COUNTDOWN TO ECSTASY. STEELY DAN'S BEST
Or Just My Favorite?
Is Countdown to Ecstasy, the second Steely Dan album, the band's best album? I think so. Or is it simply my favorite, as it has been since 1973? And is it really my favorite, or is Pretzel Logic?
It's a matter of taste. And in criticism and commentary, taste is almost everything. In the introduction to Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Taste, author and recovering art critic, the late Dave Hickey, observes a Park Avenue matron delighting at a collection of "Electric Chairs" at an Andy Warhol exhibition at the Whitney Museum. "I like the blue one," the rich lady says. Hickey peeks inside her soul and imagines a privileged childhood and "the grim pleasure she took in social executions." It's her taste, as much as cocaine, poker, and Chet Baker were Hickey's taste.
Steely Dan themselves didn't consider it savvy to embrace Countdown to Ecstasy as their best, though they acknowledge that some entertain such feelings. In the 1990s, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen "The Original ABC/Dunhill Records Reissue Notes." These notes, compiled on Steely Dan dot com as can be thorough, technical, verbose, and hilarious, in that Frigidaire-dry and chilly sense of humor shared by the duo. They write:
"Generally speaking, the type of person who typically holds this position is not the sort of individual you want sitting across the table from you at a dinner party, especially one where hard liquor is being served. Nor would you be well advised to give one of these guys your email address or (gasp) your phone number. Should it happen that such a fan gets a hold of your street address or place of employment, caution would dictate that you inform the police, pronto, before the situation deteriorates any further."
“Countdown to Ecstasy/Inherent Vice. Shaggy-dog tales with a lot of nostalgic charm: Manhattan Beach is to Pynchon as Annandale is to the 'Dan. Both also contain druggy sojourns in Lost Wages; also she def got the Steely Dan *and* Country Joe and the Fish t-shirts” Thank you, @steelydan_memes
Their complaints about their albums, and even those who love them, tend to be preposterously technical, but there are some insights most of us without advanced degrees in recording studio engineering can suss. The band was in transition from public performing unit to studio hermits. A manager imposed on the band from the label had them doing gigs on weekends, where they had the misfortune to open for battle tested road warriors like the James Gang, the Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, the Doobie Brothers, Elton John, Rare Earth . . .
After a humiliating amusement park gig in Phoenix, they write, "the six-man configuration inaugurated towards the end of the recording of Can't Buy a Thrill was deemed obsolete: the band reverted to its original five man lineup, with Dave Palmer departing for greener pastures without having sung a note on the actual Countdown recording."
But we Steely Dan aficionados don't care about the fact that a flaw in the recording tape was investigated and found to be caused by a dribble of mustard at the manufacturer. Well, we care because what a detail! And because they are so obsessive, but we care about results. When it comes to songs, Countdown to Ecstasy delivers. Eight songs, immaculately rendered yet deep and meaningful in their peak oblique SD way. Listen to it now and remember (because I had forgotten) how hard it rocks. An exception is the sultry Louisiana themed "Pearl of the Quarter," which despite its conventional, accessible structure is not about the French quarter to me.
In ninth grade, at a new high school, I had nothing to do on Saturdays. So I would walk "alone down the Miracle Mile" in Manhasset, Long Island, to the Americana shopping center, and daydream of a girl from my class, who I might meet at "the Shrine of the Martyr," or maybe at Brentano's book store.
But also remember that this second album was supposed to seal the deal for ABC-Dunhill, finally giving that singles-oriented label (Grass Roots, Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf) what it craved, a band that could move album product, in the parlance of the day, by the truckload. It was supposed to build on the success of Can't Buy a Thrill.
Instead, it was their lowest charting studio album, peaking at No. 35 on the Billboard albums chart, despite the perennial radio hit, "My Old School." In this tune, a reference is made to "Daddy G," in this case Watergate henchman G. Gordon Liddy, a former Dutchess County D.A. who relished busting the Bard campus. "Daddy G" is also the nickname of saxophonist Gene Barge of the Church Street Five, a Norfolk, Va., band that backed Gary U.S. Bonds on his No. 1 record, "A Quarter to the Three," a standard in the E Street Band concert repertory.
Countdown, as I have said, had impeccably played hard rock, though often in minor keys, with some jazzy flourishes (like the Cal Tjader-style vibes by Victor Feldman on "Razor Boy"). The guitars come roaring out of the gate on opening song "Boddhisattva" and . . . you can imagine the promo and marketing departments saying, "Boddhi what? Boddhi who?"
