Kid Charlemagne and Bear


Steely Dan is known for many things, such as fusing rock and jazz, making guitarists do more takes than anyone other than Phil Spector and being named after a fictional sentient dildo, but perhaps chief among them is their penchant for wry, dark, literary lyrics. I think the best example of this trademark Steely Dan lyrical style is the historical bio-song Kid Charlemagne, the lead single from their 5th LP The Royal Scam, which tells the story of the downfall of self-proclaimed “King of Acid” and Grateful Dead financial backer/soundman Owsley “Bear” Stanley with a Thomas Pynchon-esque level of psychedelic noir atmosphere.


Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had been building up to this sort of story-song masterpiece and these kinds of ominous vibrations over the course of the albums that preceded The Royal Scam. One need only look to jams like “Barrytown” from Pretzel Logic, which details Fagen’s annoyance over a run in with a moonie, or “My Old School” from Countdown to Ecstasy, a song about how pissed off he was to get caught up in a minor drug bust at his alma mater Bard College, to see the knack for exploding the details of a fleeting dramatic situation out into a shadowy maze of sly cultural references and mysterious signifiers. Songs like “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” and “Doctor Wu” (You should check out Minutemen’s cover) show his recurring interest in drug culture and the charismatic, ambiguous characters that inhabit that world. Arguably, there is no greater drug figure-head in the history of the American counter-culture than Owsley Stanley. In him, Steely Dan had found the perfect muse for the ultimate expression of their lyrical style.


Kid Charlemagne is an apt nom de guerre for Bear. The real Charlemagne united most of Western Europe in the middle ages, laying the groundwork for Europe as we know it today. Owsley Stanley, a skilled self-taught electronics engineer, chemist, and former professional ballet dancer, united the hip youth of America in tripping balls and consciousness expansion with tabs and blotters of his trademark acid in the heady years prior to the scheduling of LSD as an illegal drug. The Merry Pranksters, the “Acid Tests”, the bay area and LA psych scenes, and that one episode of Dragnet were all fueled by Owsley’s doses.  By his own calculations, he distributed as many as ten million hits between 1965 and 1967. This of course, could not last, and Stanley’s lab in Orinda, California, in the hills east of Berkeley, was eventually raided. He continued to work for The Grateful Dead until their infamous New Orleans bust (immortalized in another psychedelic noir story song, “Truckin’”), accumulating along the way an epic stash of live recordings of the San Francisco music scene of the late 60’s, including tapes of Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, and Blue Cheer, among many others. After the New Orleans bust he served two years in prison and went underground upon his release, later becoming an Australian citizen.


Just as in songs like “Barrytown”, Becker and Fagen’s spite and derision seems to be firing on all cylinders when handling the subject of Owsley Stanley. “Kid Charlemagne” mocks his heyday, reducing the impact of the Merry Pranksters to an eye-catching “technicolor motorhome”, and revels in his failure, with condescending lines like “son you were mistaken, you are obsolete, look at all the white men on the street”. The aesthetic of Steely Dan could not be more opposed to the aesthetic of the Haight-Ashbury true hippy moment, and at first glance this song seems to be a straight-up critique of that cultural movement and an exposition of its paranoid flash-in-the pan guru. What could be more different than the free form jamming of the Grateful Dead, recorded live, with tons of flubs, awkward stage banter, and crowd noise; and the super slick, dialed-in studio soul-jazz bounce of a Steely Dan hit? What could be more opposite than a thousand dirty teenagers writhing to noise in a warehouse covered in day-glo paint and acid spiked orange juice and the lone audiophile dropping the needle of his Bang & Olufsen turntable on a hot stamper pressing of Aja in his custom designed record den, swirling a neat scotch in a crystal rocks glass? What makes ”Kid Charlemagne” so great is that it cannot be that simple. Philosophers from ancient Greeks to Buddhists to post-modernists have observed a phenomenon known as the unity of opposites, and this song expresses it perfectly.

