Brenda Revisited (GB, 2/24/98): Black Cow is about a super-chocolatey Shirley Temple. A loss of innocence hidden in bittersweetness. Donald's not singin' about a woman who left him. He's singing about the times he failed his own test and became just another beverage on the soda shop shingle. But failure is gain. Mr. Fagen second guesses himself and answers his own questions with every subsequent verse. Who was "high"? What was a "crying disgrace"? Who's face did "they" see and who is "they"? I have only one more thing to say before Ming draws a bead: "Quick Buck! In the corner of your eye!"
Roy.Scam (GB, 2/24/98): Re 11TOW and Black Cow. Your opinions are inventive, original, and well stated. I still haven't found one I agree with. Was DF also talking about betraying himself in Reelin', My Old School, Dr. Wu? Even geniuses suffer from old fashioned girl problems.
oleander (GB, 2/24/98): The part of "Black Cow" I really like is the overlapping readings in the second verse. You can read it "You should know how all the pros play the game: you change your name. Like a gangster on the run, you will stagger homeward to your precious one," or "You should know how all the pros play the game. You change your name like a gangster on the run. You will stagger homeward...." Feels different each way. The what-is-a-black-cow issue has come up. Someone looked it up in a compendium of mixed drinks and came up dry. Where I grew up, it was a root beer float--odd drink for someone with remedies at hand. Maybe it just sounded good. I also like the progression of the choruses from "I can't cry anymore" to "I don't care anymore." Reminds me of the progression of choruses in "Junkie Girl."
The Return of Brenda (GB, 2/24/98): Roy, yes, all of DF's tunes project the same theme: Boy sings about girl. Girl likes song. Boy fucks-up and has to write another song to sing. Girl becomes tougher and more distant while waiting.
Razor Boy (GB,
Brenda - Re: Black Cow - To me, the song conjures up the kind of
relationship that many of us have with one person in our lives, who, in
the early stages, stimulates a desire to become linked with
but never gets beyond plutonic, for whatever reason. Nonetheless,
a loyal frienship develops, and the person gets involved with other
or situations, but continually comes back to that special friend, who
to all the issues that continually trip him/her up. Finally,
hearing another litany of woe, the friend with the strong shoulder gets
weary of being used or underappreciated.
That song is a jewel, on an album that has no equal.
maj (GB, 2/25/98): My favorite part of Black Cow is musical. It's the way the bass tempo is changed ever so slightly for only a few beats after the last full chorus is completed - after the last full "drink your big black cow and get out of here," then the vamp kicks in. So outrageous!!
Slimmy, Lost in Space (GB, 2/25/98): I have no idea what Brenda is talking about but then I've never owned a secret decoder ring. I agree that Aja should be considered one of the greatest albums of all time but I thought the song, Black Cow, referred to a Hindu suicide concoction similar to a sharp, Hari-Kari sword. "Shiva Unsheathed", if you will. I admit my knowledge of geography is tested by this time-tripping space vamp, but isn't THIS the theme of much of DF's material? Alternate universe meets present reality head-on and neither is insured?
Roy.Scam (GB, 2/26/98): Razor--Good words on Black Cow, but I noticed that you opted for the spelling "plutonic." I personnally try to avoid any relationship that involves radioactivity (or interplanetary travel).
Razor Boy (GB, 2/26/98): You nailed me good on the plutonic vs platonic - I had a momentary lack of attentiveness....Slimmy's musings kind of made sense, since Fagen and Becker seemed fixated on the far east a few times in "Aja." It doesn't matter how many times I hear any of SD's material, it sounds better and better.
RubyBaby (GB, 2/26/98): RazorBoy: I never thought of Black Cow as a "purely platonic" song before, but I'll try. I can relate to the line "I won't cry anymore while you run around..." For me, it's a healthy letting go thing. Ironically, I've found the moment that attitude becomes clear, they stick to ya like glue. Why is that?
Dr. Mu (GB, 2/27/98): Black Cow does seem to me about a guy on the outside looking in. He adores/is obsessed with a flighty girl with a self-destructive emotional streak. She ends up with the wrong type of guy, becomes broken hearted, then tries to soothe/console herself by downing those Black Cows and emptying her soul to the narrator. The narrator's relationship is platonic, but he wants much more. He asks her to "break away" from this rut she's in. By the end of the song, he finally sees the futility of this relationship, downs his own Black Cow, decides to "break away" from this fruitless relationship with the gal and slinks home.
Razor Boy (GB, 2/27/98): Re [Ruby's] "moment when attitude sticks to you," is all about fundamental values - it takes a while to form them, but are the basis of what a person is - somewhere, sometime, someone challenges those issues with their lack of respect... or sensitivity, and over time, it's becomes a drain. To me, it all has to do about energy. Sooner or later, as mentioned in your "Black Cow" dialogue, cutting loose a situation or relationship is sometimes best for everyone.
In my neck of the woods, a Black Cow is a drink made from milk and
ice cream, then whirled in a blender until thick and smooth. We
call them frappes here instead of milkshake.
It also used to be the brand name for a certain candy on a stick that tasted like a chocolatey caramely lollipop and took all day to eat.
