Dr. Wu’s Song Forensics
Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…
It’s fitting that my first forensic song report is a Steely Dan song, considering the coincidence of my given appellation and their song of the same name. Also because Steely Dan is a band that has always written cryptic lyrics which have left many listeners scratching their heads in bafflement.
Ahh, but not this listener, not Dr. Wu.
Steely Dan is known for their meticulous musical arrangements and performances by the sidemen playing the songs of Becker and Fagen. Likewise, though some listeners don’t comprehend Dan’s lyrics, they are in fact as meticulously crafted as the music. It wouldn’t be logical for it to be otherwise.
“Gaucho” begins with the line –
Just when I say ‘boy we can’t miss, you are golden,’ then you do this.
The initial question here is, why the word ‘boy’? Wouldn’t ‘girl’ be the logical choice? Of course, the coy misdirection of Becker and Fagen would have you believe the word ‘boy’ is an exclamation, rather than a noun. The Dr. says no. This word in fact signals the listener that the narrator is talking to a younger man.
Whoa, Wu! I can see where you’re going with this. You might counter by saying it’s a well-known fact that Becker and Fagan were always known as notoriously heterosexual males. True, enough, says the Dr. However, are they mass killers shooting from a tower, like the narrator in “Don’t Take Me Alive”? Are they jazz saxophonists living the hard life of a small time musician playing nightclubs, like the narrator in “Deacon Blues?” “Pearl of the Quarter” is a love song to a New Orleans streetwalker that has aspects of a short story. In other words, Steely Dan has often employed narrators who are fictional, not autobiographical, in order to tell a story.
You say this guy is so cool, snapping his fingers like a fool,
one more expensive kiss-off, who do you think I am
Here we have the younger person (boy) enthralled with a young man, a hanger on who the narrator holds in contempt. If this younger person were a girl, it wouldn’t make sense to have her parading a boy around as a ‘friend,’ but in the gay world, two boys as friends, the lines blur and it makes better, though suspicious, sense.
The narration in the song goes back and forth between being directed at the narrator’s love interest and at the “Gaucho” of the title. Next we have the narrator speaking to the 'special' Gaucho friend.
Lord I know you’re a special friend, but you don't seem to understand
we got heavy rollers I think you should know, try again tomorrow
Here is the narrator getting rid of the Gaucho interloper. Whatever’s going on at the Custerdome, there’s heavy rollers – the game is above the Gaucho’s pay grade, whether it’s actual betting or metaphoric for what’s going on. Now the narrator switches and is talking to his love interest once again –
Can't you see they're laughing at me, get rid of him, I don't care what you do at home, would you care to explain?
This is the crux of the story. The narrator asks his young love interest what the hell is this other boy doing there, why is he wearing your clothes, (which the narrator probably likes his love interest to wear) and the line ‘who is the gaucho amigo’ ends any doubt that all the principles here are male. The cowboy is a standard gay male stereotype, and it’s being played upon here to emphasize the gaudy nature of the Gaucho. The Gaucho also might be, by inference, Hispanic in background. The spangled leather poncho, emphasis on the word poncho adds credence to this idea. Along with the elevator shoes, this is typical flamboyant gay apparel of the time. The strongest reference to the Gaucho's background is the line -
Look at you, holding hands with the man from Rio
So what is the Custerdome? Well, Custer’s famous defeat certainly plays into the image of a place where the defeated go, but it’s a Custer-Dome, so it has stature of a materialistic sort, it’s fancy, it’s nice, it’s big. It's high up, so maybe the penthouse of a hotel? Another thing, General George Custer was something of a dandy when it came to clothes and grooming, and there have long been rumors and speculation about his sexual proclivities. So the Custerdome then becomes a place of serious wastrels, gamblers, players, with a gay milieu, where the games might turn rough for the innocent or unprepared.
The next verses are more of the same, trying to get rid of the Gaucho, with the only bit of difference being the touch of tenderness the narrator displays for his love interest in the lines –
Who is the gaucho amigo why is he standing
In your spangled leather poncho with the studs that match your eyes
It’s the first sign in the song of the narrator feeling anything resembling love.
So there it is, listeners – my expert forensic song analysis of Steely Dan’s “Gaucho.” As always, that’s the way the Dr. sees it. You, of course, might see it differently – that’s your right – but you’d be wrong.
Till the next investigation,
A question about the cover