Greetings Hoops --
a subscriber to the Dandom Digest for a few months and look forward to
receiving it in my e-mailbox every day. In recent weeks, I have begun an
e-mail correspondence with David Walley, the author of the original Frank
Zappa biography "No Commercial Potential" and the recent "Teenage Nervous
Breakdown: Music and Politics in the Post-Elvis Age." Our e-letters will
soon begin running online (address to be announced) as a participatory
forum; but in the meanwhile, I thought that you might like to have a look
at the initial exchanges of correspondence, since the subject (naturally
enough) is the Dan and their influence on music and politics.
If you feel all or part of these letters would be interesting to the Dandom Digest readership, you have our permission to reprint them in the Digest or on your Steely Dan page. All we ask is that you let me know by e-mail whatever editorial cuts or abridgments you might want to make. We'd also appreciate a mention of the forthcoming online forum, which will be called "The Lost Episodes" -- I'll provide you with the address and approximate start date on request.
Keep up the good work!
Nigey Lennon (aka Anne de Siecle)
Two Against Nature
Felitictations, Euripides --
So it's back to business at the old stand, after a hiatus of how long?
two years? three? Oh well, who's counting? A lot of water has passed under
the Brooklyn Bridge since we last put fingers to keyboard. In my case,
surviving a near-collision with the Reaper Man in his black SUV during
the summer of '98 did a great deal to color my perception of Time. (Mr.
Reaper was on his cell phone at the time, trying to reach an elusive client.)
That experience got me off the fence, chronologically speaking, and made
me record my CD after 20-some years. Now I'm like every other music-biz
grifter -- I'm the proud possessor of the greatest CD ever recorded. And
who knows -- perhaps the magnanimous Mr. Sal Martin is chummy with some
gentlemen on the Jersey shore who just
might be interested in assisting me in promoting it.
But that issue of Time has seemingly obsessed us both from Time immemorial, which is why we started these cyber-ramblings in the first place. I find myself, as I grow longer in the tooth and shorter in the quantity of brain cells, lying in bed in the wee hours wondering just how long any of us has before the claw of the sea-puss gets us (with apologies to James Thurber, who 'cabbaged' that quote himself, I believe). Morbid, perhaps, but a reasonable question when you've got a pile of projects to finish and you'd like to be able to schedule your allotted Time wisely. There used to be a psychic who would inform you, for a reasonable fee, the date and time when your death would occur. I prefer to leave it to chance, like the rest of my life. Otherwise I might try to evade Mr. Reaper by fleeing down the Long Island Expressway, knowing I had an appointment with him where the freeways meet in Downey.
Does anyone ever really know what Time it is?
Anne de Siecle
Prescient that you opened your salutation with "Two Against Nature" the title and a track on the new Steely Dan album. Can't beat it with a stick, can you? Their last album was twenty years ago, and no "space" so to speak between the times, continuing on the conversation, the cultural dialogue. It's comforting in a way to know that there things in the universe that are invariant, in the sense things being as they should, it makes the world revolve just a little more easily.
It's a particularly sub-conscious album, don't you think? I had to play it once, the first time with the lyric sheet in front of me and was impatient to get it *that* over with, just to familiarize myself, familiarize my ears with the sounds and the grooves. Then I actuated the "repeat all" function on the cd so that I heard it when I wasn't hearing it so to speak, three hours later in it had dissolved. I haven't really done that with an album since maybe Sgt. Pepper which really dates the shit out of me---a few others but they weren't so much of an 'event'. And it's stranger still because it seems that it's a defining event
in this new Millennial time we're so busy scratching into.
Call it an aural version of Swift's Battle of the Books, the fight between the ancients and the moderns, only it's the rap/hip-hop vs. the Steely Dan Clan, the heads, jazzers, Beats and other fellow travellers, the hidden humanists who are still out there waiting for their orders and others of their ilk. Clever with attitude, in order to discover it you must surrender to it, sort of like watching 8 1/2 by Fellini (more on this below, trust me). I mean you can surrender to a piece by Dirty Old Bastard or Infamous BIG or even Will Smith (he's got a good groove), but it's only good for one listen, you be left like a condom in a garbage -strewn alley like a condom you use once and discard. Ever try to sell a rap record back to a used record, fuggtetaboutit, there's absolutely no aftermarket for it, is there?.
