The Steely Dan Dictionary: C

Listing 17 entries:

You'll be grooving high or relaxing at Camarillo
Song: Parker's Band   Album: Pretzel Logic

A city in California, located roughly 40 miles north-west of Los Angeles with a population of 65,000.

The lyric specifically refers to Relaxin' at Camarillo, a jazz tune written in 1947 by Charlie Parker after he spent 6 months in the Camarillo State Mental Hospital recovering from an alcohol and heroin addiction.

Trivia fact: Groovin' High (also mentioned in the lyrics) is another jazz tune, written by Dizzy Gillespie and regularly performed by Parker.

Link: Camarillo

She turned my life into a living hell / In those little tops and tight capris
Song: Cousin Dupree   Album: Two Against Nature

A style of trousers mostly worn by women.

Capris (also known as "pedal pushers" or "clam diggers") originated in 1948 and were most popular during the late 50s and early 60s, but have come back into fashion in recent years. They are usually slim-fitting and are either knee-length, lower-calf-length, or somewhere in between.

Named after the Italian island of Capri, where they first enjoyed popularity.

Link: Wikipedia: Capri pants

Color film of Castle Bravo / Girl you know that shot was huge
Song: Memorabilia   Album: Sunken Condos

Castle Bravo was the military codename for a 1954 US hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

The US carried out 23 such tests between 1946 and 1958, but Castle Bravo was by far the largest: roughly 1,000 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A huge shot indeed!

And yes, the lyrical references elsewhere in the song to the "island East of the Carolines" refer to the Bikini Atoll — as part of the Marshall Islands it is roughly east (more like north-east) of the Caroline Islands.

Link: YouTube: Colour film of Castle Bravo

Goodbye to Lonely Street / You're in the catbird seat / At the Steely Dan Show
Song: The Steely Dan Show (unreleased track)

To be "sitting in the catbird seat" means to be in a position of great prominence or advantage.

Catbirds (scientific name dumetella carolinensis) are dark grey in colour, native to the southern U.S. and are closely related to the mockingbird. Named after the cat-like "mewing" sound they make, they are aggressively territorial birds, always seeking the highest perches in trees, hence the origin of the phrase.

Even Cathy Berberian knows / There's one roulade she can't sing
Song: Your Gold Teeth   Album: Countdown to Ecstasy

American opera singer and avant-garde vocalist (1925-1983).

Renowned for her chameleonic vocal style — typified by her rendition of Luciano Berio's Visage (1961), an improvisational piece consisting of sighing, crying, laughing, moaning, groaning and stammering!

Link: Cathy Berberian Does The Beatles

Tonight when I chase the dragon / The water will change to cherry wine / And the silver will turn to gold
Song: Time Out Of Mind   Album: Gaucho

"Chasing the dragon" is a slang term for a particular method of smoking heroin.

It usually involves placing powdered heroin on foil and heating it from below with a cigarette lighter. The heroin turns to a sticky liquid and wriggles around like a Chinese dragon, hence the name. Fumes are given off and are inhaled, sometimes thorough a rolled-up newspaper, magazine or tube.

Link: Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict

Take off your cheaters and sit right down / Start the projection machine
Song: Everyone's Gone To The Movies   Album: Katy Lied

Slang term for sunglasses or reading glasses.

Alternatively, "cheaters" can refer to glasses prescribed specifically with a particular activity in mind, such as shooting or flying.

I've got plenty of java / And Chesterfield Kings / But I feel like crying
Song: The Nightfly   Album: The Nightfly

A brand of non-filtered American cigarettes.

Launched in 1912 by the Liggett & Myers tobacco company, by the mid-20th century, Chesterfields had grown to become one of America's most popular cigarette brands. At their peak they were endorsed by multiple celebrities such as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Ronald Reagan (in his acting days).

Several varieties of Chesterfield were available, including "Kings", which were king-size cigarettes, i.e. roughly 85mm long, compared to "regular" 70mm cigarettes.

Chesterfields are still available today (mostly in Europe), although they are no longer non-filtered.

Link: Vintage 1948 Chesterfield advertisement

You met that half-crazed painter fool in some damn bar / Cocaine dreams and chiba-chiba nights
Song: Downtown Canon   Album: Circus Money

Slang term for marijuana, also spelt "cheeba cheeba" or shortened to one word (i.e. "chiba" or "cheeba").

