Steely Dan: Kid Charlemagne
Steely Dan, at the height of their powers, had a way of getting the listener to nod their head and tap their feet, without ever noticing the content of the lyrics. Case in point: Kid Charlemagne. Here is one of Steely Dan’s finest grooves, and here too are those jazz harmonies that Becker and Fagan would sneak past the average pop music fan. And here is a song about another “archetypal counterculture icon”, the chemist.
The chemist was the guy who built a home chemistry lab, and created synthetic hallucinogens, most famously LSD. Kid Charlemagne tells the story of the rise and fall of one such chemist. At the peak of his career, “every apron had your number on the wall”. But, all too soon, his fans and customers “joined the human race”, and his career was over. At that point, there was nothing left for him except running from the law.
Sadly, there are some parallels to what has become of Steely Dan. The band broke up after the release of the album Gaucho, and when they regrouped years later, they seemed to no longer have the pulse of the pop music fan. Popular musical styles had moved on in their absence, but I think something else happened as well. The classic Steely Dan albums were musical collaborations between Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, and were produced by Gary Katz. When they reconvened, Becker and Fagan were still there, but Gary Katz was gone. So now, Steely Dan certainly aren’t running from the law, but their name no longer emboldens nearly as many aprons as it once did.