Well, you've probably heard the hullabaloo since last night's (57th!) Grammy Awards extravaganza. Simply type "who is" into the Google Machine on this date, and you'll see "who is Beck" as one of the top results. Apparently, droves of Grammy viewers unfamiliar with the artist behind the Album of the Year winning "Morning Phase" have been eager over the last 24 hours to find out more about him.
But let's be honest: plenty of people know who Beck is. In fact, millions of people know who he is, and rightfully so. He has enjoyed mainstream success for close to 20 years now, and if some of the kids don't know about him in this fractured, streaming age of disposable media, that's to be expected. That notwithstanding, the man is brilliant, and proportionately lauded.
But to me (and several others) Beck's name immediately brings two other brilliant musicians to mind whose fame doesn't equal the weight of their vital musical contributions to the world of fearless creativity. Their art is the kind that never compromises or concedes to commercial pressure. Most likely because of this, it never finds the fast track to mass acceptance, though is always available for discovery by those who have ears and hearts to hear and love it.
This is not to suggest that both artists don't claim legions of fans across the globe who appreciate their work, because they both absolutely do. Suffice to say, however, that while you will find avid followers of their work all over the world, you're not going to hear either artist's music as a soundtrack to your favorite teen drama or reality show.
So who are these mystery artists who are somehow kindred spirits with Beck, you ask? Look no further than Gary Wilson and R. Stevie Moore, who thankfully and courageously pursued their unique art with a tenacity few others would ever dare. In doing so, these two trailblazers have paved the way for Beck, as well as others like the Residents*, Odd Future, Ariel Pink, and countless others. And while their influence is significant and fascinating, their own work remains vital, innovative, and downright wonderful in its own right.
Beck's connection to Wilson is indisputable: he famously name-dropped the pioneer in his classic "Where It's At" with the line (which undoubtedly has befuddled thousands of karaoke singers over the years) "passing the dutchie from coast to coast/Like my Man Gary Wilson rocks the most". Additionally, he has covered Wilson's material live, mentioned him in MTV interviews, and has links to Wilson's content on his website. And any fan of either artist can see further connections between the two: the jarring play on blue-eyed soul, the roots in classic, intelligent, and funky American black music filtered through the lens of each artist's unique experience, as well as the juxtaposition of humor with serious musical exploration (not unlike Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Steely Dan, John Cage, or Prince).
And what of the connection between Beck and R. Stevie Moore, aka RSM, aka the "father of lo-fi" (a title which Moore himself is reluctant to accept, undersandably preferring "modern home recording"). Like Wilson, Moore paved the way for all the stuff we love about Beck: the commitment to releasing offbeat - but lovable and profound- music. Moore, like Wilson and Beck, makes the weird somehow palatable. Eccentric as the lyrics, rhythms, melodies and sounds may be to unfamiliar ears, they are mysteriously and almost uniformly hummable and accessible to people of all ages, tastes, and backgrounds. It's not surprising that both Beck and Moore have not only crossed paths, but also shared collaborators. Clearly, these two brilliant artists are cut from the same cloth, and it's a cloth many of us hold dear.
Though Wilson studied with the illustrious John Cage, and Moore's musical lineage and background is paramount to musical royalty, neither artist flaunts their accomplished backgrounds, or goes down the path of alienating pretension. Admittedly, they are a step or two to the artistic left of Beck, but that's also what makes them precious to my heart, and the heart of so many others.
And now it's time for the big disclaimer: Yes, I have collaborated with both Wilson and Moore. I regularly play shows with Gary Wilson as a drummer in his Blind Dates, and you can hear me drumming on Moore's upcoming single, entitled "Boysage" (release date: April 15, 2015). It's more than worth noting, however, that I was a fan of both artists long before I ever got the thrill and privilege of creating music with them. In fact, though I am a fan of various genres and musical eras, I find myself talking to friends, bookers, scenesters, bloggers, et al about these two artists more than any other I can think of.
And now millions of people, post-Grammys, will ask the question, "Who is Beck?", and I'm glad, because he's a fantastic artist that has brought inspiration and happiness to millions of us. But my hope - and conviction- is that a slightly smaller (but perhaps more adamant) group will ask "Who are R. Stevie Moore and Gary Wilson?" It's a question worth asking, and one that will lead to a rewarding experience, I assure you.