PATS JAZZ (GB,
I can see exactly why people see "Black Cow" as a song about a troubled
man/woman relationship. But I've always thought the song meant
deeper. They made seem absurd, but who cares?, so here goes:
In the 1950's and 60's, Rudy Van Gelder was a popular recording engineer who had his own studio in New Jersey. He was famous for recording some of the most well known jazz musicians of the time. One of the labels he worked with was Prestige, which was known for hiring musicians and paying them only what they needed to keep their habits going. So the line "I saw you at Rudy's, you were very high", could be a jazz fan or perhaps a young musician seeing an idol completely wasted at a recording session. "They saw your face," could be the musician removing his dark glasses and revealing his conditon to everyone. "On the counter, by your keys, was a book of numbers" could be either a phonebook of dealers mumbers, or a songbook book, either one, resting atop a piano ("by your keys). "Remedies" may mean his drugs are in plain sight. He's suggesting either of these may appease him today, but it won't last long. "I can't cry anymore, how you run around. Break away." The speaker had always held this musician in high esteem and now that he knows him personally, he thinks it's "a cryin' disgrace" and he needs to break away from his idol worship. "Down to Green Street" (Green Dolphin Street, alluding to, perhaps, a ficticious jazz strip), "looking so outrageous". Is this Thelonious Monk? "Like a gangster on the run, you will stagger home, to your precious one". Why would a gangster stagger home? Because he was "shot-up"? Perhaps the musician is stoned and, going home to his "precious one" is a referende to his selfishness and because of his choices, he goes home alone. I think "I am the one" is a seperate thought from "To your precious one". The narrator must think about what happened and talk it out with himself in order to make everyting alright. "Drink your big black cow", I believe is another slam at the musician. Since a black cow is usually thought of as a drink enjoyed by children and teenagers, this could be one way of saying, "If you're going to act like a child, just do it, and get out of here." Since Fagen is from NJ, maybe this is even semi-autobiographical.
Sounds a lot like that girl who always considered you her best friend,
and came home crying in her beer and whatever else she could find, over
whoever treated her like cow dung this time, and you listen patiently,
while you are dying inside for her. And she just can't see it and
for some stupid reason (maybe self-preservation) you're just not able
tell her. You probably told her once.. but she was too drunk to
Finally you realize she's just so much damaged goods, and you have to leave. . And its the hardest thing you ever have to do.
(GB, 8/12/98): Black Cow is most definitely about addiction, not
boredom. One particular addict, actually.... Also note the
generally disappointed, shaming tone throughout the song -- "I don't
anymore, why you run around ... Drink your big black cow and get out of
here." seems like he's just fed up with her habit(s) and her
besides, doesn't a Black Cow sound like much more of a hard-core beverage than, say, a Cuban Breeze? Gretchen?
stevevdan (GB, 8/5/98): By the way there is a Greene Street in Manhattan.....with a jazz club and years ago dj Lester Davis used to broadcast live from there for WVNJ radio.
Brian Sweet relates that Mr. Fagen "told Jim Ladd that 'Black Cow' depicted the floundering of a relationship when a certain incident will stand out in a person's mind and in this particular case it was 'this luncheonette in Anywhere, USA--it was probably in Brooklyn, I imagine--where the shit hit the fan.' " (RITY, p. 119)
I think she is a prostitute. She is loved by her boyfriend, is
with him about her activities. He can't handle the truth as he
love her and must worry... He breaks up with her, but they keep
each other. Maybe he is obsessed with her and deliberately goes
for her. He is in
pain, she is in pain. She anesthetizes her pain in order to provide her services. The line about knowing how all the pros play the game gave me that idea. Her book of numbers contains her "business contacts". For her, the future is so uncertain...
8/20/01): I just noticed, while driving my car and playing
old casettes, that, in my 25th year of listening to the song "Black
it still knocks me down, blows my skirt up, steps on my calf, and makes
me laugh, cry, walk, talk, and crawl on my belly like a snake. What a
recording; and Steely dan did it without using some of their biggest
(lofty guitar solos and eloborate percussion).
Lyrically, it's a perfect snapshot of a moment in a painful relationship, and musically , it conveys so much emotion with such beautiful restraint, it's almost like an angry scream contained within a polite whisper. That restraint is embodied by Victor Feldman's electric piano solo. It starts with a slow-growing tinkle before breaking into the real showing off. Plus, there's a full four seconds in the middle of the solo where Victor doesn't vamp at all, just lets the chords carry it. That's impressive to me; I'd think a Steely Dan session for a visiting musician would be sort of like a dance audition sandwiched between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. My tendency would be to jump right into all my fancy steps as soon as possible and never let up lest some faceless voice says, "Thank you. ... Next!". But Victor's got the confidence to let it make its own pace. I guess that's why he's him and I'm some guy writing about it.
One of my favorite musical moments is the very beginning of the second verse of "Black Cow": The instruments are shuffling along, then the snare kicks in a bit earlier than expected, the instuments do a three-chord climb (sort of a slow version of the piano ascension leading into the verses of "Reelin' In the Years"), Fagen does a controlled sob of "Down to Green Street" , and the horns shake their heads and say, "uh-huh". There you go.
And if the famous rock and roll sax solo in "Come Go With Me" had a melancholy little brother, it would be the solo at the end of "Black Cow". That solo personifies music's ability to carry the spirit through something that would be way too painful in a musicless world. And then the song fades out, leaving you still tapping your toe to the unresolved tension of a relationship that won't get right but won't let you go. And I always wish it would start right in again. That's beautiful music and the highest form of art.
This may simply be a wistful love song about the frustrations and
that often comes from being in love with a narcotic addict, and the
"Black Cow" drink may refer the fact that narcotic addiction is often
by (among other things) intense cravings for sugary foods as well as
I interpret this song as if the singer is telling his narcotic-addicted
lover that he's finally had it with all the bullshit and pain he's had
to endure by living with her addiction and watching her slowly destroy
her own life through drug dependency. "...One of these, surely
screen out the sorrow, But where are you...tomorrow? ...I can't
any more... But it's over now, drink your big black cow and get
Reelin' In The Years, by Brian Sweet