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“Drink your big Black Cow, and get out of here”: Steely Dan’s Aja, and the greatest liner notes of all-time

February 19, 2010

 

Black Cow – For Kids

 6 ounces (170 mL, or half of a can) of your finest root beer. A Sioux City sarsaparilla/sasparilla would be fine here

Two scoops (about 6 ounces) of the best dang vanilla ice cream you can find

One tablespoon (10 mL) of melted chocolate. Most recipes say “syrup”, but why not try that 70% cocoa bar for some extra kick?

1.5 ounces (45 mL) whipped cream

1 maraschino cherry

Black Cow – the Steely Dan way

 2 shots of Kahlua (the Dude abides)

2 shots of half n’ half

3 shots of cola

4 incendiary missives about society

While driving to either a) the pineapple store; or b) to pay off my gambling debts; I turned my dial over to Radio K, 770 AM – University of Minnesota’s often-amazing student-run station (their motto – “I just grabbed this DFA remix from SoulSeek, so drop your plans for the next 13 minutes”). Always with the sense of humor, their Thursday morning mp3-J decided to threaten the FCC by playing “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”. I remember a 1993 cheeseball radio edit, where the lyrical censorship was only rivaled by Walter Sobchak and that fit of anger as he “finds” a stranger in the “Alps” – ah, TBS…(The Bowdlerization Supreme?). Radio K is all about class, so there were no “Death Row’s de-fi-nite-ly in the…houuuuse!” moments like the “Dre Day” clean version. Someone with far too much time on their hands went line-by-line through the song, and reversed the audio for each swear word. While the 2002-era rap trend of simply muting the bluer linguistics was humorous, it made far too many hits sound like instrumentals. So we get the reverses – and bless ‘em, because nothing rocks the party like  “..and if all your zzeechiuhb talk ‘iizsh, my hnickahfahh-tham homie Doggy Dogg has my back…” Perhaps Dre, Snoop, Daz and Tha Death Row Inmates should have followed the example set by Steely Dan – the kings of vulgarity in vague.

For the uninitiated, The Dan (as they are known to their biggest, most coke-and-Hoffmaned-out fans) often reference illicit activities within their lyrics. Despite their best efforts to alienate most of their audience, Steely Dan retains a wildly diverse fanbase, from the most upstanding citizens in the Kiwanis pledge drive to the long-haired dude that passed out in the gutter next to your car (Mark Mallman, is that you?). My mom loves them, and so do most of my friends’ mothers, too. I figured that eventually, someone else would notice this bizarre factoid. Enter my favorite writer that elicits unexplained hatred, Chuck Klosterman from his second book, Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: “[Steely Dan] are more lyrically subversive than the Sex Pistols and the Clash combined.” If I may engage in vernacular more befitting to 1989, allow me to “give it up” for Chuck: he understands that an artist is only subversive if the audience is not expecting to be subverted. I would wager that 95% of the United States Senate owns at least one Steely Dan song, and outside of Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Al Franken of Minnesota, I am damn sure none of them have the faintest clue what the hell is being said above all of the smoooooth.[i] Hence, our first problem with the Klosterman Korollary – no one outside of the degenerat..[GREAT PEOPLE - Wonder Showzen'd] that read blokes like me (or Chuck) actually care what Donald Fagen is saying. At least, it seems that way. So Dre, figure out a method of hiding your words behind a wall of meticulously-crafted tonally-variant pop sheen – no one will give a rat’s arse what you are saying. Oh wait, what’s that?  Have I heard “Still D.R.E.?” Yeah, I’ve also heard “Two Weeks” by Grizzly Bear (the Steely Dan of our generation – they would crush “Black Cow”). Yeah, I know they’re the same song, except Rossen, Droste and Co have yet to elaborate on Cali weed…at least, not yet.

I first became aware of the Steely (as their true fans call them) on the same day I finally learned how to ride a bicycle. Donald Fagen’s “I.G.Y.” was a big hit on radio stations in the LA metro area, and Rick Dees always mentioned Fagen’s other group when spinning the record. Around the same time, MTV had “New Frontier” in semi-moderate-occasional rotation, which confused the crap out of me, especially after I learned that both tunes came from the same record (what lirttle I knew about the Singles Game was lost amidst the Fagen Fake-Out). Then, it all disappeared – no more Steely Danold Fagen, no more smooth music. Fine by me, I was ready to (pop)rock – bring on Journey and Def Leppard!

Fast forward five years, when Los Angeles’ KIIS decided to exhume “Hey Nineteen” from the cutout bin. I developed a quasi-obsession with the song, utilizing my dual-cassette recorder to craft a side of a C90 that was nothing but “Hey Nineteen”, over and over and over again (the original “repeat” button!). As the 20th Century finally arrived in my history class coursework, I was struck by the “skate a little lower now” section of that song, because of what I thought was a reference to the McKinley assassination. After Fagen finally ceased his Wooderson-esque run of creepy cat-calls, my 13-year-old ears heard “Now we’re Czolgolz, the fine Colombian, makes the night a wonderful thing…” After just learning that Czolgolz was of Polish descent, I was flummoxed. Ah, Dan, you goofballs!

