The Meaning of “Hey Nineteen” by Steely Dan and the Setbacks They Faced While Making the Album ‘Gaucho’

Steely Dan famously challenged their fans with their complex musical structures and occasionally opaque lyrics. “Hey Nineteen,” however, represented one of their more straightforward, catchier efforts. They hit the Top 10 with the song in 1980.

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What was the song about? And how did the band overcome all sorts of setbacks to finish the album that contained it? Let’s make today a wonderful thing and find out all about “Hey Nineteen.”

An Album Years in the Making

Steely Dan earned a unique niche in the rock and roll world throughout the ’70s. They were less a band than a cast of guest stars rotating around the two constants, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who wrote all the music and lyrics. Fagen and Becker chose players from the worlds of rock, R&B, and jazz based on their needs for each song, and then pushed those players to the hilt with their perfectionism.

Yet for all that, they were still able to churn out an album a year from 1972 to 1977. Considering they essentially stopped touring in the middle of the decade, it seemed reasonable they could keep up that schedule. Yet there would be a three-year gap between Aja in 1977 and Gaucho, the album that included “Hey Nineteen,” in 1980.

The reasons for the delay? For one, Becker endured a series of personal problems. He was laid up for months after he was hit by a car while on a walk in New York City. His girlfriend also died of an overdose in Becker’s home in early 1980.

Recording Issues

Considering how meticulous they were in the studio, Fagen and Becker were understandably frustrated when a technical error cost them one of the songs on Gaucho. They had finished a version of a song called “The Second Arrangement” only to have an engineer accidentally erase it. When they tried to rerecord it, they couldn’t capture what they had done with the original, and shelved it. (That’s one of the main reasons the album is so short, clocking in just under 38 minutes.)

Luckily, they suffered no such issues with “Hey Nineteen.” It was one of the songs on the album where they used one of the first-ever drum machines to capture the drum sound they wanted (although Rick Marotta’s manual playing is also evident.) Fagen’s quirky keyboard fills, Becker’s diving bass lines, and Hugh McCracken’s soulful guitar lines provide the bulk of the instrumental flavor on the slyly funky track.

The wear and tear suffered by Becker and Fagen during the making of Gaucho went a long way in causing the 20-year hiatus the pair would take before recording together again as Steely Dan. As such, “Hey Nineteen” became the band’s final Top 10 single.

What Is “Hey Nineteen” About?

Although it’s always a slippery task in assigning a definitive meaning to a Steely Dan song, “Hey Nineteen” reveals itself pretty clearly, even on first listen. It tells the tale of an aging romancer feeling completely out of his element in trying to woo a much younger girl. Fagen and Becker were 32 and 30 years old, respectively, when the song came out, and we know from the title the girl in the song is 19. That should give you an idea of the separation.

After setting the stage with a recounting of his romantic misadventures in college, the narrator details how the age difference also causes a chasm in terms of their respective interests. The narrator’s love for ‘Retha Franklin is lost on this youngster (She don’t remember the Queen of Soul). At the very least, this guy is self-aware about his predicament: She thinks I’m crazy / But I’m just growing old.

He soothes his discomfort with drink and drugs (The Cuervo Gold / The fine Colombian). And he’s ultimately torn about whether to pursue, as the chorus shows him alternately pushing her away and trying to sweet-talk her. “Hey Nineteen” yields a typically no-holds-barred dissection of human frailty by Fagen and Becker, one where the smooth music softens the embarrassing blow being dealt.

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Photo by David Becker/WireImage

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