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Steely Dan's "Third World Man" - Meaning of Lyrics?

Discussion in 'Music to Your Ears' started by JayFreddy, Jan 9, 2013.

  1. JayFreddy

    JayFreddy Poster Extraordinaire

    Nov 6, 2006
    Dallas TX USA

    The other thread about Steely Dan's "Here At The Western World" got me thinking about Third World Man...

    Right from the first time I heard it, it took my breath away, and it still does. Along with Here At The Western World, it's long been one of my favorite Steely Dan tunes, as well as one of Larry Carleton's greatest guitar solos ever, IMHO.

    I've been listening to this song for 30+ years, and I just realized that I don't understand what the lyrics mean. The song has different meanings for me, as it has resurfaced in my life over and over again, as great music is prone to do.

    Can anyone help explain the meaning of the lyrics to this tune? Thanks in advance!

    (ps. I don't think it's about firearms, although from watching the above video montage, obviously that's what someone else thinks it's about... )

  2. MojoMonster

    MojoMonster Tele-Meister

    Jul 16, 2010
    Baton Rouge, La
    According to this guy:
    And yet this one thinks
    Ghana is a coastal western African country known for its gold trade.
    A rondo is a style of "classical" music writing, exemplified by the final movement of J.S. Bach's E Major Violin Concerto and the last movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Op. 13.
    (cribbed from Wikipedia)

    I think it's just commentary about 3rd world politics and the anguish they cause.

  3. Brett Fuzz

    Brett Fuzz Tele-Holic

    Feb 10, 2012
    Melbourne, Australia
    Not sure either, but one of my all time favourite Steely Dan songs.

    Larry Carlton played some great lead on many S.D. tunes another being Kid Charlemagne.

  4. getbent

    getbent Telefied Ad Free Member

    I think the general oeuvre of steely dan is wry self mockery and absolute dismissal of the middle class while recognizing their own membership. They are the original anti hipster hipsters... the guys who sneer best at kind of everything but are kind of endearing because they sneer the most at themselves and the absurdity that their own observations are utterly self indicting and yet, they make no effort to be any different and kind of seem to enjoy the dichotomy of their position.

    I think this song is just that... Johnny is NOT a third world man. He is like a trustafarian, someone who is 'deeply concerned' and feels threatened by the very real terror in the world away from, say, the valley... but, doesn't actually do anything and couldn't even if he wanted.

    Johnny is the guy in your suburban neighborhood with the monster truck, the camo and a 'material' collection and who talks about things he never actually does...

    Even his quasi use of a foreign language is lame and incorrect but very tough sounding and mock serious... Johnny... he is a clown.

  5. Jazzassin

    Jazzassin TDPRI Member

    Feb 16, 2010
    "Third World Man" originally had another title and lyrics.
    It was called "Were You Blind That Day", and the new lyrics was probably done during the "Gaucho" sessions. The origins of the song is hard to find trustworthy info about. Some say it's a leftover from the material they worked on for "Katy Lied" in '75. This is subject to discussion though, as some claim it was written for Aja ('77) and others think it was actually not written until around the time of recording the Gaucho album (1980). And again, some thinks it was based on a Carlton solo lying around after the "The Royal Scam" sessions in '76.
    It has been unofficially released on various compilations like "Gaucho demos & outtakes", "KL Outtakes" and more. It's the same recording on all of them, and the arrangement and lineup indicates that at least this version must've been recorded during the Gaucho sessions. It actually sounds much like the same recording that became TWM, only with the first lyrics version. This does of course not mean the song couldn't originally have been written years earlier.
    Brian Sweet's book "Reelin' In The Years" tells the story of the song being a leftover from Aja, as if it were an undisputable fact, but then again Sweet's book has recieved lukewarm welcomes from fans because of its inaccuracy.

    Anyway, a lo-fi version "picked up from the studio floor" can be heard here:

    TWM found its way to the Gaucho album much thanks to a fatal incident in the studio. A recording assistant accidentally deleted a finished song called "The Second Arrangement", which has since been something of a holy grail to many Steely Dan fans. The story is well known I guess.
    Anyway, they needed another song to fill up the album, recorded "Were You Blind That Day", had some more trouble - both recording wise and personal problems, Donald changed the lyrics to the song and put it on the album.

