Let’s listen to a song. Beck’s ‘Loser’ could be a good place to start. It was his first and biggest hit, an iconic single of the early 1990s and a very cool track indeed.
The song begins with a six-note riff played with a slide on the bottom three strings of an acoustic guitar with the low E string tuned down a tone to D, so it’s a sliding chord of D, A, D – no nasty third to suggest major or minor, just the spectral tonic, fifth and octave. Durr dur-durr dur-durrrr, durrrrrr; durr dur-durr dur-durrrr, durrrrr… The slide is picking up the F, to give a bluesy cast to the riff, unavoidable when playing with a slide anyway, but the almost atonal downward slide (from no particular note to no particular note somewhat lower down the neck) give the basically rather ominous riff a slightly offhand, casual edge, as if the guy wants to play the blues but doesn’t really feel like he’s got the right.
The riff is repeated once, and then the fat beats kick in. It’s probably a sample of someone and they were probably from New Orleans, given that ‘Loser’ is known to be built on a sample from Dr John’s ‘I Walk On Gilded Splinters’. The beats have a relaxed, kickback feel but also have an edge provided by the second snare hit just before the third beat in each bar; the snare drum wants to get ahead, but keeps being restrained by the imperious kick drum. After a couple of bars we get a big, deep, fat bass line, proceeding from the D to the E, then back to D, then to F sharp, then back to D, then to E again, then back to D, like a man who keeps leaving the house and then has to keep going back because he’s forgotten something. (The riff doesn’t repeat exactly but proceeds to G the second time round, a little further again, before repeating itself from the top.) The peculiar marriage of stoned bluesy slide guitar, fat bass and dancefloor beats establishes itself, just long enough for us to get to know it, and then the drums drop out for a bar and the song begins.
Before we get to the singing and the words, let’s just take a moment to notice the other instrumental element that enters at this point: the bass drops out, and what sounds like a sitar (possibly an electric sitar) comes in, exactly doubling the bassline. And it sounds kind of Indian, or Indianoid. The music listener who knows 60s popular music immediately thinks – aha, drugs! Yeah, it’s getting a little trippy, but we’re way ahead of that, because the singer has started singing, or rather drawling, a song:
In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey
Butane in my veins and ‘m out to cut the junky with the
Plastic eyeball, spraypaint the vegetables
Dogfood stalls with the beefcake pantyhose,
Kill the headlights and put it in newsreel
Stock car flaming with the loser on the cruise control
Baby’s in Reno with the vitamin D
Gotta couple of couches, sleep on the love seat
Someone keeps sayin’ I’m insane to complain
About a shotgun wedding and the state of my shirt
Don’t believe everything that you breathe, you get a
Parking violation and a maggot on your sleeve, so
Shave your face with some Mace in the dark
Savin’ all your foodstamps and burnin’ down the trailer park
Before we’ve even got to the chorus, it’s clear that this is not a song that’s going to yield a clear meaning, or ready consolation, or cheap thrills, or anything else for certain, other than this drawled barrage of grungy images: drugs, consumer products, graffiti, dodgy food (dogfood rubbing up against ‘beefcake’, which normally means pictures of sexy men but in the context you can’t help thinking about supermarket mince), sketching a vivid image of a crapsack life where your shirt needs to be complained about and the credulous are given traffic summonses and maggots and you’re shaving in the dark with attack repellent and then your trailer park burns down. There are hints, here, of some sort of story, but we can’t piece it together. In the ‘time of chimpanzees’ the narrator was a ‘monkey’ – we don’t know if Beck knows his zoology, but humans and chimpanzees, being apes, are closer related to each other than they are to monkeys, who are a different parvorder. The implication is that the narrator, whoever he is, feels unfashionably less-than-human.
His voice – tight and raised, but also deadpan, not even trying to sell this lyric to us – sounds like he thinks he ought to be aggrieved but can’t quite get it together enough to be genuinely angry. He’s mumbling half to himself like a crazy homeless guy. But then the chorus kicks in. Does it make things any clearer?
Soy un perdador
I’m a loser, baby
So why don’tcha kill me (double-barrelled buckshot)
Soy un perdador
I’m a loser, baby
So why don’tcha kill me
And there it is, the chorus that sold this song. Helpfully, like a Sesame Street skit, it’s (at least partly) translated into Spanish as well as in English – non-Spanish speakers like me took years to realise that he was even singing in Spanish. I thought it was just a mumble so stoned that you couldn’t make it out. (Beck achieves extra stonedness here by double-tracking his own vocal.) So he’s a loser, but not so much that there isn’t someone in his life that he can’t address as ‘baby’ – he’s not as much of a loser as the eponymous creep in Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ is a creep, for example. He asks her why she doesn’t kill him, but it doesn’t sound like he really expects her to do so, his unhurried descent to the tonic on ‘so why don’tcha kill me’ making it sound more like a droll rhetorical question than a plea for escape from this life. The fact is, she hasn’t killed him. Yet. But we’re only one verse in. What’s next?
