For better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That’s why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
“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.
The last Steely Dan album before a short twenty-year pause, Gaucho is definitely not an easy listen – heck, Aja wasn’t an easy one, and this one requires even more patience and above all, a potload of good will to tolerate. I suppose that if I had to review it right after reviewing Aja, there wouldn’t have been that much good will left; fortunately, I got it long after I’d assimilated and reviewed Aja, and I had plenty of time to recuperate. Which – alas – only goes to show how much does our actual judgement depend on the spur of the moment. Dammit, I’d like to have a sterile environment to write those reviews in, but then again, how much of a soul and a heart does one have within a sterile environment? It’s a vicious circle! An exitless situation! A dead end! We’re all losers, why fake it?
Oh well, consider this a specific perverse kind of a psycho disclaimer. Whatever. Before I got carried away, I was talking about Gaucho, Steely Dan’s oh so often maligned 1980 offering. It’s easy to see what all the fuss is about. It is mostly in the vein of Aja, except that a) there’s even less spontaneity here (I know that’s hardly possible, but it is so – legend even has it that the record’s best guitar solo by Larry Carlton, included on ‘Third World Man’, was just lying in the studio for a long time and was artificially ‘stuck’ on by the Dansters), b) there’s not a single ‘gritty’ breath saviour like ‘Josie’, c) there are no more interesting instrumental jams like on the title track of Aja. That last point might be considered good news by some, but it actually works against the duo, as it makes the listener concentrate exclusively on the main melodies, and the main melodies aren’t all that hot, either.
So Gaucho was quickly written off as an attempt to repeat their previous success that ends in lots of meaningless, lifeless posturing and all that crap. That’s what the critics said. The critics are right, as usual. According to all those standards, this is crap – but personally speaking, I find Gaucho to be only a slight letdown from the standards of Aja. The crucial difference, I think, is in that the album emphasizes atmosphere over actual playing. There are some nice solos on here, but overall, the record is an obvious exercise in minimalism: you’ll see that many of the riffs on here are heavily syncopated, and the actual solos are often reduced to isolated notes played in bunches of two or three in a row in different tonalities. The instrumentation is laid on very sparsely as well, and so the listener should suck in the SOUND, not the actual MELODIES of all this stuff. And I, for one, dig the sound, because it’s Steely Dan for Chrissake. Their jazzy groove is impeccable from a technical point, but it’s also moody, relaxating and even soothing in some sense.
Actually, my main problem with the album are the lyrics: so far, I have been mostly successful in trying to decipher the guys’ messages (at least, not any less so than most members of the regular English-speaking commune), but the lyrics on here baffle me entirely. Okay, stuff like ‘Glamour Profession’ (about the, well, how do I say it? ‘morally corrupt fun of Hollywood’, right?) is pretty obvious, but the rest just floats by. So in the end I just disregard the lyrics and that’s that. Fuck ’em, I say. Need I spend the rest of my life worshipping Mr Fagen and Mr Becker for their deeply-encoded message? No, I needn’t do that. These snubby, high-browed pricks deserve worse than that. Have you seen their insolent letters to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame yet? The bastards! The dear old Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame actually induced them, and all they have to say is… well, just read their friggin’ presumptuous response at their official site. The shameless punks.
Nah, just kiddin’ ye, of course. I do think they really went overboard with that Hall of Fame debacle, but then again, we all know the Hall of Fame sucks, don’t we? Serve ’em right. Before I got carried away, I was talking about Gaucho, Steely Dan’s oh so often maligned 1980 offering. Okay now, lemme give you the lowdown on what I consider the best song on here… Ready?
‘Babylon Sisters’, of course! That one’s a real blast, and arguably the only catchy number on the whole record. A little bit of reggae-tinged guitar in the background, atmospheric synths, a little injection of perverse decadence, and a powerful ‘Babylon sisters shake it’ refrain. But seriously now, it’s not that much better than the album’s second single, ‘Hey Nineteen’, Steely Dan’s minimalistic peak, or the nearly synth-pop (what else should I call a song based on a synth riff?) epic ‘Glamour Profession’. And if you ask me, it’s hardly a coincidence that Mark Knopfler was drafted in to play lead guitar on the album’s most (and only) upbeat track, ‘Time Out Of Mind’, which certainly inspired Robert Zimmerman seventeen years later to put out an equally atmospheric, although just a wee bit more depressive album of equally shitty tunes (where ‘shitty’ = ‘unbelievably cool’, if you know what I mean).
