Someone in the crowd has just asked Beck how he lost his virginity. Note to humans: this is probably not the best way to endear yourself to a notably private, unusually thoughtful and patently strange maker of art. Various members of the press and public are here at Sonos Studios, a gallery/venue in the heart of Los Angeles, in order to experience Mr. Hansen's album-of-sheet-music Song Reader in ways that don't involve simply staring at staff paper and pretty pictures. He is currently onstage running a Q&A with an editor from McSweeney's, the indie publishing house that released the thing.
When's the last time you dropped acid?
My but they don't let up. As is often the case with intimate spaces in this city, there's a great deal of entitlement in the room. Still, the ever-unflappable Beck has got jokes: "I don't know. Maybe 10 minutes ago?" Later as he cuts his way through the audience toward some hidden inner sanctum, an overeager woman will push her face into his world in order to aggressively ask, "Did you enjoy ostracizing people who don't read music?" The jab rolls off of the doe-faced man's no doubt milk-white shoulders without impact: "It looks nice on a coffee table," Beck tells her, and walks away.
Song Reader was eight years in the making in part because its author realized that the very idea of it would offend some. During the Q&A he explains, "There was something so presumptuous about the project and I think that's why I kept putting it away... I felt bad for whoever would be buying this. It seemed really awkward, kind of a ripoff, so we decided to make it a book." In truth, because the people at McSweeney's are geniuses with paper products, it's a beautiful artifact regardless packed with well-curated illustrations and little jokes (disguised as ads for additional sheets). It's also taken on a life online.
"When we started this in 2004, I don't think YouTube was invented yet," says editor Jordan Bass. "We just stumbled into this audience who knew what to do with Song Reader."
Countless users, from total amateurs to orchestras, have uploaded versions of these initially unrecorded songs both to the video-sharing hub and to songreader.net. Many scoffed at the release's concept when it was announced, but many more have made something of it since, and that's what tonight's event is about. From now through March 24, people will be able to visit Sonos and interact with the Song Reader. The actual art used is all over the room. There's a player piano plinking out one of the songs. There's even a little studio set up in the center of the room, instruments and all, so anyone can record.
"Recordings have become definitive for songs over the decades," says Beck, "so we really associate a song with whether Tom Petty did it, or Black Sabbath. I thought there was something interesting about the period before recorded music where there was nobody telling you how to play it, how to hear it or how to feel it." Asked if he nicked any of the compositions along the way for a future album, he adds, "The songs were written in a way that I probably wouldn't write for myself or for my records. I felt like anybody could be singing these songs, so they had to be written in a way that had a voice that was more universal."
And indeed, the stage was then given over to other artists playing a selection of Song Reader highlights. First up was singer-songwriter Amy Regan and band the End of America, who recently performed the entire 20-song set in New York. She has a smoke-whisped throat and a ukelele in her hands and does a lovely rendition of "America, Here's My Boy." The banjo-toting band then takes over and plays "Please Leave the Light on When You Go," replacing her Appalachian balladry with soulful Low Anthem harmony and strum.
Surprisingly, the next act up is Tim and Eric's Tim Heidecker in a duet with Nick Thorburn from Islands. They go electric for "Don't Act Like Your Heart Isn't Hard," spangling the song with classic rock vibes before giving the next one a Johnny Cash cowpunk treatment. Between songs Heidecker snaps, "If you're talking or looking at your phone, fuck you." Indeed, it seems many of the people here are merely biding time until Beck takes the stage (Q&A moderator and KCRW DJ Jason Bentley suggested he would), or networking with industry peers.
But Beck will never come back, perhaps wisely. Adam Green (Moldy Peaches) and Binki Shapiro (Little Joy) are up next and steep their selection in a little bit of lounge with a touch of Fleetwood Mac. Then, at Bentley's urging, they play a song from their new self-titled collaborative album, but the crowd's restlessness is reaching a fever pitch. "Silence! Quiet!" Greene shouts with a laugh. And then more quietly, "This could be nice..." And indeed, it is, but at least half of the crowd is too busy clinking beers and swapping LinkedIn URLs to notice.
Still, one conspicuous fan up front has been giving each performer his rapt attention this entire time: Tenacious D's Kyle Gass. And now that Bentley is tasked with the ignoble duty of telling this motley crowd that Mr. Hansen will not, in fact, be performing tonight, the red-faced DJ sees an out in the rotund rock'n'roll comic.
"... but I'd like to invite Kyle Gass of Tenacious D to come up and perform his favorite Beck song," Bentley says hopefully, and the audience goes nuts because we all assume this is something they'd worked out ahead of time and that it is actually going to happen and that maybe, if we are lucky, Jack Black is waiting in the wings ready to lay down some sweet falsetto all over a choice Midnight Vultures cut like "Debra." But as all eyes move to Gass, everyone behind him sees only one thing: the bald and sweaty shaking head of utter rejection.
So we pack up our shrink-wrapped Song Reader and head home, then fall asleep while doing our best to strum "Old Shanghai" on a beat up old Fender acoustic.