Tag Archives: Jazz-Rock

43rd Favorite: The Royal Scam, by Steely Dan


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The Royal Scam. Steely Dan.
1976, ABC Records. Producer: Gary Katz.
Purchased, 1985.

IN A NUTSHELL: Songwriters/maestros Walter Becker and Donald Fagen once again create jazz-influenced rock (or rock-influenced jazz?) and make it great by hiring the best studio musicians around. On this album, the pair turns loose several excellent guitarists who make the album a joy for a guitar fan like me. It’s sometimes funky, sometimes mellow, but always full of amazing drums, bass and guitar. And Fagen’s distinctive voice carries each song, making it a terrific listen time and time again.

NEW: Read some background next, below the line ↓ … Or skip right to the album review!
I love to be impressed. When I see some amazing performance or incredible demonstration by some other human – whether it’s artistic or scientific or weird or silly – I get excited. I get a buzz, a vibration, and I’m happy all day. I tell my friends. A lot. Too much. In fact, I become that gushing, annoying, blathering friend who tells you so many times how amazing something is that you end up thinking “I never want to see that thing, just ’cause he was so annoying about it.”

Because I love the feeling of being impressed, I probably get impressed too easily. I have to be careful that I don’t fall for hype. (I may or may not have exclaimed in the early aughts that The Vines[ref]I do like the band, but I did get swept up, for sure.[/ref] were going to be a household name.) But I try to be discerning – as much as I’m impressed by, say, the career of The Coen Brothers, I was able to recognize that Hail, Caesar! was crap. (But only after I saw it on opening weekend.)

Certain people and events and performances have impressed me so much that I carry that feeling of wonder at what I’ve seen around with me to this day. Even things I saw as a child have stuck with me. Here is a list of some of the people, events, performances that spring to mind when I think of what’s impressed me over the years.

Bo Jackson. Holy moley. He was an all star in two professional sports. And while he did strike out too much in his baseball career, that just means he was ahead of his time! (Or, possibly, that he was a better hitter than we thought!) He played during a time when I wasn’t following either MLB or the NFL very closely, but he was so supremely impressive that I still remember where I was when I heard he wouldn’t play football or baseball[ref]Of course, he was able to play big league ball after his injury, the only person ever to hit multiple home runs while playing with an artificial hip inside him![/ref] ever again; and I remember having a long conversation about it with another person who didn’t follow sports, who was also shocked by the news. Watch the ESPN 30 For 30 about him to get a sense of why he was so impressive. It wasn’t just his feats, it was also his humility[ref]This is probably the reason I was never overwhelmed by another 2-sport star, Deion Sanders. Unlike Deion, Bo never told you he was great; he let you see for yourself.[/ref].

The Monty Python Long Name Sketch. Since I first saw Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS as an eleven year old I’ve been impressed by almost everything I’ve seen them do. But for the combination of humor and smarts and just sheer “Holy crap! How’d they do that??!” astonishment, there is little to compare with the feature on Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crasscrenbon-fried-digger-dingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumble-meyer-spelterwasser-kurstlich-himbleeisen-bahnwagen-gutenabend-bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwustle-gerspurten-mitzweimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shönendanker-kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm. As with many sketches, this one doesn’t finish as strongly as it begins, but seeing the boys repeat that name over and over – I thought my 13 year old head was gonna explode! And I still feel that way about it.

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. This lengthy novel is by no means my favorite book[ref]It’s hard to pick one favorite, but right now I’d say it’s a tie between The Remains Of The Day and The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay.[/ref], however it was the most IMPRESSIVE book I’ve read. It combined history, future, science, engineering, politics, finance and the computer revolution into a generation-spanning story about … security. That’s right, he made the mundane details of security – codes, passwords, locks – fascinating by including them in a spellbinding mystery. The breadth and depth of Stephenson’s knowledge, and his ability to bring it all together into a fast-paced 1,000-page (gasp) novel was, well, impressive!

Julia (my wife). (Self-portrait, age 8.) I’ve known her for 24 years, and I’m still impressed almost every day. She can do anything – from planning, cooking food for and hosting a party for 100 people to winning every game we play. Mother, potter, gardener, environmental expert … there’s nothing she can’t do. She’s about the best athlete I’ve ever known, too. Played lacrosse with the men in college; and at her brother’s pre-wedding golf outing hit a straight drive down the fairway on the first golf swing she ever took, then beat half the guys there despite never playing the game before. (I did beat her by a couple strokes.)

