But of course, all of this isn’t about ‘Gaucho’ or masculinity, really. It’s about trauma, about breaking a cycle you didn’t consent to entering.
Steely Dan’s Gaucho is a denouement, an enterprise centered on sensory triggers, like “the smell of prickly pear,” “studs that match your eyes,” and “charisma poured from the shadow.” It’s about the good, fleeting luxuries in life; worlds once familiar but now lost over the course of a changing time. In “My Rival,” when Donald Fagen sings “I still recall when I first held your hand in mine,” I think about the better years with my dad: how I’d fall asleep on his side of the bed and he’d carry me to mine, or how I’d write an imaginary song for my fake band and he’d ask me to sing it to him anyway. All of that came and went so quickly. He doesn’t remember those days anymore; I asked and he doesn’t. But still, I must carry them with me and watch them drift further and further away from where we are now.
Steely Dan’s songs speak to what many men my dad’s age do: They covet a life lost, or a life never started. When my mom gave me injections in the kitchen, he’d lay on the couch and watch Pawn Stars, M*A*S*H, or a car auction. Either he was uninterested in the medical marvel going on in the other room, or just plain ashamed of the organic boyhood nonexistent in his son. The only dangerous part about me was the worry I’d leave my femininity all over the place. I didn’t inherit his bad boy quarterback genes, only his penchant for quitting things. My dad is a character in a Steely Dan song reincarnated in the suburbs of an uninteresting town; a real-life wayback machine, because previous versions of himself are all he has left to talk about.
I suppose that eyes-in-the-rearview mentality stems from the lack of panash in his upbringing. Fathers would go to war and come back absent, abusive. But my Papaw, merely a toothless semi-truck driver from the boonies of central West Virginia, was a strict and physical disciplinarian at home for no outspoken reason. Junior, my uncle, hated him so much he ran away multiple times before dropping out of high school, joining a biker gang, and, eventually, getting hooked on PCP and killing himself with a shotgun on his parents’ patio. There are grumblings that he wasn’t Papaw’s son, which would explain why they never got along. But the only question I have the wherewithal to find an answer to is why is my dad so messed up.
When he tells my mom that he had a normal relationship with Papaw, it’s supplemented by stories of yelling fits, of ass beatings, and of nit-picks turned into unnecessary—and loud—arguments. When he quit the things he loved in high school, Papaw wasn’t there to tell him things would get better. When his brother died, it was more of the same. That’s what masculinity became for him: leaving loved ones behind to fend through the muck alone.
What do we make of the Average Joes who didn’t become Hollywood cokeheads and, instead, have shouldered generations of mental illness and death into their mundane, uninspired lives in the thick of a dying Rust Belt town? It’s the same type of guy who yells at the TV during sports because they think the players can hear them. They’ve hardened and put up walls only pierceable through nostalgia. So we dare them to throw a football as far across the backyard as they can; we tap the most unlikely storytellers and ask them to write the suburban cowards and alcoholic divorcees into the narratives. We give people like my dad an undeserved voice and make them the heroes of stories they’ll never live through. We give them albums like Gaucho.
But of course, all of this isn’t about Gaucho or masculinity, really. It’s about trauma, about breaking a cycle you didn’t consent to entering. Maybe it’s human nature to be a quitter, a loser. But I resist the idea that we must enter this world and, eventually, inflict harm on those we bring into it, too. But as far back as civilization stretches, humanity has been touched by trauma. We are born broken, shaken. The Silent Generation abused our Baby Boomer and Gen-X parents mercilessly and they gifted us with the same emotional beatdown. I can only speak about men, but the blueprint for how to raise a son has been so deftly fucked by the sons who came before them. It reaches backwards and backwards, and Gaucho, like its older sibling, Aja, glamorizes that generational agony.
Who wouldn’t want to sing about pornos and drug deals when you can hide behind the gaze of fictionality? Nobody wants to put their son’s body being ravaged by hormone withdrawal and body dysmorphia on a pedestal when they can, instead, bask in the glory of the polaroids taken of them drunk and shirtless with their high school buddies. Yes, Fagen and Becker were raucous drug addicts at the time of Gaucho. No, their benders weren’t cinematic, nor were they all that memorable. What made two strung-out nerds so cool? Nothing, so they made the juicy stuff up.
We give people like my dad an undeserved voice and make them the heroes of stories they’ll never live through. We give them albums like Gaucho.
Once I’d taken hormone therapy long enough to grow into my age, I, too, started dreaming of better places to go to, like New York City or Hollywood, and living lavishly beyond a medically stunted future. I spent so much time catching up that I’m just now starting my life. My dad is quick to talk about his proclaimed recklessness—how he got his ass beat for busting up a family stereo for no reason or how he would get so drunk he’d sleep in cars—by sauteing his stories with a pathetic seasoning of could’ve-beens—just as Fagen and Becker lauded the debauchery of the men they dreamed of being. This is what the sons of men who didn’t go to war have become, carriers of trauma and hurt that is much more generational, much more intrusive.
I don’t blame any of them for wishing they were greater than they actually were. My dad was going to be the quarterback. He could’ve been somebody and earned a real story to tell and made an offspring good enough to carry whatever torch he fashioned. “Living hard will take its toll,” the backing chorus on “Glamour Profession” wails. Dad’s got diabetes from drinking too much and doing too little, and his life is now dictated by the direction of an insulin needle. Him and I, we still don’t talk about survival, but you can see it in his eyes now, how he wishes he’d done so much more. But you can’t tell if he regrets not being braver, or whether or not he wishes he’d raised me gentler.
Matt Mitchell is a poet, music critic, and essayist from Northeast Ohio. He writes for Pitchfork, MTV, Bandcamp, Paste, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. They are the author of The Neon Hollywood Cowboy (Big Lucks, 2021).