The similarities between Steely Dan and their scruffy protagonist are obvious from the beginning. “Just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl” describes Owsley’s nailing down an acid formula rivaling that of pharmaceutical company Sandoz, but it also describes the singular musical fusion of Steely Dan, which at its very best has never been replicated. I’ve never described a band and said “this sounds like Steely Dan”, because that’s never really been true. I think Steely Dan can lay claim to having accomplished, with an album like Aja, the peak of their expression, an alchemical fusion of disparate influences, equipment and personnel with their personal vision and sharply honed skills to create a new and mind-bending experience. I’m sure an aging hippy that had the pleasure of sampling some of Bear’s wares would make a similar observation. The song goes on describe Bear’s dedication to his craft: “On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene, but yours was kitchen clean”; Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s unyielding perfectionism and will to make music that still stands as some version of maximizing the potential of an analog recording studio is a result of the same will that drove Owsley to be a ballet dancer, electronic and sound engineer, and the best underground LSD chemist known to history. Both efforts left lasting marks in their respective fields.

From this point, the lyrics begin to describe Stanley’s downfall, which for me can only suggest another interesting unity between these ostensible opposites. Stanley himself fell from grace, but acid, the thing he made ubiquitous in the American counter-culture, is as popular as ever, even going square, being used in “micro-doses” by Silicon Valley business men to give them a creative edge. The godheads of the musical culture he helped to create, The Grateful Dead, have also undergone a somewhat unexpected re-birth, playing to tens of thousands once again, with John Mayer on lead guitar for some reason (I guess because he can shred and handle his doses?). While not as precipitous, Steely Dan has had a decline as well (who’s jamming Everything Must Go on a regular basis?) but their music, in a way that is divorced from them, in that it can be heard again without any knowledge of their involvement as artists, is as relevant as ever in the form of breaks and samples for hip-hop hits, memorably “Déjà vu (Uptown Baby)” by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, and “Champion”, by Kanye West, which samples the chorus of “Kid Charlemagne” (these are the obvious ones but the list goes on).  Fagen and Becker were apparently not impressed with the way West used “Kid Charlemagne” and wanted to block the sampling rights, but West wrote them an actual letter saying how much the song meant to him. Did Kanye know about Owsley, and feel a kinship with the King of Acid, or did he identify with the song on an entirely different level unique to him? That is the power and mystery of Steely Dan at their height.


The second half of the song tells, through the character of Owsley, a story that’s familiar by now from cultural milestones such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Inherent Vice…the comedown from the hippy high, the buy-in to square society by the majority of the former freaks, and the consequences for those that won’t let go of their outlaw status. There is a lyrical twist at the end of the song that fully embodies the unity of opposites; the perspective shifts from a third person, judgmental “you” to a more inclusive first person, “we”…for the last verse, Fagen and Stanley are full-on partners in crime. “Clean this mess else we’ll both end up in jail, those test tubes and the scale, just get it all out of here”…the imagery is concrete, the paranoia is visceral. The penultimate lines truly give this song a climax, in large part due to Fagen’s amazing performance of this miniature conversation between, for all intents and purposes, him and Stanley: “Is there gas in the car? Yes, there’s gas in the car, I think the people down the hall know who you are”.  I hope by this point in this article you have listened to the song because text does not do this part justice.  Finally, Fagen steps back: “cause the man is wise, you are still an outlaw in his eyes”. He’s resumed that judgmental third person stance, but we know that he was asking if there was gas in the car, sharing with Owsley Stanley the existential dread caused by staring into the setting sun of his cultural relevancy. At the peak of his considerable, dark, moody, lyrical powers, Donald Fagen was able to invoke the character of Owsley Stanley, King of Acid, to express the fundamental truth of the unity of opposites.

I would be remiss if I did not discuss the musical aspects of “Kid Charlemagne” just a bit, because beyond the lyrical fireworks it truly is a jam. It’s anchored rhythmically by a disco/soul/funk backbeat created by Steely Dan stalwart session bassist Chuck Rainey and legendary drummer Bernard Purdie, who has played with everyone from Albert Ayler to Cat Stevens, which I think means everyone, and whose nickname is Mississippi Bigfoot. The funk vibes are turned up by the presence of session man Paul Griffin, who played keys on Highway 61 Revisited, rocking a choppy clavinet. This is really a stripped down funk-rocker for a Steely Dan song, filled out by jazz pianist Don Grolnick on Fender Rhodes E-piano, Walter Becker on rhythm guitar, and jazz and session guitarist Larry Carlton playing an insane guitar solo that Rolling Stone ranked the third best on record. That guitar solo, the musical centerpiece of the song (along with Donald Fagen crooning “there’s gas in tha caaaaaaah”) is another moment where the unity of opposites is invoked: the solo is strange, modal, distorted, psychedelic and jazz inflected (not unlike a Jerry Garcia solo), contrasting sharply but tastefully with the razor sharp rhythms and melodies of the song and summoning the lysergic counter-culture vibes of the song’s anti-hero. 