Penn and Teller. Back in college in the late 80s I probably annoyed more people, and turned off more potential fans, over this duo than anyone else on this list. I know that because I was once told by a college roommate, “Shut the fuck up about Penn & Teller already, okay?!” They were funny, they were different, they were smart, they were amazing … I saw them first on David Letterman, saw them live in 1992, and continue to catch their act on TV and computer whenever I can.

Brittany Howard. It was my sister who first sent me a text asking if I’d heard Alabama Shakes yet. Then I found a link to their breakthrough song, “Hold On,” and I watched a radio station performance of it a million and a half times, and I was hooked. I saw the band in concert and they did not disappoint. Brittany plays guitar, she belts and wails, her band plays bluesy rock … The band’s second album, Sound and Color, is even better than the first.

Star Wars. I was 10 years old and in fifth grade when it was released, so I was even more easily impressed then than I am today. And even though I wasn’t really a space-kid, and I’d never been interested in shows like Star Trek or Space:1999, the fighting and effects and action of Star Wars blew me away. (Plus, it’s the only movie my dad ever took me to see, so that’s another reason I loved it.) The feeling was short-lived, though: by the time The Empire Strikes Back was released, I wasn’t even interested in seeing it.

Others Receiving Votes: 1) Live shows of Pearl Jam, Guided By Voices, Buffalo Tom, Elvis Costello and The Attractions (Fabulous Spinning Songbook). 2) Jackie Chan. 3) Gary Gulman. 4) Lady GaGa (because of Howard Stern performances and appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race.)

Steely Dan. The first time I heard Steely Dan, I thought they were scary. Actually, let me rephrase that: the first time I heard a song written by Steely Dan, I thought they were scary[ref]The first time I SAW THEM, I thought they were scary, too![/ref]. In the 70s, those simpler times before ads for in-home catheters and new, weird pharmaceuticals filled the television airwaves, companies like K-Tel and Ronco sold compilation albums via TV commercials, just like Sham-Wow® and Flex Seal®. My sisters and I were big-time consumers of these records. We didn’t care that they were lousy compilations, featuring either a) the original songs cut down to two-and-a-half minutes to cram as many as possible onto one LP; or b) the songs “as recorded by” studio musicians. In both cases, the deal from the record company was this: “you give us a couple of bucks, we’ll give you crappy versions of your favorite songs.” My sisters and I thought it was a bargain.

Some of these albums had catchy names, like Get It On! or Sound Explosion. We bought those albums, and we also bought the more mundanely titled Today’s Greatest Hits[ref]This album was recently up for sale on e-bay, where it did NOT sell for $6.[/ref], which featured hit songs as performed by some dudes called “The Realistics,” and a mis-titled version of Steely Dan’s big hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” For some reason the 7 year old me found that song – with its minor key, lyrical warning and use of some instrument called a “Flapamba” – quite spooky.

As I’ve written before, I got into Steely Dan by finding the album Aja in my eldest sister’s record collection. The band seemed adult and mysterious and they played catchy tunes. I eventually listened more closely to the musicians and was blown away by their virtuosity. Songwriters/bandleaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker hired the best studio musicians around and drove them mercilessly to achieve brilliance in their performance. I began buying Steely Dan albums, then went to college and met Dr. Dave, who was equally enamored with the musicianship on display – particularly the guitar work. They quickly became one more thing we bonded over.

The Royal Scam bowled me over right away, with a catchy song I’d heard on AOR radio a few times but hadn’t paid close attention to, “Kid Charlemagne.”

The opening drums and slightly dissonant electric piano opening the song provide a sense of anticipation. Then Fagen starts singing, and Chuck Rainey’s funky bass line begins. One aspect of Steely Dan music that’s often overlooked is the fact that they have many truly funky songs, and hiring musicians like Rainey is one of the reasons why. His bass line propels the song with just enough bounce and space; (check out the 6 seconds beginning at 0:40 to hear for yourself!) and together with drummer Bernard Purdie makes the song swing. Fagen himself was voted as the sixth most funkiest white boy in music, ahead of Justin Timberlake (!), in Complex magazine, and the touches he and two other keyboardists add – seemingly stray chords here and there – embellish the groove-fest. But the song kicks into top gear when Larry Carlton’s guitar enters the fray, at about 2:00. His solo that follows, beginning about 2:18, is angular and brilliant, sounding like it’s done only on the “black notes” of a keyboard (and given my lack of musical knowledge, maybe it is!). When the third verse begins, Carlton continues soloing behind the rest of the song, finishing with a fury beginning about 3:50. The funky drums and bass and the scorching guitar – if you’ve read any other posts of mine, you know these are the great triumvirate of musical excellence for me. Add in Fagen’s great phrasing on terrific lyrics about an aging LSD manufacturer, and it’s no wonder this is one of my favorite all-time songs.

