liu chang slips the veil from the monolith
PART ONE: OLEANDROPHAGI
All the particle physicists in the house, put your hands in the air! All you burnt-up dropouts, shake what your mommas gave you. Is anyone out there too smart for their own good? Well sit right down, children. I'd like to tell you about a few things.
For starters, Steely Dan. Let me preface by saying that there is no more debated band than Steely Dan, lyrically, at least. That puts them in a strange company of heretics such as Link Wray, whose "Rumble" was the first instrumental to be banned for being too suggestive. There are a million interpretations in this naked city, and I shouldn't have to tell you that. We are, after all, at the Steely Dan Lyrical Interpretation page, come to chew, not a lotus, but another toxic bloom that grants divine visions.
Next, I'd like to talk about Ted Nugent and the psychedelic properties of bug spray.
As a youth one summer I went to a place called Camp Halcyon, a place for kids who are too smart for their own good. It was a camp for the 'talented and gifted,' nerdy kids who each degenerated into a Mountain Dew-besotted Bacchus or Sappho by the end of the month. While I was there at the camp, I purchased an album by the band Voivod, then known as Canada's biggest metal-heads. My first listen was one night in my room with headphones on, eyes closed. Some other wunderkinder snuck in and sprayed Off mosquito repellent into the blades of the fan I had blowing on me. After a brief scuffle, I settled back into my listening experience.
Needless to say, my inhalation of the bug spray had made me more than a little goofy, and when I began to understand Voivod's lyrics, I felt transported to another world. As you will see in this series of essays, my main point is that I was transported to another world. More on Voivod later.
Ted Nugent's song "Stranglehold" is known primarily as one of the cooler songs recorded in one take(the drum track to "Aja" being another.) It's opening lyrics (italics mine)
Here I come again now, baby
Like a dog in heat
became the stray neutron starting a lyrical chain reaction in my head. There seem to be some extra words in there. Wouldn't it have been simpler to say "Here I come, baby"? What does he mean again? What happened the last time he came around like a dog in heat?
Ever since these two incidents I have had an obsessive interest in the
dark side: sinister lyrics, literary subtext, even obscure connotations
of everyday words. My own growth as a musician and writer only made
things worse. Before I continue with this essay, let me thank my
father for introducing me to Steely Dan at a very young age, and my mother
for forbidding me to read Castaneda or Hunter Thompson, thereby encouraging
me to do so.
PART TWO: DRAMATIS PERSONAE NON GRATAE
Everyone knows, by now, the literary connections to Steely Dan. They took their name from Burroughs' book "The Naked Lunch," and certainly their focus on characters and locales in the dark bowers of man's domain can be traced to him. Then there is William Gibson, whose cyberpunk tales share that same common ground. He also makes passing references to SD songs in his work, and I understand that there is a certain mutual fandom between the writer and the band.
This is common knowledge, and even the most hostile critic recognizes the highbrow nature of their lyrical content. Some have even recognized that it is less a piecemeal collection of stories and fragments than it is a series of glimpses at a complex mythos. The best I have seen is located at http://www.pifmagazine.com/vol35/m_clon.php3 , but even here is a reductionist philosophy that irks me. These are record albums, after all, in the real world. Lyrical content is just that, and nothing more.
My contention is that the lyrical content is more. Steely Dan never sings a song that is simply 'about' something. Even a song as simplistic as "Hey Nineteen" is a pipeline to another frame of experience, and once opened it is there forever.
Burroughs and Gibson are the next step in understanding this cosmology that I keep hinting at. There is a deeper dimension to their work than song references and name-snatching.
Let's start with Burroughs, and I won't delve into who he is, other than to say that his nigh-uninterpretable stories are works of considerable insight. They all focus of course, on the same group of lowlife archetypes we have come to know and love. His own particular madness kept this from being the usual Beatnik masturbatory fiction exemplified by Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and those other hacks. GZO Jones and Lucien Carr may have escaped that trap somewhat, but of all the beats, Burroughs shines.
