One of the biggest moments of your life is when you first discover how great Bob Dylan is. The question isn’t how you first experience Dylan’s music – as everybody does at some point – it’s what song of his you hear first. I’ll always remember the first time I heard ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’. ‘When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez/and it’s Easter time too’. At the time it seemed like such a beguilingly peculiar lyric with which to start a song. In-between there’s that lovely acoustic guitar lick that resolves itself, and then the drum kicks in just as he delivers this line – ‘and if you see Saint Annie, please tell her thanks a lot’, and that’s it, you’re hooked.
The second best? Well that’s a more difficult question, as in my case the why becomes less important than the how.
Without thinking, never a good idea, I’d normally say the Rolling Stones. But, and it is a but, I was always aware of their existence and excellence, even if, up until my mid-teenage years, I hadn’t listened to any of their records in their entirety, or owned any of them. Like The Beatles they’re such a pervasive influence on popular culture that avoiding exposure to their songs, through various forms of media, is a borderline impossibility. This was the case even in the nineties, never mind the multi and instant social media age we have today.
So it has to be Steely Dan then. I’ll start with the why, as that’s straight forward, they’re bloody marvellous. Now for the more important how – they’re the first band whose existence and excellence I discovered completely on my own, without the insistent recommendation of anybody else. Personal discoveries that improve your knowledge of a subject you love are always doubly special. As, especially if you’re young and a bit sullen, it makes you realise that life has the ability, the propensity even, to always surprise you and impart knowledge. That’s hope in a nutshell. That’s what discovering Steely Dan symbolises to me.
Of course there’s a bittersweet element to discoveries like this. You wonder what else is out there that you’ve yet to discover, musically, or otherwise, and whether you’ll ever. It also makes you lament that you didn’t discover it sooner, and in my case I was embarrassed as I immediately thought of all the shitty stuff I’d listened to in my teenage years, when I could and should’ve been listening to this instead.
Anyway, onto the next question. To sum up Steely Dan’s brilliance and my own experience of discovering their music, which song and or album would I pick? Because I’m a spineless twat I’ve given myself a significant margin for error and picked their two best albums; “Can’t Buy a Thrill” and “Aja”.
I had to include “Can’t Buy a Thrill” because it was the first Dan record I ever listened to, and appropriately it was their first record. A nice symmetry I think. In retrospect I’m glad I stumbled on Thrill first as it’s a more immediately accessible album.
The first song I heard from the album was ‘Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)’. The lyrics are vague. My thematic interpretation was of the vagaries and hypocrisy of those who profit from and or use prostitution, the album cover certainly aids that interpretation; ‘A race of angels bound with one another/A dish of dollars laid out for all to see’. The girls grouped together, the punter flashing his cash? ‘A tower room at Eden Rock/His golf at noon for free’. Because he gets his golf for free its okay for him to show some extravagance when paying for it? ‘Brooklyn owns the charmer under me’, especially as it’s sung as the elevating hook, a euphemism for ‘I’ll be back again?’ Or perhaps I just have a dirty mind.
The first thing that attracted me was the composition of ‘Brooklyn’ not its lyrical nuances. Great songs are always able to capture you with their sound, allowing them to reveal its lyrical worth later. ‘Brooklyn’ has that haunting pedal steel with a country accent running through it continuously, providing a melancholic juxtaposition with the warmth of Palmer’s voice, the lyrics and that uplifting chorus. Which in my interpretation makes sense as it is being sung by the satisfied and ‘tragic’ punter.
That ‘Brooklyn’ isn’t sung by Fagen, and having listened to their discography, it can’t be considered the quintessential Dan song. Neither is ‘Dirty Work’, another belter off Thrill which also features Palmer as the lead vocalist. The difference between ‘Dirty Work’ and ‘Brooklyn’ is structurally ‘Dirty Work’ features brass and the electric piano more than the guitars. It’s actually a template for many on the songs on their later album “Aja”.
If we apply it comparatively with the entirety of Dan’s discography that’s the theme and use of “Can’t Buy A thrill”, its sound is its main appeal. The result is an album which sounds like a classic, but not a classic belonging to Steely Dan. “Can’t Buy a Thrill” was them experimenting while also providing a record of commercial value that would appeal to contemporary tastes. Dan weren’t honing their song writing craft, as every song is a winner, they were using it to hone their sound, or finding what sound they wanted to be theirs. The album is eclectic with influences and holistic in approach. ‘Do it again’, one of the best tracks on the album, relies heavy on the Electric piano synonymous with sixties Psychedelia. ‘Midnight Cruiser’ has more in common with the sound of early seventies rock, with its choruses sung in synchronicity, a device that was synonymous with other acts at the time, such as Big Star, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and the Doobie Brothers.
That David Palmer left Steely Dan so early probably helped force Becker and Fagen in a certain direction, or into a decision rather, one that meant centring their songs on Fagen’s vocal style of delivery. Accident or not it was a change for the better. There’s no question that technically Palmer’s a better singer than Fagen, but Palmer’s voice is generic. Fagen’s voice has a distinct flavour. The delivery is conversational and unimposing, the accent clear, and the tone dry. It places the emphasis on inflections when required, and at no point overwhelms the lyrics. It’s no surprise really, some of the most memorable music is sung by those who aren’t considered to be great or even good singers, whether it be Cash, Dylan or Hendrix. Their voices aren’t good enough to distract from their main talent, and crucially it isn’t enough of weakness to subtract from it.
So it’s no surprise that by the time they’d reached “Aja” that Fagen’s prose had been given more space to operate. In retrospect I can’t explain why I listened to “Aja” last, but I’m glad, as it turned out I’d saved their best for last.
