragedy that has been happening throughout North America (from shootings to hurricanes to earthquakes to wildfires to all of the ones I’m sure I’m missing because it feels that overwhelming right now) or just the general changing of the seasons.

So I wanted to take a departure today and write about something that always helps me feel like things will be okay….music.

Tomorrow, one of my favorites, Beck, releases his 13th album Colors.

It’s funny because my history with Beck mirrors my discovery of self and my exploration of Las Vegas outside of my comfort zone as a young person.

Let me set the stage of the first time I heard Beck, because I remember it that vividly.

I was in 7th grade and I was over at the house of a friend from school, Vanessa, and she’d just gotten a new album with a dog on the cover.

At the time my musical knowledge consisted of classic rock and 90’s christian rock.

I thought the dog on the cover was cool and non-threatening…how scary could this music be if there was a big floppy stringy straggly dog gracing the front?

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At 11 or 12 I was scared of anything that wasn’t explicitly given to me by either my parents or my church. I’d never really been a kid that rebelled.

Vanessa put the CD in the her boombox (yes! so cool, she had a boom box with a CD player not just a tape player!) and the first song, Devil’s Haircut, blasted.

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There were layers of sound I couldn’t even comprehend all at once.

The words were like some sort of scattered poetry with no meaning.

It was unlike anything I had ever heard before.

But wait…DEVIL’S HAIRCUT?

Oh no. Oh no no no no no no no. This was not good. I would NEVER be allowed to bring this home. And on top of that, if my youth group friends heard it, they would be even more disappointed in me.

How to get around this?

“Oh, hey Vanessa, do you think you could make me a cassette tape of this?”

That’s how I’ll get around it. A nondescript blank tape with no writing on it.

This way no one will know the audio sin I’m about to commit…

I wore the tape out.

And I needed more.

I needed to know everything about this person that seemed part cowboy, part artist, so cold and distant yet heartfelt.

I think at this point the only places I had ever purchased music were either Kmart or those music clubs where things were a penny for the first 12 CD’s?

And I remembered something…my Dad’s work was next to a place called Big B’s on the corner of Maryland Parkway and Tropicana.

I was pretty sure it was some kind of record store…maybe they would have something else by Beck?

I begged my dad to let me leave his office one Saturday and take a walk.

Armed with $20 of saved allowance from the past weeks I walked the four blocks over to a small shopping center.

Upon entering Big B’s it was immediately clear that I was way out of my depth.

Pretty much everyone in there was double my age, mostly bearded men in what felt to me like their 50’s (and probably they were like…in their late 20’s…but when you’re 11 everyone is the same age if they’re not your age).

I walked up to the counter and asked, “Do you have anything by Beck?”

The guy looked at me–what was a 12 year old girl doing in this store? Like, how did she even get here?

He patiently showed me a few options…a vinyl of the song “Loser” and a CD single of “The New Pollution“, as well a used copy of the CD of Mellow Gold (which “Loser” was on).

I bought them all.

And I started going to Big B’s religiously over the next few years to ensure that ANYTHING that came out with a B-Side or alternate artwork would be mine.

That area of Maryland Parkway in the 90’s and early 2000’s became my cultural education.

From Big B’s you could easily walk to the following:

  • UNLV (which at 15 felt like the COOLEST THING EVER to walk on a college campus!) and you could walk around the library there and read so many things that my Jr High School and High School libraries were lacking
  • Cafe Espresso Roma, a long defunct emo indie coffee shop with live music
  • Balcony Lights, another now defunct record store that I think also sold zines and books
  • Buffalo Exchange, a used clothing store that had both new and vintage styles
  • And lastly, In N Out Burger, which now doesn’t seem all that special, but when you’re a kid with only had a few bucks and a vegetarian, that animal style grilled cheese was your saving grace

I must have walked down Maryland parkway dozens of times discovering there was a whole world of culture available to me on Saturdays as my dad worked at the office!

It’s where I first really fell in love with Las Vegas and realized that the city I was living in had more to offer than casinos and desert.