    Firearms or no firearms?

    The liner notes on "Alive In America" (1995) says the following about Third World Man:

    "Minor chords. Brooding. Scary little kid. Terrorists, media, identities. Oedipal transposition. How resolved?"

    The funny thing about SD lyrics interpretations is that there's as many opinions as there's fans. And Donald & Walter rarely helps out. They usually just say things like: "We don't usually analyze our own lyrics. We have other people doing that for us."

    Anyone interested in reading old SD lyrics interpretations by diehard fans should visit this archived page and have some amusing hours:

    For specific TWM lyrics interpretations:

    Btw, Donald Fagen is 65 years old today.

  6. Telemarkman

    Telemarkman Doctor of Teleocity Ad Free Member

    Dec 6, 2005
    Thanks for the insightful post, Jazzassin!

  7. charlie chitlin

    charlie chitlin Doctor of Teleocity Ad Free Member

    Mar 17, 2003
    Spring City, Pa
    What's a Steely Dan song about?
    About 3-and-a-half minutes long.

  8. enterprise

    enterprise Tele-Meister

    Dec 18, 2012
    Kid Charlemagne is great. It is about Owsley Stanley.

  9. banjohabit

    banjohabit Tele-Holic

    Mar 17, 2011
    nailed it ! the attitude is one of the most endearing qualities of steely dan music to me. i'm not too sure some of it even works without it. the weariness of the narrator in "black cow" is as much weariness of watching oneself knowingly being decieved as it is weariness of an unfaithful lover. there is no desperation, an air of detachment permeates the song.

    fagan rarely points the finger without pointing one back at himself.

  10. JayFreddy

    JayFreddy Poster Extraordinaire

    Nov 6, 2006
    Dallas TX USA
    Thank you! That was truly AWESOME!

    Seriously, I had no idea, and you just completely educated me.

    Next time I'm buying the beer... Someday!

    Thanks very much! :D :oops: :D

  11. Jazzassin

    Jazzassin TDPRI Member

    Feb 16, 2010
    Thanks. I'm glad you found it interesting!

    Sorry not to be able to "explain" the lyrics myself, as I think there's no definite answer. I believe they write their lyrics the way they do partly to engage the listener's own creativity by often offering a snapshot of a situation or a short story to which we don't know the prologue or ending, partly to always make them match the music like a glove in terms of pronunciation and the phonetic and rhythmic attributes of the words.
    They have repeatedly said in interviews that to them, the words are always subsequent to the music. Pretty funny when you take in consideration that despite this, their lyrics has generated more curiousity, analysis, discussions and extolment than most artists dare dream about.
    Steely Dan lyrics interpretations/ discussions can be good fun as long as one don't insist on having the final blueprint of course. All the suggestions in this thread are good, imo.
    I think your experience of the Dan lyrics having different meanings depending on where you are in your own life is pretty common for most fans, and it just confirms you are healthy and sane. ;)

  12. Jazzassin

    Jazzassin TDPRI Member

    Feb 16, 2010
    MojoMonster, I couldnt get the system to include your external quotes in my reply, so I just copy/paste here what I want to comment on.

    "E'lera del terzo mondo" doesn't have a direct translation to my knowledge, but it is at least losely based on several romantic languages, like Italian, Spanish and Portugese.
    "Lera" - read - Spanish root
    "del" - of the - Spanish root
    "terzo" - third - Italian direct translation
    "mondo" - world - Spanish root

    It vaguely translates to "He reads of the Third World"

    If you put the phrase "L'era del terzo mondo" into a translation page, choose Italian as input language and English as output, you'll get the same result from all but one (at least from the handful of different pages I tried), namely "The era of the third world".
    The exception was which suggested "It was of the third world".

    Anyway, here's a nice acoustic cover version of Third World Man:


  13. trangen

    trangen NEW MEMBER!

