I struggle with Steely Dan. When I was a kid on Long Island in the 1970s, suburban New York was awash with the mellow, edgeless sounds of Steely Dan coming down the powerful FM airwaves (“no static at all”). Not that I could articulate it at the time, but they represented a sort-of grown-up, studied jazzy pop that had little to do with the stuff that had immediate appeal like the the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Five, and later punk rock and post-punk/new wave influences. In fact, Steely Dan stood in stark contrast in the late ’70s to music coming from even mainstream acts like Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, the Allman Brothers, and Patti Smith. Grown-up smooth stuff did not appeal. “Clinical” was the term often used to describe their meticulously recorded, perfectionist sounds.
But I can’t say I hated most of it. It was like aural wall paper. I mean, there were some SD songs that I absolutely hated, like that one about Dr. Wu. But then there were some pop songs like “Reeling in the Years,” “Peg,” “Hey Nineteen” and my real fave of theirs, “My Old School.” That’s just a blast of early ’70s R&B.; Nothing to dislike there. And I have this funny home video of my 12 y.o. daughter singing to “Any major Dude,’ which her masochistic substitute music/chorus teacher subjected on a bunch of fifth graders last year.
“Deacon Blues.” That’s just a head-scratcher to me. I think there were times in my life that I actively disliked this song. I don’t think it was around the time it came out and was all over the radio. I think the dislike came later, in the ’80s, when I started to get further away from the mainstream in my musical tastes (or the mainstream moved from me). By that time I was playing guitar. I was never a finesse player, knew only basic chords and scales, and suffered from both a lack of ambition and a lack of desire to learn more than was necessary to play Clash, Neil Young, and Stones songs. And “Deacon Blues” is just too damned smooth sometimes. Crazy-assed chords.
Many who follow this blog and related social networking sites of mine are already up-to-date with my ongoing struggles with the Dan. But a funny thing happened: I started listening and paying attention to this song that had been omnipresent in my life. I feel like I have come 180 degrees on this song. In fact, it has been an obsession for the past year. The lyric is genius. The protagonist ranks up there with distrustful and delusional suburban narrators of post-war AmLit. like Frank Bascombe, Harry Angstrom and the like. The humor is biting and ironic: “I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets/Make love to these women, languid and bittersweet.” And of course, the famous refrain (which probably went by my 1000 times before I really paid attention). “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.” But there is also real pathos there to match the gorgeous chord progression (someone called it “Ellingtonian,” I believe) and the absolutely sublime melody. “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.”
Those lines were echoed in other songs later on, such as Prince’s “I was dreaming when I wrote this, so sue me if I go to fast.” And maybe it is Prince, or Ron Isley who inspired my falsetto here. Honestly, I raised the key because the original is too high for me to sing in the same octave as Fagan, so by raising it, I thought my low ocatve would be high enough. I realized after I recorded the guitars that this was not so. Rather than scrap the track, I tried falsetto, which I ended up liking a lot. [Edit: I redid the vocal.]
[Edit: Years later, here was my take:]
Eager to hear comments about other songs in people’s lives that they have changed their minds about, or anything in art/life for that matter. As we grow, we mature, maybe the mind even opens up some more. I am also eager to hear interpretations of this song’s lyric.