prana crafter and the modern folk live sets from the projection museum

earlier this month, i had the opportunity to play a very special show, opening up for new york shredders elkhorn and olympic peninsula guitar wizard prana crafter at a unique venue here in portland, oregon called the projection museum.


it was a wonderful evening. i took the chance to record the performances, although in my frenzy to get it right i messed up the settings on one microphone, losing a channel in the process. i think it still turned out alright. check out sets by me and prana crafter below.

the modern folk live at the projection museum



prana crafter live at the projection museum



thanks for listening!

midwestern medicine - the winking badge

midwestern medicine is a portland, maine power trio fronted by brock ginther, who i have featured here before in his solo incarnation.


with a capable rhythm section, he is able to let his more stripped down,  frenetic tendencies shine on the three manic indie rock jams that make up 'the winking badge', spewing some caustic wit in the form of heavy freakouts, country rock pastiche and power-pop melodies. highly recommended.



get it here.

bill mackay - esker

bill mackay is a chicago guitarist who has been active for years on the experimental music scene. his new record 'esker' is due out may 5th on drag city records. the album is a deep dive into the possibilities of the guitar, an instrumental voyage through various styles, from spacey psychedelia to blues and ragtime.


most of these compositions are built from layers of guitars that weave in and out of harmony, offering various tones and textures. a few songs celebrate the lone guitar and traditional fingerpicking, such as the intricate but laid-back 'candy'. there is also an expansive range at play with the frequent use of the slide, from a delta blues sound to a more tripped out moan. bits of percussion liven up some jams, a touch that reminds me of sandy bull. all the guitar work on 'esker' is languid and deliberate, it feels effortless. highly recommended. check out the first two tracks below.



pre-order it here.

ohr / sergey kostyrko & alexander zaitsev - split

the split tape between russian ambient noise musicians ohr (side A) and sergey kostyrko and alexander zaitsev (side B) is the latest release from experimental label spina!rec out of st. petersburg, russia.


the tape consists of a couple long-form modular synth drones, full of layered textures, crackling and humming like living things, at times coalescing into subtle, glitchy rhythms. classic meditative drones.



get it here.

tapes & tubes - halloween parade b/w sun:moon:stars

delaware musician tapes & tubes (AKA austin potter) has a side business cutting DIY lathe records for various underground musicians, many of which i have featured here on MFOA, such as pulco, tremolo ghosts, the sioux trails guys, and myself.


his latest release is a lathe-cut 7" of his own, featuring a trio of his atmospheric song/story/poems that invoke a haunted and lonely vision of americana.



the thing about handmade 7" records is, you can't make a lot, so these are already sold out. you can still grab this great music digitally right here.

monte burrows - skua

monte burrows is a los angeles based sound artist. his latest release is called 'skua', out now on french tape label falt. 'skua' is a collection of sound art compositions made from looped and sampled field recordings.

what intrigues me most about this music is the way rhythm can be extracted from the sounds of everyday life. while rhythm is not the only focus on 'skua', which also revels in diverse sonic textures and subtle overtones, the looping technique gives voice to repetitions. i love the interaction between title and content on side B ('false beach'), where a lazy beat of looped noise imitates waves.



get it here.

gregory talbot - recordings on an empty stomach

gregory talbot is a ambient/noise/drone artist based in norway who has released many albums over the past couple decades under various names. his latest album, 'recordings on an empty stomach', is his first under his full name and his first since 2006. it is available now on hand-dubbed cassette from german tape label midnight circles (highly recommended label for lofi drone heads).


