Steely Dan – Gaucho
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“Donald and I followed a certain line of thinking to its logical conclusion, and then perhaps slightly beyond—that was what we realized when we'd finished Gaucho: it was not as much fun...It wasn't fun at all, really.” -- Walter Becker in Mojo, 1980.
You can’t have a comfortable relationship with someone who has a knife at your tit and you can’t have a comfortable relationship with Gaucho. What you could and even might have with both is something better than comfort, something more hilarious, more thrilling in its ambiguities, and ultimately more rewarding.
Consummate critics in their own right, Walter Becker himself nails Gaucho above. It wasn’t the peak of their sound, it was more like its implosion: a spotless album not only portraying and mocking, but literally embodying the shellacked vapidity of their Los Angeles lifestyles and the escape—a fantasy of breezy opulence—that their music offered to their fans. Even the band had a shitty time making it. As if matching bitter, poetic cynicism with freewheeling jazz-rock wasn’t enough, with Gaucho, Fagen and Becker approached anti-music in the same way that plastic surgery approaches being anti-human: somehow, shreds of the same ideals are in tact, but they’re pushed to queasy extremes. Plastic surgery remembers beauty, but it always makes people ugly.
There’s a prevailing air of snobbery surrounding Steely Dan that hasn’t ever really seemed to square with the fact that they’re megastars. This was something that had first occurred to me at Christmastime. I was visiting my Aunt and Uncle in Pennsylvania; my Aunt was sitting in the kitchen, calmly mixing salad, when A Decade of Steely Dan came up on their five-disc changer—“The girls don’t seem to care tonight, as long as the music’s right.” Was she listening at all? A zen koan: can someone hear the sound of someone else talking over them?
Robert Christgau, writing about Gaucho in the Village Voice, said, “Craftsmen this obsessive don't want to rule the world—they just want to make sure it doesn't get them.” Christgau didn’t like the album, but I do; my response to him would be to say that in fact, Gaucho proves that the world had already gotten Fagen and Becker. People like my Aunt and Uncle—well-meaning, wonderful, culturally-sensitive people—had already consumed the band’s aesthetic and made it a part of their suburban living rooms and vacation soundtrack. (Incidentally, I haven’t been able to broach the subject of their relationship to Steely Dan since it started bothering me a couple years ago.) I mean, this is a famous rock band—surely they’ve seen more half-wits, hopeless hopefuls, market-bound bloodsuckers, quirky assholes, pussy, and lawyers than most people on the planet. These are the people that constitute the world. Furthermore, cocaine—drug addiction, how human!—had preoccupied Walter Becker. The world had swallowed them up. If anything, Gaucho is like a suicide bomber, and that’s why it’s poignant: it couldn’t have taken down a myth so powerful without having lived it first.
Everyone on Gaucho is a loser. Everyone. The protagonist of the first single, “Hey Nineteen,” is a 30-something trying to pick up a 19-year-old. That in itself isn’t pathetic or grotesque: there’s no suggestion that he’s bald, fat, unattractive, or particularly lecherous (any more than the situation would already imply). What is, is that he doesn’t care enough to bother “closing the deal”—to employ what I’d assume to be his own lingo, or his own lingo from his Gamma Phi days. Instead, he trails off: “The Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian make tonight a wonderful thing.” He’s got drugs, money, memories; you think that showing a co-ed a glimpse of orgasm makes any difference anymore? He’s beyond that, he’s numb. The booze makes him impotent anyway. He might be in A&R; he’s the world that got to Steely Dan. The girl? Oh right, I forgot: she’s 19 and dancing with a man 10 years her senior who couldn’t fuck her even if she wanted him to. They just hang out and she watches him glide towards unconsciousness.
And he, or his type, is driving the car in “Babylon Sisters,” a limp reggae song about an interracial affair. Even in the confines of his convertible, cruising westward, he asks her—right off the bat—to “turn that jungle music down, just until we’re out of town.” Jungle music. The closest he could take to “jungle music,” is, well… it’s “Babylon Sisters” by Steely Dan. He doesn’t give in to the taboo, he struggles with it.