"Naked Lunch" and "The Soft Machine" are the best examples of his fiction, and they tell brain-addled tales of time travel, metamorphosis, occult science, not to mention being a big fat queer. They produce in the reader a sense of being transported to a place that is titillating to visit, but of course you would not like to live there. Critics and sane persons have generally dismissed these books as being nonsensical drug-ravings. Maybe they are, but I must repeat there is more to it than that.
For our purposes, the world of Burroughs gels when we look at David Cronenberg's movie of the supposedly unfilmable "Naked Lunch." Its premise is simple: a thinly disguised Burroughs is the main character, whose drug experiences take him literally to another place, Interzone. Interzone is a sort of sci-fi version of Morocco where the most bizarre things happen. Of course, when the drugs wear off, the main character is back in the drab reality of New York, an experience familiar to anyone who is really grooving on a SD song when the phone rings.
William Gibson comes next. His writings detail a path our future certainly could take, a time of dirt and chrome, poverty and unimaginable wealth, and the strange symbiosis of man and his technology.
Gibson's first and best novel "Neuromancer" suits our purposes admirably. It introduced the concepts of virtual reality and cyberspace back in the 80's, and is one of the best visions of technological evolution. It is also a fairly crack thriller.
Interesting to note are the circumstances "Neuromancer" was written under. Such a novel of high-tech vision would almost beg a writer who was a vanguard in the field. Not so. Gibson wrote the book on a manual typewriter in a wino hotel. His chief inspiration was the nonstop circus of pimps, whores, hustlers, and junkies that he could eavesdrop on through the paper-thin walls.
There are certainly more authors whose works create a world other than this one, and make it seem real. Clive Barker is one, in particular with "Imajica," and HP Lovecraft's cosmology of eldritch horror is another. Umberto Eco must be named for his contribution to my obsession. "Foucault's Pendulum" is perhaps the best illustration of how writing can create whole new worlds of independent reality, and that's just what the book is about.
There is the literary end of it. But what of lyrics? Is
there a precedent for this interpretations of Steely Dan's strange world?
You bet your boots.
PART THREE: DIABOLUS IN MUSICA
Voivod I've already mentioned. An eighties metal band of the same general bent as Slayer, Prong, and Metallica, Voivod hit their stride with a trio of albums: "Nothingface", "Angel Rat", and "The Outer Limits." Their first few albums were trashy metal with science fiction themes, and nothing noteworthy until the release of "Nothingface", which remains their high-water mark still. This is the 'bug spray' album from Part One. It reveals a post-apocalyptic storyline with ambiguous, cryptic lyrics that are some of the most evocative I've ever heard. Voivod was often labelled a 'cyberpunk' band, but they claim no familiarity with Gibson's works.
The strength of Voivod's lyrics is that of verisimilitude. You will find misfit robots, deranged psychics, technological alchemy, dimensional travellers, and a haunted freighter, just for starters. While clearly the events and characters are fantastic, they ring true in a way this is almost shocking.
Another band that does this and does it well is Clutch. Their lyrics, penned by the visionary Neil Fallon, are perhaps the most obscure in their subject matter. Most songs are a melange of pop culture, occult references, children's rhymes, and humorous digs at modern conspiracy theory. Certainly Clutch's "Body of John Wilkes Booth" shares a certain kinship to the corpse of William Wright. Their song "Muchas Veces" is as clear an insight into loving Mrs. Wrong as any SD song. Overall the lyrics follow a sort of mad logic, though they may depict transsexual archaeologists, more misfit robots, rock n roll Promethei and Civil War elephant cavalry.
There are of course others, but these are the two best examples. Special mention might be made for the Moody Blues, ZZ Top, King Diamond, David Bowie, Blue Oyster Cult, Bolt Thrower, Genesis, and Pink Floyd.
One caveat: there have always been boundaries to creativity.
In the middle ages a certain tritone was actually proscribed as being 'the
devil's chord,' or diabolus in musica.
