Tag Archives: Steely Dan

Only a Fool Would Say That: Songs of Freedom, Part 2 of 3

(Read Living in Harmony: Songs of Freedom, Part 1 of 3)

Well, okay then: Where are the liberty-lovers’ lyrics? Without going back to Sousa, or quoting favorite hymns, or dredging up Broadway show tunes, what can we listen to in the last few generations of music that won’t insult our political sensibilities?

Some of you who know the group I’m going to name may not even have gleaned the libertarian, occasionally even patriotic, slant of the lyrics; others of you may have heard the group’s name, but not realized what their message was; still others may not like the slick, funky jazz style of the music (which means you are not a musician). But to everyone, I heartily recommend—Steely Dan.

Donald Fagen (l) and Walter Becker aged well, as did their music.

Donald Fagen (l) and Walter Becker aged well, as did their music.

Whoa! A group named after the Naked Lunch protagonist’s marital aid? What?!

With these eccentrics, I saw (heard) it early on, in a song from their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, in 1972—and even at that time I recognized it as being way out of the mainstream, message-wise. Riding atop a relaxed little Latin beat, propelled by a spare jazz-combo arrangement with first-rate guitar work by Denny Dias, were these lyrics:

A world become one, of salads and sun?
Only a fool would say that.
A boy with a plan, a natural man,
wearing a white Stetson hat.
Put down that gun, be gone!
There’s no one to fire upon.
If he’s holding it high, he’s telling a lie.
I heard it was you talking about
a world where all is free.
It just couldn’t be—and
only a fool would say that.

Holy cow! A far cry from “We Are the World” with its unmistakable message of global governance, wealth redistribution, and rule by (sensitive and nurturing) elites. Another great Steely Dan tune, “Babylon Sisters” from the 1978 Aja album, had this to say about young airheads with unregenerate musical tastes:

Drive west on Sunset to the sea.
Turn that jungle music down,
just until we’re out of town.
This is no one-night stand, it’s a real occasion.
Close your eyes and we’ll be there.
It’s everything they say, the end of a perfect day,
distant lights from across the bay.
Babylon sisters, shake it.
So fine, so young, tell me I’m the only one.

Yikes. Not only are Donald Fagen and Walter Becker good musicians and writers, they’re guys who don’t take themselves too seriously. Try to imagine Mr. Blue-Collar Produndity, Bruce Springsteen, poking fun at himself. This seriously average fella is called a “genius” by the PC critics in the national media—a genius who still hasn’t learned a few more chords to elevate somewhat the emaciated carcasses of R&B tunes past that he calls his original compositions. Self-parody? For the “musical conscience of his generation”? Goodness, no!

Not only do they mock big government, Fagen and Becker mock their own aging egos and the radio culture that enriched them:

Hey, nineteen [19-year-old], that’s Aretha Franklin.
She don’t remember the Queen of Soul.
Hard times befallen soul survivor.
She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old.
Hey, nineteen, we can’t dance together,
we can’t talk at all.

(Part 3 of 3 is up next.)

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