Having finished my Bard College service in 1969 officially (hanging around on and off through the 1969-1970 school year), and having recently graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder (1972), I knew exactly what they were talking about. Because Boulder was to spiritual seekers what Berkeley and Madison were to the politically inclined in those dangerous years. People were looking for gurus, making stars out of the town's best astrologers, and embracing all forms of crossover-Buddhism or secular Hinduism.
That is what a Bodhisattva was, by definition: Someone on the path to becoming a Buddha, which could have defined you, me, and Allen Ginsberg. In fact, Ginsberg was the totemic figure for the Naropa Institute and its Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which opened in Boulder in 1974.
I'm sure the search for serenity was as acute in Fagen and Becker's L.A. of 1973, as deriving status from one's yoga teacher is now. The wordplay about the faddish orientalism is lovely and succinct: "Can you show me, the shine of your Japan, the sparkle in your China."
Things get more complicated with "Razor Boy," which seems almost tender and intimate, almost a love song, ("the coming is so close at hand/you feel alright"). That is, until the chorus about how "only women in cages can stand/this kind of night." Women in cages is not a feminist anthem: It is not "I Am Woman," a then recent chart hit for Helen Reddy. I've always taken the phrase to refer to grade Z exploitation female prison movies you might see on late night TV, such as "Caged" (1950, Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorhead), or, for that matter, "Women in Cages," a 1971 Roger Corman co-production, with a fourth-billed Pam Grier.
"Show Biz Kids," my favorite song on the album, has baffled some Steely Dan observers, even so-called experts from far away places, like England, especially England, who don't understand the Borscht Belt humor that Fagen and Becker deploy. Even Genius lyrics get it wrong, presenting the girls singing backup repeating "go to Las Wages." No. Anyone who ever sat through an average Catskills comedy routine in 1960s, or on "The Ed Sullivan Show," would be familiar with "lost wages" as the nickname used for Las Vegas.
"Hello, ladies and gentlemen, I just flew in from Lost Wages, Nevada, and boy, are my arms tired." (Rim shot.) The singers repeat "Go to "lost wages, lost wages," because that's what happens when you go to Las Vegas. The house always wins, the gambler goes bust, and you, dear bettor, have lost your wages.
The song mocks the spoiled teenage denizens of Los Angeles, the kind one might meet at Rodney Bingenheimer's English disco on Sunset Strip, a magnet for Valley Girls, or Hollywood High kids, some with braces on their teeth, dressing like hookers who worked the early Harry Bosch regions of Hollywood Boulevard. "They got the Steely Dan t-shirt. And for the coup de grace, they're outrageous!" The inside double-down joke, I think, is that there were no Steely Dan t-shirts I could find at the time. In L.A. in 1973 to interview Fagen and Becker for Creem and NME (see Shadow Dancing with Steely Dan) I asked the ABC-Dunhill publicist, Corb Donahue, for a Steely Dan t-shirt. He told me they didn't have any; neither Steely Dan nor the label made promotional SD t-shirts, and Fagen and Becker, still opening act concert attractions, had not developed "merch" as an income stream. I was comped a long sleeve black t-shirt with the "Aja" logo in 1979, the only Steely Dan t-shirt I've ever owned.
Steely Dan live radio broadcast, 1974. Not as good as the album version
"THE BOSTON RAG"
What's happening here? In 2005, in The Stylus (where the last post is from 2007), Brad Shoup writes lucidly about Countdown: "At the heart of these gin-and-Lucite compositions were some of the fiercest, most damning words recorded that decade."
"The Boston Rag" is six minutes long, with excellent guitar solos by Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter. Shoup also refers to the tempo as "stately, to be kind," though I'm not sure why he made a semi-apology: "Stately" is an excellent word to describe the tempo, which is why it keeps marching through ones head with as much vigor as it has for about 50 years.
Besides the choruses and solos, there are only 12 lines of lyric in the song. Genius lyrics assesses "The Boston Rag" as "one of the most opaque songs Fagen and Becker ever wrote." That is really saying something. I'm going to give these lines a close look in a way that mixes their detail with the reason their music resonates so much with me: The way it mirrors people and places in my life.
First, the title. There was not much for us to do on weekends except drugs and study on Bard's campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, where my sophomore and only year overlapped with Fagen's senior year and that of Becker, too. And I was not one to waste a weekend studying, until conditions demanded. It was often delightful to hang around campus on weekends, when the weather was good, as when a promised supply of mescaline showed up as rumored for a spring bacchanal. Otherwise, there was the train to New York, or an easy drive to Boston. I had a few mostly platonic women friends in Boston who I visited often, making it a kind of weekend satellite of Bard.
