Albums of Our Lives: Beck’s Odelay

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Was that a sample or something that just sounds like a sample? There are sounds like this on Beck’s Odelay that seem somehow out of place and totally at home. The screeching guitars and smooth sax in “New Pollution,” or the slide guitar on “Hotwax.” And until this year I’d thought that moment in “Where It’s At”—you know, the one, “That was a good drum break.”—was in fact an off-the-cuff Beck-ism. It turns out, it’s a sample from The Frog’s “I Don’t Care if U Disrespect Me.” Real Instagram polaroid fake-out shit. The similarity in their scratchy dragging vocals is striking, and it took me a few listens before I believed that it wasn’t actually Beck. It was like confusing Jeff Goldblum movies from different decades. “Was that from The Fly or Jurassic Park? Or a cameo on Portlandia?” For a second you don’t understand how you could confuse the different worlds, the decades, the characters. But I do this kind of thing a lot: forgetting and remembering, mixing but never quite matching.

*

“I’m a broken record. I have bubblegum in my brain.”

*

My friend Tony and I were having a super-soaker shootout in his backyard when his mom called us in and gave us Kool-Aid. It was the summer of 1996 and I was eleven years old. His brother Vince, who was a few years older than us, was watching MTV in the living room.

“Ooo, check out this video!” he told us, “It’s fuckin’ great.” Vince swore a lot, he got in trouble a lot, and he wore his dad’s old clothes. Other kids didn’t give him shit for it either. He was definitely cool. I was pretty sure he was cool.

The video was “Where It’s At.” Beck stands on a platform stage at what looks like a used car lot and three guys are breakdancing behind him. He’s wearing a short sleeved shirt and a wide striped tie—’70s used car salesman IT repair chic. The chorus kicks in: “Where it’s at!” and Beck sings in distorted vocals, “Got two turntables and a microphone.” It seemed like hip-hop—something like the Beastie Boys, I thought. A subtle homage to Captain Beefheart juxtaposed with sequences that look like the campy ’70s era instructional videos that we watched in grade school. It was funny and reassuring, but I wasn’t sure why. The smooth keyboard hook and Lee Dorsey beat had me bobbing my head all while Beck performs for a bar full of line dancers. I didn’t think I liked country. Was that country? Having a mom who taught me to play “name that tune” on the oldies station, and an older brother and sister who listened to gangster rap, R.E.M., and Weezer, I considered myself to be pretty well-versed in music for your average eleven-year- old. But the video left me confused. It had a familiar otherworldliness to it, like a perfect stranger you mistake for an old friend.

*

This year, my girlfriend Adi and I moved into an old row house in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh—a place a lot like the house my mom grew up in fifty years ago just four blocks away.

I moved there to be closer to my parents’ past, as if I might actually run into their past selves at the old deli on Butler that closed its doors decades ago. Maybe in a pseudo Field of Dreams meets Back to the Future kind of way, I’d run into my dad as a young man, change the course of his life, and help him fulfill his lifelong dream of being a forest ranger. Moving to their old neighborhood seemed like a chance to sample their past and make it not just a memory but a part of my life too.

“You’re too sentimental and nostalgic for things you don’t even remember.” Adi tells me this when I play old music, or wear old clothes, or buy impossibly heavy old furniture.

She’s the one who throws away old ticket stubs, clothes she doesn’t actually wear anymore, and cool but old and non-functional camping equipment I find in my parents’ garage.

“Just get rid of it.”

It’s easy for her to say. But what if I need it? I might use it… later.

She wasn’t aware of my history of repurposing the past. Once, in eighth grade I used Beck’s “Where It’s At” style to try to impress a girl I liked. The image of Beck in his ’70s era used car salesman get-up stuck with me. I raided my parents’ attic to look for some of my dad’s old clothes, and an hour later I had a new wardrobe full of butterfly collar shirts and wide ties. My sister would later explain to me that this was “vintage.” I put on “Sissyneck,” a song that samples Dick Hyman’s bizarre moog album, and creates the kind of cowboy funk that a disaffected thirteen year old in polyester pants can appreciate. As I looked at myself in the mirror, I tried a few of Beck’s moves—some neo-James Brown, b-boy shit. The plan didn’t work, but I wore those clothes for years to come.

