Steely Dan’s 1980 album Gaucho, upon its release, was an archetypal representation of the coming excess of the 1980s. A mishmash of personal and cultural influences, it would be the culmination of an eight year quest for aural perfection. The group’s results-driven synthesis of sonic elements culled from various, and often opposing, corners of the musical landscape checked all the necessary boxes and made enough sense on paper, but not necessarily anywhere else. The gifts of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were undeniable, however.
The pair’s off-kilter marriage of traditional rock with elements of jazz and r&b earned them substantial enough a following to secure a seat at the proverbial table, even if not everyone seated was entirely comfortable with their presence there. Masters of their craft who embraced their own social shortcomings wholeheartedly, Becker and Fagen’s deadpan embodiment of the tragic losers who occupied their lyrical narratives leaned so heavily into their own lack of amiability that it brought the pair full circle. By proxy of being the most uncool people in whichever room they happened to be occupying, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen would inevitably become the coolest people in said room, owing in no small part to the fact that they were also, almost certainly, the smartest people there.
Having met during their time studying at Bard College and bonding over a mutual appreciation of jazz’s golden age, as well as a shared disdain for the hollow psychedelia pervading the airwaves at the time, Becker and Fagen were extraordinarily well-versed in the intricacies of America’s cultural history long before they would occupy those same airwaves with “Do It Again” in 1972. Despite having achieved international success as a rock band just two years prior, in 1974, Steely Dan adopted a page from The Beatles’ playbook and took up permanent residence in the studio, retiring from the road altogether and jettisoning 75% of their personnel along the way. This marked the birth of Steely Dan as we know them: reclusive studio wizards perpetually flanked by a rotating cast of the greatest session players many will ever hear, hammering out the fortieth take of an arrangement that will likely never even see release.
It is this inherent and resolute perfectionism that would inform their classic 1977 album Aja, regarded by many as the greatest work the group would ever do. The album sold monumentally by the band’s standards, establishing them as a commercial contender and leaving them in the unenviable position of producing a suitable follow-up.
After briefly considering the prospects of touring behind Aja, Steely Dan made the decision to resume their positions at the mixing desk to begin work on their next project, this time in their native New York (Fagen was technically a New Jerseyan, but grew up just outside of the city.) In characteristically atypical fashion, the group, which had just spent the past six years holed up in Los Angeles studios writing about New York, were now holed up in New York studios writing about Los Angeles. Reflecting upon the writing of Aja, Walter Becker remarked
“When we got to California, I don’t know that we were nostalgic in a general sort of way for New York so much as we were nostalgic as writers for this milieu that we left behind. We weren’t finished writing songs with New York characters in them yet. So we kept doing that, and by the time we were finished we had moved back to New York, at which point we immediately started writing lyrics about California.”
Despite having been developed in the east-coast, Gaucho seeps Los Angeles sleaze throughout its 38 minute runtime. The characters who crop up throughout the album are not unlike the usual suspects who might occupy a Steely Dan record, but this time around the personalities in question each owe a great deal to chemical enhancement and moral ambiguity in the maintenance of their fractured existences. The characters spun in the narratives of the band throughout the years are almost exclusively unlikeable, or at the very least unfortunate.
What endears these tales, and indeed the characters within them, is the subtle hint of compassion and even understanding from the narrator. Sure, these people are down and out, and have made some questionable choices; but truth be told, we are all essentially an unforeseen circumstance or two away from some questionable choices of our own. This provides a certain level of accessibility to these unsympathetic characters and, consequently, to the sonic soundscapes which they inhabit.
The archetype of the aging man about town, steeped in his ways, and well aware of his own swift decline, is one that emerges at various points throughout the album. Whether it be during his attempts at swooning younger women who are clearly less-than-enthusiastic about the experience on cuts such as “Babylon Sisters” and “Hey Nineteen,” or striking a match on the door of Anthony’s Bar and Grill, lamenting the lady he lost to the man by whom he’d been bested on “My Rival,” it’s hard not to feel something for the lost-soul-of-a-man whose story is being relayed here.
