Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Royal Scam

The key track on The Royal Scam (AM9), a song that makes the rest of the LP seem like gibberish, is "Kid Charlemagne." Set in 70s San Fran, "Kid C" is about a drug dealer who, in Donald Fagen's words, "had been overtaken by society and was left standing in the road with nothing."  Becker, Fagen, and Katz variously described the main protagonist in the biopic as a maker, an artist, a chemist, and a chef:  "Someone who makes consciousness-expanding substances of the most dramatic, sensational kind no longer in vogue."  Becker said that they didn't use any particular model for the song;  Fagen said he thought it was more about the age - the late sixties - and the reflections of someone who found himself in a decade where he's no longer of any use.  They denied that "Kid Charlemagne" was based on a Timothy Leary or Charles Manson type character, saying that he would probably be much less of a celebrity than those examples.  Becker claimed that there was an individual on whom the song was based, "who hung over the song like the Sword of Damocles," but he refuses to name names. 

The character in "Kid Charlemagne" is opaquely based on Stanley Owsley, not the father, but the godfather of LSD. Owsley's acid biz, in part, funded the Grateful Dead in their early years.  Owsley was their original sound man, and helped out with their rent as well.  ("Your low rent friends are dead.")  Owsley was busted when his car ran out of gas, ("Is there gas in the car?")  Owsley's product was legendary among acid heads because it was "kitchen clean."  The reference to "white men on the streets" refers to the growth of cocaine use and the decline in the number of people taking acid as the drug of choice. It's Steely Dan’s introspection of the scene and the incredible use of language that truly sets this song above nearly every other Dan tune and indeed elevates it to the highest poetic standard; this is Joni or Jackson or Bruce or Zimmerman, and "Kid Charlemagne" stands tall among the best of these.

The Royal Scam is an album that rivals even Gaucho and Aja, but takes its place more comfortably amidst Katy Lied and earlier Dan.