Song of the Week – Third World Man, Steely Dan

Ignored           Obscured            Restored

Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of Steely Dan’s album GauchoGaucho is perhaps my least favorite Dan disc – a little too “yacht rocky” for me – but by the standards of other artists, it’s a damn fine record.

Gaucho was not an easy album to make.  Multiple personal issues caused major distractions.  Walter Becker was deep into his heroin addiction at the time.  Add to that a freak car accident while walking back to his apartment in New York that resulted in a broken foot that laid him up for six months!  If that wasn’t enough, his then girlfriend died of an overdose in his home which led to a multi-million-dollar lawsuit by her family that he eventually won.

Then there was the technical snafu.  The band worked for weeks on a song called “Second Arrangement” that they felt was one of their best songs ever.  That was until an assistant engineer accidentally erased most of the master.  (Something similar happened years earlier when the masters for Katy Lied were damaged due to an equipment malfunction.)  They tried to recreate it but when the new takes didn’t live up to the standard of the erased mix, they abandoned the song.  (It’s no wonder that the band stopped recording for some 20 years after they finished Gaucho.)

The “Second Arrangement” debacle left the album light one track.  So, Donald Fagan went back to the vaults from earlier album sessions and found the tapes for a song called “Were You Blind That Day.”  The lyrics were changed and the new track, “Third World Man,” was added to the album, and is today’s SotW.

Some Steely Dan fans think “Were You Blind That Day” was an Aja outtake.  But Larry Carlton, who played the song’s outstanding guitar solo has been quoted as saying it was a leftover from The Royal Scam sessions.  Experts agree that Carlton’s solo is the best of any Steely Dan recording.  It is less busy than his typical solos but perfectly complements the feel of the unusually slow Dan song.

As is typical for Steely Dan songs, the lyrics to “Third World Man” are ambiguous and can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Johnny’s playroom
Is a bunker filled with sand
He’s become a third world man
Smoky Sunday
He’s been mobilized since dawn
Now he’s crouching on the lawn
He’s a third world man

Soon you’ll throw down your disguise
We’ll see behind those bright eyes
By and by
When the sidewalks are safe
For the little guy

I saw the fireworks
I believed that I was dreaming
Till the neighbors came out screaming
He’s a third world man

Soon you’ll throw down your disguise
We’ll see behind those bright eyes
By and by
When the sidewalks are safe
For the little guys

When he’s crying out
I just sing that Ghana Rondo
E l’era del terzo mondo

He’s a third world man

Is Johnny a child playing Army?  Is he a real soldier that was deployed to a hostile country?  Are the fireworks real or the consequence of PTSD?

In 2005, Joni Mitchell released a covers CD album that was only available through Starbucks coffee shops.  Artist’s Choice – Music That Matters to Her included “Third World Man.”  It should be no surprise that Mitchell is so fond of that song for two reasons.  Firstly, since she is such an accomplished writer herself, it is no wonder she would be attracted to “Third World Man’s” sophisticated lyrics.  Then there’s her affection for guitarist Carlton’s work.  He has played on many of her albums, including Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and the awesome Hejira.

Happy anniversary, Gaucho!  “I just sing that Ghana Rondo e l’era del terzo mondo.”

Enjoy… until next week.

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