Upon first listen the first thing that struck me is the progression, or should I say subtle metamorphosis, is clearly linear through “Pretzel Logic” and “Katy Lied” to “Aja”. The various jazz subgenres that appeared fleetingly on “Can’t Buy a Thrill” come to the forefront on “Aja”. There is also a greater emphasis on brass at the expense of guitars, which still make an appearance, but often as an adornment, not as the song’s foundation.
‘Aja’ is the weakest of the tracks on the album. Steely Dan do melodic choruses as well as anyone but there’s not really one here. The constituent parts of ‘Aja’ are of course highly proficient, and in isolation enjoyable, but as a song it never quite transcends the some of its parts. When I say weak I’m talking comparatively to the rest of the album. ‘Aja’ is still a good song. ‘Home at last’, delievers the promise that ‘Aja’ threatens to. It’s my second favourite song on the album, purely for the guitar work near the end over that horn section. Pure gravy.
‘Peg’ and ‘Black Cow’ is Fagen at his best. ‘Black Cow’ earns bonus points for being sampled by MF Doom. The slower subdued rhythm of ‘Black Cow’ helps set the scene of a Dive Bar, and matches the mood of Fagen’s satirical take of the effects that an addict’s addiction has on others. It crests with the brass punching as Fagen delivers his putdown of ‘Seems so clear, That it’s Over now, Drink your big Black Cow, And get out of here.’ Of course the song makes much more sense when you discover that ‘Black Cow’ is a type of cocktail. No metaphorical meaning here then.
Of all the songs on “Aja” ‘Peg’ actually shares the most in common with “Can’t Buy a Thrill”. There’s a quicker tempo set by the pinching guitar, the melodic chorus using Michael McDonald’s overdubbed voice, and there’s no brass. Yet it doesn’t feel out place with “Aja” as an album. Peg was also sampled by De La Soul, so not only is “Aja” a classic, it helped spawn classics in another genre.
Speaking of classics, that brings us to ‘Deacon Blues’, Steely Dan’s crowning achievement. The only negative here is that an awful Scottish band formed in the eighties, who made kitsch pop suitable only for naff wine bars, named themselves ‘Deacon Blue’ after the song. I consider this tantamount to slander and the defacement of greatness. Not on. Also my Mum and Dad owned some of Deacon Blue’s stuff on cassette and they used to play it in the car, often. Too often.
On that point, appropriately, ‘Deacon Blues’ is about attempting to escape from the mundane. Fagen tells of character who decides to make a go of it as Jazz musician even if he’s acutely aware that failure is possible or even likely, ‘You call me a fool/You say it’s a crazy scheme, This one’s for real /I already bought the dream’. And part of the reason he’s so tempted is he cannot resist imagining what the perks of being a musician are, ‘I crawl like a viper/Through these suburban streets, Make love to these women/Languid and bittersweet’. These lyrics, added to that sultry trad jazz sax, makes me disingenuously envision an idyllic bygone era of style and glamour that cannot be touched or reclaimed. It would be the perfect score for a screen adaptation of one of Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled crime novels.
I’ll come clean, this visual interpretation of ‘Deacon Blues’ is influenced by the knowledge of where the name ‘Steely Dan’ is taken from. The term appears in ‘Naked Lunch‘, written by William S. Burroughs, which itself is a novel about escapism into the existential capability of one’s own mind through chemical assistance:
‘The reader follows the narration of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases, from the US to Mexico, eventually to Tangier and the dreamlike Interzone. The vignettes (which Burroughs called “routines”) are drawn from Burroughs’ own experience in these places, and his addiction to drugs (heroin, morphine, and while in Tangier, “Majoun“—a strong marijuana confection—as well as a Germanopioid, brand name Eukodol, of which he wrote frequently)’.
I could easily see ‘Deacon Blues’ being an ode to Burrough’s experiences, with Becker and Fagen quoting or embellishing their own experiences as aspiring musicians, or of others they encountered.
Someone I know and whose opinion I respect says that the main sax solo in ‘Deacon Blues’ is too long and self-indulgent. I have to respectfully disagree. It fits with the song’s narrative of the need for a hedonistic escapism through self expression; ‘I cried when I wrote this song/Sue me if I play too long’ and offers a much needed break from Fagen’s sarcastically droll prose. Just as the character in the song is delighting and over indulging in his moment, the sax solo also prepares you to do the same with final verse to bookend the narrative. You already know it’s the precursor for that chorus to return, and you’re aware, even before the sax solo ends, that it’ll be for one last glorious time:
This is the night
Of the expanding the man
I take one last drag
As I approach the stand
I cried when I wrote this song
Sue me if I play too long
This brother is free
I’ll be what I want to be
I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I’ll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whisky all night long
And die behind the wheel
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
‘Drink Scotch whiskey all night long, and die behind the wheel’ – I don’t know whether this is a reference to the death of Jackson Pollock, a famous American artist in the fifties, who was also a hardcore alcoholic. He killed himself by driving into a tree, while tanked up, of course. That’s the popular cultural inference I drew from that lyric in ‘Deacon Blues’. Is that what Fagen was referring to? That Pollock lived a life of hedonism without consideration of the consequences? That essentially he was as ‘free’ as the character in ‘Deacon Blues’ aspires to be? I don’t know, and I’m afraid to find out in case it isn’t. In case this song isn’t a sophisticated and brilliant as I think it is. But I’m sure that’s how it’s meant to be interpreted. Every time I listen to ‘Deacon Blues’ it reminds me of the power of self discovery, and that this invariably provokes a cognitive accord with other aspects of cultural excellence, as ‘Deacon Blues’, and Steely Dan, both firmly belong to that sphere.