    Dec 15, 2013
    Los Angeles
    Steely Dan Lyrics and Kid Charlemange

    When I was in college, I saw a Psychology class book, that was used in instruction and it was titled Poems and Parables (or something like that, don't quote me), but in it I scanned through were the Lyrics for SD Kid Charlemagne & Royal Scam, I was amazed. The lyrics for KC & Royal Scam are actually quite deep as are the music to both tunes.

    ON another topic, it was said that The Eagles used the same theme as SD to write their Hotel California hit song, in that it was about imaginary Hotel, that some say was about San Quentin, "you can check out, but you can never leave".

    The Eagles said SD wrote lyrics about nothing-ness or just imaginary characters, so they did the same with Hotel California.

    There are exceptions, and that is the Royal Scam lyrics are just deep deep.

    You can to to YouTube and watch documentaries 1 hour long movie about how SD made Aja, And in it Becker and Fagen both said, when they came out to west coast they continued to write about East Coast Characters, and and after Gaucho, when they went back to East coast, they immediately started writing about West coast characters. Kind of like Ulysis delima about trying to get home. or Longing for home. Hence, the song Home at Last.

  14. Paul in Colorado

    Paul in Colorado Doctor of Teleocity Ad Free Member

    Mar 17, 2003
    Fort Collins, CO
    The line "steely knives" in Hotel California was a nod of the hat to Steely Dan, the group.

  15. Wyzsard

    Wyzsard Friend of Leo's

    just a song about a kid playing Army

    what's Fagen think of kids playing Army ?

    I dunno


  16. stnmtthw

    stnmtthw Friend of Leo's

    Apr 2, 2012
    New Mexico
    I read it as a little kid learns to play and glamorize war, then grows up and either gets sent off to or comes back from a war with PTSD. A pretty common theme during the post-Vietnam years in America.

    Lots of good theories on here. I have no idea what the hell Steely Dan were talking about half the time, but it's fun to try and figure it out.

  17. Gregg.G.Goucho

    Gregg.G.Goucho NEW MEMBER!

    Oct 29, 2015
    East Coast
    Meaning Of Lyrics

    Well, you can always argue perspective, when someone says this is what I think the lyrics mean, but I've decided that to be a futile effort these days...

    I think the 3rd World Man is seen from different perspectives in the song, at various times... for example, the 1st 3rd World Man is someone who makes money off the misery of others, is my own personal perspective of it... I could be wrong, of course... anyway, the 2nd 3rd World Man (Smokey Sunday) in the song is, the revolutionary fighter, "mobilized since dawn, crouching on the lawn"... he's the pawn in the con of the 1st 3rd World Man, he's the guy who buys all the weapons from... you guessed it, Johnny, the 1st 3rd World guy. Do a little research on the Military Industrial Complex (if you haven't already), a speech given by Eisenhower back in the day (don't know exactly which one), and you may see the song in a new light.

    Anyway... that's all the s'plain'n I have time for now... I'd have to look at the song more though, but I just enjoy listening to it so much, still over and over after all this time... it almost makes what they're saying, secondary, because whatever it is, you know it's something good just by the music. And you don't mind taking a lifetime or two figuring it out... to me, that's great music.

  18. teletimetx

    teletimetx Poster Extraordinaire

    Jul 25, 2011
    Houston, TX
    Steely Dan's "Third World Man" - Meaning of Lyrics?

    I will leave the lyrical interpretation to others. There's probably some hay to be made about the Argentine/Italian connection. Just want to add a few thoughts about one line that seems to be avoiding translation. I'm thinking it's all Italian, with a artistic turn for a contraction.

    "era" is the past imperfect for essere (to be) and the conjugate for he was, in Italian.
    Of course, the word for "he" is lui. But spoken Italian uses as many contractions as any other language.
    So, el'era = he was.
    Terzo is Italian, mondo is Italian. The Spanish word is for world is "mundo".
    What's the title of this song?

    Just my two cents.

    Btw, Jazz nice acoustic version - thanks for posting.

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