Wednesday, January 27, 2010

SONG #73: Kid Charlemagne


Here's another band I was late in appreciating.  One summer during college, I worked in the stockroom of a hardware store.  It was a really easy job (except during the monthly manure delivery, and then for three hours it was one of the worst jobs in America), so there was a lot of sitting around and talking about stuff.  My supervisor Mark was a Frank Zappa and Steely Dan fanatic.  At that point, I thought Steely Dan was the epitome of 70s boring.  I actually thought Dan Fogelberg had been in the band before he went solo.  I knew the first ten seconds of the few songs that came on the radio from time to time before I changed the station, and I basically ignored them otherwise.  Because Mark was a good supervisor and liked a happy warehouse, we spent the summer unloading screwdrivers and cans of paint to the sounds of Zappa's Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe (that and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince-- it was the "Parents Just Don't Understand" summer.)

                                                      I picked up my car phone to perpetrate like I was talkin' (word).

That should have been the summer I figured out how great Steely Dan is, but it took another ten years and a BMG record club fire sale to take care of that.  I do miss the record clubs-- when they went onto the internet, they were less mysterious and exciting, but about once a year they would have a ridiculous sale to try to get rid of inventory.  I got an email one night about an 80% off sale, and I logged in and saw that all box sets were 80% off, and that if you bought one, every box set you bought after that was 80% off the 80% off.  Even with the crazy shipping charges, they were basically selling box sets for five bucks apiece.  So I spent two hours methodically going through their entire catalog, and bought twenty box sets-- about 100CDs worth of music-- for 100 bucks.  I don't remember all of them anymore, but I know that one of them was Citizen Dan, the complete recordings of Steely Dan.

BMG never shipped anything together, so the box sets started arriving in spurts of two and three at a time and that lasted for almost two weeks.  It was hilarious to come home and find another huge stack of music on my porch.  That summer, I got into a ritual of waiting until the late afternoon, and then driving to Stinson Beach from Marin for the last two hours of sunlight.  I usually had the beach to myself, so I'd swim and hang out, then drive home in the twinight, make dinner, and sit on the porch in perfect summer air.  I listened to all that new music on the way to and from the beach, and so that turned out to be the turning point for me with Steely Dan-- driving with the windows down on Route 1 with the Pacific Ocean bathed in moonlight to my right and "Do It Again" blaring from my stereo.

I understand some people's objections to Steely Dan (as I once had them myself).  There's a slickness to all of their recordings that rubs some rock listeners the wrong way.  Many of their instrumental passages come dangerously close to being pure jazz.  Because they had a revolving door policy about players, there's not a consistency of sound from album to album.  Finally, they toured only once, in 1974, hated it, and retreated from the road and became a studio-only outfit, so there's very little footage of the band at work.  Take that all together, and it's easy to brand them as introverted narcissists.

What turned me around was the spectacular craft that's apparent in their recordings.  Not only are these songs extremely well-conceived and played, but the recordings sound amazing.  The detail and textures of some of Steely Dan's songs stand with any of rock's most complicated recordings, and do so without the pomposity of a lot of other studio-based groups.  For all of the musical arrogance at work here, this is a band with a sense of humor and a love of melody and pop songs, so the more artsy aspects of the band are canceled out by naked commercial ambition.  It's also true that, as I became a better musician myself, I had more appreciation for the playing on the tracks.  Whenever I start to think too much of myself as a bassist, all I have to do it put on a Steely Dan album, and I can bring myself back to Earth.

The keys to "Kid Charlemagne" for me are the awesome keyboard riff that starts the song, classic 70s distorted skronk, and the sixty second guitar solo that begins around 2:15.  Many people think it's the finest solo ever recorded, including James DePrato, the best kept guitar secret in the U.S.  James plays for Chuck Prophet and a bunch of SF artists; I'm lucky to play with him in a few different bands.  He is the most endlessly inventive lead guitarist I've ever met, and I can't recommend his playing to you highly enough.  (  This solo is his all time favorite, and I'm not about to argue with him.  It happens over the trickiest chord changes in the song, and features, I believe, three key changes before it resolves back to C.  James says the key is that it's the perfect combination of composition and improvisation.  The guitarist, Larry Carlton, is one of the great session players of all time.  (He also wrote the theme song to Hill Street Blues.)  It's almost certainly his finest moment.