Back to my boy Beck.

Now that I’d had a few years to really dive deep, it was 1998 and I knew there was another album coming out, Mutations.

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I bought it on a family trip to Iowa of all places (at this point my family knew the only place I was interested in seeing on road trips was the local record store…) and when I popped it into my walkman I was confused.

What was this?

There were slow dreamy honky tonk melodies, harpsichord laments, and tons of percussion instruments.

What the…?

I trusted Beck, he’d gotten me this far, and if this is where he was headed now, I guessed I ought to go along with it.

And again, I gave into something new and exciting.

I wanted to know what had inspired him for this album–and it ended up taking me on a journey of musical education I would never have otherwise gone on at 15.

Mutations piqued my curiosity to travel through the history of country music and to listen to international music.

The most important thing Mutations did for me was teach me to slow down.  In your teenage years everything feels like it’s happening so fast–and the marketing targeted at you is telling you everything should be happening more quickly.

You should be clamoring for attention and being the loudest most outgoing human in the room if you want people to notice you and you should never ever stop to think about what you’re doing–you’re a teenager, go nuts!

But this album was the opposite of every teen centered magazine and commercial, it was a meditation on death, a letter to self on mistakes and regret, a rumination on decay.

A year after Mutations came out, Beck announced a few tour dates that would likely include some new songs from an upcoming project.

As luck would have it, he was going to play a classic Vegas show room, the Tiffany Theatre at The Tropicana.

The sparkling dark hideaway of a theatre was home to the famous Folies Bergere, a long running topless revue of showgirls Vegas was infamous for.

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Folies in it’s heydey…FYI the image is from the Review Journal and not my own

I HAD TO GO.

I begged my mom to find a way to get us tickets. This was before you could buy tickets online and you either had to call a box office or go to a grocery store that had a ticket kiosk and wait in line.

My mom, who loved her music the way I loved Beck, understood. And though we didn’t have a ton of money, my amazing mother made it happen.

Not only that, she got two tickets, front row center–on one condition. She was coming with me to the show.

It seemed reasonable that she would be hesitant to allow her young teen daughter to go alone to a theatre on The Strip that specialized in adult themed shows.

It was such an anticipated show, what with the the unlikely combination of performer and venue, that even Rolling Stone reviewed it.

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Beck performing at The Tropicana in 1999, photo source: Las Vegas Weekly

A few highlights of the show (for any Beck fans out there):

  • Tenacious D was the opener (Jack Black and Kyle Gass’ comedy rock partnership), and they took notice of the fact that a 15 year old CHILD was one of the people in the front row and took it upon themselves to razz me just a bit.  Teen me felt embarrassed and excited…GROWN UPS WERE PAYING ATTENTION TO ME AND THEY PLAYED INSTRUMENTS AND ALSO THEY WERE ONSTAGE DOING COOL THINGS AND THINGS THAT MADE ME BLUSH.
  • Beck played a Debra, which at the time was an unreleased live concert-only song that usually ended with Beck having a performative sexualized temper tantrum that forced him to leave the stage for a few minutes and give the band time to jam. It was part Bowie, part Prince, part kitsch, and all tongue and cheek.

That night, watching my rock idol play all of my favorite songs and some I’d never heard, while sitting with my mother in the middle of a high end topless revue theatre I realized something else about Vegas–it was unlike anywhere else.

If Rolling Stone Magazine was going to send someone here to watch this show, and Beck was going to choose this city over other southwest options, this must be a unique place.

It was around this time that I transferred schools from a very small community school (where I’d known everyone since I was 5) to an arts magnet school in Downtown Las Vegas.

I had never been able to create my own story–everyone I was friends with had been around since we were in single digit years.

And I decided that when I transferred, I wanted people to see me as more than the girl with braces and a speech impediment throughout grade school, more than the acne ridden self conscious teen.

I decided music would be a big part of my identity.

The chance to start with a fresh slate at 16 was incredible.