Whatever energy Steely Dan unleashed back in the early Seventies, has drifted, willingly or unwillingly I cannot tell, into the grownup media such as it has become, not that rock and roll needs to prove itself, but "Two Against Nature" was deemed a cultural event by none other than the New Yorker, which even now writers kill to get into. OK, fine, I can dig it, it's only rock and roll, they also write about Uncle Franz, and when he died, ran an obit from Matt Groenig and Vaclav Havel--- move on Walley-- so the New Yorker has been touting "Two" in Talk of the Town, because, and now we're going back a little, it was only a certain kind of music person who was into Steely Dan at all, a conspicuously intellectual band---
So these days the NYorker is trying to make up for lost time, gain a readership so they're worried about their hipness with the suburbanites who are all their age (ah fuck it, they're *MY* age) Jeez, aging boomers are literary cliches ferchrissakes. Working on their hip sainthood with their readers in the 'burbs, how exactly is a the New Yorker supposed to indicate the exact and precise edge of cultural/literary cooldom? But rewind here, the thing about the New Yorker, at least lately, is that they're too busy being cool and correct because one must be extremely au courrant and on top of what's cool and what's not, and like a dressmaker scrutinizing the rise and fall like hemlines on the airline stewardesses of the stock market. You get the picture, don't you Billy?
In terms of the cultural event/language in which the magazine traffics, "Two Against Nature" is an event among a certain group of people, possibly a cultural elite, so it behooves them to be in on whatever the buzz is. What does old Monocle brain do? They send out for a designated English rock critic/novelist de jour to parse the latest American cultural phenomenon of a certain age, the Brit equivalent of Quentin Tarrantino, who instead of a video store, worked in a used record store. And all the English rock critics/writers are self-consciously intellectual or self-consciously proletarian in their POV that their rhetoric gets in the ways of their eyes and ears; these guys wear their epigrams on their sleeve, have pictures of Pope, Swift wear their epigrams on their sleeve-sort-if thing, which goes back to Sheriden and Johnson, Addison and Steele.And they use their pens at times like daggers and short swords, they like, to keep the metaphor even, "work close in"--- And they all have their theories American culture based on christ knows what, some half-baked pseudo-Marxist doggerel from the Birmingham School. In short they send in, what they think is the latest designated Englishman that the NYorker, their latest approximation of that consciousness that brought us "Beyond the Fringe" or Kenneth Tynan, only he's not. Along with tons of attitude, he's just plain wrong-footed, leaden-eared, what they've done is akin to giving "Gravity's Rainbow" for review to someone from the English as a Second Language class (how's that for wig, eh?)
OK, so in the larger context it's not the Magna Carta or the Emancipation Proclamation or the aural equivalent of War and Peace. But in terms of cultural significance that which the magazine prides itself on personifying, they put up this veritable English lox (if the fish was even that good), to hack away at it when it deserved a really interesting, thoughtful review, do not the new readers of this magazine deserve it according to their expensively-wrought demographics and the magazine/institution can see that all the dope smoking rock and rollers have ossified into cultural middle age, might need something to believe in too. And that the fucking world really doesn't care about Brittany Spears or Madonna in quite the same way? Or maybe they think this is a controversial move, slamming an album when people expect a rave, when in truth, the readers wouldn't give a rat's ass which position was taken so long as it was well-written, well-conceived, ruminated about. THIS is what the New Yorker was supposed to be about after all---
Maybe the marketing guy figured it was worth a shot to run something so foul just to see which constituency would respond and then they'd track that, meanwhile getting press from all the other organs of cultural opinion who are also sitting on the fence handicapping the cultural horserace. Wouldn't our dear
Uncle Franz would probably murmur," Criticism isn't dead, it just smells funny"? I fear as a culture we're losing our powers of discernment. I recently taught a Winter Studies class at Williams College, one of the top undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the country. The Math Department (not so strange
considering that math is used to describe inner and outer space) sponsored my course called "Decadent Memories". It was an eye opener which I'll get into if you're interested---but I found that my students ages 18-21 had trouble watching certain kinds of Sixties movies, with some exception, my guys had real
problems getting into Fellini's 8 1/2; it just mystified the fuck of them, couldn't understand it, too disconnected. One of my students talked to her roommate's mother and she told her to,"smoke a joint and watch it again". which is pretty good advice. I showed them "The Producers" by Mel Brooks and one of my students said she couldn't get the Sixties references when it was about show business. They are less bothered by MTV, aren't interested in how things are, but more specifically 'what" they are so they can capitalize on it. They are not particularly moved by living in a corporate world, or wearing corporate logos--I guess you don't know what your individuality is until you're just about to lose it. It was a real event for me, and I"m looking forward to
doping better next year. If I can teach this course for six years, I'll have made a very, very major contribution to Williams Culture and out there in the other world beyond the Purple Valley.