We know this chord today as the power chord, the foundation of all modern rock music. This little three-note combo was unknown and verboten until the 1957 recording of, you guessed it, Link Wray's "Rumble." Not to be satisfied with that, Link also summoned the diabolus fully into modern music by poking holes in his amplifier speaker and inventing distortion. How about that for milestones of history?
We're almost there, kids. We have loads of things to work with,
but we're still in the realm of imagination, where songs and books are
just art. Next up: the key to it all.
PART FOUR: UNIFIED FIELD THEORY, OR HOW I WENT INSANE
Now I've come to the point where I can pull it all together with some spit and baling wire, but first let me bring us back up to speed.
Steely Dan's lyrics, like those of certain other bands and some writers, do not depict clever reimaginings of actual events, nor are they glimpses inside the fever dreams of two surly genii. A Steely Dan song is a pipeline, window, door, or whatever imperfect metaphoric portal into another reality. This journey has raised some questions. For example, why is this reality-changing creativity found almost exclusively in 'fringe' or 'genre' artistry? Perhaps horror/sci-fi writers, along with their musical counterparts the headbangers, psychedelic rockers, and jazzniks have all been marginalized at some point. When you create beyond the boundaries of current paradigm, you are forced to create somewhere. That 'somewhere' is where my dimly stated hypothesis can be explained by Quantum Physics.
That's right. The big QP, striking fear into the hearts of the learned and ignorant alike. For the purposes of this essay I won't delve into the paradox, scientific logic, or particle zoo, all concepts that can bore to tears if handled ineptly. I've always insisted that Schroedinger's Cat, a famous experiment illustrating basic QP ideas, was derailed by Murphy's Law. A box contains a cat, which by weird circumstances has a fifty percent chance of being alive or dead. QP states that since we cannot know which, the cat exists in a weird quasi-reality until the box is opened and observed. Murphy's Law and its many corollaries imply that the box will always open to a living cat, and it's not a cat but a wolverine and you get the shit torn out of you. That's why I won't drag too much philosophy into this, for the same reason that praying for rain during a drought is a good way to get a disastrous flood.
Albert Einstein had a bad memory and in his later years was intolerably confused. Stephen Hawking, while brilliant, has a really bad attitude that compromises his scientific endeavors. Both have searched for the Unified Field Theory, a way to explain all phenomena universally. Both have so far failed. The simplicity they sought is my quest as well, and that is why I will pluck a single principle from the quantum arena and use it to achieve a oneness with Steely Dan.
The Many-worlds Theory is a controversial yet central part of our understanding of the universe. It deals nicely with the issues of probability, possibility, and linear time. Simply put, Many-worlds Theory states that at any juncture where one thing could happen as opposed to another, reality splits into worlds where both possibilities happen. Since the variables involved are almost infinite, we can posit that there are infinite worlds with infinite variation. This scientific notion was a windfall for sci-writers, and here we part company with physics and move into a realm of pure possibility.
My own serialized novel MEL, available at http://www.nwscuttle.com/columnindex/GuestLog.html - mel is the product of this windfall. My adventures of a gentleman loser in outer space soon had to deal with issues of dimensional travel, and I turned to Many-worlds for help. Now it is a central theme of the story, and frankly indispensable.
Looked at in this light, it can be stated that all the events that occur in Steely Dan's lyrics could have happened somewhere, and in QP terms actually did. The sense of otherworldliness is achieved because of Becker and Fagen's amazing creative connection to a world that exists more strongly than some other possible worlds. A lot more interesting shit happens there.
Now that we have that as our base, we can begin to examine the details
of the SD ouevre.
PART FIVE: AKTION: WELTERFREMDER
The good folks at the SD Lyric Interpretation site have all posited different explanations of what the songs mean. All are true in some sense, and the cryptic nature of the lyrics allow for amazing variation. So far, no one has had the 'chutzpah', as Oleander says, to bring it all together. The body of interpretive thought is fragmentary in nature, lacking the cohesion of any sort of rubric. That changes now. Thanks, everyone, for your contributions to the understanding of Steely Dan. Keep your interps coming, and I will add my own to the burden of unification that I have undertaken. Of course, you may not agree with part or parcel of my theories, but healthy debate will keep everyone from getting flabby.
