Posted by purplemary54 on November 5, 2013
This song just swings.
If you just listen to the jazzy, syncopated music, then you’re dancing away in smokey club in a pleasure-filled, hedonistic haze. If you listen to the lyrics, you’re in the middle of an episode of Breaking Bad. This is pretty dark stuff.
Steely Dan did this kind of thing better than just about anybody else. There’s no context for the story; there never is. I remember saying once that Steely Dan wrote little novels, but I think short stories is a better description. Their cynical brand of humor reminds me of someone like T.C. Boyle, which is kind of fitting since Boyle is sort of a rock star among writers. The characters created by Becker and Fagen are literary, their images are crisp and poetic. There’s not a single wasted note.
And like most good literature, “Kid Charlemagne” finds its inspiration in the real world. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have said that they based this song on Owsley Stanley, one of the LSD gurus that helped make the drug so popular in the 60s. He worked in the biz as a member of the Grateful Dead’s extended family, working as their sound man. (His professional name was “Bear,” although he didn’t create the famous dancing bears icon for the Dead. He was, however, responsible for the Steal Your Face logo, using it to differentiate the Dead’s equipment from other people’s at festivals.) I have a feeling he had some other duties with the band, as well.
I don’t think there’s much actual truth in this. There’s a vaguely sinister, slightly paranoid feeling to “Kid Charlemagne” that I think accurately reflects drug culture of the 70s more than anything from the Owsley’s world. Come to think of it, everything in the 70s was a little more sinister and paranoid. I wonder if that has anything to do with how I turned out?