That was a hoot, actually. I suppose that was pure coincidence. Rock music has grown so large nowadays that coincidences like that happen every day. But that’s hardly a reason for me not to have a little fun about it, right? Before I got carried away, I was talking about Gaucho, Steely Dan’s oh so often maligned 1980 offering. And I just wanted to say that Knopfler plays excellent lead guitar on ‘Time Out Of Mind’, and, of course, his quiet, humble minimalistic tone fits the record to a tee. So, in all, count me if not happy, at least, retaining normal blood pressure. Apart from ‘Babylon Sisters’, I couldn’t EVER hum even one of those melodies if I tried, but I’m pretty sure lots of people would find the atmosphere alone compelling enough to raise the record’s rating to a 15! Oh well, make it a FIFTEEN THOUSAND, even! Me, I’ll stay cool and award the record a ‘merely good’ overall rating of 10, but then again, that’s far better than most critics could ever come up with, so I just managed to flatter myself. How nice of you, Mr Starostin. There! I keep exposing my over-gross ego again!
Gaucho is the moment Steely Dan flew over the edge. They hadn’t been a band in the technical sense of the word for years, with the only two permanent members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen expecting perfection and achieving it by employing as many studio musicians and sound engineers as they could get their hands on. Gaucho features the largest cast of extra musicians, with at least 42 session musicians and 11 engineers used to create these 7 tracks.
In spite of this, it is Steely Dan’s least complex effort. Gone are the complex harmonies and structures that had become the norm by the time Aja arrived, and replacing it are simple, groove based songs. What results is a musical uncanny valley; the soul and mystery has been drained from their sound, leaving these simplified numbers feeling like nothing more than bones, the kind of bones you expect to accompany the weather channel.
What the album boils down to is the world’s most expensive and least inspired backing band accompanying the world’s least expressive singer. For all the studio talent present on the album, the band rarely seems to use it. The drummers play simple time throughout, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – after all, Meg White made her career playing downbeats on a three piece drum kit – there’s something bizarre about the rhythm section lacing any sense of nuance that could not be provided by a drum machine. No fewer than seven percussionists appear on the record, but rarely does one hear anything more interesting than an eighth note pattern presented in the most forced, uninspired manner possible.
The rest of the musicians play with a similar lack of soul or emotion. The solos are particularly unrewarding, a feature that had previously been one of the strongest aspects of their variety of studio talent. Even Aja, which had similar polish, churned with an internal fire that would occasionally bubble forth to the surface, or the kind of personal expression that made it interesting. Where the record favored polish over passion, there would always be a myriad of subtle nuances layered on top of one another, giving the album a controlled, but expressive feel. But with the complexity removed, all that remains is a simple, soulless performance. Even Fagen’s vocals, cool and level, feel hollow and processed.
The songs spread themselves paper-thin. Most tracks exceed five minutes and push six or seven, which is about two or three minutes too long in the case of these simple, grooving numbers. There is not variation or emotion to keep the listener interested, and as the album crawls along, and to accentuate the problem, the songs are incredibly similar, so the songs often never have a chance to be appreciated before they sound dull, trite, and repetitive.
There are occasional moments where their effort pays off, and the intention shines through. Woven through the album are moments where the musicians provide layers of subtly, but these are often pounded out of sight by the insistent, driving, and dull rhythm section. The solo section of “Glamour Profession” has some interesting solo work, even though it goes on much too long, and sounds similar to the kind of melodic proficiency characteristic of the solos on their earlier LPs.
Similarly, there are occasional horn shots, such as on the title track and album closer that immediately jump out for their surprising quality. Unfortunately, these only serve to remind the listener just how poorly executed the rest of the album is, and these moments are in most cases suppressed, as if Becker and Fagen wanted their audience to fight for any scrap of quality buried in the album, like these hidden moments of sublimity exist as a middle finger to those who hoped that the drugs had simply consumed any sense of taste or style the band once had.
Rather, it seems as if they finally grew too obsessed with perfection. Over the year that it took to create, they sanded off every flaw until there was nothing with mentioning left. It may be technically perfect, but its inhuman, uninteresting, and disappointing.