You're everlasting summer
You can see it fadin' fast
So you grab a piece of somethin'
That you think is gonna last
Well, you wouldn't know a diamond
If you held it in your hand
The things you think are precious
I can't understand.
Despite the bitter and acrimonious tone of the lyrics, the siblings' performance was upbeat and grossly energetic. They exchanged smiles, tossed individual lines to each other and reached out their hands as if eagerly anticipating their high school reunion. By the time they reached the chorus and were singing in harmony, their mood turned curiously exuberant:
Are you reelin' in the years
Stowin' away the time
Are you gatherin' up the tears
Have you had enough of mine?
You probably recognize the song they selected as their tribute to the past: Steely Dan's 1972 hit "Reelin' in the Years." Hardly conceived as a bouquet of roses to the good ol' days, "Reelin' in the Years" was in fact a viciously satiric attack on those who do get misty over a walk down memory lane. But Donny and Marie responded only to the effervescent bounce in the melody. It was a common mistake people made with this band. When I worked on the CBC radio program Prime Time, in the early Nineties, our executive producer Dave Downey was a huge Steely Dan fan. And he got no end in grief for being one. While most of the other producers on the show found it easy to revel in the post-punk sounds of Radiohead, they actually missed the covert rebellion lurking within the smooth jazz arrangements of these Jewish songwriters; composers who are as sardonically ironic as the Coen brothers are in the world of film.
|Walter Becker & Donald Fagen|
Frank Zappa. But when we first started, people thought our style belied the actual content of the lyrics. So they thought we were just sort of sincere California band. I guess that's the secret of subversion." In Avant Rock: Experimental Music from The Beatles to Björk (2002), Bill Martin writes: "What really makes the Steely Dan vision...is a synthesis of jazz-rock with a sound from the first decades of the 20th Century, a sound that I associate with Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers and Duke Ellington – I would call this sound 'music deco.' As with the art deco movement in design and architecture, music deco is innovation developed from popular materials. And, as with art deco, there is a definite Jewish side to music deco, or a synthesis of Jewish and African-American influences."
While incorporating such influences, Steely Dan also became masters of disguise and believers in the untrustworthy narrator (a trait they shared with songwriter Randy Newman). Besides the neatly veiled but anti-nostalgic "Reelin' in the Years," from Can't Buy a Thrill (1972), the band produced a number of deceptively perverse songs that miraculously found their way onto the radio. "Show Biz Kids," with its funky, catchy melody, took a well-aimed shot at the Hollywood rich and poor – not to mention their own fans. Look closely, and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," which borrowed its seductive jazz melody from Horace Silver's "Song for My Father," is really about a transvestite. Likewise "The Fez," with its exotic dance rhythms, is actually a light-hearted advisory about wearing condoms. "Pretzel Logic," which accurately describes the swastika, takes on (at least in part) the subject of Adolph Hitler. "Any World (That I'm Welcome to)" is a sly critique on social alienation with a melody so beguiling you can sometimes hear the song playing, as I once heard it, in the most conventional places – like a supermarket.
Subversion and its secrets sometimes comes in the form of a Trojan Horse. But we have grown so used to seeing and hearing rebellion in its loudest, most demonstrative forms, we tend to miss the kind that sneaks in our door. As for Steely Dan's curmudgeonly view of human nature, it comes disguised as popularly accepted music. In "Reelin' in the Years," there is also a wicked devilry in their populist daring.
– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is finishing production on a radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney to be broadcast on December 30th.