Thursday, October 19, 2006
Dan of Steel
i have a three-CD changer in my bedroom. a burned Steely Dan CD, which has both "Aja" and "Can't Buy a Thrill," has been in the "number 3" slot for several months. often when i put a CD in one of the other two slots and try to play it, the Steely Dan CD comes on instead. almost always, i decide to keep the Steely Dan CD on rather than stop it and put on what i intended to listen to. like just now, i was going to put on "Symphony for Improvisers" by Don Cherry, which i was going to write about, but then "Black Cow" came on and my listening/blog plan changed.
i first discovered Steely Dan i think about three years ago. i found a greatest hits tape of theirs in the trash and brought it home and listened to it very gradually. for a while i would only listen to "Do It Again," but gradually i gave in to some of the others.
the first song that really grabbed me was "Here at the Western World," which is this B-side that i don't think was ever really released except on the greatest hits disc. it's actually very anomalous for a Steely Dan song, for reasons that are hard to pinpoint. i think really what it is is that the lyrics are unusually serious. usually Fagen and Becker write about characters who are kind of lovably bumbling (or something like that). like if you think about "Deacon Blues," the main character is pathetic and ridiculous but not necessarily sad b/c you can't relate to him at all, probably b/c his fantasy of moving to the suburbs and learning jazz is just so misguided.
in a way, it's hard to relate to the main character in "Here at the Western World" too. but it's a different scenario, b/c in "Deacon Blues," the main character speaks in the first person whereas "Western World" is in the second person--Fagen is speaking to "you." therefore it's harder to get that comfortable, smug distance that one can feel when listening to Fagen sing about losers.
basically the song is about a whorehouse named the Western World. maybe this is a dumb assumption, but i feel like the song takes place in Germany, b/c of the opening line: "Down at the Lido, they welcome you with sausage and beer / Klaus and the Rooster have been there too, but lately he spends his time here." sausage + beer + Klaus = Germany? ok, i guess that's pretty lame.
anyway, it gets better. the chorus goes, "Knock twice, rap with your cane / Feels nice, you're out of the rain / We got your skinny girl, here at the Western World." that image of some over-the-hill businessman knocking on the door of a brothel is really powerful to me. but the fucked up part is that pretty soon, the song takes you inside his head: "In the night you hide from the madman you're longing to be / But it all comes out on the inside eventually." there aren't many songs where Fagen tells his characters what they're feeling; he usually lets them tell their stories themselves, and though they're often very transparent, the words don't cut to the bone that way. in the second verse, Fagen sings, "Lay down your Jackson," which i'd assume is a gun [hey, gotta retroactively interject here that i'm real dumb and that, as a bunch of readers have pointed out, a Jackson is obvi a 20-buck bill. duh.], so it may be that the guy is some sort of a criminal.
i often find myself walking around and thinking about that "madman" line. it's pretty fucked up, the idea of "longing" to be mad.
it's basically a devastating song, probably the heaviest Dan track in my opinion, with "Deacon Blues" running a close second. but if you have a hazy impression of what Steely Dan is about, this will slap you firmly on the wrist and show you how you're completely wrong. i thought of Steely Dan as a joke before i listened to them, a '70s punchline soft-rock band like Hall and Oates or something. and "Yacht Rock" perpetuates that image. but the thing is that you can't make fun of Steely Dan for being breezy or smooth or any of that crap. it just doesn't stick b/c the entire thing is totally self-aware and cynical. listen to "Babylon Sisters" and then "Glamor Profession" for an immediate revelation on that front. "Here at the Western World" was really the one that did it for me, the one that made me a die-hard. i don't think i've listened to any band more frequently or with more pure enjoyment--intellectual, musical, emotional--since.