During my senior year in high school, I discovered my new frontier’s cognate to the Dirt Mall made famous by Brodie and TS. What it lacked in soothsaying beauties with supernumerary mammarial papillae was redeemed by crates and crates of vinyl. Amidst my first hour at the pleasantly-named Boone Square Mini-Mall, I unearthed original mono versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver; a pristine copy of Yes’ Fragile, and Steely Dan’s brilliant monument to excess, Aja. Beatles fanatics will regale you with tales of their first time listening to the original compact disc release, which followed the foreign-to-our-shores UK track list (“Nowhere Man” on Rubber Soul!?). Sorry, after overdosing on the remastered box set, and crafting a “Best Tracks to Not Be Included on #1, 1962-66 or 1967-70 Compilations”, I’ll skip to my actual mission here – to reveal something that, as far as I know, has only happened once, and will likely never happen again. And that, my friends, gets us back to The Steely.

Aja features “Peg”, which has experienced several lives in its 33 years of existence. Every five years or so, music fans discover the work of a session musician that was involved in the recording, which leads to two likely outcomes:

1. It adds a new layer to their love of the song

2. A la Larry David’s buddy Leon, they “flip it”, and use “Peg” as a starting point for diving into the artists’ other material.

Number one is personified by the unmistakable backing vocals of Michael McDonald during the chorus. As McDonald’s renaissance keeps us runnin’, our friends at Popdose examine his influence on the pop landscape, and your needs for all things Michael are better served by their trusty stead. (Brief aside – for the best discussion of studio musicians I’ve ever heard, check Episode 5 of the Popdose Podcast.) As for the second item on that list, the guitar solo of Jay Graydon often resulted in a “who?”, until we learned that he’s the guy responsible for the best song of 1981, George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around”. Let me put this in proper context for you younger folk: He could have written Waterworld, traded Lou Brock to the Cardinals, and suggested the idea for New Coke, and he’d still deserve veneration for just these two contributions to the music canon. Following the success of “Turn Your Love Around”, he…um…well, he wrote the theme song to the hit show Gimme A Break! – not the soulful, Nell Carter-belted “Gimme a break, I sure deserve it…”, but the synth-heavy disaster that screams “EIGHTIES!” like nothing else can. Plus, he collaborated with David Foster, also known as the guy who pushed the formerly-great Chicago® to eschew rock to crank out shite ballad after shite ballad.[ii] Did I mention that his label is called Sonic Thrust Records? I do have to commend him for what has to be the most songwriting credits in history without superfluous parentheses in the title (like I would know what that is like).

Other musicians to appear on “Peg” include the Supreme Soviet of Saxophone, Wayne Shorter; his buddy in the Woodwind Politburo, Tom Scott; and arranger-extraordinaire Larry Carlton. There’s also someone named Jackie Kelso, which reminds me of all the time I wasted watching That 70s Show. You also have to love how aspiring-monopolist Irving Azoff is listed as “Protection”.

So what is so unique about Aja? Find every record of yours that contains liner notes, and give ‘em a good readin’. You are likely to find ridiculous boasts (One of my favorite Hollies compilations, For Certain Because, features the line “FaveRaveFabbestGear, this is the tops!”, or something equally as hagiographic), or intensely-boring accounts of the recording process. Aja takes the opposite tack. Here are my thoughts on these odd, Djangoesque liner notes:

Of course, I was delighted at the prospect and perhaps even a wee bit flattered when I was told that the group had specifically requested my presence. I later found out that this was not entirely true.”

Writer Michael Phalen reveals to us that Katy isn’t the only liar in the bunch.

“By the end of the first session at Producer’s Workshop in Hollywood, it had become abundantly clear to me that nobody in the “group” knew or cared who I was or what I was doing there. Several sessions later, after Donald and Walter had been apprised of my identity, there was trouble.”

You do NOT sneak the media into a Steely Dan session! My favorite story related to Don’s jerky behavior occurred in the early 1990s, when Guitar for the Practicing Musician – then home to a regular column from Dimebag Darrell of Pantera – sought an interview with the Master of the Mouth-Controlled Keyboard. Fagen would not meet with the magazine, nor would he speak with them by telephone. He would, however, reply to one question at a time via US Post. GFTPM printed the images of his hand-written answers in their article, as they drink Scotch whisky all night long, and died (metaphysically, of course) behind the wheel.

