Don't Take Me Alive

Album: The Royal Scam (1976)

Songfacts®:

  • "Don't Take Me Alive" is the third track from the fifth Steely Dan album the Royal Scam. Co-fronties Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are the writers of same, naturally.

    Leaving no mystery to the lyrics, "Don't Take Me Alive" is about a violent criminal holed up with "a case of dynamite" telling the cops to shoot him, in the tradition of playing "suicide by cop." He also appears to have committed patricide. That's our Steely Dan - the darkest lyrics sung to the most cheerful tunes in rock 'n' roll!
  • Long before O. J. Simpson led police on a slow-speed chase through its streets, Los Angeles had been host to a number of unusual crimes and high-profile apprehensions - flipping on the TV in LA, you can often see a crime unfolding in real time.

    Natives of the city are used to it, but Becker and Fagen were transplants from New York, so to them it was really bizarre. In writing this song, they drew on some of these stories that inundated the city.
  • That's Larry Carlton doing the guitar solo. He's usually content to be a session musician, but he took his day in the limelight winning a Grammy (Best Pop Instrumental Performance) for playing on the theme to the hit TV series Hill Street Blues. See, you've loved him all your life and never knew it.
  • While their next album, Aja, was their most successful, the true hardcore Steelies usually agree that The Royal Scam is the point where Steely Dan really distilled themselves into their perfect form.

    Since you Steely Dan fans always bring it up in the comments anyway, yes, Steely Dan got its name from Naked Lunch, a novel by William S. Burroughs. Both Becker and Fagen were beat-generation literature fans. However, "Steely Dan" is not a character in that book. It is a strap-on dildo, whose full name is "Steely Dan III from Yokohama." If that shocked you, well, you should have seen that coming when you saw the title Naked Lunch.

Comments: 24

  • Ng from Orlando Check out Charlie Freak on you tune explaining this song.
  • NjtotxIn the line, "Well I crossed my old man back in Oregon," the pronunciation of Oregon ("Ora-gone") is incorrect for someone who is from there. This is the east-coast pronunciation.
  • Linphoma from AustraliaI played this in my dorm room in 1978 in Taiwan, and one of the guys down the hall heard it and told me his dad was the DA in Oregon who prosecuted the case. Gilroy was his name. It was a real thing. For a 17 year old Aussie kid it blew me away. Also on the floor below us was a distant cousin of Frank Zappa. I saw the family resemblance.. We were studying Chinese.
  • Bob from NycI see that nobody mentioned that Donald's father was actually a bookkeeper. Keep digging deep guys.
  • Ockeyw from Ocean City MdThe first few riffs could keep me rocking all day. Avid fan since 70’s waiting for next summer to see em live!!! Again
  • Irishgolfer52 from Massachusetts Steely Dans best recording, IMHO!
  • Darryl In Oakland from California Charles Whitman's father was a plumbing supply business owner from Florida, not a bookkeeper from Oregon. He also did not have a case of Dynamite in the tower.
  • Lisa From Texas from NcOMG. Please..... Joe from NJ is correct. This song is about the massacre at the University of Texas. Don’t dig so deep. A true event that devastated Austin.
  • Dave from PittsburghI always took the "bookkeeper" reference as to being someone who ran numbers for the Mob. That being said, perhaps the "crossed my old man" lyric means that he stole the money that his father was supposed to send up and now they were coming after him. Knowing that he would be killed no matter what for crossing the Mob our protagonist decided to go out like Butch and Sundance.
  • Submandave from HomeGreg, FWIW I always took "Luckless pedestrian" to refer to some poor slob who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got hurt or killed as the protagonist was on the run before he got cornered.
  • Sooutrageous1 from Philadelphia The song relates the story portrayed in the film The Falcon and the Snowman with Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton playing the seminal roles.
  • David T-bone Salinas from Mabton Washington Bad Ass Jamms , I can’t get enough of sinceI got hooked on in th Late 70s to present .Thank u Steely Dan ..
  • Tonydec from Vero Beach, FlI always believed that the line about "crossing his old man back in Oregon" was quite literal: that the first-person singer of the song had let his father down - in some way or another - and had chosen "death-by-cop" as a drastic alternative to going home and facing the music.
  • Greg from Corpus ChristiAs we all know, Steely Dan lyrics usually raise more questions than they answer. And isn't that half the fun when it comes to Steely Dan? The ideas and characters seem more narrative than metaphorical when I dig in and try to figure out what's going on, and listening to their stories is like remembering scenes from a movie I might have seen somewhere.

