Canceled Check
By: Beck Hansen

Written by: Beck Hansen

  1. Canceled Check (3:06)
    Available on Mutations.
    Justin Meldal-Johnsen: Bass
    Joey Waronker: Drums
    John Sorensen: Engineer
    Nigel Godrich: Engineer, Mix, Producer
    Smokey Hormel: Guitar (Acoustic)
    Greg Leisz: Guitar (Pedal Steel)
    Beck Hansen: Guitar (Slide), Harmonica, Producer, Vocals, Vocals (Background)
    Roger Joseph Manning Jr.: Percussion, Piano, Synthesizer
    David Ralicke: Trombone
    Elliot Caine: Trumpet
  2. Canceled Check (long version) (4:28)
Canceled Check [Version (a)]:

I hate to do this, but you're a pain in the neck.
I thought you knew this, you're handing me a canceled check.
You're so helpless. Your girlfriends think you're a saint.
I'll give you a quarter. I'll keep my judgments to myself.
And I get caught up in the moonlight.
Reaching out for a rotten egg, I don't want to beg.
It's crystal clear, your time is nearly gone.

Count your blessings and do the things that you should.
All the has-beens have never had it so good.
Stormy weather, the kids are making a racket.
In the wilderness, the wild lives are so mild.
And I get caught up in the moonlight.
Reaching out for a rotten egg, I don't want to beg.
It's crystal clear, your time is nearly gone.

And I get caught up in the moonlight.
Reaching out for a rotten egg, I don't want to beg.
It's crystal clear, your time is nearly gone.
The Song:

Among the oldies on Mutations, "Canceled Check" is one of the oldest. Beck says he wrote it in a hotel in Tokyo, which dates it to the first week of September 1994. He played it on stage almost immediately: one known recording is from September 9 1994 in Hawaii, a stopover on the trip back from Japan. These early versions of the song are remarkably similar to the one on Mutations, except that Beck performs the song solo.

Before "Canceled Check" on KCRW in 1995, Beck was in a talkative mood, and explained the full story behind the song better than I ever could:
I got the idea, you know, being on the road, being in a motel. And late at night sometimes you can't sleep, so you watch the TV. Mostly the only thing on late at night is these infomercial things. They got all kinds: salad spinners... all these older women making sweatshirts with sparkle butterflies on 'em.

There was this one that had this guy who had this, I don't remember his name, but he had this really square jaw. And he sort of, he talked really like he was slowed down, like they taped him and they slowed him down. And he just look liked a big skeleton, sorta. And he had this speech about positive thinking. And I'm all for being positive, but in a real way, not really in one of these "Do A, B, and C and you will have D" sort of thing. And he had this speech where he was talking about "Your goal is a pearl, and it may look like a grain of sand, but you can turn that grain of sand into a pearl. Just listen to my tape for $79.95, in twenty installments."

And then he said this other thing, "The past is a canceled check! Your maximum point of power is now!" So I started to think about canceled checks, because that was something I could relate to, and so I wrote this about my life at that point. It's called "Canceled Check."

That infomercial personality was none other than Tony Robbins, a well-known and successful self-help "guru." That Robbins inspired a song with such bitter undertones (albeit in a sarcastic manner) is a shrewd commentary by Beck. Robbins offers up these type of phrases and feelings to his customers, and the solutions are in his tapes. Realizing that Robbins' strategy for persuasion is to insult, Beck fills his song with similar jibes. Beck, however, seems to be directing his song towards someone specific. And in full Robbins-style, Beck peppers the biting lyrics with insincere reassurance like "I thought you knew this," and "I hate to do this."

In his long explanations of the song, both on KCRW and on stage on October 24 1994, Beck was quick to emphasize that he was writing about his life at that point. Beck wasn't just making fun of Tony Robbins types, but relating it to his own emotions and experiences (in his words, canceled checks were something he knew well). Thus, you get such more lines relatable to the world of a young artist, struggling: "reaching out for a rotten egg / I don't want to beg."

Lyrically, the song changed just a little between 1995 and 1998 when it finally reappeared on Mutations. Beck sang amusingly on the earlier versions, "I heard you moaning / Your girlfriends think you're a saint," but he changed that. In the fall of 1994, the second verse was also different:
Stumble, religion is starting to get annoyed
You got momentum building up in a void
Stormy weather, the kids are making a racket
You got some magic, conjuring a phony mystique

In 1998, with the help of his crack Mutations band, Beck turned the song into a loose, country stomp. Producer Nigel Godrich had a big hand in reworking "Canceled Check." He felt that these great musicians were all too proficient, and reportedly had them play this song in the dark with bags on their heads in order to get the right atmosphere! It's interesting to note also that Smokey Hormel played the rhythm acoustic guitar, while Beck just played some of the slide guitar licks: a switch from their traditional positions in the band. Greg Leisz also returned to add pedal steel (he had previously appeared on "Sissyneck," and would later play on "Beautiful Way"). Roger Manning's piano perfectly matched the drunken spirit of the song. The spontaneous breakdown coda is one of the oddest endings to a Beck song. It certainly is easy to imagine them playing it in the dark with bags on their heads!