If the humor of “Babylon Sisters” and “Hey Nineteen” is opaque on first listen, it’s hard not to laugh the first time you hear the sly, squirming disco of “Glamour Profession.” Drug trades and jet-setting unfolds in the evening time: “6:05 outside the stadium, special delivery for Hoops McCann / Brut and charisma poured from the shadow where he stood.” Once that line hits, well; it’s a line delivered with a disgust that veers so close to complete mockery that you can hear Fagen’s lip curl when he says it. In a Musician interview with the band, Walter Becker said that “Everytime someone's in the next room when we're writing a song they'd say, ‘Don't tell me you're fucking writing songs in there, you're not working, 'cause you're fucking screaming and laughing in there.’”
“My Rival” is a relentlessly tepid seabreeze number about a guy, ravaged by paranoia, who hires a private detective to spy on his lover’s new beau, who is more or less described as a pirate with a hearing aid. And as a wry testament to the incredible feeling of feeling nothing at all, the most energetic track on the album is “Time Out of Mind,” a song about the existential release of heroin.
“Gaucho” and “Third World Man” are the funniest, most depressing, and most moving tracks on the record; for me, they embody what Gaucho is about. Most readings suggest that the title track is about a love triangle. A wealthy man takes the Gaucho, but when his lover discovers them, the Gaucho is incredulously kicked out—his best offer is a ride to the edge of the highway. He sticks out—“standing there in your spangled leather poncho and your elevator shoes”—as a ridiculous character, but we can assume that there’s something about his difference (not only in style and class, but again, in race—gaucho: Spanish for “cowboy”) that makes him desirable. He’s found his way to the top of the Custerdome. We don’t know what the Custerdome is, exactly, but some people belong there and some don’t; and the cuckold even uses the language of money to shoo him off: “We’ve got heavy rollers, I think you should know, try again tomorrow.” Sax kicks in like it’s Saturday Night Live, cologne-stink wafts through the penthouse, a chorus of backing singers are forced to hold steady and intone who is the Gaucho, amigo?; take the line alone and you might think it’s Ween, it’s that funny.
But it’s not funny. None of it’s funny, really. It’s not funny, because they’re completely broken. The white picket fence, or penthouse, or whatever, isn’t enough to bring any glint of feeling into the couple’s lives; in fact, when wealth and perfection fail to bring them happiness, their spirit immediately faces a huge void. It’s Steely Dan having no fun at all, painted into their own tableau. The man, surrounded by granite countertops stacked with luxury goods, sort of wants someone real—the Gaucho. The Gaucho wants to escape his own drift. The third man tries to play up the Gaucho’s absurdity because he’s heartbroken, he’s been genuinely threatened; his partner has taken another man. Nobody wins. And Steely Dan plays it with cadences like an after-school special; there’s nothing.
And then, alchemy—there’s everything. And that’s what I hear when I listen to the record: a series of assholes puckered so tight that they ultimately burst, leaving the shit of human emotional existence to just pour out. An irony so thorough that it loses all distance on its subject. You’re surrounded by waste and all of the sudden, feeling nothing has just turned into feeling unbelievably terrible. Somehow, the disgusting weight of all of Gaucho’s losers—Fagen and Becker, included—ruptures the album’s sterility. It’s exhausting and it’s remarkable.
Gaucho isn’t for everyone. I’ve tried forcing the album on friends who reply simply by saying “It’s slick, it’s boring, it’s stupid. If there’s something there, I don’t get it and I don’t want to wait around to figure it out.” And I don’t know what to tell them, frankly; in that moment, my own responses somehow feel like perversities, though I know I’m not alone in how I feel about the album. And while I hate to challenge their reactions, I always get this feeling that people are just afraid to open up to Gaucho. Fagen’s sneer is too much to handle, the music is somehow too dead to ignore, the stink of contempt—for their surroundings and themselves—makes for an experience that upsets the most fundamental virtues of pop music; I’m not talking about “expression” or “emotion,” I’m talking about the relationship between musicians and their creation, between a band and their fans. If Fagen and Becker had actually liked making the album—whose raw materials were scrutinized so repeatedly in the studio as to wear the oxide off the magnetic tape, whose sessions had over forty backup singers—then we could accept it. As it is, Gaucho just sits in front of us, disturbingly perfect and relentlessly pathetic, emotionally radical and—in some restoration of irony—absolutely without peer.