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Kid Charlemagne by Steely Dan

Album: The Royal ScamReleased: 1976Charted:
  • This song was inspired by Owsley Stanley III, the first "underground" chemist to mass produce high-quality LSD in the 1960s in San Francisco. Walter Becker explained: "It was kind of an Owsleyesque figure that existed in our mind's eye. I think he was based on the idea of the outlaw-acid-chef of the '60s who had essentially outlived the social context of his specialty but of course he was still an outlaw."
  • According to Donal Fagen, the story in this song takes place from 1968-1976. As time goes on, Charlemagne's services fall out of favor, leading to his demise.
  • Steely Dan favorite Larry Carlton played guitar on this track. Donald Fagen said: "He's a real virtuoso. In my opinion he can get around his instrument better than any studio guitarist. He's also quite a good blues player. He did the solos on 'Kid Charlemagne.' The middle solo he did in two takes and we used parts of both. The last solo was straight improvisation."
  • In a Rolling Stone interview before during Steely Dan's 2009 tour, Becker said that this was their most-requested song, with the line, "Is there gas in the car, yes there's gas in the car" providing a sing-along moment. Said Becker, "A cab driver once told me that that was the stupidest line he's ever heard."
  • The Kanye West song "Champion" from his 2007 album Graduation samples this track.
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Comments: 42

What a great song, I always figured it was about Owsley but just confirmed it recently. The lyrics are just perfect for Steely Dan's style.Rick - West Chester, Pa
Oh my God it *IS* "italian" and not "champion"! I am stunned to have been hearing it wrong all these years!!!Adrien - Boston
I first this song may ha been about Alexander shulgin.... but quickly found out it was about the bear!!! Only reason to post right now is to give love & respects to Walter Becker! Rip legend!!! Also Jeff from Jacksonville, you exactly right bout the gas running out on him fleeting for the piggies!B Clubb - South Cackalack
Wow, I can't believe how some just don't get it. I mean this song, it's so plainly obvious that it is about Owsley Stanley lll, the great acid cooker of the sixties. The "gas in the car" reference is so clear. But the song is also full of 1960's references like the "Day-Glo freaks" who used to "paint the face" is about a brand of fluorescent paint (Day-Glo) that the flower children would use to paint flowers and peace signs on their faces. You don't see them around anymore because they've "joined the human race" (the rest of the 9-5 world). Yes Stanley seemed to cross the diamond with the pearl and then along with the Merry Pranksters (Technicolor motor home) went on to turn the whole world on. This song is Steely Dan at their best. The wry, but ingenious humor buried in masterful lyrics and skillful musicianship catches my attention everytime and Kid Charlemagne is one of their best.Peter - Ohio
Praveen: Not so fast. I mean, it seems clear to me that "white men" in this context is a reference to cocaine ("you are obsolete; look at all the white men on the street" = "no one wants LSD anymore; everyone is buying cocaine these days"). And I can even hear "Day-Glo" instead of "dago". But there is absolutely NO WAY that the word being sung is "champion," the writer's claims and the official Steely Day lyric web page notwithstanding. I hear "Italian" too, and Charlemagne WAS the King of Italy (although not technically "Italian").Sam - New York
Well, for 25 years I have known this song, and heard the lyrics as "all you dago freaks...you are Italian in their eyes". I attributed this to Fagen's imagined Italian background, and anti-Italian racism in USA. The line "look at all the white men in the street" suggested Italians finally becoming white. Anyway, thanks to the interwebs, and this fine site, I stand corrected.Praveen - Sunnyvale
Mike, interesting that you bring up the Crystal Meth connection. There's at least once in Breaking Bad that Walter White references his love for Steely Dan. And also in Malcolm in the Middle, there's an episode where Bryan Cranston's character relaunches his old pirate radio station from when he was in college, where he took the pseudonym Kid Charlemagne.Nathan - Austin Tx
While the song was written about a kitchen chemist cooking up batches of high quality, squeaky clean LSD, it seamlessly translates into the present time by the lyrics perfectly matching up with a kitchen chemist cooking up Crystal Meth instead. In fact, if someone didn't know when this song was written, they would almost certainly think it WAS talking about someone cooking up Meth, it's what my nephew thought when he heard it. Makes the song more timeless than it already was by reminding older people like me of my youth, and younger people of the present time. Except the big difference is while I have fond memories of doing LSD a few times, Crystal Meth completely destroys people's entire lives and even whole rural communities and is the scourge of the midwest. Sad.Mike - New London, Ct
"Did you feel like Jesus" makes me think of Fagan's so called faustian deal with devil, did it ever happen, is that why he is so talented? He is on record as not being a believer, but the grandest statement in bible is "every knee will bow and every tongue confess 'Jesus is Lord' to the glory of the Father."

