Any man left on the Rio Grande

Back to the Gates of Edam at WMMCM, which is to say our foray into post-apocalytic pop. Big topics and powerful emotions and self-dramatizing angst in general are of course prime meat for rock ‘n’ roll, so here’s an apocalyptic song without any of that:

(Postage-stamped for well done but distracting visuals.)

King of the World link for the e-mail people. Fill in that little box on the right, and join the happy e-mail people!

Steely Dan’s “King of the World” is from 1973, and it is, of course, a radio call from a survivor — perhaps the sole survivor — of a nuclear disaster.

The song starts with a pulsing drum beat, soon joined by a bass playing a simple upward pattern and a jittery, funky guitar, set well back in the mix. The drummer’s rattling brushes suggest static as Donald Fagen’s voice comes in, sounding eager and even a little shouty:

Hello, one and all,
Was it you I used to know?
Can’t you hear me call
On this old ham radio?
All I got to say
I’m alive and feeling fine
If you come my way
You can share my poison wine

This guy seems earnest and well-meaning, and seems to be more lonely than frightened by his desperate situation. He even reassures anyone who may be hearing him that he won’t hold them up for money or assistance, and offers:

Show me where you are
You and I will spend this day
Driving in my car
Through the ruins of Santa Fe
(New Mexico wasn’t chosen as the setting by accident.)

The hooky chorus is less earnest and slicker than the verses in both sound and lyrics, and its last lines are particularly memorable for early Steely Dan:

No marigolds in the promised land
There’s a hole in the ground
Where they used to grow
Any man left on the Rio Grande
Is the king of the world
As far as I know

Our poor radio caller tries to comfort himself and fend off self-pity by remembering a world full of “assassins, cons, and rapers” and declaring “might as well die.” And in the end:


There’s no need to hide
Taking things the easy way
If I stay inside
I might live till Saturday

Been hearing this song for nearly 40 years, and that last line still gives me a little chill. Yet there’s no big drama or direct political commentary here, no singer-songwriter angst at all. Just an anecdote about a well meaning guy who wants to hear another human voice before the end of everything.

“King of the World” was an album track, and not typical in tone or topic of even early Steely Dan. Indeed, “King” swings along so well that it’s one of the few Steely Dan songs that generates covers. SD were not exactly known for invitingly singable tunes, but “King of the World” is as catchy a song as they ever produced — tragic theme and all.

About Bridey

Bridey has been a music nut since falling in love with Elton John's "Caribou" album in grade school (why that one? I was nine). She's a magazine editor by trade who writes regularly about radio, music, and related industries.
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