But the song never tells us who, or what, the Boston rag is: I just thought it as a nickname for a scorned woman who had moved there. The singer is bereft: "Any news was good news/and the feeling was bad at home," the song begins, blessed like never before by the timbre of Fagen's singing.
That timbre is essential to Steely Dan's appeal. My expert acquaintance Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist, sound engineer, teacher, and author, discusses this in This is Your Brain on Music (Dutton, 2006). At first, he thought the voices of both Fagen and John Lennon "strange," but the more he listened, the more he came to love their singing.
"I feel as though these voices have become incorporated into who I am [my italics] and at a neural level, they have," he writes."Having listened for thousands of hours to both of these singers, and tens of thousands of playings of their songs, my brain has developed circuitry that can pick out their voices from among thousands of others . . . My brain has encoded every vocal nuance, and every timbral flourish, so that if I hear an alternate version of one of their songs . . . I can immediately recognize the ways in which this performance deviates from the one I have stored in the neural pathways of my long-term memory."
I went back to my parents house in the Herricks High School region of Nassau County once in awhile to wash my clothes, but “the feeling was bad at home”: without saying anything, my parents' marriage was falling apart, odd for a couple who never fought: That's how repressed, sweep-it-under-the-rug they were. When Fagen sings, "I was out of my mind/and you were on the phone" is all you need to know about the relationship in "The Boston Rag." There's nothing to salvage, nothing more to say.
When my parents divorced, my dad moved to an apartment in Bayside, Queens. Walter Becker had grown up in Forest Hills, a similarly middle class Queens neighborhood, with both private homes and nice apartment buildings. When my first marriage was breaking up in 1984, I had been living in a temporary dwelling near the house my wife kept in Great Neck, an illegal basement rental down the street, a step and a half up from homeless. One afternoon I brought the two-year-old daughter I was co-raising to spend the day with my dad and his new wife, Anna, in Bayside. They had a nice two bedroom, two bath apartment with a small waterview terrace. My dad told me that afternoon they were moving to Florida. I said "Great, can I have the apartment?" And my father said, "no, we gave up the lease." It was a tight apartment market, I was rootless and depressed and desperate, and I asked why he didn't tell me and add me to the lease before they left. My dad replied with a typical shrug and said, "I never thought about you." Dad wasn't always that callous; he was often kind, a person of character. But the pain of that cold dismissal lingers.
Divorced, I had dated a few women from Bayside. One got crazy when she drank a little; another stopped seeing me because I drank too much. My current wife, Maureen, I met 35 years ago when she had a studio apartment in Manhattan. She was from Bayside. But she went to Bronx Science.
"Lady Bayside" was sort of evil in "The Boston Rag," but the reference to pointing a car down "Seventh Avenue" made sense to me. Many people from Bayside worked in the garment district, the hub around Seventh Avenue just south of Penn Station, a 26-minute commute on the LIRR. Those working in the garment district were called "garmentos"; their business was sometimes known as "the rag trade."
Then there is the story of Lonnie. "Lonnie was the kingpin back in 1965." I'm pretty sure that is the same Lonnie who was also the kingpin in 1968-1969, because Lonnie Younge, if it is the same person, was "the Sandwich Man." He was a hero to us all who were up around 11 pm, in the Stone Row dorms, parched and in near delirium tremens from "the munchies." His ham and swiss cheese sandwiches were better than anything I ate at Paul Bocuse's restaurant near Lyon, but maybe it was a matter of taste, hunger, and choice of drugs. I prefer Warhol's Lifesaver colored Marilyn Monroes to the electric chairs.
In the song, Fagen sings: "Lonnie swept the playroom/and he swallowed up all he found." I always misheard the lyric, because the hulking Lonnie I knew of, who died in 1998, was indeed fond of pills. But for 50 years, I thought Fagen was singing, "he swallowed a lot of downs," which would still go with the rhyme: "It was 48 hours till Lonnie came around." It's all in the timbre.
Cathy Berberian, and the "one roulade she can't sing" mentioned in "Your Gold Teeth," has mystified Steely Dan faithful for decades. She was an avant-garde mezzo-soprano who worked with both Stravinsky and John Cage. My guess is that the roulade is in one of the three movements of Cage's famous silent composition 4'33", but I'm reaching here.
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