Steely Dan is infamous for burning through session players in order to make their albums.  After 1974, there was no band, only Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and whoever they brought in.  I think that's part of the reason the band feels antiseptic and stale to some folks; this was not an "all for one" situation, and I think you can feel it on the tracks.  You either played the best, cleanest, most technically perfect track of your life, or it was "Thanks for coming in."   It did inspire some amazing playing, but it's also why the band is cold and hard to love on some levels.  That coldness really works for this track, though, as a little distance brings an appropriate edge to the subject matter.  If you want to see what I'm talking about, check out this clip, which is one of my all-time favorite rockumentary clips.  You'll get a sense of how Steely Dan worked and put their songs together (the song "Peg" is the focus here).  It's a MUST see, and you'll be rewarded at the end with Michael McDonald.

Because I'm not very interested in Becker and Fagen as people, my interest in Steely Dan is almost never lyrical.  There are plenty of Steely Dan songs in which I have no idea what they're talking about, because it never seemed like they wanted to connect much with their audience anyway.  Most of the songs are about detachment and isolation at some core level.  I do love the lyrics to "Kid Charlemagne," however.  They're loosely about Owsley Stanley (or "Bear" if you're a Deadhead), one of the inventors of LSD.  Bear's LSD fueled the acid tests and Kesey's Merry Pranksters, and because of its purity and potency, created many of the grizzled, fried hippies that still wander the Haight.  The song points out the emptiness of being the king of a scene like Haight Street, which was about love and flowers for about six hours in 1966 and then quickly degenerated into a dark, twisted subculture based on drugs, sleaze and the worst kind of self-absorbtion.  Walk around Haight street today; those homeless-by-choice teenagers asking you for money aren't living the dream, but learning how to be professional dropouts and hustlers, the next generations of Kid Charlemagnes.  As a Bay Area guy, I'm fascinated with songs that try to capture that 1960s era without rose-tinted glasses, and this song does that well.  If Joan Didion wrote a song about SF in the 60s, it might sound like this one.  The Youtube link for the song below has a more modern, political understanding of the tune, which is a little conservative for my tastes, but he's also included the lyrics, so that's helpful.

Finally, of course, Kanye West used this song for the main sample of "Champion," so you may already know this song even if you don't know it.  Know what I mean?



  1. Can't come around on Steely Dan. I really, really like Reelin' in the Years (the guitar work on that track is demented), but I basically can't stand anything else in their catalogue. the problem with Steely Dan is not that they are too jazzy or antiseptic, the problem is that their songs are cheezy 70s keyboard songs and the guitar parts have too much chorus and the whole thing sounds really lounge acty to me. Sorry to break my new years resolution to be more positive in my comments here, but really "Kid Charlemagne" was just waving a red flag at me.

  2. For your consideration ...

  3. Hard to argue with that-- so glad to see that again. If only Prince would let someone else write material for him these days-- he's an unreal player. If you can find it, check out "The Undertaker"-- it's a trio record Prince made in a day in 1994, and he just blazes for a half a dozen tunes, including some Zeppelin.

  4. Cool! I'll look for that record next time I'm at Amoeba. What I love about the HOF clip is the interaction between him and Harrison's kid, who's obviously in awe.

  5. Well, this is the only one so far that I just haven't liked at all. Having made a lot of crappy sounding home recordings, I can appreciate all the effort that went into the process, but the result to me is pretty much elevator muzak. It's like it has everything you need except for the parts that are actually important, and the pristine playing and detached attitude are just rubbing my face in it. On a less abusive note, Prince is one of my all time favorites and I'm excited to see which of his records made the cut here. Come on shuffle!

  6. Wait, a jazz player blazes through some changes that would leave most rock players hiding behind their amps, and that's supposed to validate this stuff? I'm guessing Carlton didn't even break a sweat. (I'm picturing the Doonesbury cartoons that feature Jay "Wah-Wah" Graydon, who actually played with Steely Dan in real life.)

    I'm with Ben on Steely Dan (gulp!). The technical, soulless playing combined with the overriding air of detached, disinterested observation leaves me cold. Sure, they can play, and the records sound great, but they don't really speak to me.

    To put it another way: I can't think of any situation, event or occasion where I would find myself saying, "You know what would be the perfect song to listen to right now? Steely Dan!"

  7. HA! Jay "Wah Wah" Graydon! That is SUCH an awesome reference! I loved that character. Session work for Jimmy Thudpucker and his Morris Udall theme song, right? I believe "Pooh" was the drummer, who ruins a take because "my snare drum just melted, man!" Brilliant, Andrew!!