Criticism has always been a lost art I'm thinking, or maybe consciousness is the lost art, and we no longer have any time for it in this work-a-day world. It's a continuing battle to maintain it, lotsa work.
Beast Wishes, don't kvell too much, you've got to get your system ready for the Eastern climes.
Peripetetic and Perplexed as always, I remain
Countdown to Agony
Felonius, my old friend --
The bleat, bleat, bleat of the dumb in Eustace Tilley's Journal was, in
my grandiloquent opinion, an oratorio for tin ear and dysphony (or was
it dysentery and a bid for sympathy?). It also succeeded in regurgitating
my own dreary days in London, which happened to be during the time Steely
Dan's "Countdown to Ecstasy" album was released (I may be dating
myself here, but at the risk of offending both our British readers, it
sure beats going out with the natives). Back then my weekly ritual was
to take the tube to Oxford Circus, stopping at the W.H. Allen newsstand
in the station to purchase the current export Rolling
Stone so I could read the latest installment of Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail". Once I arrived at my destination I would make my way to the Hard Rock Cafe, which had just opened and which, in those distant days of culinary isolationism, was the only place in Greater London where a decent Christian cheeseburger could be obtained (Wimpy burgers, being constructed from an exotic blend of ground cellulose fibers and pig bladders with a whisper of sodium chloride, were a bit too soigne for my juvenile taste) . There I would patiently wait in line for three quarters of an hour (evidently I wasn't the only starving expatriate in the vicinity) until an out-of-the-way booth came vacant, and then I would luxuriate over my chocolate malt, delicious lard-cooked fries, and two-inch-thick bacon-and-chiliburger, perusing Mr. Thompson and pretending to be oblivious to the specific attention of the unfortunate souls (judging from the affectionate commentary, apparently a fair sprinkling of New Yorkers were among them) standing in purgatory.
Probably to maintain compliance with truth-in-advertising laws, the Hard Rock featured a state-of-the-art audio system, which was constantly dishing out an aural complement to the hearty proletarian fare being served. One day I arrived for my weekly elevenses to find that the new Steely Dan album (this was, boys and girls, way back in the 'dark ages,' when vinyl was THE audio format) was being played over and over again on the sound system. It was my first audition of the new release, and as a confirmed devotee of the Dan's debut album, "Can't Buy a Thrill," I was gratified to remain in my seat for as many revolutions of the new disc as might be essayed by the Hard Rock DJ, even if it did make me a little homesick. By a quarter to two I was growing bloated
from successive slabs of Boston cream pie, and I heaved a damp and laden sigh when the opening cut of the new T-Rex LP finally came blasting forth and drove me from the premises.
As I rode the Bakerloo line back to my dingy (and chiefly unheated) flat, I wondered what subliminally demonic element of the Dan canon had caused the Hard Rock's program director to embrace their new disc so maniacally. And it wasn't just an obsession unique to him/her -- within a couple of days "Bodhisattva," "Show Biz Kids" and "The Boston Rag" were all over Radio London. Maybe there was an insinuating command inserted just below the auditory threshhold, a dark Satanic and/or Burroughsian directive to come out of your room and turn it all the way up. But close inspection soon revealed their favorite kind: not only were the hipster inhabitants of London hungry for a square cheeseburger, they were dying to throw out the hardware and do it right: hop into a Shark-de-Ville, swing out to Laughing Pines, get off at Funway West, and drive into springtime under the banyan tree, drink Scotch whisky (or pina coladas) all night long, learn to work the saxophone, and die behind the wheel (not necessarily in that order). After, basically, losing the war, a little existential, uniquely American humor -- not to mention the period charm of Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's cunning Echoplex work -- was just the ticket for languishing limeys in dire need of a thrill. And this is evidently still the case -- why, even today, the hardcore coterie of Jim "Hoops" McKay's "Dandom Digest" internet
discussion group contains a disproportionate number of .uk e-mail addresses.
