Friday, May 27, 2011

CoTW 104 -- Deacon Blues

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.

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.

Deacon Blues mp3.


Jeff said...

For years, I couldn't stand "Everybody's Talking." Maybe it was a similar association to hearing it on the radio as a kid and just not liking the sound of it. A couple of years ago, Jesse Malin's cover gave me a new appreciation for the song and then I went back to the Nilsson recording of it (I think Fred Neill wrote it, but Nilsson had the hit version).

Kind of like a food that you've convinced yourself you don't like even though you haven't tried it in 20 years. Sometimes you have to go back with an open mind.

Figgsrock2 said...

I'll admit to being turned off to a lot of classic rock in college because a) I was introduced to The Replacements and Husker Du and b) I ended up working at my hometown classic rock station after my junior year. I got burned out on tons of songs and artists after hearing them over and over again every 90 minutes.

Flash forward to 18 years later and I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Tuseday's Gone" at a bar. And I was stunned by how much the lyrics hit me as a 39 year-old man. I downloaded it as soon as I got to my computer. And that song turned around my opinion on much of Skynyrd's catalog.

drischord said...

Two of my favorite bands of all time: Buffalo Tom and Steely Dan.

EAP said...

I think the problem with revisiting songs we once hated/dismissed is the role of nostalgia in coloring our perception. Case in point....I hated Guns N Roses with a passion but good bad or indifferent, Appetite for Destruction was everywhere my senior year of high school. I hear any song from that album and I think of that time in my life. So do I really like it now or just what it represents? One thing i am certain of however is Steely Dan will always be God-awful.

Bill Janovitz said...

Interesting comments.

EAP, you mention nostalgia as if it is a diagnosis of a problem. I feel nostalgia is as valid a reason as any to explain enjoyment of any art, particularly popular art -- movies, music, literature. In fact, it is a primary force for me in enjoying such things as well as writing my own work.

But I am with you in some respects. I was sort of agnostic about many acts in the 1970s/early '80s, like Tom Petty, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, and many others that were all over the radio when I was a kid. I took it for granted. I still have no deep love for any of those acts as I do my long-lasting favorites, but I really enjoy much of their music and love when I hear some of that on the radio now. It stands in stark contrast to newer music, to the point that I feel like an old guy.

For example, I still feel recorded music never sounded (sonically/production-wise) as great as it did in the late 1970s. Is that because it was when I came of age? Probably. But there is also actual technical explanations and sound reasoning (excuse the pun). Analog recording technology reached its apex at that time. Some of the greatest producers and engineers were hitting their peaks, as were some of the great bands and acts. And yeah, I feel like an old guy when I say things like that.

But each era has its acts that did not make much of a blip for me at the time but now sound better than most of what one hears on the radio. That phenomenon has more to do with the particular older wheat being separated out from the chafe, and lasting over the years. We are always hearing the chafe with the wheat in the present. We have to weed through it all. Or something.

Greg said...

Springsteen's Tunnel Of Love album.

Did not like it at all when it came out when I was 17. But by the time I hit my 30's I thought it was one of his best.

Wow, and you hate Dr. Wu? Once I grew up and realized Katy was the drug, I think it's one of the best songs about addiction out there.

Randy Reichardt said...

(1/2) Well, wow. Don't know where to start, Bill. My favorite bands of all time, after The Beatles, are Steely Dan and Buffalo Tom.

I disliked the Dan until I heard Katy Lied. Something twigged in me, and I started to get into them. My brother would always tell me I needed to listen to the "Steely Dan t-shirt song", Show Biz Kids, but I would ignore his suggestion. Eventually, and to this day, I grew to love Dan music. The perfectionism didn't bother me. The band seemed to excel at embedding brilliant, searing guitar solos into many songs. The melodies, the cryptic lyrics, the weird topics chosen for some of the songs: mass murderers, post-apocalyptic survival, dying junkies, prehistoric cave drawings, etc.

Ironically, Deacon Blues was never one of my favorite Dan songs for melody, but for lyrics, it blew my mind. As for trying to play it on the guitar, I would do my best to follow along with the sheet music, but I would give up in frustration after a while, despite loving that opening chord progression. Crazy-assed chords indeed. I like how you changed to opening here to something more basic and accessible.

You ask about songs or other things about which we have changed our minds much later. I can think of two movies right away: Local Hero and Bladerunner. Neither film did anything for me when I first saw them, but months later, each had somehow burrowed its way into my thoughts and wouldn't let go until I saw each one a second time. Why did this happen? I don't know. Maybe my subconscious was trying to tell me that I had given up too easily. The gentleness of Local Hero and the bleakness of Bladerunner resonate with me to this day.

When Rikki Don't Lose That Number appeared on the charts in the mid-70s, I thought the song stunk. It wasn't until two or three years later, after I had got into the Katy Lied album and started to revisit the earlier Dan did the song start to work for me.

As we mature and grow older, I do believe that the mind opens up to other possibilities and interpretations.

In 1987, a friend played me a few cuts from Warehouse: Songs and Stories, by Hüsker Dü. It did nothing for me, and I ignored it until a couple years later, when I joined a local band, members of whom really liked Candy Apple Grey. I listened one day, and I liked it. What changed? Again, I don't know why this happened, but I returned to Warehouse, and started to seriously dig it. It remains one of my all-time favorite albums.

The lyrics of Deacon Blues...the opening line always grabbed me: "This is the day, of the expanding man; that shape is my shade, there where I used to stand." My interpretation has always been that the narrator was moving on, had made a significant change in his life, and was reflecting on his past while preparing to move on. The saxophone, that he will "rise when the sun goes down", I took this to mean he was a jazzman, living the night life and enjoying (or struggling with) the spoils of that existence.

Randy Reichardt said...

I enjoyed these comments, from those who hate or love the band. I've seen Steely Dan 12 times since 2000, and will see three shows at the Beacon Theatre in September. (Bill, you should consider seeing them in Boston in late September at the Wang Theatre!)

The discussion of nostalgia touches a nerve with me. Bill, you wrote: "EAP, you mention nostalgia as if it is a diagnosis of a problem. I feel nostalgia is as valid a reason as any to explain enjoyment of any art, particularly popular art -- movies, music, literature. In fact, it is a primary force for me in enjoying such things as well as writing my own work."

I think I agree. As someone turning 58 this month, I deal with decades of musical memories. When I hear Maggie May by Rod Stewart, it sends me back to 1971, riding in a car pool with friends on our way to our classes in first year university. I don't like it when it serves to remind me how old I am, sometimes.

Anyway, fascinating discussion. As for your take on Deacon Blues, I've listened to it a few times and I like it. It took a few listens to adjust to your falsetto. The organ solo is so sweet and simple.

Thanks for recording a Dan song, Bill, so much appreciated by this fan.

Greg said...

How do you think Bill would do on Dan's Pearl Of The Quarter?

Randy Reichardt said...

Greg, I think Bill would kill that song. It's perfect for him, range, straightforward chord changes. Let's cross our fingers.

What other Dan tunes might work as a CoTW? What about Dirty Work or With a Gun?

Greg said...

Definitely Dirty Work, and I'll throw in Barry Town, and Daddy Don't Live In That NY City, and since Bill has a bomb shelter why not Fagen's New Frontier.

Greg said...

Yes we're gonna have a wingding
A summer smoker underground
It's just a dugout that my dad built
In case the reds decide to push the button down
We've got provisions and lots of beer
The key word is survival on the new frontier