Rough On Rats
By: Beck Hansen

Written by: Beck Hansen

  1. Rough On Rats
    Available on Song Reader.
Rough On Rats [Version (a)]:

Your crawfish fingers and your dirty dregs
Your sideways stingers and your wooden legs
They're throwing out jewels like rotten eggs
'Cause it's Christmas in Siam
And we're rough on rats

Your scarecrow spiders and your shipwreck bones
The fossilized bibles of Geronimo Jones
His star spangled army in their roadhouse clothes
'Cause a hero can't bronze his soul
And we're rough on rats

There's shattered glass on the dance floor
A cop chaperoning a doll
The testament of a landlord
Who's living in a hollow log

The burlap flowers and the cocaine dirt
The horn of plenty in a desert of hurt
The corduroy boy in the killjoy shirt
He's a stereotype on ice
And we're rough on rats

So what do you think you could take from the heap
Where the haystack needles are piled up cheap?
You can buy what's useless and steal what you need
In the pink penitentiary
And we're rough on rats
The Song:

"Rough On Rats" can be found as one of the main songs in Beck's Song Reader project.

You can hear versions of the song here.

I cannot help but see this as an attempt to write a Tom Waits song! But let's step back first, back into the year 1872.

There was a rat poison at the turn of the century, invented by an Ephraim Wells. His wife called it "Rough On Rats" as a joke, but the name stuck. Wells in turn published a sheet music song called "Rough On Rats" -- back then, quite often, sheet music was indistinguishable from advertising (see, the image above). (Also, you can read this history here.)

Beck, in order for Song Reader to feel more authentic, researched and adapted phrases and artwork from many old sheet music. Noticing one called "Rough On Rats," with a giant dead rat on the cover, must have amused Beck. So, Beck took the opportunity to write his own song called "Rough On Rats." (He also borrowed the 1872 artwork, basically.)

With things like this, it is clear Beck had to write to a title - likely backwards from his normal practice, and in the end a bit of a songwriting exercise. Beck tapped into a sort of Tom Waits-y blues vibe, a parade of images and curiosities to make a very entertaining lyric.

Played live 2 times:
Earliest known live version: July 4, 2013
Latest known live version: July 7, 2013

Beck sang "Rough On Rats" twice in 2013.

The first was at a Song Reader Live Event in London. "Rats" was the closing song of the evening, and done as a singalong: Beck sang, but so did Jarvis Cocker, Alex Kapranos, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Connan Mockasin.

Beck, 3 days after that Event, played a solo show, also in London. He snuck a few Song Reader songs into his set, and "Rough On Rats" was one he did with a bassist and pianist.

He has not played it since.