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Made Alive a Worldly Wonder

I can assure you that in 1976 or so, The Royal Scam album by Steely Dan was a thing, man. It was not a happy time, and the zeitgeist called for Don’t Take Me Alive, Kid Charlemagne, and the titular Royal Scam. It was certainly a heavy-duty yin to the soon to be released Saturday Night Fever soundtrack’s yang. It’s easy to assume that SNF would be a happy movie, what with the disco thang happenin’, but it was pretty dark, all in all, when it was coherent enough to make any kind of point. The Royal Scam cohered, bigtime, and it had a point: A toboggan ride into the smoking volcanic crater of the preceding decade.

Disco is only superficially happy anyway. It was sort of the Dancing Plague of 1518 with a Giorgio Moroder beat this time around. A year later, the most popular disco song began with the singers simply yelling AWW, FREAK OUT! to open the number. I didn’t need the advice.

But it’s one of the (more) offbeat numbers on The Royal Scam record that stuck with me. Kid Charlemagne and Don’t Take Me Alive haven’t completely worn out their welcome with me or anything, but they’re like Freebird or Stairway to Heaven in Steely Dan’s catalog. I’ve heard them enough already, thanks. But The Caves of Altamira still rattles around in my head from time to time. It’s a little flash fiction story set to music. I recall when I was small, how I spent my days alone…

Jaysus, only Steely Dan would think of writing a jazzrock song about something like the Caves of Altamira. If you’re not familiar with the topic, there’s a series of caves in northern Spain where prehistoric men painted stuff on the walls. How old are they? They figure the oldest of them are from 36,000 (!) years ago.

They’re colorful and interesting in their own right, and instantly recognizable for the things they depict, unlike modern art.:

But those aren’t the ones that really grab a fellow. These do:

There could be a lot of reasons for painting pictures of the local bison on the walls. I can really only think of one reason to lay your palm on the rock and blow pigment around it. A man understands that the world is a harsh place, and his time on earth is limited, and wants to leave some evidence of himself that lasts longer than he does. I was here! It was the best you could do, you know, when there wasn’t even any Hollywood.

Well, we all mostly try to outlast our fresh sale date in one way or another. We make mini-mes and write sonnets and put up obelisks and whatnot. Steely Dan wrote songs, and recorded them, which makes them artifacts. Not many people outside of talentless performance artists with NEA grants expect to destroy the artifacts they produce. You want to make something that sticks, at least a little bit.

So there’s a Steely Dan Ensemble at UMass Lowell in Massachusetts. That in itself cracks me up. I’ve been drunk at UMass Lowell, so I’m sorta familiar with it, but I never would have figured this would be a thing. But it is:

That trombone opening. Yeah, seventies doom, all over again.

It’s an oddball song, but it’s as close to a happy tune as Steely Dan is capable of, at least if you’re a bit of an outcast. The poor kids are forced to wear masks on their chins, so they probably connect with the sentiments of a song about spending their days alone, and making a world of their own to dream away in.

They heard the call and they wrote it on the wall for you and me we understood.

Is There Gas In The Panzer?

Yes, there’s gas in the panzer. The Dan are, however, out of practice:

[Update: Many thanks to Hank for his generous smash on the Ko-Fi tip jar. It is much appreciated]

Dear Savior, The Girls

Jayzuz, Jayzuz, Jayzuz.

They try and they try and they try. They attempt to make movies about the seventies. Maybe they drag in Burt Reynolds for cred. Of course he couldn’t remember what he had for lunch that day, never mind the seventies, but the attempt was there. Then the producer says, “Get me that Bradlando Bloompitt guy or what’s his name, Viggonardo DeCapricrowe, and have them ride around in GTOs and Chevelles and pick up groovy chicks and go to the disco and shit. And music, we need some of that seventies music, you know, Zed Leper and the Bee Goys and Earth, Wind, Ohio, and the Players. Get on the horn to wardrobe. We need lots of leather jackets and miniskirts or something. Whatever.”

No, no, no. It wasn’t like that. It was like this. This is the seventies. You should be driving a Datsun B210 with the back wing window busted out and plastic taped over the hole. You don’t need a movie star. You need a sort of R&B Gollum banging on a grand piano for some reason. Someone needs to be making noises through an upholstered amplifier fashioned from the back seat of the Munster Koach. Everyone must be barking through an SM-58. They buried that SM-57 microphone shtick in a shallow grave along with the Beach Boys.You should have not one, but two Telecasters being worried in the band. The drummer should be wearing lavender coveralls without a shirt on underneath and go to Karen Carpenter’s hairdresser, if not her nutritionist. The lead guitarist’s mind should be wandering, working out how he can turn his fuzz wah pedal into a rudimentary missile defense system while he lays down the licks.

And the girls. Dear savior, the girls.

Sir Loin of Beef

Oops, my mistake. At first I thought it was Sir Osis of Liver. Then I mistook it for Sir Loin of Beef. But it’s actually the Dukes of September.

