When Black Friday Comes
I'm Gonna Dig Myself a Hole
It turns out Walter Becker & Donald Fagen were guests on a episode of the great Marian McPartland’s “Piano Jazz” radio show! They did a live version of “Josie.” Unlike on most of her shows, she didn’t play with them. Check it out.
This Friday, Nov. 24 is “Black Friday,” which is of course the day after Thanksgiving. But that’s not what this Steely Dan song is about:
and here’s a live version, with the late Walter Becker on guitar:
You can read the lyrics here (I don’t want to show them since that might be a copyright violation!).
You’re thinking: WTF??? “I’m going to fly down to Muswellbrook” ?? “Catch the grey men when they dive from the 14th floor” ??
Spoiler: “Black Friday” has nothing to do with Shopping Day. It’s all about financial panics. Of course, you can choose not to take that literally, and think instead it’s about rock stars who’ve been living it up, and eventually the day of reckoning will come. Or “panic” can be a metaphor. You can read the fans’ theories on all this here.
Nowadays we joke about “the zombie apocalypse” meaning, “when everything goes south.” Don’t worry about that disaster, by the way: the CDC has your back!
"You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this," the CDC wrote on its website. "And hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency."
What Was the Real Black Friday?
You can easily find out from Google that it was Sept. 24, 1869. Note that year is an 18, not 19: a little over four years after the Civil War ended, and only six months into Ulysses S. Grant’s first Presidential term.
Inflation and Disinflation
(This is a grossly oversimplified, Junior High-level discussion of economics. If you want to be pedantic, skip over this section and find something better online. This article’s about music, not monetary theory.)
We know when there’s inflation because the prices of everything are going up. In deflation, they’re all going down. Economists tell us it’s really one price going up or down: the value of money.
When a country is “on the gold standard,” it can only create as much paper money as it has gold. It might print a billion more dollars of paper money, but as long as someone holding it can exchange it for gold, the price level will go up, because those paper dollars are worth less. The price of gold in terms of dollars will rise. This tends to give confidence to holders of the paper money, because the government can’t devalue it too much.
The US went off the gold standard during the Civil War, in order to escape this iron discipline and print more dollars to finance the war. Naturally, this had inflationary effects on the North because there were too many dollars in circulation.
After the war, there was a steady attempt to get those paper dollars out of circulation and get back on the gold standard. The Treasury did this by selling gold periodically and retiring the paper money. Here’s a scholarly article on this sort of disinflation.
These regular sales meant that the government had a knob to turn gold prices up or down, and naturally, investors could speculate on how it would turn the knob. Gold was traded in a special “gold room” in New York (see the cartoon below).
Enter a leading capitalist of the era, Jay Gould (a “robber baron” as he was called) who knew an opportunity when he saw one: he was going to corner the market on gold!
He tried to do this by convincing President Grant to agree not to sell any gold for a month. This would make its price go up, and Gould and his partner Jim Fisk
would then unload their gold hordes at a massive profit. You can read the full details here.
However, Grant eventually figured out that he’d been conned, and ordered the sale of $4 million in gold on Friday, Sept. 24, 1869. This caused the price to crash, making it Black Friday.
That adjective for a weekday stuck, and the next big Black day was Black Thursday, Oct. 24, 1929, commonly marked as the beginning of the Great Depression.
So that’s what the song is about: when the fertilizer hits the fan. The CDC tells you to have at least a gallon of water per day per member of your family. Steely Dan has a more panicked response in mind: get the hell out. Now let’s look at some of those metaphors.
Gray Men When They Dive from the 14th Floor
There’s a persistent myth that rich people, realizing they’ve been ruined, committed suicide by jumping out of windows in their skyscrapers. It’s an urban myth, both for Black Monday or Black Thursday, as this article and this video make clear. It never happened.
I’ll Fly Down to Muswellbrook
Remember there was no Google Maps when this song was recorded; now we can easily tell that Muswellbrook is here: a town in Australia north of Sydney.
in other words, when the shit hits the fan, he’s going to escape from it all and fly to Australia, before any of his colleagues find out. “Muswellbrook” also has the correct number of syllables and rhymes with “book.”
Fleeing there won’t work, by the way. Australia’s integrated into the world economy.
Strike All The Big Red Words
I suppose “red” means “financial losses,” i.e. red ink.
The Archbishop’s Gonna Sanctify Me
Confession: I’d always heard this as “the Archbishop won’t sanctify me.” but all the official lyrics say “gonna” and not “won’t” and listening, I realize I was wrong.
I’ve looked online for some explanation and come up almost empty. Except for this, which hypothesizes that he’s going to come back to Wall Street, newly blessed, and really kick some butt. I don’t know about this one.
Black Friday is the first song on the great Katy Lied album. Instead of going to the mall on Friday (does anyone do that anymore?), listen to it.