    In DTMA the conflict with the gunman's father is on full display, and I get the patricide angle. I still sometimes have to remind myself that the line is, "I crossed", and not, "I shot", my old man back in Oregon. Some may think that Fagen is saying the same thing, either way, but with his father still alive, the character's predicament becomes even more desperate. Fagan's characters are well acquainted with circumstances in which more than one threat is in play. I have a feeling that the gunman's father is not one to be trifled with.

    "Agents of the law", opens the scene followed directly by, "Luckless pedestrian". While Fagen uses a trail of breadcrumbs to tell his stories, I don't think he sets out to intentionally sow confusion or lead us into blind alleys. Here, I think the two seemingly unrelated phrases go together, and we are being told that the police don't know anymore about the gunman's circumstances than any random person walking down the street would. The police have no idea what a futile task it is trying to extract the gunman from his barricade. He will never give up and expose himself to the real threat.

    And who is this menacing father figure? A man who works as a bookkeeper. The accounting profession doesn't exactly call to mind images of dangerous men, driven by vengeance, possibly armed, and ready to deliver final revenge.

    Or does it? If the bookkeeper breadcrumb is more literal than metaphorical, could we ask, "Who does, or did, his father keep accounts for?"

    This brand of double jeopardy is familiar territory for Fagen, and circumstances where the choices between bad and worse must be reconciled, circumstances that are almost always the unintended consequences of choices previously made, are just stock in trade for the inhabitants of Steely Dan's catalog.

    Things to ponder as you pour another drink in the twilight dawn, unable to forget the last hand you played in a game someone mentioned as you tipped the bartender.
  • David from ?I don’t think this song is about crime in L.A.. I don’t know exactly how this site works and I certainly don’t want to piss anyone off. I’m pretty sure this song is about a radical. I also think all the comments (below) about this song are also incorrect. I’ll check back to see if there’s any interest.
  • Bill from El Paso TxLarry Carlton's guitar intro (solo) here is one of the finest every recorded.

    More Old B.S. Later
    Badco said it
  • Mark from St LouisOne of the many beauty's of Steely Dan's music is the perpetual search for what any of their songs are about...and knowing you are probably miles off base but it doesn't matter because you will never know....
    I always thought Don't Take Me Alive was a metaphor to anyone of us who at different times have been on the verge of an emotional meltdown, but not having the conviction to fully act on the rage but the imagination is racing as to what it might look like, what people might say and why it happened....the lyric Don't Take Me Alive almost has a cowardice to it....deferring to someone else to have to handle the situation ultimately....
    While unintended, sadly this day and age of the active shooter situations "Don't Take Me Alive" is almost thematic....a great piece of music in a long list of great music by Becker and Fagan....
  • Jeff from AtlantaThis song is a metaphor for the artist as outlaw.
  • Joe from NjThis song is about Charles Whitman and the University of Texas at Austin shooting where, over an approximate 90 to 95-minute period, he killed 14 people and wounded 32 others in and around the Tower.
  • Michael Seiff from Las VegasLarry Carlton didn't write the theme to "Hill Street Blues", he played on it. Mike Post wrote the theme.
  • Mark from Los Angeles, CaNever did drugs, but I must have an addict's personality, because Steely Dan is my favorite band and this song is one of my top picks (Black Friday, Home at Last). Mike is probably right about the "old man" crossed was the drug dealer, because all of their songs seem to relate to drug use, especially when one of their "catchiest" songs, Kid Charlemagne, lionizes the guy who devised a process for mass producing pure, "safe" LSD and thereby led to the frying of milions of brains (Kid Charlemagne).
  • Mike from Houston, TxI don't think patricide is the meaning. To me "Crossed my old man back in Oregon" is referring to ripping off his drug dealer. Since the dealer is coming to kill him anyway, he has the "don't take me alive" attitude. There are numerous drug references throughout their music, so when in doubt, assume that's what they are talking about:)
  • George from Las Vegas, NvI always believed the song was inspired by the Al Pacino movie "Dog Day Afternoon".
  • Tim from La Grange, Txwaco,ruby ridge,columbine.seems like our "sick" boys saw that comming years before they happened.gotta love 'em.
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