You have to call your bad something, I suppose. I don’t think they stayed up all night to come up with that one. At any rate, this one summer back in the seventies, this Isley Brothers song was played ’round the clock on the FM.

The Full Renfield

Steely Dan on the Letterman show, with a five year gap.

It’s funny, but Steely Dan is famous for featuring a string of guitar heroes on their records. Regular folks know who Skunk Baxter is. Jazz devotees know who Larry Carlton is. People familiar with LA studio musicians know who Dean Parks is. People familiar with the original Dan know who Denny Dias is. There’s a cavalcade of other heavy hitters sprinkled over their records and live shows. They’re all sorta the best guitarist in the world. Walter Becker was better than all of them.

He’s playing guitar front and center here, but that wasn’t always the case. If you watch ancient iterations of the band, he’s playing the bass of all things. He’s quite pedestrian at it. He knows the role the instrument is supposed to play, and doesn’t try to show off, ever, by playing the guitar on the bass, like most (all) bass players who wish they were guitarists. He probably played bass because no one else would do it, and it needed doing. Paul McCartney was like that. There are just too many guitar players already. Here, play this thing.

The guitar hero that Steely Dan sorta settled on after a long while, at least for live shows, Jon Herington, is about as cool a customer as the band ever had. He doesn’t play like anyone. He plays like everyone, all in one package. He’s what you’d get when every someone remembers every music lesson they ever had, and they had one every day, forever.

I don’t know what Walter Becker was, or what he knew to get that way. Junkie, I gather. A hard life, and not all self-inflicted wounds, either, unlike most rock tragedies. He looked like lots of guys did back in the seventies. Owlish. Long, greasy hair. They liked pornography and digital watches and modding calculators to do funny stuff. Not nerds, exactly. Much smarter than the nerds, just not interested in making the honor roll. Certainly not cool, either. Becker’s famous for songwriting, if he’s famous at all. Since Fagen is the voice for Steely Dan vocals, Fagen became the public face of the band, the Moe. Becker was the Larry Fine, I guess. A cipher. Curly was an amalgam of all those other guys they hired, frantically running around musically trying to stay hired.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more fluid and inventive guitar player than Walter Becker, and that includes three dozen of the most fluid and inventive guitar players in the world that they had in their band at one time or another. He never does anything whatsoever to show off. He just endlessly invents musical stuff, seemingly on the fly, and never hesitates, or sticks too long in one place, or goes ernie, ernie, ernie high up the neck because he ran out of ideas and the solo’s not supposed to be over yet.

And Fagen? There’s five years between those two performances. He seems to have spent the interregnum at Dr. Seward’s place. He was always amusingly weird, but that second performance, with his shop class eyeglasses, a keytar straitjacket, and his fangs sharpened, pushed him into the front rank at the Hall of Fame of Strange for me, god bless him.

He went full Renfield. You never go full Renfield.

Let’s Hear It For the Diminutive King of the Franks

I know they didn’t intend it that way, but Steely Dan lyrics are like a torture device for Japanese singers. Forget melisma. They don’t have dipthongs. Steely Dan is a dipthong factory. The song starts with while, for gosh sake. Sake, not sake, I meant.

Did Steely Dan ever dream they’d be a champion in their eyes? They said they did, obliquely, anyway. They testified under oath that angular banjos sounded good to them. But you always hurt the ones you love, don’t you? Careful what you carry is borderline cruel, dudes.

The band is uber-Japanese. No, they’re not in a cab. They apologize in the YouTube description of the video. So much face. So little time:

Sorry for a mistake in the interlude guitar solo. We will update the song soon.

It’s just another thing that Steely Dan got exactly right for the Rising Sun market. I imagine that many a session guitarist looked at Becker and Fagen and said, “Sorry for the mistake in the interlude guitar solo,” knowing full well it would be their last day on the job.

Still, here we are. Steely Dan is worshiped a bit in Japan. They’re not THE God. But they’re gods, surely.

Three Old Men Having Fun

Back towards the tail end of my stint as a working musician, my friends and I had a name for our band, strictly for internal use: Four Old Men Having Fun. I was in my early forties at the time. We understood that what we were doing was ultimately a young person’s game, even though we were still doing it. Unlike many of our contemporaries, we didn’t have any ego problem that would interfere with acknowledging the growing absurdity of it. It seemed plenty absurd to me before we got old, so for me the transition was seamless.

Music wasn’t our real profession, though. Don’t get me wrong. We performed a lot and got checks with more than one zero on them. That was the whole point of it. We had regular occupations and played music at night and on the weekends to make some extra money. When we were younger we met lots of pretty girls and when we got older we used the money we earned to buy formula for the babies we had with the girls. 

