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Beck to the Future

[whitespace] Beck

Concerts, cocktails and capitalism at Silicon Planet

By Michelle Goldberg

Few people actually paid the whopping $100 cover for Silicon Planet, a massive combination trade show, professional mixer and warehouse party held in downtown San Jose and featuring performances by Beck, Devo and sitcom star David Spade (the promised Calvin Klein fashion show was canceled). Out of about 40 people asked, 10 had shelled out for the privilege of attending the event. Everyone else had gotten free tickets from their companies or through friends. Running into Jeff Stark from SF Weekly, I offered him a dollar for everyone he could find who'd actually bought his or her admission. At the end of the night he told me that I didn't owe him any money.

Beck had even come close to backing out of the event, according to the Web magazine Addicted to Noise, "after expressing concerns about how tickets were being handled." Beck's publicist, Dennis Denehy, was vague, saying, "It had mutated three or four times and as it changed, there were questions over whether it was something he wanted to do." No photographs of the star were allowed, leading one to assume that he was less than proud to be headlining such an ode to the corporate oligarchy.

Those who did fork over cash for the evening of concerts, cocktails and capitalism ostensibly did it to support a good cause--the event was billed as an AIDS fundraiser, though there was no mention of the disease inside save for a couple, red ribbons adorning tuxedos. Far more prominent than AIDS information were the corporate IDs splashed on every available surface--Microsoft, Synopsys, Maytag, Coca-Cola. Tom Frank, ascetic Baffler editor and champion of the old left, has never seemed so prophetic. "The Culture Trust is now our leader in the Ginsburgian search for kicks upon kicks," he wrote in the essay "Why Johnny Can't Dissent." "We consume not to fit in, but to prove, on the surface at least, that we are rock & roll rebels, each one of us as rule-breaking and hierarchy-defying as our heroes of the '60s, who now pitch cars, shows and beer ... The anointed cultural opponents of capitalism are now capitalism's ideologues." Silicon Planet was surely the only concert I've ever attended whose press release included a breakdown of the audience's estimated income--a prospectus said that 69 percent of the crowd would have salaries over $60,000.

Besides music and mingling, Silicon Planet guests were treated to technology demonstrations, pan-Asian hors d'oeuvres, a raffle to win a new Maytag washer and dryer, computer animations and modern dancers. San Francisco's beloved DJ Polywog wore a long lavender wig and spun from a booth decorated with gold tinsel like an oversized throne. There were video games and animated toys to play with, free Starbucks coffee and vodka drinks, a huge undulating balloon man and car dealers showing off new models. Outside, in what was called the Lava Lounge but what was really just a tented parking lot, a cigar store was set up and women in suits and pumps that veered between sensible and sexy milled about on the asphalt with stogies dangling pornographically from their glossed lips.

And then, of course, there were the performers. David Spade's act was insipidly, almost painfully unfunny, filled with weak observation humor at the expense of burger-joint employee applications and the like. He was followed by prototypical spazz-rockers Devo. Before the band took the stage, screens all over the warehouse flashed a collage of Devo video clips, as if to remind us that, yes, these guys were famous once. The band came out in yellow hazard suits and red plastic helmets, which they later traded for black T-shirts, short knee socks and kneepads. They sang their big '80s hit, "Whip It," as well as lesser-known tunes, and surprisingly many in the audience sang along to everything, punching the air to the anthemic New Wave refrain "Are we not men? We are Devo!"

Given the hopelessly unfunky scene and Beck's reported ambivalence, some in the crowd were expecting him to sleepwalk through a few songs and then grab his check and get out. But to his credit, the indie boy wonder put on a show worthy of the most enthusiastic club or arena. He even played several new songs from his upcoming album, Mutations, including "Let the Doctor Rock You," which was like honky-tonk jam with a hip-hop bass. He veered wildly between styles, from the loping folk-rap he's famous for into luscious Barry White soul mode, loungey mod pop, surrealist funk and something he called "cyber country."

At first, the crowd stood around stiffly, obviously enjoying the show but too self-conscious to really get into it. But almost everyone melted under Beck's sultry star power--in his leather pants, shaggy hair and clingy, shiny shirt, he was in full sneering, prancing rock star mode, and his energy was infectious. Soon everyone was moving, even if it was only desultory nods and twitches. Couples old enough to be Beck's parents boogied shamelessly on the crowd's outskirts. Younger fans in beaded, diaphanous minidresses, slinky black cocktail gowns and ultra-modern designer suits freaked each other in the back. A few people in the front jumped around and got wild, but it was still easier to push into the first row than at any concert I've ever seen. For his encore, Beck came bounding out in a deer's head mask and performed a faithful cover of Eddy Grant's '80s classic "Electric Avenue," referring, perhaps, both to Beck's reinvention of old-school New York electro and to the digital city of San Jose. Either way, the crowd was energized, almost all the schmoozing stopped and for a minute Silicon Planet morphed from mini-mall into mega-club. Only an artist as inventive as Beck could wring an hour of sweaty revelry out of a gathering that otherwise had all the glamour of a suburban computer convention.

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From the date-date, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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