My immediate goal is to present, song by song and album by album, a coherent presentation of this other world as I envision it. With any luck, the SD legacy can become a sort of spiritual blueprint for all of us to create our own worlds and be free of the fetters that keep us in this one.
Until next episode, your homework is thus:
Keep the interps coming in.
Check out some of my references.
Debate, debate, debate.
Listen to the song "Any World That I'm Welcome To." It's going to be
the keystone of my theory.
Throw out the hardware.
And finally, turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening.
Til' next time,
Voivod: Albums "Nothingface", "Angel Rat", "The Outer Limits"
Clutch: Albums "Transcontinental Speedway League", "Clutch", "The Elephant Riders", "Pure Rock Fury"
Genesis: Album "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway"
ZZ Top: Albums "Tres Hombres", "Deguello", "Tejas", "El Loco"
David Bowie: Albums "Ziggy Stardust", "Outside", "Tin Machine"
King Diamond: Albums "Them", "The Eye"
Moody Blues: Albums "In Search of the Lost Chord", "Days of Future Past", "Question of Balance"
Bolt Thrower: Albums "Realm of Chaos", "Warmaster", "The Fourth Crusade"
William Gibson: novels "Neuromancer", "Virtual Light", "Idoru",
William Burroughs: novels "Naked Lunch", "Soft Machine"
Clive Barker: novels "Imajica", "The Great and Secret Show", "Weaveworld", "Cabal"
HP Lovecraft: novellas "Dream-quest of Unknown Kadath", "At the Mountains of Madness"
Umberto Eco: novels "The Name of the Rose", "Foucault's Pendulum", essay collection "Travels in Hyperreality"
Samuel R. Delaney: novel "NOVA"
David Cronenburg: Films "Naked Lunch", "Nightbreed", "Videodrome"
"The PRINCIPIA DISCORDIA"
Since last I wrote, much has changed. Wine bottles and kerosene cans litter the street, and my sister has shacked up with that cracker from the Brill Building. Come home soon.
Well folks, much has changed, and some interesting things have happened to yours truly. Believe me- theyíre all germane to the Unified Field Theory of Steely Dan, even though they sound like incoherent bellowing.
You see, if Iím yelling and screaming, itís because
events in the Ďrealí world are starting to prop up my fevered imaginings
that you love so well. To tie things in with my last scribing, hereís
a Voivod tidbit. I found an interesting book by a couple of French
occultists from the 60ís, "Le Matins du Magiciens" (Morning of the Magicians).
Itís a treatise on the state of (then)modern mysticism, alchemy in particular.
One of the main conventions of this book is that alchemy is real.
For some reason it all sounded familiar, and it bugged me until I found
out who else is a fan of the book: Michel Langevin, Voivodís drummer,
artist, and chief conceptualist. "Morning of the Magicians" inspired
quite a bit of his imagery, and the excellent song "Internal Combustion"
is actually about the book. Far out! More on alchemy later,
but first the poster.
THESE ARE THE SOUL CAGES
I saw the poster at CM2, PDXís childrens museum. I asked who the poster was by, and the museum guy said "Slayer." I was disappointed at first that Mssrs. Araya and King had nothing to do with it, but that would soon fade when I bought a copy and was able to peruse it at my leisure.
It was "An Ancient Mappe of Fairie Land" by Bernard Sleigh. Itís a map depicting an island populated by mythical figures and locations from Odin to the Seven Dwarves. Stylistically, imagine "Whereís Waldo?" done by William Blake. Now, I mentioned that this is a mappe of a fantastic island- that fact will be important later.
