"Deacon Blues"

  According to Brian Sweet, "when Becker and Fagen were writing the songs for the album, Becker called their ex-tour manager, Warren Wallace, a sports fan and close friend, and asked him for the names of some successful college football teams.  He reeled off a few names and was surprised months later to find the most lyrically appropriate--Alabama, the Crimson Tide--used in 'Deacon Blues'....
    "Once again Becker and Fagen's adolescent hipsterism and jazz ideology formed the basis of a Steely Dan song.  Some years later Donald Fagen explained the intent behind the song:  'Well, the idea of the song was about this kind of alienated kid out in the suburbs who was looking for some sort of alternative values and turns to jazz and hip culture as something to grab on to.  And the basic idea is that there's a kind of culture of losers that he'd rather be part of than the general way of life in America.
    'You know, they've got a name for the winners in the world, and the losers should have some sort of franchise as well.  And the name which he has chosen which conveys a certain power is "Deacon Blues." ' " (RITY, pp. 121-122)

    That last makes me think of Ferlinghetti's line:  "I want to go where turtles win."

    The "expanding man"--this young dreamer's new, growing self?  "That shape is my shade/ There where I used to stand"--he looks back at the shadow of his former self.  "It seems like only yesterday I gazed through the glass/  At ramblers, wild gamblers/ That's all in the past"--This sounds to me like a reference to "Your Gold Teeth," which romanticized a dark and threatening demimonde.  Now he gazes in at it, on the outside again, but transcending it.  (For more discussion about being on the outside looking in, see "Black Cow" above.)  The image echoes the glass in "YGT" ("I can see your iron and your brass/  I can see them shine behind the glass").  "This one's for real/ I already bought the dream"--the youth has tried on various identities, but now plights his troth with the jazz musician's life.  "So useless to ask me why"--if you have to ask why, you couldn't possibly understand my answer.  He's "ready to cross that fine line"--between sanity and madness, self-absorption and surrender, show and passion, restraint and abandon.  Could this also be a drug ref?  Maybe.

    The chorus sums up what the young jazzman thinks of as the perfect way to live and die, and announces his new persona--"Deacon Blues."

    "My back to the wall/ A victim of laughing chance"--a great image.

    I love the next verse;  he's omnipotent not only musically, but sexually, and more than a little dangerous.  From the word "viper" I get an association with Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, wherein the floozy sings this song:

    Dreamed about a reefer five feet long
    Not too mild and not too strong,
    You'll be high, but not for long,
    If you're a viper--a vi-paah.

    I'm the queen of everything,
    Gotta be high before I can swing,
    Light a tea and let it be,
    If you're a viper--a vi-paah.

    And when your throat gets dry,
    You know you're high,
    If you're a viper.

    High, high, high, high, when you're high,
    Everything is dandy,
    Truck on down to the candy store,
    Bust your conk on peppermint candy!
    Then you know your body's sent,
    Don't care if you don't pay rent,
    Sky is high and so am I, If you're a viper--a vi-paah.

    This song is sung in a scene in which the wanton dissoluteness of thirties Hollywood degenerates into chaos.  Incidentally, one of the characters in The Day Of The Locust is named Homer Simpson--think Matt Groening gave Nathanael West a nod with "The Simpsons"?

    The first line of the last verse has nice symmetry with the first.  The kid's now fully immersed in The Life;  takes "one last drag" before he ascends to the stage to perform.  The raw emotionality of "I cried when I wrote this song" contrasts very Steelily with "Sue me if I play too long."  He's bought in emotionally, and doesn't care anymore what anyone else thinks--"this brother is free."  What an epiphany.

wormtom (GB, 6/8/00):  I always thought that the "Deacon" in Deacon Blues was Deacon John a famous jazz / R&B guitarist who has an upbeat nature to his work
     Hence downtrodden Deacon Blue - not upbeat Deacon John
     I don't think this was commented on in the Making of Aja only that the guy was a shady recluse who hung out at night
     I wonder how the song is perceived by people in Tuscalousa who pull for the Crimson tide

