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Dr. Wu by Steely Dan

Album: Katy LiedReleased: 1975
  • This song seems to be about a betrayed loser lover talking to his eccentric shrink, who perhaps has stolen the guy's girl. It features the signature Steely Dan irony: "All night long, we would sing that stupid song, and every word we sang I knew was true."

    As to the identity of Dr. Wu, Steely Dan claims he's a fictional character, with Donald Fagen explaining, "We change the names to protect the innocent."
  • Becker told Rolling Stone during their 2009 tour: "It's about that uneasy relationship between the patient and doctor. People put faith in doctors, yet they abuse their power and become dangerous."
  • This title of the album comes from a line in this song: "Katy lies, you could see it in her eyes."
  • If you read a drug connection into this song, you're on the right track. Donald Fagen describes it as "kind of a love-dope triangle," adding, "I think usually when we do songs of a romantic nature, one or more of the participants in the alliance will come under the influence of someone else or some other way of life, and that will usually end up in either some sort of compromise or a split. In this song the girl meets somebody who leads another kind of life, and she's attracted to it. Then she comes under the domination of someone else, and that results in the ending of the relationship or some amending of the relationship. In 'Dr. Wu' that someone else is a dope habit. personified as Doctor Wu."
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Comments: 28

The saxophone solo is probably my favorite in all of music. That is the great Phil Woods. You might recognize his work on Billy Joel's "I love you just the way you are."Jim - Hurst, Tx
Oh YES! Forever this song will be my brand new, white 1978 Thunderbird with a factory installed 8 track tapedeck .... cruising the beach in Grand Haven, Michigan ... fall of '77. Still have the car (it's still gorgeous!) and the 8 track! Life is good! Peace .... JJJohn - Key West, Florida
I think that "Katy" is anything or anyone that you have put your trust in and believed all your life and then you find out you've been lied to. I think "Dr. Wu" is your conscience.Mary Kay - Burleson, Tx
Having read Daniel, Miami Beach, Fl post. I recall working with a Dr.Wu in Miami who was a Cardiothoracic Surgeon. I recall one of his associates telling me a similar story about Dr.Wu Saving the bandmembers life. Then being so grateful they immortalized him in a song.Vic - Miami, Fl
I think "Dr. Wu" is one of their nicknames (probably Beckers) from their get-high days and the song is about coming to grips with himself about the things in life worth living for.Paul - Pgh, Pa
Dr Wu was the Dr who helper Walter and Fagen kick the habit as others on here said.Anthony - Cranston, Ri
Max: your faded tape theory sounds wild for such an audio-perfectionist band, but it's interesting. DogLvr: I know about Cuban vs. cue-bound; just the way he sings it there. 'Twas a joke.Jim - Pleasant Hill, Ca
I think Shane has it backwards. Dr. Wu is the drug, Katy is a real person. The singer is a Viet Nam veteran (the reference to piasters is a clue) who came back hooked on something ("Dr. Wu"), and the song is about his conflicts between the lover who has brought him away from his addiction and his desire to start up again (because Katy lies, you can see it in her eyes). The parallels in lines like "all night long we would sing that stupid song" and "I went searching for the song you used to sing to me" give a sense of the arc of the song's plot.Carolyn - Austin, Tx
Well Jim of Pleasant Hill, CA, it's the "Cuban gentlemen" who sleep all day, not "cue-bound". Cuba, it's only 90 miles south of Miami.Doglvr - Raleigh, Nc
These are all fascinating insights - for me one of the more obvious ideas for the song is that Dr Wu himself is the one who is addicted, for example the refrain ' Can you hear me doctor??' seems to be indicating that the patient is more coherent than the doctor himself - the outro also indictes this as the refrain is repeated over and over 'Can you hear me Doctor?' as the track itself fades the line is repeated as if he is fading out of conciousness ..thats my 2cents.Brian - Cork, Ireland
Jim - At the beginning of this song you can actually hear not a reversed message but part of "Only a Fool Would Say That", specifically "...his brown shoes", if you slow it down about 70%. It continues playing after that, but it's hard to hear over the real music. Throughout the track you can hear other songs from Can't Buy a Thrill; at around 2:15 into Doctor Wu I clearly heard 'Turn that Heartbeat Over Again'. The only possible explanation I have is that they reused the master tape (or safety) from Can't Buy a Thrill (which must have been recorded at a much slower speed), but didn't properly erase it. If anyone has more info on this I'd love to hear it.Max - Hartford, Ct
I grew up in miami in the 70's early 80's here is what I know...Steely Dan was recording in miami off and on back in the 70's someone in there band od , a girl by the name of janet wu whos's father was a dr in coconut grove, was called to a house and saved the band members life...janet wu went to ransom everglades school, she I think went on to harvard, she did in fact havre a dr for a dad...me and my friends took her at her word...I don't think she made this up...but who knows///Daniel - Miami Beach, Fl
There is a sped-up, reversed message in the very beginning of this song. It sounds like near silence or pre-echo until you check it out. Open it in a sound editor, isolate the first 1.4 seconds, isolate the right channel, normalize it, reverse it, then reduce the speed.