But there are now also Hard Rock Cafes down in Muswellbrook and Sri Lanka too, for all I know, and cheeseburgers and California wines are staples even in Cheapside. And Nick Hornby, British pop novelist-turned-mainstream film auteur, is writing in The New Yorker about Becker & Fagen's latest opus, "Two Against Nature." Fact is, at one time The New Yorker (again, this is my not-so-humble opinion, derived from longstanding observations of the Dan, the UK, and the Algonquin Round Table's official newsletter which has now fallen on evil times -- have you ever seen a squonk's tears? well, look at mine) probably wouldn't have bothered to review "2vN" at all, and if they had, they would probably have had the hindsight to invite, say, yourself to climb into the editorial stocks. Methinks the You Norker's editorial bureaucracy took a leaf from the NY Times Book Review and chose to award a critical bully platform to someone who, evidently, not only disliked the Dan and made no bones about it, but, more egregiously, didn't even profess to understand them -- which is about like sending me out to cover a hockey game, or nominating "Teenage Nervous Breakdown" for the Main Selection of Oprah's Book Club. Then again, if either you or I had a Major Motion Picture opening in domestic and foreign markets this week, anything might be possible.
It's also interesting to note that Hornby's novel, and the new movie based thereon, is about a zhlub who works in a used-record store. Isn't that a post-modernistic riff on the poverty of modern culture? You can't go home again, especially if you never had a home in the first place. Perhaps, all it boils down to is the fact that Hornby, and others in his age demographic, harbor a secret or not-so-secret envy of those of us who had the misfortune to be young in the '60s and early '70s. And the underlying horror, disguised as ironic humor, at the existential process of Time and Change -- such a vital element in Steely Dan's music -- is proably lost on Hornby and his contemporaries precisely because the post-modern condition is itself inherently ironic and pointless, rendering humor improbable. That's why it takes a couple of 'groovy older dudes' like Becker and Fagen to truly appreciate the absurdity of, say, chasing after underage girls.
I wonder what Mr. Hornby's take on "8 1/2" would be.
TLE II 2-A
Can't Find the Drill
Calpurnia, my dear --
I know there's nothing worse than a convert, recent or otherwise, but I
must confess that I got into Steely Dan kind of late. My memories come
from around the same time as yours only I was in California at the time,
LA to be more specific, and I was haunting the freeways when I heard
Skunk Baxter's refrain and that rather longish cut/guitar solo that went
on forever---two-timers, miners, and the hangman isn't hanging and they
put you on the street, back jack do it again, etc. etc. etc. It was the
golden era of freeform radio, when FM radio was king, at least the kind
of FM I remember where dj's put out sets of music which more or less matched,
more or less said something when put all together, sets that went on for
five tunes. I think of Steely Dan and I think of a time when
there was such a thing as maybe "think" radio. Lyrics were allusive, literate, sometimes they didn't mean what you thought they did. Maybe it was the result of listening to Dylan's "old" albums, Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing it All Back Home, Blond on Blond, lyrics which changed as you did, according to your mood, your way of approaching reality howsumever you chose to play it.
I remember haunting the freeways in LA and listening to this long fucking cut which it seemed that *every* radio station was playing, you couldn't turn it off and eventually it worked your way into your subconscious. In my mind it was also the summer of listening to the Eagles lots, but back then you could go as far as your metaphor could take you, and the Steelies were pretty free with theirs. It's not like there were any other bands doing what they were doing though there was some espece d' jazz rock around, I remember John McLaughlin and the Hahavishnu Symphony Orchestra (sic, very sic ref). Music for the long think, back then you were supposed, nay *expected* to take the time to listen and to hear. Again that's one of the salient features of SD because each time you hear their work, it's an adventure, there's always something else you didn't expect, didn't hear, didn't know was buried back there in the mix. You could tell these guys were brought up on Jean Shepherd on WOR radio and Ernie Kovacs, who you always had to watch and listen to if you were going to get it.