Dr. Mu (GB, 6/8/00):  The Wake Forest slant has been my take for many years and why not? The notion was probably simply to contrast and a pun(t) with the Alabama Crimson tide - the winners. "Roll tide" was a constant chant in the Deep South during the Bear's last sideline prowls in the 70s. In contrast, the Wake Forest Deamon Deacons were at the bottom of the Division I heap - good intoxicated pep band though. Neither Wake Forest (Black and Gold) nor N.C. State (red and white) adorn blue. That distinction belongs to UNC (sky or powder puff or citadel) and Duke (royal).

kd (GB, 6/9/00):  No way "Deacon Blues" is about any other college moniker other than Alabama. These guys weren't pouring over SEC or ACC names.

Clean Willy (3/5/02):    I had a thought that maybe the narrator of Deacon Blues is a young and unhappy seminary student. I put this out of my head the first time it popped up; it didn't seem right. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.
    Starting with the title, a deacon is the assisstant to a priest.  Therefore, deacon blues would be the depression that preist assisstants feel.  What if the song is about a boy who's parents are very religious and want him to enter the priesthood. He knows that he doesn't want to, it's not for him, but being young, he is torn.
    This is the day of the expanding man.
    This is the day (birth) that he takes the plunge into a world where man is spiritual (expanding). Sitting in the priest's office he remembers that it seems like only yesterday/ I gazed through the glass/ at ramblers/ wild gamblers.
    But now he will never get to see those kind of people anymore. "That's all in the past."
    His friends call him a fool, but this one's for real. He knows that there is no way out of the siuation (so useless to ask me why), but he's ready to cross that fine line (between "morality" and "immorality."
    The chorus, though, is his true feelings about what he wants. He wants to learn to play the saxophone (definitely not a church instrument, the sax is an instrument for the bars and clubs). He wants to play (do) just what he feels. At times, he feels that the only way out of the situation is to knock himself off (drink scotch whisky... and die behind the wheel). They got a name for the winners in the world, but he is just a loser who can't make up his mind. What are his choices? The college life of fun and sports and love (Crimson Tide, here meaning not only the school, but also the tide of women with crimson lipstick), or the doldrums of Deacon Blues? His "back is to the
    What is "for him?" The essence of true romance. He is going to go the way of his heart and leave the seminary. He will share the things he knows and loves, with those of his kind. What are those things? Libations and sensations that stagger the mind. Now that he has made up his mind, he heads for town. He crawls like a viper (a reference to the garsen of eden, what's more sinful than the viper?) through these suburban scenes. he makes love to all the women he can. He will drink all night and "rise when the sun goes down." He is going to make the world (physical over spiritual) his "home sweet home."
    Now it is the night (or expanding upon the above expanding man, death) of the expanding man. He takes a drag from his joint. But this was not a matter of taking the easy way out, our narrator spent a lot of time thinking about his decision, he cried when he wrote this song. But he made it, "This brother is free, I'll be what I want to be"
    Of course, I'm Jewish, so this priest thing might be a little out of my league. Nevertheless, it works nicely with the other themes people have mentioned of the depression of growing up, and living in a nostalgic time.
Deacon Blues is almost a prelude to Nightfly. Both remind me a lot of Springsteen's Greetings From Asbury Park N.J., which I think is his best. But regardless, this is one of my favorite Dan tunes.

This interpretation also reminds me a bit of Ed Norton and Ben Stiller's "Keeping The Faith" (2000).

Reelin' In The Years, by Brian Sweet
              The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West.  This song is from pp. 135-137 of the 1965
                     Time Inc. edition, which has a cool introduction by Budd Schulberg, who knew West.
                  A Coney Island of the Mind, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, preeminent Beat poet and founder
                     of San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore.
                   Visit Edd Cote's illustrious deconstruction of this tune