Songs about Los Angeles: “Que Onda Guero” by Beck

beck_300 One of my favorite things about working at the Getty Center during my twenties was being able to walk over to the Museum’s West Pavilion, go up the stairs to the “post-structuralist” gallery and simply stare in awe at James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. Anytime I damn well felt like it.

I know this isn’t an art history blog, and I’m certainly no Sister Wendy, but let me just say that for reasons similar to why I love Ensor’s masterpiece–the colorful chaos of the Mardi Gras party it depicts, Ensor’s irreverence in portraying himself as the central Christ figure, the juxtaposition of tragedy with comedy– I also dig Beck’s “Que Onda Guero” (listen) from his 2005 album Guero.

Image: Beck in concert. Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.

In “Que Onda Guero,” Beck paints a picture of a Latino community in Los Angeles–perhaps something akin to the kind of multicultural environment he found himself in as a child–a portrait that alternates between celebratory and discouraging, often several times over in the course of a single verse. So a description of the “vegetable man / With the vegetable van / With a horn that’s honkin’ / Like a mariachi band” is followed immediately with “TJ cowboys hang around / Sleeping in the sidewalk / With the Burger King crown.”

I think we have to assume the narrator of this song is a version of Beck. He indicated in interviews he gave at the time (here’s a great one) that he was often mistaken for a girl because of his blonde hair. In fact, the title of the song can be translated as “Where you going, blondie?” but could also mean “What’s happening, white boy?” The lyrical taunt from a “dirty borracho” (drunkard) of “Andale, joto, [get going, fag] your popsicle’s melting” and the later “found” dialogue sample of “Hey, what’s up guero? You doing pushups?” makes it sound like he’s either harassed or teased, depending on whether the slings are malicious or good-natured ribbing. Either way, Beck is definitely portraying himself as a stranger in a strange land.

Getting back to the those “found” audio samples, some of the ambient noise and dialogue in the background is indeed authentic and was recorded on the street. But according to an article in Filter Magazine (I wish I could link to the original article and not just this very useful site), a good deal of the “found” audio was actually improvised by a friend of Beck’s. Which is probably why the samples range from everyday chatter like “Vamos a jugar futbol ahí en el Griffith park” (We’re going to play soccer over in Griffith Park) or “I’m going to LACC. I’m taking a ceramics class” to inspired silliness like “I saw a puppet at Tang’s with a mullet and a popsicle” and the song’s triumphant closer “Let’s go to Cap ‘n’ Cork. They have the new Yanni cassette.” The inclusion of these playful samples brings a great deal of levity to the song, and mirrors a technique Beck used during the making of his sophomore album Odelay (1996)–rather than paying top dollar for legal rights to specific samples, he simply created samples that sounded authentic.

And speaking of Odelay, Guero marked a reunion between Beck and that album’s producers the Dust Brothers, the duo famous for their work on the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. As co-producers of Guero, they brought back some of the old school hip hop from Odelay, combined it with Beck’s more mature songwriting skills, and created what, in my opinion, stands as Beck’s most satisfying album to date.

And it’s an album that features another superb song about Los Angeles, “Earthquake Weather,” whose haunting refrain is, “I push / I pull / The days go slow / Into a void / We filled with death / And noise.”

This entry is part of the Songs About Los Angeles series.

8 thoughts on “Songs about Los Angeles: “Que Onda Guero” by Beck”

  1. Great stuff.

    In the early 90s I was working at Toe’s Tavern in Pasadena. We had a night of several local bands planned, and one asked if they could bring their friend to do a short opening set. Later that night a gangly kid literally dragged his guitar down the alley behind him and approached the door. I almost didn’t let him in. Once on stage he struggled through a few songs, but the audience just wasn’t with him. I thought he was terrible. I never would’ve guessed that he would one day turn out to be a really solid songwriter and performer. His name was Beck.

  2. I adore that Ensor painting too. So much that I bought a framed reproduction from the Getty bookstore to hang in my apartment.

    I also bought a copy of Friedrich’s captivating A Walk at Dusk, though this is my favorite from him.

  3. He doesn’t know how to spell the Spanish word “Orale”. I’m an English teacher. If you’re going to name your album with a typo, I hope you’re a snappy dresser.

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