To make a long story short, I managed to attend perhaps a dozen sessions at three different studios and, on two occasions, attempted to interview the composers. Unfortunately, both cassettes were seized under grievous circumstances by a fellow whom I believe to be in the employ of the reluctant interviewees. The loss was inconsequential considering that fact that, at that point, my relationship with the belligerent song writing duo had become so strained as to produce a dialog that consisted mainly of threats, insults, and rude remarks.”

I would love to see this story animated, a la HBO’s The Ricky Gervais Show. I’m picturing some big mofo chasing down Phalen, as Fagen & Becker watch from a third-floor window, crushing Quaaludes, and washing them down with bottle after bottle of Purple Drank. Mr. Phalen: those weren’t insults – they were the lyrics to Aja.

“This latest album, following on the hot heels of that depraved and cynical masterpiece, “The Royal Scam”, represents a departure from the puerile brooding that has distinguished Donald and Walter’s work up to now.”

“Puerile brooding”? Wow! I never thought I’d see an artist’s back-catalogue get lambasted on their own album.

“The composers describe this piece ["Peg"] as a “pantonal 13 bar blues with chorus”. That’s the kind of double-talk they were giving me towards the end.”

I hear that Steely Dan’s attempt to release a 5.1 surround sound version has been stalled due to theft of the original master to “Black Cow”. Oooh. Talk about a Royal Scam!

“‘I Got The News’, a Manhattan-jukebox thump-along, serves as a vehicle for the coy pianistics of Victor Feldman, whose labors are capriciously undermined by Walter Becker’s odd, Djangoesque guitar and pointlessly obscene lyric.”

Who would think that I would find myself agreeing that the band’s guitarist should back off, and let the sideman shine! Although I do have to defend the lyrics – they are obscene, yes, but in no way are they pointless. For love to be “rampagin'”, someone would have to come “ragin'”. I don’t make the rules, that’s just how it works, damnit!

“Rich with images of random violence, copulation, drug abuse, loitering with intent and other misdemeanors, this sociopathic jump tune ["Josie"] is sure to become a classic zebra in the annals of Punkadelia.”

Did you just place “loitering with intent” on the same page as “drug abuse”? And wait – I am unable to find anything remotely related to consumption of illicit substances in this song, unless “Shine up the battle apple” is some kind of LA street-slang that never made it to Barstow.

“When Skunk Baxter and Michael McDonald began a monumental shouting match over Jimmy Carter’s policy on whatever, leading Skunk to knee Big Mac right in the grapes, Walter Becker emerges – in that Inimitable ‘Dan Method – with some of Fagen’s ‘fine Colombian’. They also drank some coffee, too.”

OK, this quote does not appear in the liner notes. Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, though.

“The result is a controlled, vibrant energy which Steely Dan emits without ever getting too, too heavy.”

The PR guy takes over for Phalen, with frustration being excised for the Hollies treatment. Prepare to be deluged in a Kamakiriad of Kompliments. Although, you have to laugh at the second “too”, since neither was needed.

I know what you’re thinking – how could Steely Dan let Phalen get away with affixing such a nontraditional essay to their masterwork? Well fret not, Pretzel Logicians, because – as always – The Dan get the last laugh. In the 1999 re-release of Aja, Donald Fagen & Walter Becker added their response to the original incendiary missive:

As for Michael Phalen, when we called back the next day we were told that he had “moved on” from VH-1 and could no longer be reached there. Additionally, we have reason to believe that the deductible on his auto insurance may have gone up again due to excessive claims for vandalism, and that his AAA membership may have been cancelled as well. No matter.”

Wow. AAA? Insurance deductible increase? VH-1?

HELL YES STEELY DAN WENT THERE.


[i] Which Senators do NOT own any Steely Dan? You know, I would bet they ALL do. But as Nate Silver and his foil Scott Rasmussen have taught me, always allow for a margin of error of at least 2.5%. And since Green Gartside of Scritti Politti speaks of doing the same for “two”, we have a MoE of 5%.

[ii] Play “Free”, “Make Me Smile”, and “Old Days”. Now play “If She Would Have Been Faithful”, and if you have managed to refrain from taking your own life, play “Look Away”. Never has a band fallen so far, the musical equivalent of what it would be like to see Martin Scorsese’s name on the credits for Transformers 3 – Robots Hit Each Other An Absolute Shitload.

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8 Comments
  1. June 23, 2010 1:21 pm

    the 6 first albums of steely dan are fabulous. And Peg is a great song. There is much more magic in these than in the solo albums of donald fagan

  2. June 25, 2010 9:17 am

    @feliz: Does that mean that Fagan’s Nightfly is off the table?

  3. July 9, 2011 10:39 pm

    Reviving this thread because I witnessed “Aja” performed by The Dan last night at the Greek in LA. Awesome, awesome show.

    Black Cow kicked-off over two hours of classic Steely Dan in front of a “knowledgeable” audience: most likely all owners of the original, superbly engineered vinyl recordings of these masters of jazz-funk-rock.

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