The term emerged in the early 80s but is less commonly used now. Two theories exist for its etymology: a variant on "chiva", a Spanish slang word for heroin — or alternatively from the acronym CIBA, the abbreviated name of Swiss pharmaceutical company Chemical Industry Basel, whose initials are found stamped on many types of prescription pills. (Hence it's not hard to envisage how it ended up as a generic slang term for drugs.)

And they wandered in / From the city of St. John / Without a dime
Song: The Royal Scam   Album: The Royal Scam

San Juan, the capital city of Caribbean island Puerto Rico.

Named after (Saint) John the Baptist, who also serves as the patron saint of Puerto Rico itself. This lyric sets the stage for the rest of the song, which portrays the plight of Puerto Rican immigrants after arriving in New York City.

Trivia fact: originally San Juan was called Puerto Rico ("Rich Port") and the island was called San Juan, but later the names were swapped. (It's just as well: the lyric "And they wandered in from the city of Rich Port" doesn't sound nearly as good!)

There's a Cobra Gunship for his golden boy / And a Hello Kitty for his pride and joy
Song: Book Of Liars   Album: 11 Tracks of Whack

The Bell AH-1 Cobra military attack helicopter.

In general terms, a "gunship" is a military aircraft armed with heavy guns, primarily intended for attacking ground targets. The term originated in the 19th century to refer to heavily armed battleships, but in the 20th century became primarily associated with aircraft instead.

The Cobra (also called the HueyCobra or Snake) was introduced in 1965 and was the backbone of the United States Army's attack helicopter fleet from the Vietnam War until the first Gulf War, eventually being replaced by the Apache in the 1990s.

Link: Lone Star Flight Museum: Cobra gunship

Steady girl let me grab on your wig hat / Down in the corncrib we shall go
Song: Selfish Gene   Album: Circus Money

A corncrib (also called a cornhouse) is a type of granary or storehouse used for drying and storing corn.

Typically made of wood, corncribs have slatted walls to allow the corn to dry after harvest. To keep out rodents and other pests, the floor is usually elevated off the ground.

Corncribs were first used by Native Americans and were quickly adopted by European settlers when they arrived in the New World. Similar structures (though for storing grain rather than corn) have been in use in Europe for centuries, dating back to the horreum of the Ancient Romans.

They call Alabama the Crimson Tide / Call me Deacon Blues
Song: Deacon Blues   Album: Aja

The nickname for the University of Alabama's sporting teams (particularly American football), so called because of their distinctive dark red jerseys.

Trivia fact: The name of the submarine in the 1995 action movie Crimson Tide was the "U.S.S. Alabama".

Link: Official Crimson Tide website

The Cuervo Gold / The fine Colombian / Make tonight a wonderful thing
Song: Hey Nineteen   Album: Gaucho

A brand of Mexican tequila (officially called "Jose Cuervo Especial") with a smooth, slightly sweet taste.

One of the best-selling tequila brands worldwide, but (as is often the way with these things) NOT a preferred choice of tequila connoisseurs. The manufacturers claim that "its distinctive amber hue comes from being matured in oak casks for two months or more". But allegedly the "gold" is just food colouring!

Link: Official Cuervo website

From the Rebus affair / To the streets of Culver City
Song: West Of Hollywood   Album: Two Against Nature

A town in California, south-west of Hollywood with a population of approximately 40,000.

Culver City is probably most notable for being the original location of MGM Studios — hence it was where classics like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind were filmed. Also the final resting place of many Hollywood legends such as Charles Boyer (star of Gaslight), Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Bela Lugosi and, er, John Candy.

Link: Culver City: Heart of Screenland

Bodacious cowboys / Such as your friend / Will never be welcome here / High in the Custerdome
Song: Gaucho   Album: Gaucho

A fictional skyscraper containing the luxury apartment where the song's plot unfolds.

Editor's note: I decided to make an exception to my usual "no fictional words" rule and include this in the dictionary for two reasons: A) It's the word I get asked about most frequently by site visitors; and B) Temporarily abandoning their reticence to discuss lyric interpretations, Becker and Fagen kindly explained its exact meaning during an interview: "It exists only in our collective imagination. In the Steely Dan lexicon it serves as an archetype of a building that houses great corporations..."

I was grinding through my day gig / Stackin' cutouts at the Strand
Song: What A Shame About Me   Album: Two Against Nature

Books (also records or CDs) sold at heavily discounted prices, signified by a hole or notch punched into the cover.

This is done by publishers when clearing out large amounts of unwanted stock — the hole prevents bookshops returning unsold items to the publisher for full-price credit.