Another exhibit in the Steely Dan Funk-orama is the terrific “Green Earrings,” a song so excellent the band needed TWO guitar players to perform the solos!

It’s another Chuck Rainey groove, with genius submerged but evident in its apparent simplicity. He and Purdie again work together perfectly. Where “Kid Charlemagne” had a sort of gritty feel, “Green Earrings” has more of a mellow groove, but the guitar work by Denny Dias and Elliott Randall is just as wonderful as Carlton’s. The song is more or less a jazz piece written to showcase the soloing of the pair. While many Steely Dan songs’ lyrics are spare or confusing, these seem like they were made up on the spot just to keep the song from being an instrumental. (The song “The Fez,” seemingly about condoms, also follows this path.) Two mellow solos, one around 2:06, and a second around 2:30 are jazzy but tough, giving a song a lift out of Yacht Rock territory. As does the outro solo, beginning about 3:19. The guitar touches throughout the song, such as the barely arpeggiated chords following the words “Greek” and “medallions,” at around 1:10, make me very happy.

There’s a groove to Steely Dan even in the songs that aren’t as upbeat. For example, “The Caves of Altamira,” a meditation on the role of art, and humankind’s innate desire to create. It’s a mellow song with sweet chord progressions that sound very much like jazz to my untrained ears, particularly the passage that links the chorus back to the verse, for example at 1:12. (Read more here to see what one trained person thinks.) Rainey and Purdie funk up the chorus quite nicely, but it’s very much a horn-based song, and I’m less interested in sax solos than I am in guitar solos.

Steely Dan bring the guitar for damn sure in the song “Don’t Take Me Alive,” another favorite of mine that once again features the fabulous Larry Carlton on guitar.

From the very beginning this song is all about the guitar, with a nasty opening chord and a dirty-sounding solo. It’s a song about a dangerous criminal on the run, sung from the perspective of the criminal who crossed his old man back in Oregon. The melody, rather perversely, is very much a catchy sing-along, inviting the listener to belt out about his “case of dynamite.” Carlton adds nice guitar touches throughout, and his snaky little solo at about 3 minutes signals a breakdown, the type Dan throws into many songs, and that always sound useful, not lazy[ref]Often times breakdowns in songs sound like somebody couldn’t figure out a good bridge, so they just decided to stop playing for a while.[/ref]. Carlton subtly solos along to a satisfying end.

With so many excellent studio musicians on board, it’s not surprising that Becker and Fagen would want to feature them, and the perfect song for this showcasing is the odd and brilliant “Sign In Stranger.”

A major part of rock and jazz music is improvised soloing, and this piece features the late Paul Griffin on piano and Elliot Randall on guitar, dueling within verses in a song about a distant land (planet??) filled with gangsters[ref]There is a Steely Dan Dictionary available to keep up with all their strange allusions and references. It is here where I learned “Mizar-five” is an outer-space reference.[/ref]. It’s got a laid-back bounce, with plenty of space for cool fills and noodles by the pair. Griffin’s piano in verse 1 is nice, but I get a big smile every time I hear Randall enter on guitar at 0:45. Each verse adds background vocals, building to the “just another scurvy brother” line at 2:46 (a favorite of mine and Dr. Dave’s!), where Griffin throws in a terrific piano solo, only to be outdone again (in my opinion; I’m a guitar guy) by Randall beginning at 3:37. The way Griffin and Randall work together throughout the piece is amazing: conjuring a yo-yo; answering a reference to Turkish union dues – despite the fact that nobody knows what that means. It’s evident on “Sign In Stranger” why Fagen and Becker hired the best musicians.

Steely Dan’s lyrics are oftentimes inscrutable, but they are frequently funny, as well. The funniest lyrics on this album are from the excellent, reggae-ish, talk-box fueled “Haitian Divorce.”

