Drug Dealers, Thieves and Fugitives
“Kid Charlemagne” describes a successful West Coast drug dealer. “Every A-frame had your number on the wall,” sings Donald Fagen. Then the tide turns. He loses popularity, and by the final verse it’s time to clean the mess up and flee.
The hard-edged “Don’t Take Me Alive” features a fugitive holed up in a standoff. He crossed his old man—exactly how we’re not told—and has fled with a case of dynamite. He describes a darkness inside himself. He knows what he has done. Perhaps hounded by ridicule, he has been driven to this desperate situation. We get clues but no specifics. The title suggests it will end badly.
The lead character in “Green Earrings” is an unrepentant thief. “I remember the look in your eyes—I don’t mind.” The verse and chorus are built on alternating chromatic chord clusters that create a wonderful dissonance for the lyrics.
“Sign In Stranger” describes a lawless outpost, ostensibly on another planet named Mizar Five. No policemen patrol there, and you can erase your past no matter what you’ve done. Steely Dan often uses somewhat obscure references, as in this case the phrase “collecting Turkish union dues.” I didn’t understand until years later that this refers to extortion.
Although no longer a crime, adultery is a serious matter that factors into other crimes or divorce. “Haitian Divorce” and “Everything You Did” both explore this theme, but from different perspectives. A reggae beat appropriately undergirds “Haitian Divorce.” After heated arguments with her spouse, a wife decamps to the Caribbean for a one-night stand. Nine months after her “tearful reunion” with her husband, however, the evidence of that encounter returns when the mixed-race baby arrives. In “Everything You Did,” Fagen embodies a cuckolded lover who knows all. Or is it just paranoia? He threatens to get a gun. Another argument ensues. My favorite line features “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening.” The song ends with the threat of rape: “Now you’re gonna do me everything you did, baby.”
Songs That Don’t Fit the Crime Concept
The cryptic lyrics in “The Fez” are hard to decipher. What exactly does “I’m never gonna do it without my fez on” mean? Most people instinctively feel it refers to sex, which is a safe bet. I encountered a discussion chain in which someone claimed to have heard Fagen explain in an interview that “fez” was a euphemism for condom. In any event, this song clearly does not fit within the overall concept.
Another song, “The Caves of Altamira,” doesn’t quite fit with the crime concept either. It’s an earlier, unpublished song that Steely Dan re-worked for the album. (See “Steely Dan’s Caves of Altamira: before and after” for my post discussing the metamorphosis of this song.) The song talks about the paleolithic artist who produced the cave drawings in Spain. Fagen tells how the cave art predates man’s fall from the Garden of Eden. The urge to make art and tell stories “when there wasn’t even any Hollywood” is an ancient impulse. In one sense, this could be a commentary on the album’s overall story-telling.
“The Royal Scam” ends the album with a tale of disillusionment. Poor immigrants arrive in New York City from the city of St. John, a “sunny island.” This could refer to St. John in the Virgin Islands, which would be an apt metaphor to describe the newcomers, or perhaps to San Juan in Puerto Rico. But reality betrays the promise of jobs and success in America. As one interpretation puts it, they end up cordoned off in a ghetto and driven to addiction. “By the blackened wall he does it all,” sings Fagen. The crime here is not literal, but metaphorically the scam that betrays the immigrant dream.