Aja. Steely Dan.
1977, ABC Records. Producer: Gary Katz.
Bootlegged from vinyl ca. 1983; bought ca. 1992.
IN A NUTSHELL: Jazz/Pop/Rock fusion that’s complex and gets more rewarding with each listen. The musicianship on display is outstanding and the songwriting is excellent. The lyrics – obscure and strange, yet somehow meaningful – could occupy a semester’s course in American Lit. But intricate though the songs may be, they always retain a pop appeal.
In retrospect, childhood is very much like blacking out from drinking too much alcohol. Maybe you’re one of those lucky, normally-functioning people with typical psychological issues that, while filled with traps and binds that can derail important aspects of your life, have at least never caused you to wake up in the lobby of a strange apartment building in your underwear, with no recollection of how or why you went there, your medulla oblongata – the only portion of the brain with some bit of functionality remaining after half a bottle of Two Fingers tequila and a couple six-packs of beer – having apparently made the executive decision that your beer-soaked pants were more necessary to keep your head off the tiled floor, than to keep your flabby legs and tighty-whitie-clad behind protected from strangers’ view. Perhaps – unlike me – you’ve never had the experience of blacking out from alcohol consumption. Well, reflect on your childhood and you’ll have a decent facsimile.
Surely you’ve experienced someone connected to your past – a parent, a friend, a sibling – telling a story from your childhood1 that is confirmed by everyone else, but that you have no memory of. “Really? I hid behind the dryer for the entire party? I couldn’t recognize that Santa was Uncle Bob?!” Maybe you’ve seen photographs to prove it really happened, and maybe your brain has made those photos into fake memories, but no matter how you try, you can’t really piece together what you were thinking or why you made those choices. These fully blacked-out memories of childhood are like myths of ancient gods. The best you can do is memorize them and appreciate they were real to certain people in the past, but there’s no point in trying to make them part of your reality.
More troubling, in a certain regard, are the many parts of childhood that you do remember, but which make no sense in retrospect. These memories are scenes from the boozy night that your brain captured before its memory-retaining functions began fully aborting – the lip-synching to old Wham! songs to entertain folks you don’t know; the argument with the history major dude over the legitimacy of the Ancient Astronaut Theory; that jar of peanut butter and the very large spoon. These events from a blackout are like those incidents from childhood that you know happened, but that have never made any sense – your uncle coming to stay at your house for a week; your friend’s mom always insisting you leave his house before his dad came home; your parents suddenly dropping you off at their friends’ house to play with that weird girl, and your aunt picking you up after dinner there and telling you mom and dad are busy, so you’re having a sleepover at her house.
These experiences, the ones that don’t make sense, help make adulthood seem very mysterious to a child. Adults do things that don’t make any sense, and when you ask them why, they say “It’s complicated,” or “You wouldn’t understand.” Or if you do badger them enough to get a story, it’s one that doesn’t add up in your 8 year old brain. “Mom had a procedure, and the doctor helped her, and she’s okay now, but she’ll be sad for a while,” said dad. Geez – I don’t know what a procedure is, or why the doctor helped, but if it was just going to make her sad, why did she decide to have it in the first place??
Kids are generally kept in the dark by parents, just one of the many ways adults treat children poorly. But as a parent, and in defense of parents’ actions, I’d like to say that the fact is that children are self-centered, unsophisticated louts who – even if they are capable of understanding some of life’s complexities – will usually be bored by any serious topic as soon as they realize its impact on their own life is merely tangential. I’m not being mean – it’s just the way kids’ brains are built. So as a parent, you try to give kids enough true information that their brains can handle2 while avoiding outright lies that a) mess with their heads; and b) are difficult for you, the liar, to keep straight!
So, between kids’ brains, parents’ information-filtering, and the fact that almost EVERYTHING ELSE IN A KID’S LIFE seems really friggin’ cool to a kid, adulthood is a vast, incomprehensible realm of mysterious responsibilities, strange customs and boring “fun,” and kids’ fleeting experiences there – waiting in line with mom at the bank, going to the auto parts store with dad – are so weird and dull that they’re happy to return to their Matrix of childhood.