This statement signified that Jesus is God and that it is the Father's will to have everyone acknowledge that he is God, not just a good moral teacher, or some Kid Charlemagne type. Objectively provable from non bibical sources such as Alexander the Great Hellenizing Palestine (a term not even used back then Hadrian coined it centuries later proving that the Palestinians are just political footballs of the Arab world and not native to Israel at all.
Rob - Boston, Ma
I love the drums in this tune. The guitar and drums work so well together.Rob - Boston, Ma
To Liquid Len and Dave from Ottawa, Canada: You guys are just not old hippies or OLD HIPPIE MUSICIANS or You would remember that time changes in the middle of a song mean that it is a song about LSD. WOW! Just so happens that this song is about the ACID KING OWSLEY STANLEY -- the first chemist to mass produce perfect LSD in San Francisco. He was busted after his car ran out of gas. That super clean acid was the cross of a diamond with a pearl.Onetoke - Memphis,tn, United Kingdom
I always thought the quasi-disco rhythm and instrumentation perfectly complements what the lyrics are saying by making it clear that this is no longer the era of 1960s hippie/folk music. You can imagine the characters as they talk with their standard-issue 70s perms and the oversized sunglasses to hide the bloodshot eyes.Jeff - Boston, Ma
The reason behind "Is there gas in the Car? Yes there is gas in the car!", was that Owsley was arrested after his car ran out of gas.Chip - Jacksonville, Fl
crossed a diamond with a pearl,you turned it on the world,thats when you turned the world around.yeah acid turned the world around.you could also apply this song to the "crack epidemic".a chemist hittin' "on the right combination"Tim - La Grange, Tx
The solo was done in *two* takes, not one - still amazing.
Tom - Concord, Vt
- Shady in San Francisco, you got it right. It's the *idea* being the inspiration here. Sometimes musicians paint the horizon with w/ a few extra colors that satisfy them, as opposed to what is really there. But it paints a memorable picture.Michael-d - Boston, Ma
I had an amusing experience a few years back hearing Owsley talk about this song. "I don't know who they think they were talking about, but it sure wasn't me," he said. I think the title of the song spoke volumes, though. Owsley aka Bear is a brilliant and opinionated man, but modest he is not. I also think the song is more about the *idea* of Owsley as a symbol of The Haight rather than the man himself, but it definitely draws heavily on interesting biographical snippets from Owsley's legacy as an outlaw hero.Shady - San Francisco, Ca
Everyone is talking about the gas in the car line.....my favorite line has always been "clean this mess up else we'll all end up in jail, those test tubes and the scale....."Claude - Kingston, Ma
I think the Happy Mood towards the end, musically, is an homage to Ken Kesey's band of Prankster's "tootling the multitudes" from the top of their bus. Their improvised, music was described in Electric Kool Aid Acid Test to sound something like this.I also think that this is a song/tribute to a Kesey.Owsley composite character.
"go to LA on a dare" refers to Kesey's warrants for a pot arrest that he, as someone already said, was hiding in Mexico for but would dress up in disguise and go to LA and SF till he eventually got nailed.
Trigger - New York, Ny
my favorite line:
everybody stopped to stare at your technicolor motorhome!!
Jenny - Boston, Ma
The YouTube video features NYC session guitarist Jon Herrington. This from the "Two Against Nature" tour.George - Holiday, Fl
Re: the diamond and the pearl line...Janis Joplin, nicknamed "Pearl," used to do speedballs. Perhaps this is a reference to famous drug users, in which case, who would "Diamond" be?Andrew - Boynton Beach, Fl
just by chance you crossed a diamond with a pearl,you turned it on the world....that would work pretty good to describe the "crack epidemic".
who needs nostradomas,we got steely dan
Tim - Houston, Tx
Larry Carlton played guitar, gret.
My son's favorite line.
Andy - Rockaway , Ny
Good God, ya gotta love Bernard "Pretty" Purdie...and hey, Adam from England, I've heard that Donald Fagen didn't want to sing, that he didn't have confidence in his voice, but Katz and Becker felt that Fagen's voice got the intent of the material across best.Michelina - The Mountains, Co
In 1978 I recall being under the impression Lee Ritenour was the soloist until I was corrected by my guitar teacher. I was like, "No way, man. It's clearly Rit. Listen to the lines. Classic Rit." But it is LC, of course, not Rit. But a while ago, I read an interview with LC in which he said that Fagan and Becker wanted Rit for that job but couldn't get him and asked LC to "play like Rit." Has anyone else ever heard that? Like an idiot, I failed to save the article.Joe - New York, Ny
"On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene,
But yours was kitchen clean." This refers to the fact that Owsley Stanley developed a method of making his LSD 99.9% free of impurities, making it higher-quality and "safer" than his competitors.
Troy - Macon, Ga
You're right, Dave, there's a measure of 2/4 in the midst of an entirely 4/4 song, soon after the solo starts. Right around where he does the little guitar figure that they would expand upon at the end of the song. (Does anyone else find the solo at the end strangely unrelated to the rest of the song, suddenly the mood is too happy or something)Liquid Len - Ottawa, Canada
My understanding is that "crossed the diamond with the pearl" refers specifically to the drug combination called a "speedball," which Stanley supposedly invented.Scott - Charlottesville, Va
believe it or not, that solo was done it ONE TAKE!!!Anastasia - Riverside, Ca
Re the guitar solo...is it my imagination or does the time signature change or does he throw in an extra note?Dave - Romulus, Ny
I always assumed this song was about novelist and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey, author of "One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest" and subject of Tom Wolfe's "Electric Koolaid Acid Test". The lines, "Get the scales outta here", and "Is there gas in the car?" and "I think the people down the hall know who you are" -- all refer to Kesey's experience in Mexico as a fugitive from the FBI. (Serious paranoia.) Also, "Your Technicolor motor home" would of course refer to the Prankster's psychedelic school bus, "Further".Ron - West Palm Beach, La
Lots of references to acid here - "yours was kitchen clean", "dayglo freaks", "on the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene", etc....Shane - De Moines, Ia
Great song. I spent hours trying to perfect that Larry Carlton solo. I thought it was about some designer drug (crossed a diamond with a pearl). Close enough.

