Cyanide Breath Mint
By: Beck Hansen

Written by: Beck Hansen

  1. Cyanide Breath Mint (1:37)
    Available on One Foot In The Grave.
    Beck Hansen: Guitar (Acoustic), Producer, Vocals
    Calvin Johnson: Producer
Cyanide Breath Mint [Version (a)]:

Definitely this is the wrong place to be
There's blood on the futon, there's a kid drinking fire
Going down to the sea, they got people to meet
Shaking hands with themselves, looking out for themselves
When they ask you for credit, give them a branch
When they want you to get it, chew on the grass
I know, I know 'cause they told me to tell you
There's nothing to tell you, there's nothing to sell you
In the afternoon, riding the scapegoat
Burning equipment decomposing
Cool off your jets, take off your sweats
I got a funny feeling they got plastic in the afterlife
When they want you to cry, leap into the sky
When they suck your mind, like a pigeon, you'll fly
I know, I know it's the positive people
Running from their time, looking for some feeling
The Song:

"Cyanide Breath Mint" is a brief but memorable folk song from One Foot in the Grave. Beck thought so too, and considered it important enough to name his song publishing company Cyanide Breathmint Music. This of course is another example of Beck's ironic and wicked sense of humor, as the song is a bitter portrayal of the music industry.

The first lines of the song once again convey the poverty and living conditions Beck, and many struggling musicians, are trying to escape. "Definitely this is the wrong place to be" clearly sets the scene (and he backs it up with the great "There's blood on the futon / There's a kid drinking fire"), and is reminiscent of many other similarly-themed Beck lines ("Plastic donut, can of spam / There's no kindness in this land" from "Crystal Clear (Beer)," for example). Next Beck brings the music industry types into the song?the main subject of the song?describing them bitterly with "Going down to the sea / They got people to meet / Shaking hands with themselves / Looking out for themselves."

A little later, more struggles with the industry become apparent. "Burning equipment decomposing" refers to unused recording equipment ("burning" being the process of creating cds). Even though it's the music industry, it can be very anti-productive towards making music sometimes. Having to play their game is sometimes a compromise to integrity: "When they suck your mind, like a pigeon you'll fly."

The final touch to the song is the brilliant title. It, of course, is an oxymoron. One half of it makes your breath smell nice, the other kills you. It is a similar dichotomy that Beck, being on the fringe of success at the time of recording One Foot in the Grave, was identifying in the music industry.

Played live 30 times:
Earliest known live version: April 11, 1994
Latest known live version: January 11, 2019

"Cyanide Breath Mint," surprisingly, has not been played on stage too often, though there were probably many in the early years that we don't have documented. My sense is it was never a song he put on his setlists (i.e., it was never really planned), but it's one Beck could do spontaneously on his acoustic guitar whenever.

As far as I can tell, the song was always played solo acoustic. Most came in the early years of 1994/1995 (some of these were as part of his acoustic medley of songs), but there are a bunch more in the acoustic sets of the Odelay tours too. Then it wasn't played at all on the Vultures tours, but did come up at some of the acoustic shows of February 2002 and once in October during his acoustic set.

The only time Beck has played it since then was at a warm-up show in Los Angeles, at the request of a fan in the audience (December 2006).


Anyway, some recommendations--you should begin with Beck's BBC studio performance from 1995. It wasn't exactly a live performance, as there were overdubs--in this song's case, Beck added some backing vocals, and some cool electric guitar licks:

I definitely believe the June 5, 1996 acoustic show in Toronto had one of the best "Cyanide Breath Mint"s ever. Beck changed one line to "When they want you to get it / Get on the branch / When they want you to say it / Say it fast." Similarly, I loved the March 18, 1996 version as well--Beck is such a confident folk singer by that point. Here is one from June 15, 1996:

On September 1, 1996, he sang that the positive people are "looking for some pamphlets."

And despite my reporting that all the versions are solo acoustic, which they are, it should be noted that Beck also never seems to play the song the same way twice. It's not not that he changes the lyrics so much every time, but he does constantly move lines around, singing later lines first, and vice versa. Stuff like that. It's a very flexible song, I guess. Similarly, some are performed faster, some more meditative.

It has been a long time now since Beck has approached the song, but the song still feels relevant and would be a welcome addition; I'd love to hear Beck sing it as an older musician, and perhaps finally even with a band.