When I was a kid, probably up through 7th or 8th grade, I never really cared much about the “adult world.” It was full of stuff that didn’t make sense – like barbershop quartet concerts, scheduling septic tank pumping, and an oft-mentioned-yet-unfulfilled desire to visit the Strasburg Railroad. It was a bizarre world, like Narnia, but with far fewer sword fights, lions and centaurs. But, naturally, as I moved through high school, the world of adults became more interesting while remaining largely indecipherable. Sure, everyday concerns like paying insurance premiums and tidying up after myself now made sense, but other facets I’d never considered – relationships (both romantic and with friends), jobs, the future – made adulthood a puzzle that, no matter how much I resisted or how long I procrastinated, I was going to have to delve into and solve.
Through high school, I felt like I was rushing at an inevitable, boring adulthood just like Wile E. Coyote toward a phony tunnel painted on the side of a desert plateau. Music was one of the ways I resisted. Albums were a deep pool of teenage rebellion I could submerge within. I liked music that the adults around me hated: Van Halen, U2, Rush and R.E.M. and Yes. Nothing too crazy, I know, but then again, I wasn’t all that rebellious. I FELT rebellious, but I was a good student, never got in trouble, never went to parties, obeyed my parents, went to church … But still, my love of music made me FEEL like I was a rebel, flipping the bird at my parents and adulthood. I’ve written before about my oldest sister’s milk-crate of 70s albums that she left at home when she moved to California. That crate was one source of weapons to arm my (admittedly feeble) internal rebel army, containing 70s Arena Rock Classics from bands like Styx and Kansas and Journey3
There was one album that was quite different from the others in that crate. Its songs were definitely rock, definitely of a nature that my brass-band and Bacharach-loving parents wouldn’t have cared for. But while the guitars and drums were intricate and cool, there was a complex, jazzy nature to the music as well, making me feel that I’d better listen a second (and third) time because I likely missed something the first. Also, the singer’s nasally, indifferent voice didn’t sound like the seemingly nut-viced, castrati-esque screechers in the other albums. But perhaps the biggest difference was the lyrics! No songs encouraging me to keep believin’, or asking “…let’s live together,” or encouraging a wayward son. The lyrics were unusual, bordering on incomprehensible, but they drew me in. They definitely meant something, they weren’t the word-salad efforts I’d heard from bands like Yes and R.E.M. There were clearly characters, obviously actions were taking place, or had taken place, but the stories were obscure. As with the music, the lyrics made me want to listen again. I wanted to know more.
This album, Aja, by Steely Dan, reminded me of adulthood. And while it is true that I was diving into music, in part, to avoid it, this record cast a different light on that supposedly boring road of adulthood that lay ahead, and made me think that maybe there were aspects of it – bends, rough patches, hidden paths off into the brush – that I hadn’t considered. The music sounded like something whose comprehension required a certain level of maturity, and the lyrics – hinting at bitterness and resignation, yet celebrating friendships and good living – reminded me of those inscrutable explanations from mom and dad; but these stories seemed like they hinted at truths about life. Listening to Aja made me feel like an adult, like I was in on that big mystery that had loomed before me for so long. The other records were an escape from the inevitable: Aja offered a new perspective on it.
Steely Dan are, effectively, the songwriting team of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. In the early 70s they had a regular band behind them, but as the years went by they stopped touring to focus on recording, so the duo dropped the band and began making records with session players they’d hire – typically jazz musicians, but always people who could read the music charts they’d write for the songs. They’ve built a dedicated fanbase over the years full of the types of people who maintain online dictionaries of the band’s lyrical references and databases of all kinds of Steely Dan content. Some folks consider Aja the best album they ever made.
Becker and Fagen got me thinking about adulthood right off the bat with the song “Black Cow.”
