"Novacane" is a blast of energy in the middle of Odelay
; ironic because novacane is a numbing drug, the opposite effect of a blast of energy. Beck uses a punk rock riff to explore the thrill of touring, while his lyrics convey the opposite side—that constant touring can also be numbing. And to top it off, Beck explained, "We needed to subvert the aggro posturing, so we put in disco horns."
The initial title of the song was "Novacane Express," which clarifies the subject of the song even more, if the constant highway/truck/travel images weren't clue enough.
The attitude is of the song is clear. "On that tune I was down with Ice Station Zebra and Convoy," explains Beck, "kicking ass Antarctica-style." (Ice Station Zebra being a war film, and Convoy a movie about truckers.) Before playing the song in 1995, Beck said "This is called 'Novacane Express,' it's about the last convoy!"
More recently, in 2008, Beck reminisced again about this Convoy film: "Spike [Jonze] and I talked about doing a video together for ten years before we actually ever did one. One of our first conversations was about the movie Convoy
— he was obsessed with it. He wanted to do a video where I was in a convoy, so I wrote all this truckers-going-into-oblivion imagery."
An interesting note on the recording is that his vocals were apparently done via walkie-talkie, for that full on CB radio effect.
Played live 277 times:
June 21, 1995July 5, 1995July 8, 1995July 15, 1995July 23, 1995July 28, 1995July 29, 1995August 3, 1995August 6, 1995August 14, 1995
...and 267 more
Earliest known live version: June 21, 1995
Latest known live version: September 8, 2014
Beck has loved to perform "Novacane" since its release, and it has rarely been out of his setlists for long.
"Novacane" was recorded in early 1995, though Odelay
wasn't finished and released until summer of 1996. In the middle of the recording sessions, Beck took the summer of 1995 off to go tour on Lollapalooza. While there, he couldn't help but perform a number of new songs, some that would end up on Odelay
(and some that wouldn't).
A few early versions of the song are available on bootleg. The earliest I have heard is from June 21 1995. It was remarkably similar to the record, even down to the little walkie-talkie "What's your handle?" samples. The flow of the song was a little iffy, but the band did jam a little, and Beck ad-libbed a short rap verse to end the song.
Even early on, they took to playing that noisy breakdown coda! Over that part, Beck would ad-lib this or that. On July 8, he rapped a short verse:
People in your face with their ?? bones
Got the TB blues
Kick money no moans
Paradise landlord, camouflage chain
?? song, vericose vein
I got the TB blues, got the TB blues
Got the TB blues!
"TB Blues" is an old Jimmie Rodgers' song (or Victoria Spivey or Leadbelly), but Beck was just having fun with it. Or as much fun a song about tuberculosis could be.
On July 28 and August 3, 1995, Beck mentioned that the song was called "Novacane Express." And instead of singing about TB, Beck borrowed a bit from "Inferno
": "Laidback! Laidback!"
Another performance comes a month later on August 27 1995. He again introduces it as "Novacane Express" and mentions it'll be on the new record. Strangely, this version is kind of different from the album one, especially considering the earlier ones were quite like it! The whole show on August 27 was a bit casual and it really affects "Novacane." This song is not nearly as aggressive as usual, and the bridge between verses is different. I really like it this way, actually! (I have a feeling one of the band's guitar amps went out or something like that, because the whole complexion of the show is quite unique.)
1996-1998 Odelay tours
Anyway, come the Odelay
tour in 1996 though, "Novacane" was of course regularly performed. Probably played every night, except for the rare occasion. Early on the tour, as on July 21 1996, the song is combined with "Devils Haircut
" for a pretty amazing rock set to open the show. The song was meant to be played on stage, and the raw power of the song is much stronger. It is almost difficult to go back to the record version after listening to some of these live ones! But that's the way it should be sometimes. Also by the time DJ Swamp joined the band, he would use the middle break of the song to drop some mad scratching into the tune.
1999 Mutations tours
After the massive Odelay
tour, "Novacane" was still run through on stage every once in awhile. It's a pretty exciting song in front of an audience. On most performances after 1998, Beck ends "Novacane" with ad-libs ("In the front, there's my folks / And in the back, there's more folks!" and lots of shout-outs), and even regularly tosses in his unused contribution to a Puff Daddy song at the end:
'Cause like a fake ID / All the people know I'm steppin'
Like Chico, El de Barge giving you a vocal lesson!
"Novacane" was played on just half of the eight shows of the Japanese Mutations
tour, though was a regular on some of the more rocking shows of the time (Beck flip-flopped between Mutations
-themed shows, and "rock" sets).
2000-2001 Midnite Vultures tours
"Novacane" was also played at nearly all of the Midnite Vultures
concerts, especially during the first few months. It even opened a number of these early ones, or was often part of a dynamite opening 1-2 punch with "Mixed Bizness
." Beck uses the song to get the crowd going from the very beginning, to come out with a blast.
The only version of "Novocane" I have heard from the summer of 2001–where it frequently kicked off the shows, only following a one-song acoustic intro, actually ended with Beck playing "One Foot in the Grave
" on his harmonica. It's a fun medley. He doesn't sing "One Foot
," just plays the music. The songs can reach a similar hyped-up vibe on stage, so it's not as strange as it sounds!
2003 Summer tours
Beck did not play "Novacane" on his Sea Change solo acoustic tours (obviously), but also did not do it on his tours with The Flaming Lips around that time.
But when Beck went to Australia and Japan for a short tour in March 2003, he took his old bandmates, Smokey, Justin and Joey with him. Naturally, they had a few Odelay tour flashbacks, and played "Novacane" every night. With the new band in the summer of 2003, "Novacane" remained a regular, but instead of the fast rock/rap from the album, it's a little bit slower, funkier. This, I think, is the first "rearrangement" of the song ever, though it's not a drastic one.
2005-2007 Guero/Info tours
"Novacane" drifted away from the setlists on these tours, but not entirely. In 2005, they played it just 5 times; just 10 more in 2006. It then had 2 more in Australia/Japan. The band clearly knew the song, so why it was so infrequently attemped, I don't know.
2008 Modern Guilt tours
"Novacane" remained infrequent in 2008, when they just played it 4 times.
2012-2013 pre-Morning Phase tours
Beck reunited with his old bandmates to go back out for some touring in 2012 and 2013 and played "Novacane" at about 1/3 of the shows. They were relatively nostalgiac sets, and "Novacane" worked that way for sure!
2014 Morning Phase tours
On the Morning Phase tours of 2014, Beck played "Novacane" a few times (14 out of 57 shows). It did not sound much different from the recording, but that band had a pretty amazing handle on Beck's heavier songs so it killed. Also, as in years past, it often went into "One Foot In The Grave" harmonica jams.
2015-2016 post-Morning Phase tours
Beck did not play "Novacane" in this time. I expect it's not forgotten though and will return eventually!