The fun, and occasionally the frustration, of Steely Dan’s lyrics lies in a type of precise ambiguity which Becker and Fagen perfected over the years. The depth and richness of the vocabulary implemented to convey these oddball parables is more than enough to paint an effective mental portrait. The caveat to this approach, however, is that while every single detail is offered deliberately for 15% of the picture, the other 85% is missing entirely, leaving it to the listener to patch together their perception of the lyric based on educated guesswork and personal bias. Simultaneously extremely specific and utterly vague, most of the group’s lyrics have no interpretation confirmed to be 100% accurate, which is likely intentional.
With this being said, perhaps a listener would not be misguided in assuming that the personal lives of the authors seep into the music from time to time. This perspective requires no tremendous stretch of the imagination, as the core duo of Steely Dan themselves were not all that dissimilar from some of the characters who make up the lyrics of Gaucho. Take, for example, a number like “Hey Nineteen,” which is widely interpreted as a tale of an older man attempting, and gradually failing, to keep pace with a nineteen year old girl for whom his intentions are suspect at best. This may very well be the case, but there is also reason to believe that the track carries an autobiographical air, or at the very least began life with its author in mind.
Steely Dan made common practice of crediting all songs to Becker/Fagen a la Lennon/McCartney, often making it impossible to distinguish which lyrics emerged from which writer. In the case of “Hey Nineteen,” a number of things line up to suggest authorship by Donald Fagen. Consider the opening lyrics:
“Way back when in ‘67, I was the dandy of Gamma Chi. Sweet things from Boston, so young and willing, moved down to Scarsdale, and where the hell am I?”
The mention of Gamma Chi suggests a higher learning institution, mirroring Fagen’s environment in 1967, as he was attending Bard College where he would soon meet Becker who graduated from Stuyvesant High School that same year. Next we hear of the eager young women arriving in Scarsdale, which happens to be the name of a town in Westchester County, New York, about an hour and a half away from the campus of Bard College. Finally, during this very particular point in time which the author goes to great lengths to designate, Donald Fagen happened to be – you guessed it – nineteen years old.
Instances of the band themselves manifesting within the album’s lyrics don’t end there, as a case for autobiographical content can be made for essentially every number throughout. The condition of Walter Becker, specifically, during this time is heavily speculated to have been a stimulus for much of Gaucho’s lyrical content. Steely Dan’s profile had increased immensely following the release of Aja, endearing them to rock fans around the world, as well as to the parasitic hangers-on who occupied the city where their work was done. Drugs, fame, and the general rock and roll lifestyle began to take a toll on Becker, and a noticeable rift had begun to form between the famously synergistic duo.
Because of this, much of the record’s more drug-centric content is often attributed to Becker. This includes the coda section of (what this listener interpreters to be) Fagen’s “Hey Nineteen” which shifts the track’s lyrical presentation into a repeated sing-along refrain of debauched relief, which also fits narratively with the concept of the failed (or successful) seduction of a young woman:
“The Cuervo Gold, the fine Columbian, make tonight a wonderful thing.”
More references of this sort scattered throughout, side 2’s “Time Out of Mind” being one of the most obvious, with its allusions to chasing the dragon and turning water to wine. The lyrics paint a picture of a serviceable but not-quite-adequate world melting away into something engaging, and more importantly, something tolerable. Culturally speaking, cocaine was arguably at peak popularity during this time (the Eagles were concurrently crafting their drug-fueled whimper of a send-off The Long Run,) and many artists were still operating under the assumption that the drugs were there only to augment the creative process. In truth, the drugs were the primary focus, and their conducive effect on the artistic proceedings was little to none.