'recordings on an empty stomach' was composed using modular synth gear and pitch scrambled field recordings. these are patient, hazy drones that build build to heavy densities, manipulating the sounds of the actual world to create a simulacra of ambient sound. the noise of happenstance by design. accomplished drone.



get it here.

maija sofia - persephone

maija sofia is an irish singer/songwriter. her latest track is 'persephone', a re-recording of a song she wrote in her youth. it features her whispery vocal performance hovering above acoustic guitar, and touches of percussion and synth.


the use of synth bass and some samples of a sylvia plath reading give the song a modern, experimental edge. haunting.



get it here.

elkhorn - the black river

elkhorn is a new york based guitar duo that combines acoustic, american primitive, takoma school style picking with electric, pastoral psych drones and freakouts for a mind warping effect. their new record, 'the black river', is due out in mid april from seattle experimental label debacle records.


the title track, which is currently available as a preview, demonstrates elkhorn's unique guitar alchemy. it begins leaning heavily on a fahey-esque acoustic ramble, with the electric guitar floating like a haze in the background, rounding out the edges of the sound. as the song grows, the acoustic guitar locks in to a repetitive pattern allowing the electric guitar to enter into outer space. at each turn, the tones and riffs, crisp and organic on one hand, warm, electric and psyched out on the other, compliment each other. it sounds like a magic mushroom growing from a hardwood stump. highly recommended.



pre-order it here.

christopher cannon - three days before the shooting

christopher cannon is a cleveland based musician who worked in hip-hop before switching to a more folk-like style. his latest album is called 'three days before the shooting', a beautiful, sad and angry work that showcases christopher's masterful singing and ultramodern sound.


the music is minimal, the guitar and voice expected from a folk singer, but subtle effects used with the guitar give it a raw dynamic edge, matching the edge of protest in the singing. there is a cover of sam cooke's 'a change is gonna come', a test of any singer's ability, that christopher easily passes. highly recommended.



download it for free here.

candidate demo - been human

candidate demo is a harrisonburg, virginia based punk/thrash duo featuring the drum machine and vocal talents of billy brett from buck gooter. the songs are generally uptempo and stripped down, with the guitar work ranging from psychedelic swirls to punk buzzsaws to lofi approximations of hair-metal theatrics (occasional overdubbed guitar harmonies are a treat when you catch them).


the vocals are in chant/yell/sing style of hardcore, but the song structures hew towards traditional rock'n'roll in a way you can trace back to the very roots. protean rock'n'roll cooked up from minimal ingredients. i recommend this whole album but the space-out in the middle of 'been human 2' is a highlight.



get it here digital. tape is on the way.

pulco - o'r tu allen

i am always happy to post about a new pulco album. this one 'o'r tu allen', highly experimental and noisy ('born out of a desperate need to play guitar with a whisk ') and done mostly in welsh, is actually the last pulco album...not that that is any loss, because i cannot imagine the guy behind pulco, ultra-prolific DIY multimedia artist ash cooke, is going to stop making music anytime soon.


we'll just have to find his new identity and catch up with him there, meanwhile, check out 'o'r tu allen' (one of my fav pulco albums yet, i like it when he gets weird) and his massive back catalog...there will be more, even if it is not called pulco.



name your price for it here. fare thee well pulco, hello, next thing.

west texas revival group - half an hour of sitting in a chair

west texas revival group is the recording name of an otherwise unknown ohio singer/songwriter. his latest release, 'half an hour of sitting in a chair', is pretty much what it sounds like.

it's an uninterrupted 30-ish minute track composed of several different songs recorded all at once. mystical, stream of consciousness lyrics over loose, country-blues picking. i recommend giving it a spin.



check out some more stuff on the soundcloud.

francis mckeys - living inside the dome

if you follow MFOA, you might know that some of our true fellow travelers are the members of pennsylvania musical collective sioux trails records. this group of friends is dedicated to making and releasing (for free) relentlessly experimental and beautiful music under the auspices of their own personal mythology. the latest release from STR is 'living under the dome' by guitarist francis mckeys.


'living under the dome' seems to be the story of environmental collapse and slow-creeping apocalypse told with and electric guitar and an amp. i'd venture that this is classic 'guitar soli', just a version that is less noted than the acoustic finger style stuff that phrase generally makes you think of. this is taking a guitar and wrenching from it scenes of destruction, feelings of loss and despair, moments of ecstasy. musically, this is a celebration of a lone guitar, philosophically, i think it is a funeral song for the earth. i hope it is premature.



name your price for it here.

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