I’ve been musing about Steely Dan’s 1980 album “Gaucho” for close to forty years. It’s dense, it’s weird, it’s Steely Dan in every distorted facet refraction of Southern California. “Aja” was (for most of my peers) one of the first vinyl records we purchased with money earned at some $2.65 an hour job (Six Flags Great Adventure FTW), and the Saturday Night Live ads for the album viewed more like an obscure perfume promotion (put this in context: it was the 70s, and records were being advertised on late night television. Hall pass granted). From that base “Gaucho” advanced squarely in the early days of college — beyond my own money earned at summer job its acquisition involved my own timetable for going to the Princeton Record Exchange, deciding on a new versus used copy, and finally listening to it all the way through (by that point, about nine months after the album was released).
I’ve been trying to figure out this collection of songs since.
“Gaucho” is seven reflections about hipsters who fail in seventy different ways. At the time it was recorded, we didn’t think in terms of “bros” or “hipsters” or even “dudes” but the ugly undercurrents are there. It is a running commentary on the filthy underbelly of Los Angeles, or you can abstract it out to all manners of bad behavior from drug use to a series of non-specific trysts to outright racism. I was discussing the basic funky riff of “Time Out Of Mind” with a friend when I mentioned that the song is basically about the fidgety craving for a time-dispensing heroin high. He had no clue. It’s a great song wrapping ugly truth. Creepy first-person intents in “Hey Nineteen” are veiled just enough that you forget he’s moving his agenda forward with an underage drinker. In a somewhat parallel construct, the final, polished, funky-yet-jazzy-yet rocking album obscures the fact that it was one of the nastiest LPs to produce, including over forty musicians, possibly clocking in as the most expensive LP ever recorded, and consuming about two years from start to finish.
The title track “Gaucho” has been the subject of mental disassembly for the duration. Who exactly is the gaucho amigo? Like a densely packed tract in the Talmud, where you’re trying to dig into progressively more subtle and nuanced layers of meaning, the song offers tantalizing clues but no real direction or answers. Is it about a love triangle gone strangely? Is the title character someone picked up for amusement (how decidedly churlish) or the guy that everyone knows even though nobody knows him (especially in the mythical Custer Dome?). Neither first person nor the unnamed second person in the song seem to have any clue and are only mildly less panicked than the dealers in “Kid Charlemagne.” Comic artist Meredith Gran created an analogous character in her Octopus Pie Couch Sitter storyline, and it always reminds me of that guy who is there, but not there, and probably wearing your favorite shirt but maybe it was a little different, since you’d remember your own spangled poncho.
That very song is the ethos of Steely Dan, through and through. A little dirty, a little creepy, looking past the beaded entrance and darkened windows to see things you probably didn’t want to, even with the nice musical interludes. Steely Dan managed to get studio musicians to sound like a band, and to bring out the highlights and strengths of every player, even if they played through fifteen seconds on just one track. Becker and Fagen were a songwriting and production team, perhaps not with the output of Lennon and McCartney but certainly with the long-lasting cultural impact. Everyone knows a Steely Dan song, but few appreciate the social skidmarks that deliver it to your earbuds.
[Originally written after Walter Becker’s death, and updated as I’m still trying to decipher the gaucho’s identity].