Steely Dan, “Hey Nineteen”
I spent the end of November and the beginning of December listening exclusively to Steely Dan, only stopping when listening to something else was tied to future income or demanded by company. It felt like every minute and each new perfectly arranged note was filling a gap in my brain, forging a link between two schools of thought that were previously just floating there. “Oh, I like this sound, and I really like this band — these guys did it first, and they might’ve done it best.” Listening to Destroyer’s Kaputt, an album I love, after a week straight of Gaucho was like waking up beside a lover after seeing a picture of his father: I saw the bloodlines, the shape of the face and the same eyes, and though he looked no different I felt like I understood him better.
It also scared me, because it reminded me how much I still have to learn about music, the depths I still have to plumb. I worry about this all the time, or at the very least it’s always at the back of my mind: I don’t know enough about this stuff to have my opinion trusted by strangers, much less to get paid for said opinion. I think it’s probably something that haunts everyone, even when they’ve been reading and writing about music for decades. But a few weeks with Steely Dan hammered it home: these guys are highly influential and hyper-brilliant, and before last month I could hum “Reelin’ in the Years” and that’s about it. Somehow I’ve reached the point where knowledge resembles a responsibility much closer than it does a trivial thing to hold.
A friend expressed a similar sentiment over Gchat today, though the extent of his criticism is unpaid album reviews in our university rag. (Going for background rather than backhand with that note, though if you have to clarify…) We were talking about Portishead, and he remarked on the oddness of his trip through the decades of music that came before us, noting that he was listening to Portishead by seventh grade but only came around to the Pixies this year. I suppose we can chalk that up to the Internet, mostly: everyone’s journeys through the canon have been detached from the Bibles of years past (the Rolling Stone album guide that occupied the spot of honour in our bathroom for several years in the mid-’00s, the Spin alternative album guide I’ve never actually read) and now veer wildly from left to right and jump down wormholes, missing key sights and sounds along the way. I have no idea what this means for the next generation of music critics; given my age, I and others within a few years are probably the first group to really bear the effects of this shift. It’s something I’m keeping an eye on, anyway.
Back to Steely Dan: I mentioned Gaucho above, and it’s the album that’s soaked up the majority of my time with the band. (Katy Lied is second, Aja is third, and the remainder are just about equal in a pack below that.) It’s an amazing record, ruthless and efficient in its construction and consistently darkly funny and coolly sexy despite the two lecherous, horribly addled goofballs at the helm. “Hey Nineteen” is my favourite song from the album, though the intro to “Glamour Profession” is its best moment and a sequence I return to every time I think about summing this band up: horns that swell like Fagen and Becker’s tumescent rods every time they get a glimpse of side-boob on the beach, a frisky and surprisingly intricate little guitar riff sprung from a prankster’s fingers, an attention to detail that’s simply stunning. But as a whole, “Hey Nineteen” is better, sadder and funnier and gifted with a better melody and more fascinating. It’s the sound of two doofuses learning they’ve lost their edge in real time and throwing their hands up in response, diving into blow and tequila even though they know better because they need to feel young somehow. It’s irrepressibly horny and stupidly hilarious, and it still works today because it’s easier than ever to feel ancient at the hands of someone younger.
(Side note: the YouTube description attached to the video above reads: “From their album Gaucho (in honour of my daughter’s 19th birthday),” which is ABSOLUTELY HORRIFYING and exactly what Fagen and Becker wanted, I think.)
Fagen and Becker were 32 and 30 respectively when Gaucho was released, meaning they were forced to confront their age by a woman roughly a dozen years younger. I don’t know about you, but I face the same issue anytime I talk to anyone even three years younger than I am. Just another thing we can chalk up to the Internet, I guess: generational divides have gotten smaller and smaller (witness the endless debate over millennials vs. “Generation Catalano” vs. whatever other subdivisions are in vogue, and I’m sure there are debates happening I’m not even aware of because I’m too old) and the groups of people who enjoy roughly shared cultural experiences and memories are becoming increasingly stratified. My siblings are three and seven years younger than I am, but in cultural years we might as well be separated by decades. I’ve watched my sister, who is 14, use Tumblr; she is a machine, the digital calculator to my abacus, and she intuitively understands navigational concepts and platforms that would probably take me hours to grasp. Any of us can understand “Hey Nineteen” by watching a teen use Tumblr, and that grants it a lasting power beyond that of its timeless construction or exhausting, steely execution.