“Black Cow”—first song, side one of Aja (1977)

By chance, I watched most of Paul Thomas Anderson's 1996 film Hard Eight on TV yesterday (even though it was edited for R-rated content—okay to show a man brutally shot to death, but certain words not okay—what a world!)—I hadn't seen it in quite a while, and it never occurred to me before—that movie could be a Steely Dan song! He's a filmmaker for whom music is integral—more than most (and I'm sure he grew up either loving or hating Steely Dan)—and it's funny, that movie seems like it could have been inspired by this song—maybe it is. But more on the lyrics in the second paragraph. The first notes on this record were like a slap in the face to me when I was back in high school, and it took me several decades to get over that. I was already a downward spiraling SD fan, not really appreciating The Royal Scam, as I would later—and then this betrayal! If you ever want to illustrate the concept of “tight” to someone, play them this song. And those backup singers, going, “So outrageous!” And then that Tom Scott saxophone solo was the nail in the coffin, sounding like a smarmy, ass-kissing, Hollywood awards show. The weird thing is, now, listening closely, the music sounds anything but cold—there is an incredibly textured, lush and rich warmness to it that sounds as human as anything I have on vinyl. Maybe it's decades of robot music since, or maybe it just took me a long time to catch up to this album, but it now feels like I'm wearing a bathrobe and slippers, smoking whatever your version of a pipe is. Sure there is slick veneer, which is what you hear first, but it shouldn't be hard to slide under that, into a sweaty, sweet-smelling room with humans. I suppose one could isolate any number of elements on this track that have been, in far different contexts, used for evil—but taken together—which is how you must take it—it inspires complex but positive emotions. I guess when I was 17 I wasn't mature enough yet to realize (well, it seems that most people never get to realize this) that something can be slick, cold, ironic, nasty, goofy, warm, human, confusing, nonsensical, crystal-clear, and hilarious ALL AT THE SAME TIME.

I recently worked in Manhattan, near the Port Authority, and one of my regular lunch spots was the Westway Diner on 9th Avenue, especially on the days I needed comfort food—chicken rice soup, stiff mashed potatoes and butter, and rice pudding. A block north is Rudy's, an old dive bar with a pig version of the Bob's Big Boy out front. It was a place I walked by countless times and never went in, dope that I am. Had I been trying to write about this song then, I surely would have, then of course been disappointed by the tourists, and knowing that to really appreciate a dive bar you need to drink, just like you need to eat diner food at a diner. Of course, in the Mid-Seventies, when this song was written, it's likely our protagonists would have lived in the neighborhood (Hell's Kitchen) because it was affordable (it's not now). I stopped into a similar dive bar in the Mid-Eighties (when I still drank), a few blocks away, about where the New York Times now sits—and I've still never shaken the image of the cockroaches climbing all over the liquor bottles.

This song is relatively straightforward, except for the “Black Cow” reference, and maybe the tone, because it's quite a sad story, yet it's one of the happiest sounding Steely Dan songs I can think of. The first person singer is addressing his lover, I'm assuming a woman who's a bit of a mess, a party person, making the scene downtown, not in any way faithful or dependable. A few lines really paint a picture (they don't even need to go for the obvious, like smeared mascara). But then the crucial part of the song couldn't be any more clear: “You will stagger homeward to your precious one—I'm the one—who must make everything right. Talk it out 'til daylight.” Wow. Is he a sap, or a saint? What I think is that he really loves her—maybe it's not the most healthy relationship—but she is his muse in the purest sense, in that she has inspired some of the most poetic lines in any Steely Day song—those great opening lines, and then: “On the counter, by your keys, was a book of numbers and your remedies—one of these, surely will screen out the sorrow—but where are you tomorrow?” Have they ever written a better few lines than that?

So what is a Black Cow, and what does it mean in this song? That's the part where we can all speculate, and maybe all be wrong, and that's half the fun of these songs. What I think is—it's referring to the cocktail version of a Black Cow (it's a dive bar, after all) that contains maybe Kahlua, half-and-half, and Coke—it's a classic, daytime, hangover, comfort drink. Sickly sweet, something in there to settle your stomach, caffeine, and low on, but still containing alcohol. It's a sad drink for a sad person. But still, somehow, this isn't a depressing or hopeless song—and the only reason for that is because he's in love, despite it all. What he could be saying to her is: “Look, I know you're going to run around on me, you're going to be out of control, and then you're going to come crawling back home, a mess. And every time, I'm going to say it's over, and every time I'm going to stay up all night and talk you down. And we're going to repeat this behavior into the foreseeable future. Because I love you.” Of course, people don't talk like that in real life, nor in movies (hopefully), and it sure wouldn't make a good song lyric. So what he says instead, which is what people say in real life, and does make a good song lyric is: “Drink your big Black Cow and get outta here.”

—Randy Russell 4.21.19

Current Ranking: No. 17