Monday, November 12, 2007

Misery Waits in Vague Hotels

If you missed it, I was shocked to learn that the Batman cover I posted a couple days ago was performed by none other than Boyhowdy's brother's band Skavoovie & The Epitones. In the semi-immortal one hit wonder words of OMC: "How Bizarre." Well, a little back and forth in the comments has led to an open invitation for Boyhowdy to guest post on Fong Songs whenever he feels a hankerin' for posting some non-folk covers. Speaking of which, his latest post is a swack of Beck folk covers, which, of course, is awesome. And that has directly inspired me to post my own Beck covers, particularly of my all-time favourite Beck song Tropicalia.

Last year, I was working on a massive post that was unceremoniously wiped out by blogger before I finished. This established the dreaded post label I CAN'T BELIEVE I WROTE A GIANT POST AND DELETED IT (WHERE'S THE BLOODY AUTO-SAVE??), which unfortunately has two victim posts to its credit. So there's still a draft post dated 12/06/2007 lingering forever more, in which I was all ready to post covers of Beck's Tropicalia. Well, here's a good excuse to revive at least the Beck portion of that post. :)

Tropicalia, from the 1998 album Mutations, is chock-full of some of my favourite lyrics ever. From the chorus: "Misery waits in vague hotels... to be evicted". I rectroactively attribute my overusage of the word "vague" and its derivatives to this song. In fact, if you search for "vaguely" on my site (as I just did out of sudden curiousity) you'll find that in two years I have used it over 15 times as recently as the last post. ...OK, 45 minutes have lapsed between the last sentence and this one as I obsessively tried to figure out how to plot my word usage over the life of this blog. After filtering out some overly redundant words that appear on every post (i.e. links, labels, fongolia), this is what I came up with using the nifty word cloud generator from

created at

Hmmm, no surprise at the most common word, though I didn't realize I talked about "Ben" so often.

Anyway, back to the lyrics of Tropicalia. I simply love the rhythm and punctuation of the chosen words even if I have no idea what they mean. I'm reminded of something John Lennon once said (I may be making this up) about writing lyrics with the emphasis on the sounds of the words rather than the meaning, rhythmically finding the perfect combination of words whether it's walrus gumboot, elementary penguin singing hare krishna, or studying pataphysical science. In fact, I have a tendency to blindly apply that logic to any lyrics that I don't understand. Like the Beatles' Come Together, Tropicalia is full of juicy word combos such as "equatorial haze", "colonial maze", "anabolic and bronze", "millenial fogs", all of which baffle and delight me. Even my favourite non-lyric is from Tropicalia. For years I loved the lyric: "I'll see them rise and fall into the jaws of a Pasternak love," which I always thought as a particularly poetic image (Ah, a Pasternak love!) until one day I found out the actual lyric was "jaws of a pestilent love". I hereby lay claim to the lyric "jaws of a Pasternak love". Hmmph, that's why I don't really like to read lyrics too often and would rather wallow in my own nonsense lyrics. The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead is another song where my enjoyment has lessened since finding out the actual lyrics. It's not so much I don't like the real lyrics, it's just that my brain conspicuously hones in when it gets to that particular point in the song with corrected lyrics and I can't listen to the song naturally anymore. At least it takes a long while to hear it smoothly again.

In retrospect, it's funny how MP3s and iPods have changed the way we listen to and collect music. This was one of the first songs I remember digitally recording off the CD using some Windows Stereo program into Wav format (yeah, I used to collect those). Napster would arrive on the scene a year or two later... This is all a very long-winded way of expressing my love for Beck's Tropicalia and my gleeful surprise at discovering multiple covers of it.

Eliane Elias - Tropicalia [originally by Beck]
I distinctly remember Brazilian jazz pianist Eliane Elias from the latin jazz film Calle 54 performing in barefeet. So when I heard she was covering Beck (Tropicalia, no less!) I was excited to hear her version and was not disappointed. This fabulous cover comes from last year's album Around the City, which also includes covers of Oye Como Va and Bob Marley's Jammin'.

Dr. Lonnie Smith & David "Fathead" Newman - Tropicalia [originally by Beck]
This comes from an 11-track cover album called Boogaloo to Beck with selections from the pre-2003 Beck catalogue lending themselves nicely to the groovy jazz instrumentals. Some of the tracks that are pushing the 10-minute mark are destined to be mere background noise (I'm sorry, they just outstay their welcome just a little bit). Tropicalia seems just about right, though I may be biased.

The Smiling Salami's - Tropicalia [originally by Beck]
OK, I really hope Boyhowdy doesn't have any siblings in a band called The Smiling Salami's... because this cover is terrible. I only include it here for the sake of completeness. By the 8-second mark, it descends into surreal chaos as creepy elves incoherently mutter the lyrics to their own random rhythm, completely independent of the ad-nauseum guitar strumming and drunken thumping of some sort of beat. Thankfully it's over fairly quickly as you wonder what the hell you just heard.

Beck - Tropicalia
I guess by this point if you have no idea what I'm rambling about, you should probably hear the original.

Beck - Tropicalia (live on KCRW, November 1998)

Beck - Funky Little Song [originally by Bruce Haack & Esther Nelson]
Ding dong, funky little song. A couple years ago, Beck contributed this (funky) little gem to a tribute album called Dimension Mix: A Tribute to Dimension 5 Records, a label started by electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack and Esther Nelson. Not only were they early artists in the realm of electronic music, the music they released was aimed at children. Not your standard kiddie fare, but apparently hugely influential judging by the pedigree of artists involved on the album including the likes of Eels, Stereolab, and Apples in Stereo. I don't really know much about Bruce Haack having first heard of him via the tribute album (which incidentally features another fav artist of mine, Fantastic Plastic Machine remixing a song called I'm Bruce), so here is where I would normally re-direct you to a wikipedia article so I don't just rehash it here. However when I went to read about him, I stumbled upon a couple of fascinating facts that couldn't just slip by without comment. For the full story, I recommend checking out the bio on, a site run by a former acquantaince of his (Haack passed away in 1988).

Bruce Haack is an Alberta boy(!), born near the Rocky Mountains in the town of Nordegg in 1931. At some point he moved to Edmonton to study music at the University of Alberta (my alma mater!) although he was rejected for lack of musical notation skills and ended up getting a degree in psychology. While at university Bruce "met Charles Laughton who introduced the idea of going to New York City". Whoa, whoa, whoa... what!? The E-Town connection sure surprised me, but how does legendary actor Charles Laughton fit into the picture? As best as I can tell using my formidable research skills, Charles Laughton was in town most likely in 1951 performing Don Juan in Hell with The First Drama Quartet, which was also made up of actors Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke, and Agnes Moorehead (little Charlie Kane's mother?!?). The only online mention I can find is from this U of A alumni article here. Apparently, Laughton must have attended another play opening while he was in Edmonton and is described as "demolishing almost all [of the theatre administrator's] supply of imported cheeses". HA! I'm guessing during this time he must have crossed paths with Haack and inspired him to move to New York. Note to self: Bruce Haack and his music merit further investigation. A documentary came out in 2004 called "Bruce Haack: The King of Techno" made up of current interviews with associates and archival footage of Haack including an appearance on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. I must seek that out.


boyhowdy said...

One of my absolute favorite Beck songs -- and other than the absolutely atrocious Salami version, the covers are sweet, too. Great finds!

And thanks again for the open invite, and the plugs, Fong!

Hey, Fongwatchers -- any requests for a posttopic from yours truly?

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