"Nicotine & Gravy" can be found on Beck's album, Midnite Vultures
"Nicotine & Gravy" can be classified in many ways. It's funky, sexy, thick, twisted, strange, accomplished, fun, just to start. It's heavily structured and arranged, though it's also a bit of a band jam. You can sing along to it. These many qualities are due to the fact that, as Beck explains, this brilliant recording "was actually three or four songs put together. I had a bunch of things written when Mickey (Petralia) and Tony (Hoffer) came on board as engineers. We worked on the stuff as a group, a squad, all hands on deck. They heard things that worked together, and so we tried them. The beauty of working that way on computer is, when you don't like it, you just hit 'undo.'"
The two main verses are in full Midnite Vultures
freak mode, played over JMJ's funky bass. Beck comes on to the listener in a quivering, sexy voice, offering some of the more Prince-like lines on the album: "I'll be your chauffeur on a midnight drive" and "I'll feed you fruit that don't exist." Beck, "a full grown man," (as he declares in the previous song "Sexx Laws
") announcing he'll "do your laundry, massage your soul" neatly twists male/female expectations, while fitting in nicely with his claims to do the impossible and/or amazing ("I'll feed you fruit that don't exist"; "It takes a miracle just to survive.")
These tight verses lead into the choruses, which are similarly entertaining. The lines are quick brush strokes of a character portrait; effective, if not odd ("Her left eye is lazy / She looks so Israeli / Nicotine and gravy"). The chorus is quite funny and very descriptive for such few words. As Beck explained them, "It's just a novelistic flourish that conjures up a character study." Yup. After the second, longer chorus, the song slides into a surreal bridge of "na na na"s. This part is highlighted by some beautifully warped strings, arranged by none other than Beck's dad, David Campbell.
After this, the song goes minimal, with the chorus rapped over a rhythmic percussion and bass. This then finally combusts into a full-out melange of all the melodies so far at once (verse, chorus, bridge), before jamming away to the end: funky funky bass, horns, panting, seductive Israeli synthesizer licks, DJ Swamp scratching, piano, and, according to the liner notes, banjo (which for the life of me I cannot hear!).
Beck has my favorite description though of this wonderful song, "It's a little movie, they all kind of are. It's imagery, and there is no linear beginning, middle or end. They're just atmospheres and impressions from a story. Actually, they're probably more of photographs." Beck's combined these "photographs" into a collage and the result is one of his more amazing recordings.
Played live 278 times:
January 25, 2000January 26, 2000January 28, 2000January 29, 2000January 31, 2000February 1, 2000February 3, 2000February 4, 2000February 6, 2000February 8, 2000
...and 268 more
Earliest known live version: January 25, 2000
Latest known live version: August 18, 2023
"Nicotine & Gravy" has lasted in Beck's sets since it came out, and is now one of his most-performed songs, though recently it has been mostly ignored.
2000-2001 Vultures tours
The live debut of "Nicotine & Gravy" was on the first show of the Midnite Vultures tour
, on January 25 2000, in Austin, TX. Because of a few promo gigs before the tour began, most of the songs on the album had already been played on stage, but "Nicotine" and "Milk & Honey
" made their debut that night. Both would then be played pretty much every night of the tour.
Anyway, "Nicotine" sounds like it would be a fairly difficult recording to transfer to the stage. The record is so full of instruments and layers of sounds, but Beck's band at the time was both good enough and large enough to cover it all. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, there are times when live versions of "Nicotine" seem to go in and out of sync. It can go from full-on grooviness to stumbling around due to a lack of momentum and back again all in the same performance.
Midway through theVultures
tour, as the band started to jam more, the song started to expand and feel epic on stage. For instance, on the Japanese leg of the tour, the song often began with a lengthy sexy soul ballad introduction. In Fukuoka on March 21 1999, this intro went like this:
This is for all the boys and all the girls on those hot Fukuoka nights. Fukuoka!
Ain't nothin' wrong with a little sweet lovin'!
Just a man and a woman
Ain't nothin' wrong with a little nicotine and gravy!
This slowly got extended to longer, more ridiculous lengths as the tour progressed. The "Nicotine & Gravy" that follows is a much looser jam than earliest legs of the tour. After the first two verses, instead of the "na na na na" section, the band improvises awhile, most often around Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean
." This in turn leads to the "na na na na" bridge. After another verse, Beck becomes bandleader again, getting horn solos, leading singalongs, etc. The band really figured out the song's odd momentum and how to handle it live.
2002-2003 Sea Change tours
The last five shows of the August 2002 tour had "Nicotine & Gravy," all of which were fascinating. The first one, in Dallas, on August 23, was a slow bluesy/funky piece. I think Smokey played bass, while Beck sang and jammed on the keyboards. The end of the Dallas version saw Beck jamming on "Where It's At
," "The Humpty Dance
," and "The Whole World." The version in Los Angeles on August 30 was similar, but even more special, as he had his whole band with him.
Then with the Flaming Lips in October/November 2002, "Nicotine" was again reintroduced to the setlists. It's a perfect song to do with the Lips! It's a fairly similar arrangement to the record, but for a smaller rock band, so it sounds different enough. Once they started playing the song together, it was in the set for good.
Beck continued to play it regularly throughout 2003, at both his solo tour of Europe and his band tour in the summer.
2005 Guero tour
The song continued to be played regularly in 2005, and it moved all up and down the set (middle of the set mostly, but sometimes in the encore, sometimes closer to the start).
2006-2007 Info tours
Beck started playing "Nicotine" at these shows a bit less frequently, but he did adapt it to be part of a rapid fire stream of songs. Most often, it was combined with "Hotwax" and "Hell Yes," but there were other things sometimes too.
2008-2009 Modern Guilt tours
The song continued to appear with some regularity on the Guilt tours (25 times).
We do have it on a setlist from 2014, but that's only because Beck sang "I'll do your laundry / massage your soul" during "Debra." It otherwise has not been played since 2009.