The song tells the story of lovers “Babs and Clean Willie,” whose love burned hot, but faded quickly – sending Babs to the island where, well, let’s just say seeds are sewn. The feature solo this time is by Dean Parks, playing a squonky guitar that sounds terrific (even though some jazz purists don’t agree.) Fagen’s vocals are particularly good on this one, on a melody with quite a range. The song is kind of goofy, but it still hit the top 20 in the U.K. And I like it despite/because of the goofiness!

The Royal Scam ends with two mid-tempo songs. “Everything You Did,” is a bitter confrontation with a cheating lover. It has great guitar from Larry Carlton (of course!), and a sly reference to country-rockers The Eagles. The title track is a swirling, sinister lament about the difficulties of immigrants in a new land. It’s a lengthy piece, with solo trumpet and strong backing vocals, and it ends the album on a dark note: not negative, just dark.

I remain impressed by both Steely Dan and The Royal Scam. I don’t require that albums feature either excellent musicianship or jazz chops to make my list of favorites. But Steely Dan do have both, and they put them together in a funky, groovy style that I love. On top of it all, on The Royal Scam they set the bar high for guitar-based rock, with songs that feature both the power and the grace of the electric guitar. I will always love to be impressed, and I’ll find something new to impress the shit out of me tomorrow. But I’m sure I’ll always remain blown away by Becker and Fagen.

The Royal Scam
“Kid Charlemagne”
“The Caves of Altamira”
“Don’t Take Me Alive”
“Sign In Stranger”
“The Fez”
“Green Earrings”
“Haitian Divorce”
“Everything You Did”
“The Royal Scam”


66th Favorite: Aja, by Steely Dan


Aja. Steely Dan.
1977, ABC Records. Producer: Gary Katz.
Bootlegged from vinyl ca. 1983; bought ca. 1992.

aja album

66 chipmunkIN 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.passed out Maybe you’re one of those lucky, normally-functioning people with typical psychological issues that, 2 fingerswhile 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 – santatelling a story from your childhood[ref]The story doesn’t have to be embarrassing, but if it is it really adds to the faux blackout experience.[/ref] 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 peanut butterare 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.

willisThese 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 griffinadults 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 handle[ref]There are lots of things kids just don’t understand. Irony comes to mind – particularly on great shows like Family Guy, where the distinction between laughing WITH Peter Griffin and laughing AT Peter Griffin is blurred in such a way that is pleasing to adults, but difficult for kids. Of course, you could pause the show every two minutes to explain, but I preferred the “You can’t watch that until you’re older” method. At least for the first kid. All subsequent kids are assumed to be the same age as the oldest, just to make household management simpler.[/ref] 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 quartetoft-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 coyoteadulthood 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 Journey[ref]I’ll admit, I sometimes wonder how different I’d have turned out if that crate instead contained albums by The Ramones and Iggy & The Stooges and The Buzzcocks. Would I be MORE well-adjusted, and so write a crappier blog, or LESS well-adjusted, and so would have already attained my artistic dreams (while admittedly be dead now from a drug overdose)??[/ref]

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. what doesBut 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 dan_1that 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.

dan_2Steely 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,black cow 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 black cow 2about 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 her[ref]I’m not sure if it’s an ice-cream, non-alcoholic Black Cow – owing to her childishness, or the alcoholic Kahlua drink, owing to her party-girlishness, but either one works in the story.[/ref]. 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 jazz[ref]If that description makes you nauseous, you are not alone. Like many artists with albums on my list, Steely Dan is an acquired taste.[/ref]. 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 dan_peanutsmember 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 dan5seemed 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 intellectually[ref]I wasn’t really sure back then whether the guy really was a sax player – and if so, how did he die so often and keep coming back?[/ref]. 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, dan4where 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 fanfare[ref]Which sounds horn-like, but I believe is actually Don Grolnick on the Clavinet.[/ref] 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 Soul[ref]My hip-hop knowledge begins in 1989 and ends in 1991. This song still sounds “dope” to me.[/ref], 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, dan6it’s certainly the least-sexually-described orgy ever in the history of orgy descriptions. I researched Roman prayer[ref]Wikipedia plus one other website is what I consider “research.”[/ref] (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 guy[ref]I’m pretty certain it was a dude who wrote the piece.[/ref] 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!! roadrunnerThe 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.

Track Listing:
“Black Cow”
“Deacon Blues”
“Home At Last”
“I Got The News”