Black Cow


  • "Black Cow" has a number of lyrical interpretations: a troubled relationship, an ode to self-doubt, a commentary on nightlife, a reference to Hindu culture (cows are sacred). Or it could be about Thelonious Monk, the American jazz composer who is often regarded as the father of bebop.

    In the Classic Albums episode on the album Aja, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, perhaps showing their wry sense of humor, described the lyric as "self explanatory," but did offer some insight as to what they had in mind.

    "It starts out with this guy talking about this girl he used to be involved with," Fagan said. "She's sitting at a counter, and he describes her behavior and habits, and out of that you begin to see her character and their relationship."

    He added that the "black cow" is a beverage - depending on where you live, it can be a milkshake or a coke float (like a root beer float, but with coke). But it's something you would get at a soda fountain, where the song takes place. In the '50s, Fagen and Becker spent a lot of time at these soda fountains.
  • This was never released as a single, but it earned lots of airplay on FM radio and became a Steely Dan favorite, with the band often playing it in concert. It was released as the B-side of "Josie."
  • Note the deceptively simple disco-era instrumental starting out with a bass line and drums, then sneaking in layers of complexity with saxophone accompaniment and the electric piano solo. Steely Dan made a name for themselves with highly polished productions using a wide array of session musicians. Becker and Fagan would sometimes record a song with one group of musicians, decide it wasn't working, and try it again with an entirely new set of players - rinse and repeat until it was right. Aja was their sixth album; by this time Fagen and Becker had refined their system and developed an uncommon rapport where they could almost read each other's musical minds.

    Aja's perfectionism was rewarded with the 1978 Grammy for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. It is the best-selling Steely Dan album, with over 2 million copies sold in America.
  • Tom Scott, who did the horn arrangements on the Aja album, also played tenor sax on this track, and Victor Feldman did the Fender Rhodes solo. Here are the other credits on the track - note that Walter Becker sat this one out:

    Lead Vocals, Synthesizer: Donald Fagen
    Guitar: Larry Carlton
    Bass: Chuck Rainey
    Drums: Paul Humphrey
    Clavinet: Joe Sample
    Backing Vocals: Clydie King, Rebecca Louis, Sherlie Matthews, Venetta Fields
  • The multitrack masters for "Black Cow" and "Aja" have gone missing, which makes it impossible to do surround-sound versions of these tracks. In the liner notes to the stereo remaster of the Aja album, the band offered a $600 reward for information leading to their return.
  • The 1998 hip-hop hit "Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)" by Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz samples significant portions of "Black Cow." So much that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are listed as the writers on the track.

Comments: 7

  • Larry from Los AngelesRudy's is definitely not a soda fountain. Rudy's is a dive bar in Hell's Kitchen, 627 9th Ave., New York. Becker and Fagan used to hangout there in the 1970's when they had cheap drinks, free hot dogs, and jazz on the jukebox. Now, they still have cheap drinks, and free hot dogs, but the jazz has been replaced by rock and roll. You can't miss the place. They have a statue of a pig out front. Also, the Black Cow in the song refers to an adult beverage made with Kahlua, half-and-half, and Coca-Cola, or evaporated milk, root beer, and bourbon... sometimes with a drizzle of dark chocolate sauce on top! It's usually a drink women order... just like in the song.
  • Bill from DallasI have always loved this song. I think before they released this song this was an example of a trendy drink at the time, a black cow, and the guy who is the singer is finally fed up with the BS of the girlfriend and he finally tells her, who is a player and superficial, just take your stupid trendy drink and get out of my face! It really makes you feel good, to finally step up and say enough of all your crap!
  • Patrick from OrlandoFunny...I've always loved and admired this song. The groove, the vocals and horns...I just love it. And thought for a long, long time about the "Black Cow" reference and what it may be. Given Steely Dan's penchant for lyrical wizardry and double entendre, its easy to search for the complexity in what they may be singing about. My own interpretation, similar to the scene one of the other commentators made, is I see a "pimp"-like personality (dressed outrageously and strutting down Greene St.) who is a straight up hustler and game runner...he's probably got a habit or two and his old lady is just fed up with it. The Black Cow is actually Schlitz Malt Liquor (think Billy Dee Williams here) and his girl is basically telling him to finish your beer and get the hell outta here. So the song is being sung from the perspective of the fed up girlfriend.
  • Mvantryke from CharlotteThe scene I see in my dark mind: She's a young (barely legal?), drug-addled, cute, petite, sexy, much-sought-after hipstress. He now realizes that she sees him as just another fawning admirer. Their relationship has crashed out. He is angry and wounded; she, not so much. "Another black cow with something extra, please."
  • Ira from San Francisco, CaThe subject matter of this song is self-evident: a man has had enough of his philandering, drug-addled girlfriend. My only question has always been whether there's a racial element, that the woman has taken a black lover, (assumed by the narrator to be "big"). Otherwise the title/metaphor is pretty random, no? Fagen and Becker don't say this in the "Making of Aja" documentary, but why would they?
  • Steve from Chino Hills, CaA "Black Cow" for children is a root beer float. As someone mentioned elsewhere on the internet " a black cow the Steely Dan way

    2 shots of Kahlua (the Dude abides)

    2 shots of half n’ half

    3 shots of cola

    4 incendiary missives about society?"

    To me Black Cow always felt like it was about dumping a troubled woman at a bar in a very dismissive way. Anybody who has dated someone really good looking, someone outside your league can relate to the lyrics. You have more emotional capital in the relationship than they do. But after a while when your street cred is dropping and your self-esteem has been battered enough you finally have to call it quits.
  • Simon from Atlanta, GaI always understood the song being about realizing that he couldn't go on in his realtionship.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Songs in Famous Movie Scenes: Tarantino EditionMusic Quiz

Whether he's splitting ears or burning Nazis, Quentin Tarantino uses memorable music in his films. See if you can match the song to the scene.

Song Titles That Inspired MoviesSong Writing

Famous songs that lent their titles - and in some cases storylines - to movies.

Annie Haslam of RenaissanceSongwriter Interviews

The 5-octave voice of the classical rock band Renaissance, Annie is big on creative expression. In this talk, she covers Roy Wood, the history of the band, and where all the money went in the '70s.

Chris Squire of YesSongwriter Interviews

One of the most dynamic bass player/songwriters of his time, Chris is the only member of Yes who has been with the band since they formed in 1968.

Mark Arm of MudhoneySongwriter Interviews

When he was asked to write a song for the Singles soundtrack, Mark thought the Seattle grunge scene was already overblown, so that's what he wrote about.

David Bowie Leads the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired MenSong Writing

Bowie's "activist" days of 1964 led to Ziggy Stardust.