Does anyone know what the voice is saying? Part of it sounds like "...the couch," but that could just be an association with a psychiatric Doctor Wu.
Jim - Pleasant Hill, Ca
It always sounds like he sings: "Biscayne Bay, where the cue-bound gentlemen sleep all day..." (after playing pool all night?)Jim - Pleasant Hill, Ca
Whatever the meaning, this is my favorite Steely Dan song. The last line before the chorus, "Katy lies, you can see it in her eyes, but imagine my surprise when I saw you", Donald Fagen delivers a passionate expression of the ultimate deception (like catching your significant other with your best friend). A great sax solo by Phil Woods.... Great stuff!Frank - Cerritos, Ca
This song does speak of a betrayed lover who then falls for drug addiction. There is recognition then recovery is finally realized. Beautiful track.Michael-d - Boston, Ma
for some reason this is to me, SD's signature song ... i never thought i'd actually write that because all their material is capable of qualifying for the same accolade. i grew up in miami and havana (1950's) so SD songs that mention either place are significant to me:
in doctor wu it's "biscayne bay, where the cuban gentlemen sleep all day" ... in "walk between the raindrops it's "a shadow crossed the blue miami sky" ... in the goodbye look it's "won't you pour me a cuban breeze gretchen" and also the entire song can be cast in late 50's-early 60's cuba, in maxine it's "while the world is sleeping we meet at lincoln mall" ... then there is florida room on kamakiriad. i hope these guys have at least one more album left in their career as steely dan.
Herb - Miami, Fl
These guys are so so great. When I read these comments and piece together what the song is really about, it just leaves me more in awe of them. This line, "I went searching for the song you used to sing to me" reminds me that drugs can inspire new ideas in artists heads -help you think more creatively. It sounds like he's saying that here. But, overall, it leaves you on the other side of no tomorrow. Wow.

I just saw them play this at the Beacon and I can't get it out of my head.
Songwriter - New York, Ny
I have to thank Tanya & Mark and everybody for helping me "decode" Dr. Wu. I'd been twisting my brain for years trying to figure it out. RIP, Dr. Wu. I'm sure he'd "heard it all" from his patients like Fagen.....wonder what the good Dr. thought of this tribute?
Trying to puzzle out the meaning of Steely Dan's lyrics would have the NSA's best and brightest howling and pawing in a psych ward!
Rob - Isle, Mn
Dr Wu was my physician for a while in the 80's and 90's. He told me he treated a singer in Steely Dan. He subsequently opened a drug rehab facility in Washington called the Green Cross. He was a lovely man, a gifted healer and artist and is missed.Tanya - Washington Dc, Dc
This is from the Steely Dan Dictionary (http://www.steelydandictionary.com/):

Doctor Jing Nuan Wu (1933-2002), an acupuncturist and artist based in Washington DC. Emigrated from China to the US at a young age and graduated from Harvard to become a Wall Street venture capitalist, finally setting up a Taoist clinic in Washington in 1973. Apparently helped one of the band to overcome drug addiction in the mid-70s, hence the lyrical tribute.
Mark - Boston, Ma
I heard Don was "crucified" with his personal drug addiction in the early '70s. Katy refers to the "drug" as drugs always lie. Don was treated, in our nation's capitol Washington,D.C., by Dr. Wu (passed in 2003) a chineese acupuncurist and herbalist. Thereby a tribute song to his M.D. who aided him in his addiction.Craig - Middletown, Ct
For me, having grown up in Miami in the 70's/80's; this song is about a guy who hooks up with a girl 'Katy.' He tries to be her hero and save her from a bad addiction to her drug of choice.
Both move in together like to party and get high. But Katy doesn't know when to stop and is on a self destructive downward spiral and can't hold a day job.
Five or six years later, the guy cuts Katy loose after he finds out she has been unfaithful. This guy learns the hard way that you can't save someone from themselves. Dr Wu? Maybe this guy's alter ego (his night job).
Joe - Somewhere In Fla, Fl
I agree with shane that "Katy" is the drug, but Dr. Wu is his drug dealer (...I was waiting for the taste you said you'd bring to me...). Later in the song, he fears that "Katy" has finally seduced Doctor Wu as well.Dante - Glendale, Ca
At least we can all agree there a drug references here. And, Liquid Len, I was just pointing out the idea of drug addiction, either to Fagen or Becker, so you win the award for making sure that you point out mistakes in others's posts. And, the song IS about drug addiction and recovery, and the person who helped Fagen, or whomever, if he's not talking about himself, etc.Shane - Des Moines, Ia
People people people the song is about a junkie who gave money to another junkie with whom he had previously had (probably apocryphal) good times, and lamenting the fact that he appears to have gotten burned. Sort of a "times change, people change" sort of thing thematically speaking.Billy - Philadelphia, Pa
Definitely some drug reference "she is lovely as she's sly, and you're an ordinary guy / has she finally got to you?". Beautiful sax solo at the end. This song can't be about both members recovering from their addiction - it would be another 5 years or so before Becker finally crashed and burned on heroin, and his girlfriend od'd.Liquid Len - Ottawa, Canada
This song is about drug addiction and recovery. Steely Dan songs are always more cryptic than the surface meaning would suggest. Katy is the drug -Dr. Wu is the guy who helps whichever member of Steely Dan was addicted (if not both) to overcome it. "katy" seduced Fagen - she lied - drug addicts think their life revolves around their drug of choice. but, the high is a lie. It just leads to death - remember - he's "halfway crucified", etc. Fagen is singing in the first-person a lot here as when he says "you're an ordinary guy" meaning he was just an ordinary guy, and prone, just like anybody else, to be seduced and addicted. "Shadow of the man that I once knew" is probably Fagen referring to himself since the drug took over. And, it might be referring to his overcoming the drug when he sings it later. Other references to drugs - "I've been strung out here all night", and where the "Cuban gentlemen sleep all day"...Shane - De Moines, Ia
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