Forces of evil in a bozo nightmare
Ban all the music with a phony gas chamber
Cuz one’s got a weasel and the other’s got a flag
One’s on a pole, shove the other in a bag
With the rerun shows and the cocaine nosejob
The daytime crap of the folksinger slob
He hung himself with a guitar string
Slap the turkey neck and it’s hangin’ from a pigeon wing
You can’t write if you can’t relate
Trade the cash for the beef for the body for the hate
And my time is a piece of wax, fallin’ on a termite
‘s chokin’ on the splinters
The second verse spins the song onto a new level of panic. Suddenly we’re talking about banning music and a ‘phony gas chamber’, raising the spectre (for this listener) of Nazism and its defenders, specifically those Holocaust deniers who pick around the ruined crematoria at Auschwitz and pronounce that there’s not enough physical evidence in the brickwork that the places were actually used to slaughter people, despite the mountains of documentary evidence and testimony to the effect that they were. Then we move onto four people, or things – the forces of evil? – who respectively have a weasel (use weasel words, maybe, suggesting appalling things about the forces for good, but never coming out and openly accusing them – their special brand of evil is weaselly and never lets itself get into open confrontation), have a flag (they hide behind patriotism as an excuse), are on a pole (or poll – they could be running for office, or else they’re just standing high above the muck that the rest of us have to live in) and the other is to be shoved in a bag with the rubbish of old TV and the burned-out folksinger who hung himself. The ghost of Phil Ochs is being beckoned to the table, and as before it’s all mixed-up with the detritus of the narrator’s life – the juxtaposition of ‘turkey neck’ and ‘pigeon wing’ make this listener think of plastic-wrapped trays of supermarket chicken wings, this time round.
But then there’s something approaching a cover-breaking announcement: ‘You can’t write if you can’t relate / Trade the cash for the beef for the body for the hate’, a brilliant if gnomic couplet that brings together the financial transactions of being a musician, the need to make a living, the pained identification with predecessors, and the inevitable disillusionment as you live out the same shit that your influences went through. In the end, as the narrator spits out, his time is ‘chokin’ on the splinters’ – partly a reference to the Dr John song that’s being sampled but also a confession of his inability to articulate what all the horror he’s been talking about really amounts to.
Soy un perdador
I’m a loser, baby
So why don’tcha kill me (get crazy with the Cheese Whiz)
Soy un perdador
I’m a loser, baby
So why don’tcha kill me (Drive-by body-pierce)
In response to the narrator’s dumbfounded tongue-tied-ness, the chorus is practically revelling in the sheer lunacy of it all – get crazy with the Cheese Whiz! – and just before we go to a drum break, as if to take a rest from dwelling on the crapness that has made our hero into such a loser, we get the sublimely weird and funny image of a ‘drive-by body-pierce’, as if gangs are forcibly decorating people with bits of jewellery.
We need a break from the horror, and we’re given one. Everything drops out except the beats. During the break, the narrator mumbles ‘Yo, bring it on down’ and is answered by a chorus of stoners droning what sounds like ‘Oyyyyyyy…’ As the song reassembles itself, we get a bit of backwards singing (it’s the chorus, as if it’s going to make any more sense when sung backwards) and then more and more licks and samples are piled on top of each other – a soothing electric guitar figure played with the vibrato knob turned up, the sitar again, the bass.
Then, just as we’re almost relieved that the narrator isn’t going to overload us with another barrage of surreal horror from his life, a new voice says confidently ‘I’m a driver, I’m a winner,’ and then the music drops out, as if to expose the speaker as much as possible, while he complacently asserts ‘Things are gonna change, I can feel it.’ This listener had always assumed that this was a sample of former President George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail, doggedly trying to seem like a folksy, straightup guy. But it isn’t. It’s dialogue from the movie ‘Kill the Moonlight’ directed by Beck’s friend Steve Hanft. The lines are uttered by one character during a scene when he’s fishing with another character, who I think is his father, but not having seen the entire movie (almost nobody has seen the entire movie) I can’t be sure.
Then we return to the chorus, and the loser is still regretfully but half-defiantly declaring his loserness, even as the narrator cries in a cracking voice ‘I can’t believe it!’, or possibly ‘I can’t believe you!’ (the sources disagree, what do you want from me, he could be singing either of them). The chorus repeats as the song begins to fade, and the narrator, having recovered some of his composure, asks in a smirking, stoned voice (albeit in incorrect German) ‘Sprechen sie Deutsche, baby?’ Because you’ll to need to be able to, in the world that’s coming.
The instrumental track fades, and a new voice (sounds to me like an African-American speaker, but I may be wrong) asks tersely ‘Know what I’m sayin’?’ even as an entirely new musical element enters – cheesy block chords played on a highly distorted electric guitar.
So this is my own modest sketch of the connotational landscape of Beck’s ‘Loser’, in spite of its authors’ own words that the lyrics were basically nonsense andthat the chorus came out of Beck listening to his own attempts to rap and commenting ‘I’m such a loser’ because he didn’t sound enough like Chuck D. People who write things aren’t always the best at figuring out what they might mean, especially when what they’ve written appears to make little or no literal sense. To me, ‘Loser’ is not a song like, say, Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’, or Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ – it’s not a coherent and angry song about the ways in which America can betray itself. What it is, rather, is a highly effective sound picture of what it’s like to feel that America is a nightmare. I don’t think that the song’s writers, Beck Hansen and Carl Stephenson, think that America is a nightmare; but haste and urgency made them put the song together a certain way and I’ve tried to demonstrate that it has an inner coherence of its own, no matter what the guys who made it thought of it.