Monday, July 23, 2012

Countdown to (Musical) Ecstasy: Learning to Love Steely Dan

As the years go by, my musical tastes have been changing about as dramatically as my life priorities.  Around the age of 19, I had immersed myself so fully into punk rock that I despised any music that smacked of smoothness and artifice.  (That punk rock isn't completely authentic and is also full of artifice was something I was too blind to see at the time.)  Similarly, there was a time in my early thirties when I thought I was going to live the rest of my days as a bohemian bachelor a la Charles Bukowski comforted only by wine, books, and old records.  The life changes are pretty obvious, since I am now happily married with two daughters and much less prone to flights of drunken depression.  My musical tastes have seen radical changes as well, as I am now much more likely to put Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic on the turntable than Never Mind the Bollocks It's the Sex Pistols.

I'd like to think this change has to do with broadening my tastes rather than going soft.  (My 19 year old self would have thought the latter.  I still remember when I was about that age, and a friend of my mom's asked if I listened to jazz, and I said, "no, but I probably will once I get old."  Man, young people can be obnoxious.)  I first got interested in Steely Dan during the fateful year I spent working as a librarian in Chicago between my master's degree and going on to a doctoral program.  It was the summer of 2000, and a new guy working in my department shared my obsessive love of music.  We traded some mix tapes (remember those?), which he used to preach the gospel of Steely Dan.  Since this guy really seemed to have good taste in music, I decided to give the Dan another shot, and eventually picked up a used copy of one of their compilations. A lot had changed since I was 19, namely that I had dove into the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, preparing me for the jazz-soaked Dan.

I dug the music on that CD alright, but the wheels really tumbled into place sometime in the next year, when I was driving around and the local classic rock station was playing album sides.  (Remember when classic rock radio was actually interesting?)  They put on side two of Pretzel Logic, and it really blew me away.  I had made the mistake of entering Steely Dan via a compilation, which was a huge mistake because their albums are such unitary, cohesive objects that the songs lose a lot of their power when ripped from their context.  That makes them a group profoundly unsuited to listening to music on an iPod, and for a blog post such as this.  Nevertheless, I'll give a shot, and provide some tracks that might make you think twice about an unfairly maligned band.

"Reeling in the Years"
Before I started listening to their albums, this is the one song I really associated in a positive way with Steely Dan.  Considering my musical tastes at the time, it's easy to understand, since this song has got badass guitars all the place.  The lyrics also contain some acidic put-downs of that kind appreciated by a young misanthrope such as myself in my earlier days.  After years in academia, the line "The things that pass for knowledge I can't understand" resonates with me now more than ever.

"Rikki, Don't Lose That Number"
This was the second song that drew me in, mostly because it's just a perfect little pop gem.  It also makes me picture a fern bar in the 1970s with dudes sporting fly collars displaying their chest hair on the prowl for young hotties in peasant dresses and oversize sunglasses.

Here's a classic example of the seediness of Steely Dan's lyrics and the darker meanings beneath the bright surfaces.  The singer is trying to dissuade the title character from appearing in a "foreign movie," which is a euphemism for a porno.  It's hard to figure out, considering that you're probably enraptured by the outtasite jazzy guitar solo and the multi-tracking of Michael McDonald's background vocals.  (When Becker and Fagen explained how this track came together for the Classic Albums series, I was pretty floored.)

"Boston Rag"
My Platonic ideals of Rock Guitar are the intro from "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" by Jimi Hendrix and the solo on Television's "See No Evil."  Yes, they are pretty damn transcendent, but the finely textured guitar on this song throws me for a loop in a totally different way.

"My Old School"
Kiss offs don't get better than this tune, which references Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's alma mater of Bard College, and not in the kind of way that'll get mentioned in the alumni newsletter.  "When California tumbles into the sea/ that's when I'll go back to Annandale" is pretty much how I real about East Texas after leaving it.

"Any Major Dude Will Tell You"
Speaking of East Texas, it was there that I managed to find Pretzel Logic on vinyl in an antique store that had a bunch of unorganized but often fantastic records in the back.  (I guess the place wasn't all bad.)  On glum days "when the demon is at your door," of which there were many back then, I used to play this song for comfort.

"Any World (That I'm Welcome To)"
"Any world that I'm welcome to/ Is better than the one I come from."  Best description of growing up in a place you hate I've ever heard.  (More on that below.)  Or of the disgust of living in a world governed by such violence and stupidity as ours.

"Deacon Blues"
This song is by far my favorite, mostly for the lyrics.  Although I had always heard that Becker and Fagen were New York City guys who migrated to LA, I recently discovered that Fagen had been born and raised in postwar suburban New Jersey, which came as no surprise.  I know from personal experience that those who grow up in staid environments and feel like outcasts within them often go on to become fiercely bohemian in their attitude.  After a childhood of getting picked last in gym and not having friends who can appreciate avant-garde music, living an unconventional adulthood in a big city can be a very satisfying middle finger to years spent suffering in spiritual jail.  The narrator of this song is just one of these people, a jazz musician who does not cave into popular tastes but plays "just what I feel."  In a little jab to the squares who might look down on him, he says, "They got a name for the winners in the world/ I want a name when I lose/ They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/ Call me Deacon Blues."  It's a kind of celebration of being an outcast, an act of defiance that makes the narrator a "loser" in the eyes of others, but satisfied with the fact that he can play his music, drink his whiskey, and live an authentic life.  It's actually quite a punk rock statement, and one that my 19 year old self would have totally understood.

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