Picking up what’s lying around didn’t work for me (at least how I’d hoped), but it was exactly what worked on Odelay. At the Dust Brothers’ studio, where the album was recorded, there was a massive wall of old records—the kind of thrift-store chance encounter finds that everyone dreams of—the kind of records that shaped Odelay. Beck listened to and borrowed from these records throughout the recording process. It was that approach to making the record that became for me not just a point of intrigue but a way of listening, and a way of approaching the past.

*

Less than twenty-four hours after hearing “Where It’s At, I had Odelay in heavy rotation. The opening riff of “Devil’s Haircut” blared from the stereo, and my mom told me to turn it down. Songs like “Jack-Ass,” though, sounded like the stuff she listened to on 3WS, the local oldies station. “Sounds familiar,” she said. A few years later I’d learn from my AV teacher that the song in fact heavily sampled Them’s version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” I sat in front of the stereo reading the lyrics and looking at the album art: bizarre illustrations transposed with retro patterns and images of Beck—incredible stuff that reminded me of the collages I made in art class.

In grade school, some kids decided I was the “artistic” one (I would have preferred “the next Michael Jordan,” but that seemed unreasonable for a lifelong B-team athlete). Being “artsy” meant that I could draw superheroes in the margins of my notebook and that my collages made other students laugh. A notable one placed Michael Jackson moonwalking through a rainforest full of sperm whales (we had a lot of old issues of National Geographic). Despite the label, I was never more than a mediocre drawer, but labels stick. I was the artsy kid who wanted to be the athlete, the dorky kid with coke bottle glasses who imagined he was James Dean.

*

There’s something about the religion classes in Catholic school that train you to look for deep or hidden meaning in things. And I thought of music in the same way: A friend once showed me his dad’s copy of the Beatles’s White Album and said you could find secret messages hidden in the lyrics. I tried to look for the same things in Odelay, but it resisted. “She’s got a carburetor tied to the moon / Pink eyes looking to the food of the ages.”  I didn’t know what it meant or if it was supposed to mean anything. I sang along to ’60s pop. But the imagery and sound on Odelay, especially on songs like “High Five,” seemed like a collage of Michael Jackson in a rainforest—combinations of disparate textures and visual imagery that created something altogether new, sometimes funny, or weird, or funky. It was something from one world placed in another; it was seeing the king of pop in a jungle; it was hearing samples of a sex-ed record in a Top 40 hit. It was something old in something new, something I wish I remembered but never really could.

*

“I can’t believe my way-back-when
My Cadillac pants goin’ much too fast.”

*

One of my earliest memories isn’t my memory. My mom was driving up 38th Street on our way to see her old next-door neighbor; there was some doo-wop song on the radio, and my mom would sing a word here and there. I was in the back seat of our ’88 Chevy Astro van, and she was telling me about growing up in Lawrenceville. “We’d sit on the radiator right in the front window there and watch my mother when she’d go across the street to Freddie’s store for groceries.” Not a story, not even an anecdote, really. But it’s one of those floating memories of hers that’s sort of became one of mine too. It’s an image I’ve cobbled together through old photos of my mother as a young girl. But what’s strange about that memory is that when I remember it now, I occasionally imagine my mom at five years old driving the car that day and me sitting on that radiator. I’d like to believe that these memories are mine—at least in the same way that a sample on Odelay is a part of Odelay. But what belongs to who and who belongs where isn’t always that straightforward.

Near the end of “Hotwax,” there’s this exchange:

Boy: “Who are you?”

Wizard: “I’m the enchanting wizard of rhythm.”

Boy: “Why did you come here?”

Wizard: “I came here to tell you about the rhythms of the universe.”

The same conversation appears on Mandrill’s 1972 “Universal Rhythms,” but the voices you hear on “Hotwax” were actually there in the Dust Brothers’s studio: They’re Beck’s bandmates. It’s less of a sample and more of a recreation, and it’s not the only moment like it on the record. Odelay is full of them: Moments that you think are one thing but are really another, collages that create something new from something old, and blend, and blur, and mix, and match.

Every time we remember something, we’re recreating that thing, that moment, or that person: They’re recreations, collages—fragmented and altered over time. Odelay is a living memory, a patchwork map that’s as big as its landscape. It negotiates and confronts change and evolution over time; it had already aged and grown wiser by the time that it was born, and twenty years later I still hear something new; it frees me from time, and connects me to the past, and carries me forward.


Jason Sepac lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he works at the University of Pittsburgh. He writes nonfiction and looks forward to helping his parents clean out their attic. More from this author →