The Psychedelic Origins of Steely Dan’s ‘Kid Charlemagne’
No, it wasn’t about the Emperor of the Romans
Steely Dan emerged in the 1970s with a fresh take on rock by adding a jazz feel. The lyrics of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were dense with literary and pop culture references, clever turns and in-jokes. The music behind the words was just as good, and the pair used the best session players in the country to create a string of memorable albums.
1976’s The Royal Scam was Steely Dan’s fifth album and has been called their most cynical. Tracks included “Haitian Divorce,” “The Fez” and the triumphant “Kid Charlemagne.”
“Kid Charlemagne” tells the story of the rise and fall of a San Francisco drug manufacturer. In a 2000 online chat with the BBC, Becker revealed that the lyrics were based on Owsley Stanley, a famous LSD chemist of the 1960s known professionally as Bear. “I would say it was very loosely inspired by a character named Owsley,” said Becker. “He was a well-known psychedelic chef of the day.”
With the lyric, “You’d go to LA on a dare and you’d go it alone,” Becker and Fagen reference a trip Owsley made as described in Ken Kesey’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Owsley moved to Los Angeles from Berkeley to mass-produce LSD in 1965.
The final verse of “Kid Charlemagne” describes Owsley’s eventual 1967 bust when he was arrested after his car reportedly ran out of gas.
Clean this mess up else we’ll all end up in jail
Those test tubes and the scale
Just get it all out of here
Is there gas in the car?
Yes, there’s gas in the car
I think the people down the hall know who you are
“Kid Charlemagne” features the guitar solo of legendary session player Larry Carlton, who also appeared on Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Aja albums. Carlton’s solo on “Kid Charlemagne” has been called one of the most memorable in rock.
“It’s my claim to fame,” Carlton told Guitar World in 1981. “I did maybe two hours worth of solos that we didn’t keep. Then I played the first half of the intro, which they loved, so they kept that. I punched in for the second half. So it was done in two parts and the solo that fades out in the end was done in one pass.”
Carlton called his “Kid Charlemagne” solo the high point of his career at the time. “I can’t think of anything else that I still like to listen to as strongly as that.”