Played live 37 times:
Earliest known live version: September 9, 1994
Latest known live version: June 20, 2005

Beck premiered "Canceled Check" on stage years before he recorded it, but it was not until some of the Sea Change tours in 2002-2003 when it was played with any frequency.

1994-1997 pre-Mutations

There are a handful of known bootlegs of Beck playing a solo acoustic version of "Canceled Check" during some of his Mellow Gold shows in 1994 & 1995. I assume there might've been more that we don't know about as well. These versions each had different lyrics than what is on Mutations.

The earliest known performance of "Canceled Check" was on September 9, 1994. Beck has said he wrote the song in a hotel in Tokyo, which would be the week before this show (which was in Honolulu on the way back from Japan). The song did not sound quite finished, but Beck still gave it a go. He played simple folky chords on his guitar, not the bouncy riff of versions to come. Some of the lyrics were not quite finalized either, but some of it is close:
Stormy weather, you're making such a racket
Contradictions and magic tricks and you're conjuring a phony mystique.

A more complete early performance of "Canceled Check" was 6 weeks later, on October 24 1994. Beck was talkative about the song's origin and explained more about Tony Robbins and his "twelve tapes that will kick your ass." He ended with, "You'll have to excuse me if it sounds like the Grateful Dead. It wasn't intended that way." It was not really too Grateful Dead-ish at that point, because it was just Beck on his guitar. The version released on Mutations three-and-a-half years later could be considered Dead-ish though.

Most famously, Beck played the song on KCRW in early 1995.

There's one report of it popping up in 1997 too. But basically during the Odelay years, it hibernated until Beck uncovered it to record for Mutations.

1999 Mutations tour

Ironically, during the Mutations tours, the song was generally left out of the shows. There weren't many shows, but they only did it four times.

During the first promo gig for the album, on Modern Rock Live, it was performed, and again at the first real Mutations concert in New York (where every song on the album was played except one). Then when he went on the only proper Mutations tour in Japan, "Canceled Check" was just played once during the eight shows, on April 12, 1999.

Anyway, the version in New York on January 10, 1999, though was probably the best one ever. The addition of the Brass Menagerie to the mix was pretty great. Before the song, he gave his Tony Robbins "maximum point of power" speech. As the song came to end, Beck mentioned that they "can't recreate the ending. It wouldn't be legal in this state to recreate that sound on stage."

2002-2003 Sea Change tours

Beck did not play "Cancelled Check" at all during the Midnite Vultures tours of 2000 and 2001. For Sea Change, in 2002 and 2003, Beck did a mix of solo acoustic tours and band tours.

The first acoustic tour had 20 shows in August 2002. Beck played "Canceled Check" at around half of them. The first live "Canceled Check" in over three years showed up on August 8 2002 in Minnesota. Just like the old days! He even told the "maximum point of power" story a few times that month.

Following that, Beck went on tour with The Flaming Lips for a few months. He would start his set acoustic, before the Lips backed him for the remainder of the show. "Canceled Check" showed up a handful of times that tour, but always during the solo acoustic bit, and not with the Lips.

"Canceled Check" continued to show up infrequently in 2003, and there are a few junkyard band versions here and there. The one I've heard from August 18 is pretty neat, with some excellent slide guitar work.

We have one set report of it showing up once in 2005, but besides that, the song has been forgotten since 2003.
  • In November 1994, Beck penned an advice column for Sassy magazine. I believe it is a mockery of advice columns, actually, but it's kind of hard to tell. One of the questions in it was headlined "Boyfriend's a Bum" and asked:

    Here's my problem. Whenever my boyfriend and I go out, I have to pay for everything. I work and he doesn't, so if I want to do something, I have to pay. It's starting to make me really mad. How can I get him to start paying his fair share? -- Becoming broke

    Beck's response was straight from his "Cancelled Check" stories:

    This slacker scourge is ravaging the minds of our youth. Tell this guy to get motivated Tony Robbins-style. "Yesterday is a canceled check. Your maximum point of power is now."
  • The ending breakdown was explained by Beck once, "We rented all this percussion, and we had all this stuff, so the song was dying out and we didn't know how to end it, so we all went in to the room. We had shakers and coffee cups. Stuff was just flying. It was this melee of studio gear. And people got hurt actually. There's one part where you hear. . .somebody was leaping into the air and another guy stood up at the exact time, and they fell over. It was mess, but that's how we acheived that effect. We went that extra three centimeters for our art."