Depicted in the water, among the nereids and kelpies, are what appears to be a cluster of lobster pots. Above them is the legend ĎThese are the soul cages.í I donít have to tell you that those words, verbatim, are the chorus to the title track of rocker Stingís most literate and sophisticated album. HOLY CRAP! Does that mean pop music is encroaching on the world of myth? Are Stingís lyrics, not to mention Donald Fagenís, taking on some strange existence in the collective unconscious? Fucking A, they are.
"But revered Liu Chang," youíre saying, "thatís a spicy a-meatball. Of course all this fantasy mumbo-jumbo has only an allegorical reality!" Wrong, sucka. This time, I have a posse to back me up on the mean streets of Dandom Fandom. Let me introduce
Heís the author of a wonderful little book that should have cracked the foundation of the world, but like so many other works of serious genius remains only a cult classic. Nonetheless, itís an important book. To oversimplify, Berman states that not only does our Cartesian worldview not work, it has robbed us of our connection to worlds of tangible magic. The most important point he makes happens to regard the alchemists. See, I told you Iíd come back to it. Berman argues that Agrippa, Nicolas Flamel, and the like werenít just charlatans and half-assed lab rats, but that their mystical miracles and occult transmutations ACTUALLY HAPPENED! What does that have to do with Steely Dan? More fuel for the fire of my theory.
Of course, I wonít stand on the opinion of one person. Iíll take my lead from Dr. Anthony Damasioís groundbreaking work on the neurology of consciousness. Among his research is the finding that anticipatory memory("fantasy") operates within the same cortical structure as immediate sensory perception("reality"), and with the help of the limbic system can be just as "real", if not more so.
Mind you, we all have the trouble of our daydreams
and memories lacking a certainÖ depth, or substance, perhaps. Iíll
complete the troika of Berman-Damasio-Gulbranson by stating that the Cartesian
world/self dualism has caused our faculty of perception to atrophy, leaving
only the withered limb we like to call Ďthe senses.í Nowadays, the
only way to return to a state of participatory consciousness is by sex,
drugs, rock Ďn roll, or religion. Sometimes a combination of the
above is all that can allow us to touch other worlds. Youíll recall
my comment on the phone ringing during a Steely song.
SPRING GARDEN ISLAND
Donít fret or fuss, I realize that I squandered my latest essay space on philosophy and strangeness. There was very little mention of Steely Dan, sure. Thatís okay- Iím already hard at work on the next installment. Iím outlining, album by album, the structure of my theory and what the songs mean in relation to it. You wonít have long to wait.
Hereís something from my heart to yours, and I wouldnít share this with anyone but obsessive know-it-alls such as myself. My wife and I decided that if there is an afterlife with consciousness, weíd like to meet there. Now, nobody knows the structure of the afterlife, or what rules apply. I would assume that it has something in common with my theory- in fact, think of "Ancient Fairieland" and the island itís on. So, with that in mind, I decided that souls gravitate towards some love or affinity, and that you will eventually wash up on some island of your own imagining. Therein lies the problem. What if you drift off course? What if thereís a storm? What if my wifeís boat is cast adrift by her fondness for marzipan and flute music, or mine by my grade-school crush on Connie Chung?
In a flash of insight, we thought to map out a geography all our own for when the time comes. Itís called Spring Garden Island, and itís a wonderful place. I wonít divulge any details about it- after all, threeís a crowd, and Iíll beat the living piss out of any Googlers who wander into our eternity with the idea of finding Spring Garden Island.
There is a power in this theory, so much so that my ever-pragmatic wife even believes in our increased chances of happy togetherness in the hereafter. Something to think about. Now, Iíll say goodbye until I unleash the interpretations, and then satisfy those of you who wished to see the Steely "meat" of my theory.
"Now I ainít got the heart
to lose another thumb
so until my ship comes in
Iíll live album by album"
Again, check out my writing at http://www.nwdrizzle.com , see the trailer for the movie "Clearwater" I was in at http://www.horroronfilm.com , and wait for a super-secret comic book surprise. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with thoughts or questions.