Listen to Austin 360 Radio

What we learned about Beck at SXSW, like the time Johnny Cash opened for him

Eric Webb
Austin 360

Eight Grammys, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nod, a generation-defining breakout single. If not pick rock singer-songwriter Beck to give a keynote at South by Southwest, then who would you want?

The musician, aka Beck David Hansen, took the big ballroom stage on Friday at the Austin Convention Center for a conversation with The New Yorker staff writer Amanda Petrusich. The hourlong keynote covered Beck's formative years, his first SXSW appearance in the 1990s (with a very unlikely opening act), his approach to creativity, the worst advice he's ever gotten and a lot more. 

Here are five things we learned.

Beck gives a keynote speech during South by Southwest on Friday, March 18, 2022.

1. Beck's first SXSW gig was way more memorable than breakfast tacos and free drinks.

Beck made his SXSW debut in 1994, right as "Loser" and the album "Mellow Gold" were changing his life. 

As mentioned in the pre-keynote intro, legendary country star Johnny Cash opened up for him at Emo's, “which I thought was absurd,” he said. (Beck actually couldn't remember the venue, but the audience was more than happy to help.)

That was a "hot, balmy Austin night," he said, and he got to meet Cash. Beck said he was nervous; after early days playing acoustic solo open mics, that was his first tour with a band.

Cash played around 8 or 9 p.m. and Beck went on at midnight. The singer on Friday described the night as chaotic. A mic stand fell on a fan's head and left a big welt. Beck met with them after the show and gave them a hug as they cried.

It really was a classic '90s Austin night. Butthole Surfers musician Gibby Haynes met with Beck backstage and said that it was the best show he'd ever seen. Haynes also gave Beck a medallion from "a secret society." Which society, Beck could not recall, so it must have been very secret.

2. Forget a Grammy for album of the year — Beck almost had one of Pharrell's biggest smashes.

Beck worked with musician-producer Pharrell Williams on 2019 album "Hyperspace." Petrusich pointed out that some themes on the album were eerily prescient of the pandemic days that were soon to come.

In fact, Beck wanted to work with Pharrell as early as the 1990s. When he was working on 1999 album "Midnite Vultures," he heard Pharrell's group the Neptunes and decided he had to collaborate.

Nothing came of it for a couple decades. Beck would run into Pharrell in elevators, and they would talk about working with each other. Finally, Beck made a call. His manager asked what he was looking for in the collab; he said he just wanted to make something happy.

You can see where this is going.

Beck met with Pharrell, who sat him down to play a new song he'd been writing that he was stoked about. It was 2013 radio smash "Happy."

So, about working on something happy together ...

“I guess you already did that," Beck said, tongue in cheek. "I showed up about three days too late. ...That could have been my song.”

More SXSW:Sing one for Sister Bobbie: Willie Nelson's Luck Reunion returns in grand style

They eventually teamed up to make "Hyperspace." Petrusich had interviewed Pharrell about Beck before. He described Beck as "always this guy walking in a green pasture," Petrusich said.

"I am free range," Beck joked. "I am grass-fed."

3. Beck thinks that rock music will be flattened out by the crushing wave of time.

After success, "the hunger deepens," Beck said. Folks like Paul McCartney are always looking to make their next great record, he said. He's been to shows where everyone knows every word to the hits, and Beck wants to pen songs like that, where "the lyrics are in their blood."

"The music you’re trying to do is always out of reach," he said.

About those lyrics: Beck knows some people think his songs are word salad, and they mishear the actual lines all the time. Really, he's often looking to put people in a specific mental space beyond meaning, he said, much like a filmmaker creates an atmosphere.

Beck counts among his influences the the French symbolists; the great musical poets like Bob Dylan and T. Rex's Marc Bolan; the serious folk artists like Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake; the pioneers of rap; and the beat poets. (Allen Ginsberg came to one of his shows and they bonded, he said.)

“It was a revelation that a song could be art,” he said of discovering the poetic possibilities of pop music.

Beck gives a keynote speech during South by Southwest on Friday, March 18, 2022.

Growing up in an area of Los Angeles where he "played with bandages with blood on them in the morning" that people who'd been shot the night before left in the streets, Beck described a loose and free childhood in a diverse neighborhood. He didn't have a room and slept in a sleeping bag under the family's dining room table. He ditched high school classes and hung out in the library, his "analog internet, he said.

That library eventually burned down, and it informed Beck's views on art as ephemeral. He believes that eventually, all modern music will become "one song" to future generations, the way that most modern folks can't tell their Beethoven from their Brahms when they hear classical music.

"If you write a really good song, people aren't even going to know it was you," Beck said, adding, "Rock music will become one thing."

4. Austin's Daniel Johnston was a presence in Beck's early career.

After moving to much-grittier New York City in the late 1980s, Beck fell into the anti-folk scene.

In that community, late Austin artist Daniel Johnston was much talked about. Beck never got to hang out with him, but people knew all his songs, he said. 

More SXSW:Phoebe Bridgers brings a so-iconic MUNA, a Greg Casar speech and a punk orchestra

"I thought he was going to sound like Tom Waits," he said, so Johnston's more childlike voice was a surprise.

Beck specifically mentioned a song he called, "You Can’t Play Cards with the Devil'; he probably meant 1998 Johnston tune "Don't Play Cards with Satan."

5. Beck has gotten a lot of bad advice.

"Ungroomed and unprepared" for the success of his song "Loser," Beck was shocked when the cash started to flow in and the world opened up around him. He had no manager and no record label when everything started moving fast, he said.

"The whole thing was just absurd," he said.

At the time, there were plenty of one hit wonders and novelty acts, and Beck assumed his own hit would be a fluke. Taking advantage of the moment, he tried to have fun with fame, like playing a show in a bowling alley. Recording executives would show up to those gigs, including one who had flown Beck out pre-fame and tried to remake "Loser" and the singer's entire image. 

“It worked on its own terms,” Beck said of breakout hit, and that rewarded instinct gave him a license to approach his career as "anything goes," he said.

As Beck prepared to release 1996 album "Odelay," now a classic, a prominent producer warned him not to release it. The singer had sunk too much money into it by that time, he said, and he knew the album had to come out. He assumed it would fail.

That producer was wrong — just another bit of bad advice.

His creative impulses were part of the mid-'90s tide that changed popular music: "Like, Björk was a pop star," he said.