Now, as someone who grew up in rural PA, you can bet I’d seen my fair share of big black cows, but it made no sense for a band to write a song about one. The song opens with a very stylish bass figure, and starts the album with a subtle, “chill” kind of vibe. It’s got a bit of a dance groove, and jazzy guitar chords from jazz great Larry Carlton accenting each measure. When the vocals begin, those guitar chords turn into background phrases that are reconfigured throughout the entire song – the type of sound that made me want to listen again. It’s a mellow song, the type that non-Dan fans might dismiss as “background music,” but a close listen reveals a lot happening throughout. The backing vocals are very strong, as are Donald Fagan’s lead vocals. I’ve read that he never felt he was a good singer, but I appreciate his laconic style. As the narrator tells his story, it becomes clear that the black cow he’s talking about isn’t the type I saw down the road at Showers’ Dairy Farm. He tells a tale of being fed up with the party-girl woman in his life. He’s had enough of her druggy lifestyle (“you were high/it was a cryin’ disgrace”), her lies (“you change your name”), the all-night talks to get her through (“I’m the one/Who must make everything right/Talk it out ’til daylight”) … “Finish your childish drink and leave,” he tells her4. Coming from a family with parents who didn’t drink, didn’t argue, didn’t lie, didn’t talk things through all night … well, this was a snapshot of adulthood that I found intriguing. Finally it seemed like some adult was letting me in on the way things really were.
The next song, the title track “Aja,” offered even more grown-up sounds, and lyrics that confused more than they enlightened, but still made me think I was on a path to understanding.
This is a song that – for many Steely Dan fans – is considered The Masterwork: the perfect fusion of rock and pop and jazz5. I’m not going to spend much time breaking down the song, as it’s too complex a song for me to do well, and other writers have done a find job of it already. But it’s 8 minutes of music that, as with the opener, sounds “chill,” but takes a variety of excursions, with excellent solos by guitarist Denny Dias, an original member of the band, super-session-drummer Steve Gadd, and jazz titan Wayne Shorter on sax. The complexity of the music has always drawn me in, as have the strange lyrics that, as with most Steely Dan songs, has a narrator who knows exactly what he’s talking about and seems not to care whether you do or not. I, along with many Steely Dan fans, have spent time trying to decipher their meaning. Lines like “double-helix in the sky tonight/throw out the hardware/let’s do it right” are ripe for interpretation. I’ve always imagined it’s a simple story of a man trying to fit in among glamorous, upper class people (“up on the hill/they think I’m okay/or so they say”) but who finds that he always feels better with his girlfriend, Aja (“Aja/when all my dime dancing is through/I run to you”), who is Chinese (“Chinese music always sets me free/angular banjoes sound good to me”). That’s what I think now, but as a teen-ager facing adulthood the possible meanings seemed endless.
Next up in my peek behind the curtain of adulthood is the paean to losers, “Deacon Blue.”
The song opens with some nice chords and Fagen’s nasal voice, “This is the day/Of the expanding man…” The lyrics go on to describe a man imagining his life as a jazz saxophonist, in which he beds many women, steps up to bandstands to take solos, and drinks enough booze to die in a car crash. But it’s a dream he knows he’ll never attain. My own father seemed forever saddened by perceived lost opportunities and dreams unattained, and “Deacon Blues” spoke to me about adulthood at a gut-level, in a way I didn’t understand intellectually6. It made me think there was something sad, yet beautiful, about being a grown-up, that maybe there was more to those people carrying their unattained dreams with them, the “losers of the world,” than I understood. It sort of made them seem like winners just for continuing to carry that baggage. Musically, I love the little guitar licks throughout the piece, again played by Larry Carlton. And, although it sounds like damning with faint praise, I again LOVE the backing vocals. It’s a song to which The Wall Street Journal devoted page space last year, almost 40 years after its release, and probably one of the most unlikely songs to make the U.S. Top Twenty in 1978. I have in my head an idea for a movie script in which a man in his 50s decides to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. The film ends with him approaching the microphone at his first appearance at an open mike night, and “Deacon Blues” plays over the closing credits. I don’t know anything else about the story, but I know it will be a terrific ending.
