Friday, October 31, 2008

you see it all in 3-D

It seems a bit absurd to remain fixated on old guy's music in the wake of Obama's inspiring victory on Tuesday, but here goes...



I don't really have much to add about Steely Dan's Aja that hasn't already been said much more elegantly than I could say it here... We all know that the album's 'adult' sound is as smooth as a baby's ass, almost to the point of being elevator music... The guitar solos are super tasty, especially the one in "Peg," where the last coke-fueled note sustains into the subsequent verse. I love that! ...The Michael McDonald backing vocals on the album are just plain weird. I've never heard such bizarre harmonies with the notes so close to each other...

So, ok, as cringe making as it may sound to the angry punk rockers out there in my huge readership, I'd venture to say that Aja is one of my two or three most formative records, having been one of the key soundtracks of my life during an especially impressionable period in the mid-late 70s, when not only "Peg" but also "Deacon Blues" and "Josie" were played multiple times every day on AM and FM radio stations in New York City... We're gonna break out the hats and hooters when Josie comes home... The songs evoke random, fragmented memories. When I hear the dissonant guitar intro to "Josie," for instance, I feel like I'm lying on my shrink's couch, suddenly remembering something intense and maybe even painful..."Deacon Blues" reminds me of riding in the family car (a '76 Volvo), through Spanish Harlem, in the summertime, when I was 9 or 10. The windows were rolled up and the doors locked. Outside, Puerto Rican kids stripped themselves down to their underwear and ran through open hydrants, anything to get a break from the blazing heat. The men on those streets wore dingy wife beater t-shirts, played checkers, and took nips from dark green bottles in brown paper bags. It's a trivial memory, I know, but it's poignant in a way that I have trouble getting at with words. I also flash on things like the graffiti that decorated every inch of New York's subway trains. ZAP... CHOKE... DONDY ... 295 ... NYC was a different place, a better place. Trash and filth covered the sidewalks and the casual smell of pot always seemed to be wafting through certain side streets down near the East River. I was afraid of the .44 Caliber killer, even after he was in jail. I was also afraid of the Purple Pooper Scoopers, two guys with Jesus beards who dressed in tie dyed coveralls and would roam around the city on their three-speed bikes, picking up dog leavings. I think they were doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, as a weird form of hippy civic pride, but there was something creepy about them. Even then I was a cynic, always questioning the motives of harmless do gooders... They got a name for the winners in the world...



The incredible thing about Aja for me now is the way it's taken on an additional meaning since I became an Angeleno. Aja is one of the greatest L.A. albums ever recorded, with its banyan trees and dude ranches above the sea. The protagonists in the songs seem dazed, suspicious of the strangeness of the place and its people. 'Up on the hill, they think I'm OK...or so they say.' Yet those same protagonists 'crawl like vipers through the suburban streets,' adapting to the weird ways of Los Angeles until they become second nature. 'A world of my own, I'll make it my home sweet home...'

Much of the sentiment about Los Angeles on Aja is offered with Steely Dan's typical ironic distance, but they were ironic before irony was grating. The album captures the experiences of a very specific late 70s L.A. millieu. 'Sharing the things we know and love, with those of my kind... But there's more to it than irony and narrow vision, I think. Maybe it's just that I hear what I want to hear and impose my own agenda on things, but Aja's sarcasm is not expressed bitterly but instead with curiosity and wonder. When Fagen sings of 'the night of the expanding man,' I see a man who's escaped the compressed claustrophobia of New York for the physical and spiritual vastness of Los Angeles. I see myself, in other words. This brother is free, I be what I want to be...'

I don't know what else I can say about Aja without getting overly solipsistic. For all the talk of the lack of emotion in Steely Dan's music, Aja is one of the most emotional albums I own. 

2 comments:

Eric Scoppetta said...

i'm going to find that old album and give it a good listen now

E said...

and do u remember guys throwing rocks at the schoolbus on 125th?