Which of the album’s lyrics were taken directly from personal experience, inspired by personal experience, or completely fabricated is next to impossible to determine. Still, it’s hard for one to hear the title track without imagining a distraught Fagen lambasting his writing partner, the latter having shown up to work in no condition to contribute with an oblivious accomplice (perhaps a dealer) snapping his fingers and failing entirely to properly assess the situation. Remarks such as “just when I say ‘Boy, you can’t miss. You are golden.’ Then you do this,” and “I don’t care what you do at home” seem to indicate the narrator’s frustration with a cohort he’s known since “back down the line,” a feeling with which Donald Fagen was likely familiar during pre-production for Gaucho following the runaway success of Aja. The custerdome mentioned in the song’s chorus has been identified by the band only as a sizable skyscraper, although it could be interpreted to represent the location of a recording studio where the band worked on the album, which went through development hell before being completed.
Among the troubles being experienced by Becker during the album’s production were the death of his girlfriend at his residence and subsequent litigation from her family, though Becker was eventually cleared legally of any wrongdoing. The songwriter was also struck by a moving vehicle during this time, an incident for which recovery was grueling. Becker suffered broken bones upon being struck, and his recovery was fraught with complications, leaving him incapacitated for months and forcing him to participate in recording seasons for the album by telephone.
When the group did manage to organize for work in the studio, results were slow to emerge. Becker and Fagen, notorious perfectionists in the studio, took their arduous approach to achieving takes to new extremes during the recording of Gaucho. Studio musicians who participated in these sessions recall spending days playing on a single song, with little to none of the contributions being retained for the record. Mark Knoplfler, having just achieved massive success with Dire Straits “Sultans of Swing,” was famously brought in to record lead guitar for the album. The guitarist would record hours of material for these sessions, though less than a minute’s worth of his contributions would appear on the final product.
One source of frustration for these sessions in particular was the recording of drum tracks. Despite recruiting the best studio musicians money could buy (Bernard Purdie’s patented Purdie Shuffle can be heard on “Babylon Sisters”) Becker and Fagen remained dissatisfied with the results. The solution to this conundrum was achieved through the programming of a then-highly advanced drum machine which was nicknamed Wendel and siphoned $150,000 from the album’s recording budget. The cold, electronic feel brought about by the device on the album accentuates the New York gloom which permeates the harmonics of the project. Gone is the sprightly enthusiasm heard throughout Aja, replaced by calculated and painfully effective attention to detail.
The apparent lack of consideration for the human element in Gaucho’s creation, fascinatingly, provides a certain, if unintentional, insight to the humanity of its creators. The pair’s avoidance of personal connection to the product and aloof detachment from anything and everything which didn’t directly serve the music provides an indirect, but very telling, reflection of their own merits and values as human beings.
The painstaking precautions taken to ensure avoidance of any and all human error ironically manifested copious amounts of human error in the misguided decision to squander excessive amounts of time and resources in the studio, indirectly informing the music being created. The unquenchable thirst for perfection going into this record could also be interpreted as an overcorrection of sorts: the desire of its creators to compensate for the disarray of their own lives by presenting what they perceived as perfection. Much like the characters within the albums songs, Steely Dan at this point had essentially achieved all they ever wanted and found themselves none the more satisfied for having done so.
While the album made it through its own brutal production process and would see eventual release, the band themselves were not so fortunate. Bogged down by the album’s sessions and strained in their own creative partnership, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen made the decision to put Steely Dan on hold. Becker would move to Maui and keep a relatively low profile for the next decade or so, while Fagen continued on as a solo artist, producing his highly acclaimed solo debut The Nightfly in 1982. The two would reunite and continue their collaborative relationship in the ‘90s, producing solo albums for one another and recording new music under the Steely Dan moniker. While Steely Dan would produce two more albums together as a group, there remains a palpable finality to their initial 1980 farewell.
Gaucho is a heavy listen, despite its two sides being comprised of only seven total songs. The weightlessness of the proceedings can seem to bear down sonically, much in the way that total silence can present as unbearable noise in the right context. Becker and Fagen’s incredible knack for arrangement and melody keep the ship on course, however, and Gaucho seldom ceases to be entertaining in its detachment. The grooves here, electronic and otherwise, are as tight as ever. The chill of the album’s production isn’t so much indicative of a lifelessness as a purposelessness, and depending on where your own sensibilities lie, the two can be equally fascinating.