And since we're talking about Eustace Tilly's rag, the Nr Orker, I had always looked up to it as a paragon of the kind of criticism where you had to read and reflect, George Steiner was good for a think like that, and OK I'll admit that I used to considered what was called rock and roll back then in that period had all the requisites of a good piece of art, or at least a valid idea---I'm not gong to get into discussions about Art because he's really bored with it. It was valid statements, not at all times really a replacement for "the real "stuff", but a contender. And "Two Against Nature" is, in that sense, a contender. What I would say is that TaN reminds me of something I thought I'd forgotten long, long ago, and I think that's because of this cyberbabble age we're enduring at present where all the snake charmers, dancers and salesmen are out in force in that New Vaudeville Swingtime boogie groove. Because it's there in essence, it's subversive to the music culture as it has developed since the 'heady' period in which they started to develop. I mean subversive in the sense that all good art is, because it makes you question and renew your senses, it encourages you in fact, makes space in which for you to do so, provides perhaps the background or foreground, the environment in which one can think and reason and reflect and renew one's vows if not to God then some other suitable deity. Or it renews you with repeated contemplation--- I'd have liked the designated 'head' from the New Yorker who reviewed this work to have said something in that vein, or if not, something similar in his own vein---or right into his vein if that would help.
We could go on remarking at something which seems to be brewing out there in the space beyond our keyboards. I think we as a people have recently been beaten down by that chromium-plated megaphone of destiny, or better are beginning to figure out that they *have* been sleeping and a whole lot of shit they don't like had gotten out of the bottle yet again, and it was time either to
stuff it back in or be gone, choice was up to you...
I mean fuck post-modernism already, get a life, get over under or around it, get through it, grow the fuck up ferchrissakes. You can't go through life being shocked after a certain age let me tell 'ya. As for Hornby and his policeman's chorus, they should remember that time is this continuum, one long coda if you will, you just sit in on the bandstand and get the groove and there you are, take your solo. Humor is the most powerful force in the universe, cosmic laughter is the music of the spheres if cats like Hornby would stop long enough hear it, much less join in.I mean first you have to give yourself permission to be free,
Is it time again for that 'evolution' we said was brewing way back when? Is TaG a proverbial errant shot across the bow of this sucker we call modern civilization or the start of a new campaign? I mean just LOOK at what's running for leadership of the free world!!Sure someone has and is going to do it, but somehow I'm thinking that there's got to be a better way to get the message out there, and I don't mean bringing out the vote, because there's going to be less people voting unless the American people really sit down and have a talk with their supposed leaders, but is it true that all politics are personal politics? Must we, in short, be Oprah-und Springer-ized for the mechanism to work. You mean my tax dollars have been going to funding those studies? But then again, we did have Zippergate, and what was that as theater, huh? Lame, just too lame for words, and you're thinking to yourself, the guy was hopeless for god's sake, got horrible taste in woman. Isn't it a crying shame that the most powerful man in the Western World can't even get a blowjob in the Oval Office without it being turned into a federal case. Whatarethey? jealous? my word how far have we progressed anyway. Not far I'm thinking.
Feeling frisky in the early spring weather here on the York River,. actually the weather rekindles my energies after the winter, and the sap of subversion (like our letters) energizes me. Why does subversion have to have negative connotations, subversion can be quite benign and constructive if it produces a better and
more equitable stares of being, no?
Multi-leveled, that's what I like about the new album, but then again, it's nice when there's some aural companionship when you're in the mood for thinking.
Last Dance Vance, Take a Chance on Dance.
