“Deacon Blues”—last song, side one of Aja (1977)

It's odd how a song I used to hate has become one of my favorite Steely Dan songs, one where, if it comes on, I'll stop what I'm doing and listen to it, and I've even gone as far as to, just after listening to it, move the needle back to the beginning. There's something about the way it all works together, the intro, the changes, the smooth horns, the lyrics, and even the (I believe, intentionally lame) sax solo. I'm guessing when they recorded this song they knew—not only that they hit a home run, but smashed the window of some yuppie's Range Rover over on Kenmore and set off a block of car alarms. My initial revulsion, for one, is that the song is so smooth, so pleasing, that I didn't trust it. I've since come around to music like that (smooth and pleasing). The other thing that bugged me was the lyrics—I had no idea what they meant, but they made me cringe. Again, I've made a turn-around there almost as extreme as Linda Blair's head in The Exorcist (1973). Now I'm going to try to figure out why—but without reading anyones's likely faulty lyrical analysis, or interviews with Becker and Fagen. If you're a journalist lucky enough to interview a recording artist, and you ask them: “What does that song mean, what is that song about?”—expect to get fed a baloney sandwich—and before you serve it back to your readers as a Reuben, think about what you're doing. You're not a journalist, you're a cog, and you're playing right along with their scheming, lying, myth-making games.

I was admittedly unfairly initially put off by this song due to its title, or specifically the “Deacon” part, mostly based on my fear of Catholicism, rooted in ignorance. I thought that a Deacon was like a Bishop, ranking above a Priest, but what I didn't realize is that a Deacon is much more akin to a shit-worker, like myself—which makes it more appropriate for this song. Of course, my confusion was compounded by the collegiate reference—“They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/call me Deacon Blues.” Referring to the University of Alabama sports teams, but more specifically to their legendary football program. I always loved Crimson Tide as a name, because it sounds pretty much like some kind of a plague. I can't stand their football program now, in the era of crybaby coach Nick Saban, but at the time this record came out I believe I was a fan, somewhat—I really used to like their classic, simple uniforms and the cut-off jerseys the fast guys would wear. Okay, then, but how about the Wake Forest Demon Deacons? That name always baffled me—how was it even allowed? Wouldn't that be like calling your team the Satan Saints or something? Anyway, besides the sports references (which I like), the next thing that bugged me was the beginning of the chorus: “Learn to work the saxophone”—work?—no one says that—“work” the saxophone—no! And then, “drink Scotch whiskey all night long”—nobody calls it “Scotch whiskey”—it's either Scotch, or whiskey, but not Scotch whiskey. And “die behind the wheel”—you wish! I guess it took too long for it to occur to me that this character is something of a Walter Mitty—maybe he'll learn to play sax, but never jazz, and he probably can't hold his liquor, and maybe he drove drunk in the Seventies, but not recklessly—he doesn't have a death wish—he's a suburban schmoe with an urban fantasy.

So, why then is this song so compelling? For one, I don't think you can figure it out exactly—there is an inherent ambiguity that I find very attractive. It starts with a great line: “This is the day of the expanding man/That shape is my shade there where I used to stand.” I always thought it was “That shape is my shame”—but looking on the internet for lyrics, I see “shade”—which I like better, actually, but shade kind of works, too—in that I'm not exactly sure what it means either way, but I like it. I also have no idea whatsoever what “expanding man” means—but I like it so much I'm afraid that any kind of explanation would only diminish it. It might just be, of course, about that transformation from one kind of person to another kind of person. Whether that transformation is real or imagined is the big question, and the answer to that might be both and neither. It's interesting that the last verse starts out: “This is the night of the expanding man”—kind of implying, along with the lyrics—ending with “I'll be what I want to be”—that he's pulled it off. In that there almost has to be an autobiographical element—written by a couple of guys who grew up wanting to be jazz musicians—I guess you have to take into account that there's two guys—who, about what songs mean, may not always be in agreement. And then there are versions of those guys in 1971, and 1977, and 2000—it's very possible that what your lyrics mean change over time as you change over time.

But the sonic thing, here, committed to vinyl, is what I'm considering on this last day of 2018, and as I listen closely, trying to figure out why it's so beautiful of an artifact to me—I don't want to break it down musically—I'd rather just enjoy it whole—but I have to say, those background singers really make the song. It also just occurred to me that this could be the opening title music over my favorite (hypothetical) TV show of all time—it's kind of got that way of introducing us to a whole world, very vividly, specifically—though it could be Connecticut or Long Beach or Ohio—through the Hollywood filter. Of course, it would be too sad to abbreviate the song to 45 seconds—but then, I think, no need to make the TV show—which would just end up being a heartbreaking parade of committee enforced compromises—it already is a TV show, an entire episode, and an entire run—and each time you listen to the song, the extent to which it's a new adventure or a rerun, that depends on you.

—Randy Russell 12.30.18

Current Ranking: No. 2