Beck - Guero
Music You Might Want to Consider - B
When I was in my junior and senior year in high school, I attended vocational school for half of each school day. Vocational school had a bad rep because it was always marketed as a school for the “dumb kids”, or the kids who would never make it in college. This was because the kids who went to vocational school would actually get real job training in stuff as diverse as heavy equipment operation to cosmotology.
The funny thing about the “dumb kid” stigma is, the people who went to vocational school often left high school, went into the job market, and have zero school debt. The college kids went on to get loans that were the equivalent to a mortgage, and started adult life in debt. So who were the dumb ones, really?
I was in vocational school from 1993 until 1995, just as the wave of grunge and alternative music from Seattle was cresting, flooding the sonic landscape, changing rock & roll forever.
I was still in my mostly-Christian-never-secular music phase back then. I had become a Christian a couple of years before, and at the time, my favorite bands were thrash metal alternatives to Metallica, or heavy metal alternatives to Ratt. To say my musical tastes were limited would be putting it lightly.1
We had to ride a bus to get to and from vocational school, so we would arrive to school in the morning, wait fifteen minutes through our home room2, and then board the bus for a thirty minute ride. For the entirety of the ride, I would throw my headphones on and listen to whatever cassette tape I was obssessed with at the time, dozing or reading a book.
Kids from all over the county would come to vocational school, and our classes were filled with students from other districts. It was a great opportunity, if you weren’t in a class with people from your district, to be yourself without fear of some kid remembering something embarrasing about you from elementary school.3
Suffice to say, I was pretty comfortable there. I was attending for Commerical Art, which, in the year that I started attending had been rechristened “Visual Communications”. The kids in this class were the artsy ones - very talented artists with the goal of getting a job in the creative industry as designers, videographers, or something similar.
One of my earliest friends there was a guy named Josh. Josh went to school in the district that was adjacent to mine, but he may as well have been from another planet, because back then there was no internet, no cell phones, and if you didn’t know someone from school, you didn’t know them.
Josh was a unique guy. He was a musician, in his own punk rock band, and he’d wear flannel shirts, torn jeans, and thick Coke bottle glasses. In my mind, Josh was cool.
Josh and I would inevitably talk a lot about music. Josh was far more worldly4 than I, and when Nirvana came up in one of our conversations, he asked if I’d ever heard Bleach, their debut album. Of course I hadn’t, I didn’t know they’d had another album before Nevermind.
He was very quick to let me borrow it, and that was the start of a wonderful parasitic5 relationship between him and I. He’d let me borrow a tape, I’d copy it, and give it right back. Josh introduced me to the record label Sub Pop, and with it, bands like Sebadoh and Sonic Youth.
So, in the spring of 1994, when he asked if I’d heard Mellow Gold, the new Beck album, I didn’t hesitate to tell him no. And he didn’t hesitate to let me borrow it.
Everyone knows Beck’s breakout single - “Loser”, a bluesy, rap infused, sonic feast for the ears. It was like nothing else on the radio at the time. And it’s probably the reason I’m about to write something about my favorite Beck album - 2005’s Guero.
He’d produced multiple albums between Mellow Gold and Guero. Odelay was inescapable in the mid-nineties, Mutations and Sea Change were both quality records as well. With each album, Beck proved one thing: he jumps genres so much, it’s impossible to nail him down.
So why am I writing about Guero? Partly because a lot of stuff has been written about the most popular of Beck’s albums. And also because in 2017, I had the privilege of seeing Beck open for U2. The joy that he brings to most of his albums (Sea Change is easily his most depressing record, since most of the songs are breakup songs) was tenfold live. His backing band was incredible, and that short, twenty minute set whet my appetite for more.
During that set, he played the song “Que’ Onda Guero”, a playful tale from his childhood in Southern California. Guero is Spanish for blond, and as a young blond boy in a largely Hispanic neighborhood, many of his neighbors would ask him, “Where are you going, Blondie?”, or “Que’ Onda Guero?”
The song itself is a simple hook over programmed beats, with background neighborhood noises and chatter. Beck raps in a mixture of Spanish and English, and it’s a highly addictive tune. I’m surprised it wasn’t a single from the record, but he opted to release the songs “E-Pro”, “Girl”, and “Hell Yes” instead.
“E-Pro” opens the album with a blistering guitar hook, setting you up for what you’re going to experience, and it leads directly into “Que’ Onda Guero”, which is followed by “Girl”, an incredibly dark song6 packaged like a pop song, with a catchy chorus over a bed of twangy guitar, drum machine beats, and the occasional synth note.
“Missing” is a moody song, echoing a theme that’s as old as the book of Ecclesiastes - the vanity of pursuing fortune, sacrificing all, only to find that something will always be missing.
The theme of vain pursuit is evident in “Black Tambourine” and “Earthquake Weather”, both moody and atmospheric songs that feel like funk one minute and seventies era pop song the next.
“Hell Yes” is one of the most fun songs on the record, but once again, the lyrics betray it’s playful nature. With lyrics referring to '“fake prizes”7 and “breaking points on the verge of pointless”, you’d think that Beck was trying to tell us something about the misery of the life he was living.
Overall, Guero is the kind of album that rewards you when you listen multiple times. Subtle things like instrumentation or sound bytes, will pop out at you after a few times. It’s like staring at a painting and catching small details, changing the meaning for you every time.
And that’s what good art should do, right?
Another thing about Josh, that I think about almost every time I listen to Beck; When Kurt Cobain killed himself Josh would jokingly say that he thought that Beck was really just Kurt in disguise. Kurt just got so tired of singing songs that were miserable, so he reinvented himself.
Little did we know, Beck’s been writing songs about being miserable the entire time. We just didn’t know it. So maybe Josh was right.
I’m not saying these bands are bad. I just had a very limited palate, like a kid who only eats bananas and chicken nuggets.
Which would consist of all of us sitting in the library while the lunch monitor took attendance. My friends Dan, John, and I would play cards the entire time.
For a bullied kid, it was nice that there was nobody there to bring up the time in the sixth grade that I lashed out at a bunch of kids in gym class, shoving one, punching another, and moving to attack a third before the substitute stopped me.
By “worldly”, I don’t mean that he was some sinful guy who was hellbent on corrupting me. He just had a depth of knowledge about music that I didn’t have.
I was the parasite, he was the host.
Some think it’s about a serial killer and his most recent victim, a girl who came west to become a star only to end up murdered.
At this point in his career, Beck was a critical darling and could do no wrong. And yet, the prizes he won didn’t seem to matter to him as much as making music that he enjoyed.