My first day on the hour long bus commute I was armed with my CD collection.

I pulled it out and set it on my lap.

Took a look around…

Oh how I hoped that someone would notice my little sleeve of CD’s and magically want to be my friend!

Isn’t that how it worked in the movies?! Or in books?! Someone did something slightly performative and another person took notice and then they became friends forever?!

Well wouldn’t you know it….people didn’t really care.

Looking back they probably felt kinda sorry for me.

What’s with the girl who is sitting back there googly eyed looking around the bus like a goon with a bunch of scratched up CD’s all splayed out?

I decided I needed to be a little more aggressive with my new identity…I had bought a shirt at the Beck concert and it seemed like the right time to debut it.

In the age before Facebook and Instagram the way to show others what you liked was as simple as a t-shirt.

It worked!

I made a few new friends that liked music! And they especially liked Beck! IT FELT MAGICAL! Beck had become a short hand for people like me…geeky, introverted, and sort of open to new things.

And they started inviting me to come with them after school to hang out on Fremont Street.

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Where the lights are bring on Fremont (this pic I did take!)

This is where I fell in love with Neon signage, arguably Las Vegas’ most specialized and unique art form.

Walking up and down Fremont Street after school with a slice of pizza, killing time with my new friends until the late school bus came at sunset to take me back home felt infinite.

That year Midnite Vultures came out–it was the perfect soundtrack to exploring Downtown Las Vegas with my new friends.

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The thing that was fun about meeting these new friends that also loved Beck was that they introduced me to all kinds of other musicians that I’d never heard of!

All the sudden I was also going to shows and exploring Las Vegas in a completely different way.

I saw Elliott Smith and Grandaddy at a small venue behind the Huntridge, I saw local punk bands at house shows, and I started going to music festivals.

I even convinced my straight laced father to drive me and a few friends to the very first ever Coachella Music Festival in California where Beck was headlining.

Looking back, I cannot believe my Dad was patient enough to stand amongst a bunch of teen delinquents in the hot desert of Southern California…what a trouper.

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Going to Coachella meant I got to discover tons of artists I had never heard of, old and young!

At this point in time I didn’t even know who Morrissey was…but thanks to Beck I got to see one of the members of The Smiths live at 16.

What. the. what.

When I came back from the festival I felt like my brain was going to explode with all of these new bands to look up and read about and obsess about.

I made a new friend that year too…another kid who had transferred to the school and also loved music.

He was cooler than I was (at least it definitely felt that way to me!) and he made me laugh.

And he had a car, which meant we could DRIVE to all the other record stores around town.

I was no longer confined just to the music selection of Maryland Parkway!

We both loved Beck so much that we even decided to create a multisong mash-up lip sync performance for our theatre class where we wore thrift store western inspired shirts.

He became one of my best friends during those turbulent youthful times–and years later when we reconnected by chance, he became my husband.

Since then, Beck has gone on to release another 6 albums, including Colors tomorrow.

Driving around Las Vegas, I hear his songs from the past two decades play as soundtracks to all of the elements of this city–the classic Vegas lounge, the Downtown neon glitz, the seedy adult underbelly, the silent and contemplative desert, ghosts of small, now vacant, record stores and coffee houses.

And I can’t wait to explore where Colors will score its songs in this city for me as an adult  in 2017.

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4 thoughts on “Beck, or the soundtrack to falling in love with your city as a teenager

  1. This is such a great post SiV. I love your writing style. I had a giggle at the blank cassette tape and the memories that conjured up 🙂 Sorry you haven’t been feeling well the past few weeks – there’s a lot of overwhelming stuff going on in the world! Hope your pregnancy is going great 🙂

    1. <3 thanks SHBTG <3 i will forever love the blank cassette tape! trying to get through one day at a time…that's the best way to do anything, right? hugs to you from Las Vegas!

  2. Thank you for enlightening me on this music. I feel very old as I’m sorry to say it’s all new to me. Making a mental note to listen to Beck! 🙂

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