Saturday, November 6, 2010


Are you reelin' in the years
Stowin' away the time
Are you gatherin' up the tears
Have you had enough of mine

Steely Dan occupy a precarious shelf in the pop music pantheon, clinging to a ledge between California rock and coke-fueled jazz (they started with rock and drifted to jazz on later albums) zoned somewhere between the seventies and the eighties, a technically sophisticated band with slick production values that could easily have become dated if not for their patent weirdness. And they were weird. Formed around the dark nucleus of two feverish miscreants, Fagen and Becker, and named for an infamous sex toy in a William Burroughs novel (that should be a clue), the band was filled out with crack session musicians who provided a solid sound base while the bandleaders told tales of junkies and players, paranoids, dreamers, Cubans, pro ballplayers, bookkeepers, snipers, gauchos and the odd acid chemist. In another world they might have been just another Boz Scaggs, and their sheen might fit in perfectly with the schematic chrome and leather Scandinavian furniture in the Scagg soundscape, those giant eighties quadraphonic speakers in the corners and the glasses of expensive Scotch and lines of Bolivian marching powder--but slick as it may seem this is not that world, this is not Scaggs, and this band leaves the silk degrees of his sub-zero disco behind like the telltale granules sparkling on the running boards of Owsley's technicolor motor-home. This is Steely Dan, damnit! This is the day of the expanding man. The sound triggers a mid-seventies memory-burn but in different ways than the blues-based rock bands we listened to at the time, those heavy holdovers from the sixties, but this was probably playing in the background when we transitioned from keggers to cocktails while trying to keep our (imagined) outlaw edge. This music was adult, suddenly, as far as we could tell, and that was something we were desperately trying to figure out, something we figured everyone else had down cold, and we studied these clues as if they were travel brochures from an undiscovered country where everything was cool and sexy and soundtracked with languid jazzy solos. We would drink Scotch whiskey all night long and die behind the wheel. That was the deal. Too late to get your money back now, big guy. Chill. And pump up the quad mega-speakers to eleven.

Watching the 1973 clip from "Midnight Special," a network TV show (there were ONLY network shows back then) brings back a time. The second clip is just a couple years ago, but they're still chilly as Scotch on the rocks.

It seems like only yesterday
I gazed through the glass
At ramblers
Wild gamblers
That's all in the past...

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