A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: First of two singles from Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy album. Released as a single in October 1973. Reached No. 61 on the charts. I haven’t heard it in a while but a random mention on Twitter got me chewing on it.
And here’s what I like about it:
1. Tumblin’. I’ve been around the world, and I’ve been in the Washington Zoo, and I can tell you that the coolest instrumental detail anywhere on a Steely Dan album is the horn line that follows the lyric “California tumbles into the sea.”
Just imagine, for a moment, Becker and Fagen sounding that phrase out on a piano and committing it to musical notation. (Or, imagine for a moment Becker and Fagen confronting a group of first-call Hollywood studio cats, giving them a starting note and an ending note, and saying, “I dunno. Just kinda tumble in between.”)
2. The old college try. Something about the college experience feels central to Steely Dan — the combination of knowledge and callowness; the expectation of being bound for larger things without feeling particularly driven or heroic about it; the absorption and reproduction of trivial facts related to your temporary new home (like knowing the time of year when the oleanders will be in bloom up in Annandale); and the feeling of being bored and mischievous within the bounds of a larger institution.
The flashy Sixties drunks like John Blutarsky might have gotten off to “Do You Love Me,” but their nephews in the Seventies who shared a joint before going to class and kept one eyebrow permanently cocked in a state of ironic detachment played Steely Dan.
(I am trying to remember whether other Dan tunes, especially from the ’70s, mention college. The only one that springs quickly to mind is “Reelin’ In The Years”: “The weekend at the college didn’t turn out like you planned.” Having a college campus as a social destination seems to fit nicely with the classic Steely Dan aesthetic. And yes, I listened to Steely Dan throughout college in the first half of the 1990s, or at least I did when my roommates were out. Why do you ask?)
3. William and Mary won’t do. So many of the classic name-drops in Dan songs — the Boston Rag, the Western World — are fictional, or so their creators would have us believe. But in “My Old School,” one of America’s oldest colleges (and a very good one) makes a random appearance, only to vanish again.
I haven’t read every single interview or work of research regarding Steely Dan, so I may be in the dark, but as far as I know the insertion of W&M has no special meaning. It fits the syllable count and that’s about it. (Kinda like the inclusion of Muswellbrook in “Black Friday”: It rhymed, it fit the meter, and it was a long way from Los Angeles.)
Based on what I know about collegiate rumor mills, I bet there were 10 different explanations of this song floating around the William & Mary campus back in the day. (“They went to school here!” “They played a gig here!” “They got busted here!”)
I find that kind of thing delicious, and I hope that at least a small handful of freshmen at W&M who looted their dads’ vinyl collections are hopped up about it to this day.
(Becker and Fagen later let slip in interviews that their mention of the University of Alabama in “Deacon Blues” was singularly ill-spirited and condescending. I’m not aware that any such dynamic was at work here.)
4. The mood. It’s an old songwriter’s trick to put sour words to upbeat music (or, less commonly, vice versa.) Becker and Fagen do so with great effect here. Is the narrator bitter about his experiences, or glad to wash his hands of this place where he went through scenes of great annoyance?
(How old do you think the narrator is? What do you think he looks like? What do you think he does all day? I’d love to read 10 different listeners’ take on those questions.)
5. Big in Hawaii. The “My Old School” single appears on a scant 33 charts on the invaluable ARSA database of local airplay charts.
This week (ed. note: as I write this post) in 1973, the song was No. 15 and heading north on the weekly chart of KPOI in Honolulu, Hawaii, flanked by such Seventies hit-radio warhorses as “Show and Tell” and “Mind Games.” The song went on to reach No. 3 at KPOI for the weeks of January 12 and 19, 1974, a feat it achieved in no other market on record.
Now, what the hell do you suppose made people in Honolulu — but nowhere else — think, “Man, I’d really love to hear that snappy Steely Dan ditty again”?
Just another mystery of Seventies radio, I guess.