I have no complaints. I simply stopped doing it. It was easy for me to stop because I was stopping being what I wasn’t.  It’s not so easy for people who are musicians whether the sun’s up or not. They are what they is, as they say. They don’t want to stop being musicians because then they stop being people. A few prominent people in the arts, who don’t want to keep slugging it out in a fickle industry, open wineries or some such enterprise when they want to live my life in reverse, but most are still trying to sing Hope I Die Before I Get Old right up until they’re screwing down the lid.

I find that most of the interesting songwriters in pop music are basically scholars. Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and people like Donald Fagen are bookworms for music. They perform their own stuff, but they would probably be just as happy if they were like Jimmy Webb or Rogers and Hammerstein or a million other guys that sat in a walkup office with a piano and a pile of foolscap and wrote music all day. I’m pretty sure that Fagen and Becker actually tried their hand at being Brill Building-type drones before the music business decided that it was simply cheaper and easier to have all the bands write their own stuff. Man, the Beatles ruined everything.

I found it amusing to watch the Three Old Men Having Fun resurrecting the Isley Brothers Who’s That Lady. Pop music doesn’t cure cancer or anything, but you can always find interesting things in it if you look around. Donald Fagen isn’t about to seine the Seventies looking for material and come up with The Candy Man. He has better taste than that. Who’s That Lady was a great piece of pop when it first came out. It’s been mostly overlooked in the recycled music industry, so it was both a surprise and familiar for the audience of geezers. That’s the secret to good covers.

I found all sorts of things interesting in that video: Bog Gas is performing with the wreckage of Steely Dan now? Fascinating. After all these years, Michael McDonald still doesn’t know the difference between a cardioid and an omnidirectional microphone? He pulls his head away from the microphone too abruptly at the end of phrases. In about ten more years, are you going to be able to tell the difference between Donald Fagen and Stephen Hawking without nametags? I used to think the Gibson SG was the worst guitar ever made, but now that I’ve seen Jon Herrington play one, is it possible that it’s worse than the worst guitar ever made? It makes him play badly, at least for him.

I’m moderately surprised that was a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. It’s not that goofy an idea, I suppose. Mean Joe Greene (Giuseppe Verdi) was a pop artist, and opera was the equivalent of the top forty on AM radio back in the day. Sometimes only the passage of time gives things cultural weight. But man, if you asked me in 1974 if the Isleys would be covered in the Metropolitan Opera House by Bog Gas and Steely Dan, I would have said that’s impossible. And tried to buy tickets.

The International Language of Love: Steely Dan

I’ll have a Number Seven, with a side of miso soup.

There are numerous trite opportunities to mention raying down the raw and blaking it, but  I urge you not to. We must experience the Dopamines in their native habitat, and appreciate the forces that produce a Steely Dan cover band at the Sumida Street Jazz Festival in Tokyo. We must appreciate it all the way to the the tinny goodness of that last wan cymbal hit by the drummer.

The United States of America took over the world, you know, without firing a shot, really. The wars were sideshows. A Steely Dan cover band at the Sumida Street Jazz Festival makes building a triumphal arch somewhere superfluous. When Japanese people sing, “angular banjos sound good to me,” we’ve crossed a pop culture Rubicon that can’t be forded in reverse.

The United States of America has led the world out into a wilderness. It has a responsibility to go forward. Moses didn’t take the Jews into the desert, turn around, and say, “Now what do you want to do? I’m wide open here.”

The United States must keep going. Angular banjos don’t really sound that great.

I Just Posted Five Minutes of Some Guy Fixing Donald Fagen’s Fender Rhodes on My Blog

That was it. That right there. That’s it. That was me posting like five minutes of some guy fixing Donald Fagen’s Fender Rhodes. But it’s just, like, some guy. It’s Donald Fagen’s Fender Rhodes. He’s not Donald Fagen. He’s not Donald Fagen at all. Not even a little. I don’t even think he’s the guy that fixed Donald Fagen’s Fender Rhodes. You know, the 1973 Fender Suitcase 88 that Donald Fagen owns. He was just hanging around handy, ready to play it for no reason. Me? I was alive and walking the Earth in 1973, and now I hear a Fender Rhodes of that vintage needs fixing. I mean, I couldn’t drive, or drink beer, or anything, but I was alive. I couldn’t drive and drink beer, either. Either one, or both together. For those of you younger than Donald Fagen’s Fender Suitcase 88, driving and drinking hasn’t always been a crime. It used to be an activity. Now it’s worse than Hitler. And Hitler couldn’t even play the Fender Rhodes, so I’m not sure why I brought it up. He did have some 88s built for him, but they were anti-aircraft guns, not electric pianos. They were a little heavy in the bass register, as I recall. The anti-aircraft guns, not the pianos. The pianos sound just fine in the bass register. Well, they do after you fix them. If they’re old, I mean. If you fix them because they’re old, and then play them, even though you didn’t fix them, and you don’t own them, they sound good anyway.

Tag: Steely Dan

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