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“My Old School”

Posted by purplemary54 on February 22, 2012

One of my dearest friends hates Steely Dan.  He doesn’t like the slick, jazzy composition, doesn’t think rock and jazz should be mixed (or at least not mixed this way).  I get that.  If Steely Dan were strictly an instrumental jazz combo, they’d be the kind of “smooth” jazz that gets played on the abomination that took over when KMET was murdered (nope, still not over it).  The kind of jazz that Tom Scott plays.  Don’t get me wrong.  Tom Scott is a consummate musician; he just leaves me cold.  Much the same way that Steely Dan leaves my friend cold.

That surprises me and it doesn’t.  He is a fan of classic heavy metal and indie rock; he helped educate me about Sonic Youth (which I’m grateful for).  But he’s also a teacher and writer.  Which is where Steely Dan comes back into this conversation.  See, they are one of the more literate acts ever (heck, they’re named after a sex toy in a William S. Burroughs novel. . .it doesn’t get more literate than that).  That’s the thing I love most about them.  If Paul Simon creates little movies, Steely Dan creates little novels.  Pretty smart and acerbic novels at that.  The only problem with songs is that you don’t have room for a lot of back story.  That’s okay if the song is “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” a classic boy-tries-to-pick-up-girl-in-a-bar story.  It’s a little tougher if the song is “My Old School.”

The basic premise seems to be a break-up between college sweethearts (yes, I said sweethearts).  A messy and confusing break-up that involves a lot of drugs and traveling.  It starts in Annandale and ends up in California, with a side trip to Guadalajara.  I know they’re in college because William & Mary gets mentioned.  After that. . . Just how exactly does she end up “with the working girls in the county jail”?  Why does he want to “take her down to Mexico”?  And precisely who is “Gino and Daddy G.”?  Surrounding this lyrical mystery is a wonderful black key piano riff and some seriously tasty guitar.  The music is flawless, the production as pristine as The Beach Boys or The Shins.  There’s even some perfectly harmonized background singers.  I’m pretty sure all the i’s get dotted and the t’s crossed.  The high quality of the music helps to disguise the anger and lack of resolution in the lyrics.

Which brings me back to what I think might be another reason my friend doesn’t like Steely Dan: They’re not really a band.  Oh sure, there’s more than one of them.  They release albums and even tour on occasion.  And when they do tour, it’s more than just Walter Becker and Donald Fagen up there playing the instruments.  But Steely Dan is a studio creation.  When Becker and Fagen collaborate, they hire a bunch of studio musicians to play their songs the way they want them played.  There isn’t the same kind of push-pull of a true band.  They sound perfectly unified, but a little artificial.  Steely Dan is just these two guys and their fictional friends.  Of course, all writers know that it’s just them and their fictional friends in a room, trying to tell the story.  Anyone else involved gets thanked in the acknowledgements and a cut of the royalties.

Maybe Steely Dan is even more literate (and literary) than I thought.

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