There's been a resurgence of interest in Steely Dan, a band I've long loved that inspires wildly disparate opinions. Even in my case, it was an acquired taste. I had liked a couple of their songs off of classic rock radio, but in the 90s I had been captured by the orthodoxy of punk, meaning I automatically discounted smooth music and anything that smacked of virtuosity. In the summer of 2000 (one of the most fun I ever had) a coworker made me a Steely Dan mix tape and demanded that I give them a chance. I did, and something finally clicked. It might have helped that I was just getting into jazz at the time.
While I have been digging the Dan for over twenty years now, their songs can still surprise me. I was listening to Katy Lied the other week, and for the first time "Bad Sneakers" spoke to me on a new level. I had always enjoyed the song, and assumed that the lyrics were just another example of the group's playful "dark sarcasm." For whatever reason, I listened harder and found profound sadness. Every now and then Becker and Fagan let the hipster mask drop and got real about the human condition.
I realized the song was written from the point of view of someone either in a mental institution or rehab facility. The first part of the chorus is pretty harrowing: "I'm going insane/ Laughing at the frozen rain/ I'm so alone/ When they gonna bring me home?" Perhaps I was distracted by Michael McDonald's distinctive voice backing Fagan and wasn't paying attention to what they were saying. I'd always thought of the song being more wistful, rather than a cry for help.
I listened to it pretty much every day during my commute home at the end of the school year. Like the song itself, it's a time that brings complicated emotions. I am proud of the seniors who are graduating, but sad to lose them. I am looking forward to finally having a summer but stuck in some of the most intense and stressful work of the year in terms of grading and report writing. I'm usually doing this while exhausted, and this year, despite being easier than any school year since 2019, was still harder than any school year I had before the pandemic. Maybe I was internally mourning that fact and the knowledge that they're never "gonna bring me home" to a time when my job was hard but not overwhelming.
If you go online to sites where people parse song meanings you will find little consensus about "Bad Sneakers." That's usually the sign of a good song.