Becker and Fagen next do their version of 70s funk in one of their most famous songs, “Peg.”
This is a song that – overplayed though it may be – always puts a smile on my face. It reminds me of being ten or eleven, and listening to songs on AM-1270, WLBR. It’s a “Pool Song,” so designated because it’s the type of song my sisters and I remember being played at the A-C Pool, where we spent many summers in our youth, and where WLBR played over the loudspeakers all day. And although it brings back memories of childhood joys, a close listen of the song reveals it’s as “adult” as all the others. The lyrics, which seem to speak of the narrator’s relationship with a starlet of some sort, are again obscure, and the music is more complex than most of the other disco tracks of 1977. It starts with a cool fanfare7 set over descending electric piano chords, and a sweet bass guitar backing, then the main song is introduced by perhaps my favorite three snare hits in all of pop music (at 0:13). The drums, by session man (of course) Rick Marotta, keep the song bouncing along, and – together with Chuck Rainey’s popping bass – provide a rhythm funky enough to be sampled by everyone from hip-hop artists like De La Soul8, to horrible, videogame-sounding, Norwegian techno doofuses. And of course, only a duo as obedient to their own muse as Steely Dan would interrupt a dance groove with Club Potential by inserting that cool, undanceable intro back into the song (1:26). That break is followed by a phenomenal solo by guitarist Jay Graydon, the 8th or 9th guitarist brought in to try to meet the demands of Becker and Fagen. About the only thing I don’t like about the track is the prominence of full-throated 70s/80s yacht-rock singer Michael McDonald.
It’s hard to pick a favorite song on this album. I really love “Aja” for its drum breaks and style, “Deacon Blues” for the feeling, and “Peg” for the groove. But maybe my favorite of all is the album’s closer, “Josie.”
That guitar opening is so spooky-sounding. I had a friend who used to play those opening chords on his guitar, and they are difficult chords – stretching the hand into stress positions for sure. It’s got a great groove, and again bassist Chuck Rainey shines – throwing in subtle sounds and nice slides. Jim Keltner’s tight drumming carries the song, and Walter Becker himself plays the guitar solos throughout. Lyrically, it’s another song that sure seems to be about something … Sometime in college I read that it was a song about an orgy. If so, it’s certainly the least-sexually-described orgy ever in the history of orgy descriptions. I researched Roman prayer9 (since Josie “prays like a Roman/with her eyes on fire”) and I guess the orgies of Bacchanalia might be what Fagen is referring to. But since wild parties of all types are often referred to as “Bacchanals,” it seems to be stretching things to say the song is “about an orgy.” To me it sounds like everyone is just really excited that Josie is back! I think – as with almost every Steely Dan song – the lyrics are written quite brilliantly in that, as general as they are, they are sung with a purpose so as to seem specific to each listener. In other words, the guy10 who said the song’s “about an orgy” had an orgy in mind, so that’s what the song became for him.
The songs “Home At Last” and “I Got The News” are in the vein of the others. Both have a groove: “Home At Last” is a slow jam about finding one’s place (and one of the few songs I’ve heard tip a hat to that piney Greek wine, retsina), while “I Got The News” is a bouncy gem with typically coded lyrics that will mean something to you.
Adulthood is weird. Even as an adult it’s weird. It’s like sobriety after years of blackout drinking. You find yourself doing all sorts of things you never thought you’d do, and – even worse – enjoying things you never thought you’d enjoy!! The mystery continues to unfold throughout your years, and if you thought it would all make sense by the time you were a grown-up, well, you were sorely mistaken. That tunnel painting on the side of the plateau that you’re rushing towards will become an actual tunnel, and you’ll enter it and run through it and never understand how it happened. And when you turn to look back through it you’ll see your teenage self bracing for impact. I don’t understand how I got here on the other side, but I know that music – including Aja – helped ease the way.
“Home At Last”
“I Got The News”