Midas K. Muffler
Salutations, O Plotinus --
Not to flog the Steely extension overmuch :) -- but for me, the two primary
threads in the work of Messrs. Becker & Fagen have always been,
on the one hand, escape from the unbearable world of mundane reality (as
evoked in Sartre's "Nausea", Burroughs, Beckett, the Decadents, bebop,
and various chemical
substances pertinent to the foregoing), and on the other hand, "sharing the things we know and love with those of our kind...libations, sensations that stagger the mind." In other words, flight from the 'real' world into one of one's own creation, and the gathering of a group of like-minded conspirators, however small, with which to share the secret passkeys to escape. Interestingly enough, I always felt that one of Fagen's most evocative works was in the soundtrack for the
movie "Heavy Metal". He wrote a cue called "True Companion", ostensibly about the starship of the same name. Over exquisite chords, he sang a few lyrics that summed up dislocation (in this case, in some galaxy millions of light years from Earth), exile, and longing in terse but haunting fashion. (And of course the
whole thing, being a cue for a movie soundtrack, was a throwaway anyway -- proof that art, whatever that term might mean, is often where you find it.)
For me, the Dan's music has been a true companion indeed. They were the only 'rock' (for lack of a better term -- shows you how impossible 'truth in labeling' is!) band I listened to in the '70s, and they are the only jazz/funk/R&B/literary duo I'm listening to now, practically thirty years later. More than once,
when JT has been feeling overly existential, I've reminded him that any universe in which two cranks like Becker and Fagen can achieve total success entirely on their own terms, can't be *all* bad. There was always exquisite pleasure to be derived from the Dan's music; today, that pleasure is even more exquisite when their music is compared to everything else being dinned into our heads on the airwaves, via MP3 downloads, and as random bass-thumps compressing our intestines from passing SUV's. (Rap -- Brittney Spears -- MELISSA ETHERIDGE...after a ten-hour day of that sort of objectionable reality, I need to put the "Countdown to Ecastasy" or "Aja" CDs, or "2vN", on infinite replay.)
The beauty of the Dan's agit-prop is that it's subliminal and entirely subversive. Their suave harmonic sense and criminally
slick production disguise a razor-keen edge just beneath: a dangerous intelligence which knows modern culture's weakest spot and has zeroed in for the kill. Unbeknownst to the general listening public, they are being subliminally programmed by these cunning manipulators to buy CD's and DVD's, concert tickets,
Steely Dan T-shirts -- yes, all of the above, but even more subversively, they're being insidiously invited to swim against the current, to think for themselves (in a presumably intelligent fashion). These guys believe that there are still people like themselves out there -- bemused and a trifle annoyed by the vagaries of modern life perhaps, but with a bottle of Hennessy XXO and some takeout from Dean & Deluca, the collected works of Lester Young, and Mark Twain's "Letters From the Earth" close to hand, it's nothing that can't be dealt with. Their success is part of the message: "Hey," they seem to be saying, "if a couple of funny-looking, avowed intellectuals like us can have compounds on Maui, six-figure recording budgets (excluding studio time, instrument rentals, musicians' scale, mixing, and mastering), hot and cold running nymphets, a full-service website, a sold-out tour, and individual Swedish masseuses -- what's wrong with being anegghead?"
That's why "2vN" would seem to be a resounding shot across the bow of the USS Millennium: here are the present-day composers (returning to the music scene after a twenty-year absence) not only refusing to die, but they're succeeding wildly in circumventing what society considers the requisite ignominy (for outcasts) of silence and obscurity. When "What a Shame About Me" is audible on every tinny speaker in every convenience market in the nation, that's true agit-prop. It may raise all sorts of questions on any number of levels, but this Burroughsian Trojan horse is cleverly disguised: it's just a three- or four-minute song on the radio, so what's the big deal?
In this age of chat groups, instant e-mail messaging, increasingly invasive advertising via electronic psycho-graphic and -acoustic methods that directly address the vast subconscious -- a growing group of informed thinkers, linked together by the sybaritic and soul-deep pleasures of "libations and sensations
that stagger the mind", ironically aware of the value of political subversion (it's good for a laugh) -- are potentially the shadow-guerillas of symbolic logic and subliminal warfare. I believe the Social Democrats of yore referred to such covert action as "boring from within." Perhaps this is the Realpolitik of the future; at
any rate, you gotta admit that "Reelin' in the Years" is a much better campaign theme song than "Don't Stop Waiting for Tomorrow" -- as any major dude will tell ya.
at the Teahouse on the Tracks --
The Pearl of the Quarter