Some song lyrics are cryptic, but we don’t need to “figure out” the meaning. We can suspend disbelief and just live in the mood or the world they create.
“Here At The Western World” is certainly an oblique lyric (like those of most Steely Dan songs), but it’s one of those where the details are so specific, and hang together so well, that it’s hard to resist trying to sleuth out the story.
The music is laid back, smooth, almost innocuous (but this is SD, so the lyrics scratch the surface to reveal the darkness underneath). There’s an implied bossa nova rhythm (similar to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”/“Song for My Father”), which brings us to… South America.
No way could I pin down this song’s meaning on my own, so I googled a few times over the years, and found that the most coherent explication was this: it’s about Nazi war criminals who found refuge in South America after the war. The narrative zeros in on one character, who happens to be a junkie, a heroin addict in search of a fix.
Down at the Lido (Italian for a beach resort, but here probably a night club/restaurant) there’s sausage and beer, a German tipoff right off the bat. Search Wikipedia for “Klaus,” and Gestapo mass murderer Klaus Barbie — “The Butcher of Lyon” — is in the top five. He ended up living and thriving in Bolivia, hobnobbing with fellow fascists in high places, including dictator Hugo Banzer Suárez. Suárez was part German (the Banzer part), and has been called “a bantam rooster in uniform.” Klaus and the Rooster.
Our character, though he’s welcome at the fancy spots — he’s one of the boys — is headed for a seedier joint, a place where the mayor, not the president, hangs out, and where you might find a sailor “blacked out on the stairs.” A place to come in “out of the rain,” a place to score.
It has the feel of an opium den. “Knock twice” (the password?) for Ruth (ironically, a biblical name, that of a woman known for her great kindness) — she’s got the works; she’ll give you sweet taste (for $20). The silver key (needle) opens the red door (vein). It’s also been suggested that “skinny girl” is slang for a syringe. OK, maybe… it works here (pun intended).
The psychological core of this guy is revealed here:
In the night you hide from the madman
You’re longing to be
But it all comes out on the inside
He misses the days when the beast inside could run free, when he could inflict his hatred and cruelty on others with impunity. He longs to be that madman again, but he doesn’t have that kind of power any more. He’s old (needs a cane) and in hiding (even Klaus was eventually captured and sent to prison), tortured by unfulfilled desires. The only cure is a fix, “the sweetness you’ve been crying for.”
Why the Western World? Well, Bolivia is west of Germany, and the lyric puts the action in a specific place. The title, though, invites a more allusive take. This is where we live now, in a society where murderous fascists can hang with the mayor, and nobody cares. (Worth noting that American intelligence used Klaus Barbie’s services after the war in their fight against Communism.)
A note of interest: The lines “Where the sailor shuts out the sunrise” and “In the night you hide from the madman” were inspired by a poem called The Sailor by Joseph White:
Somewhere a sailor shuts out the sunrise
and speaks to himself,
“my dreams have come and gone, I cannot bear
another day without hope”
In the night he hides from the madman he has become…
Also from this poem: “The ship he captains and once loved is the cross he now bears” — entirely apt for this song’s protagonist. Other than a few poems at the site linked above, I’ve found zero information about Joseph White. How Becker and Fagen came across this poem is anybody’s guess.