My favorite line is: "All those day-glo freaks who used to paint their face. They've joined the human race. Some things will never change." I don't know why but it always makes me laugh.
Frank - Cambridge, Ma
I agree: the guitar work is fabulous throughout.

The bass groove for the song is also pretty kick-ass
Jacob - St. Louis, Mo
Sorry Jeanette/Walter, Love the "gas in the car" line.Dell - Atlanta, Ga
Jeanette--that's funny about Fagen saying that. The gas-in-the-car line is always the hook for me. It's such a typical stroke of Steely Dan songwriting realism. How many times have you had somebody ask you, "Is there gas in the car," and you thought, in a Donald Fagen voice, "yes there's gas in the caaaaaaaar."Dirk - Nashville, Tn
This reminds me of a week I spent in San Francisco, which was the best week of my life.

The song is obviously about Owsley and his acid making, but the element of race is also present here.
Joe - Wilmington, De
Fagen considers the "is there gas in the car! yes theres gas in the caaaaaaaaar!" part of the song his corniest lyrics. lolJeanette - Irvine, Ca
Donald Fagen has a amazin voice!Adam - Wolverhampton, England
Larry C. pulls off a great jazzy solo. The chord changes are not very typical for a rock/pop tune, and the solo is a timeless classic!Bill - Moriches, Ny
Very good guitar solo by Larry Carleton. Grooving drums by Bernard Purdy, playing on a drum kit borrowed from Jeff Porcaro.Liquid Len - Ottawa, Canada
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