How Steely Dan Created ‘Deacon Blues’

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Marc Myers writes: As midlife-crisis songs go, Steely Dan’sDeacon Blues” ranks among the most melodic and existential. Recorded for the album “Aja” in 1977, the song details the bored existence of a ground-down suburbanite and his romantic fantasy of life as a jazz saxophonist.

Written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in 1976, “Deacon Blues” was released in 1977 on Steely Dan’s album “Aja,” which in the fall reached No. 3 on Billboard’s album chart, where it remained for seven consecutive weeks. The song also was a hit single in early 1978.

With Steely Dan appearing in New York at the Beacon Theatre from Oct. 6-17, Mr. Fagen, Mr. Becker, guitarist Larry Carlton and saxophonists Tom Scott and Pete Christlieb recalled the writing, arranging and recording of the cult classic. Edited from interviews:

Donald Fagen: Walter and I wrote “Deacon Blues” in Malibu, Calif., when we lived out there. Walter would come over to my place and we’d sit at the piano. I had an idea for a chorus: If a college football team like the University of Alabama could have a grandiose name like the “Crimson Tide,” the nerds and losers should be entitled to a grandiose name as well.

Walter Becker: Donald had a house that sat on top of a sand dune with a small room with a piano. From the window, you could see the Pacific in between the other houses. “Crimson Tide” didn’t mean anything to us except the exaggerated grandiosity that’s bestowed on winners. “Deacon Blues” was the equivalent for the loser in our song.

Mr. Fagen: When Walter came over, we started on the music, then started filling in more lyrics to fit the story. At that time, there had been a lineman with the Los Angeles Rams and the San Diego Chargers, Deacon Jones. We weren’t serious football fans, but Deacon Jones’s name was in the news a lot in the 1960s and early ‘70s, and we liked how it sounded. It also had two syllables, which was convenient, like “Crimson.” The name had nothing to do with Wake Forest’s Demon Deacons or any other team with a losing record. The only Deacon I was familiar with in football at the time was Deacon Jones.

Mr. Becker: Unlike a lot of other pop songwriting teams, we worked on both the music and lyrics together. It’s not words and music separately, but a single flow of thought. There’s a lot of riffing back and forth, trying to top each other until we’re both happy with the result. We’ve always had a similar conception and sense of humor.

[Read the full story here, at WSJ]

Mr. Fagen: Also, Walter and I both have jazz backgrounds, so our models are different than many pop songwriters. With “Deacon Blues,” as with many of our other songs, we conceived of the tune as more of a big-band arrangement, with different instrumental sections contributing a specific sound at different points. We developed “Deacon Blues” in layers: first came the rhythm tracks, then vocals and finally horns.

Many people have assumed the song is about a guy in the suburbs who ditches his life to become a musician. In truth, I’m not sure the guy actually achieves his dream. He might not even play the horn. It’s the fantasy life of a suburban guy from a certain subculture. Many of our songs are journalistic. But this one was more autobiographical, about our own dreams when we were growing up in different suburban communities—me in New Jersey and Walter in Westchester County.

Mr. Becker: The protagonist in “Deacon Blues” is a triple-L loser—an L-L-L Loser. It’s not so much about a guy who achieves his dream but about a broken dream of a broken man living a broken life.

Mr. Fagen: The concept of the “expanding man” that opens the song [“This is the day of the expanding man / That shape is my shade there where I used to stand”] may have been inspired by Alfred Bester’s “The Demolished Man.” Walter and I were major sci-fi fans. The guy in the song imagines himself ascending the levels of evolution, “expanding” his mind, his spiritual possibilities and his options in life.

Mr. Becker: His personal history didn’t look like much so we allowed him to explode and provided him with a map for some kind of future.

Walter Becker of Steely Dan at Coachella in April PHOTO: ZACH CORDNER/INVISION/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Walter Becker of Steely Dan at Coachella in April PHOTO: ZACH CORDNER/INVISION/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mr. Fagen: Say a guy is living at home at his parents’ house in suburbia. One day, when he’s 31, he wakes up and decides he wants to change the way he struts his stuff.

[Read the full story here, at WSJ]

Mr. Becker: Or he’s making a skylight for his room above the garage and when the hole is open he feels the vibes coming in and has an epiphany. Or he’s playing chess games against himself by making moves out of a book and cheating.

A mystical thing takes place and he’s suddenly aware of his surroundings and life, and starts thinking about his options. The “fine line” we use in the song [“So useless to ask me why / Throw a kiss and say goodbye / I’ll make it this time / I’m ready to cross that fine line”] is the dividing line between being a loser and winner, at least according to his own code. He’s obviously tried to cross it before, without success. Read the rest of this entry »


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The Six Most Infuriating Hoaxes of 2013

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 writes:  Trash TV legend Morton Downey, Jr. made a highly questionable claim in 1989 that he was attacked by neo-Nazis in a San Francisco International Airport restroom. He said they shaved his head and painted a backwards swastika on his face. Every year it seems as if these hate crime hoaxes increase. But lies about hate crimes are just one kind of whopper. As we close out 2013, awash in daily social media outrage and as gullible as ever, here are six hoaxes that suckered far too many journalists and others.

The lying lesbian waitress

In mid-November, waitress Dayna Morales sent a picture to Have A Gay Daypurporting to show that customers left her a mean note in place of a tip. The receipt allegedly said: “I’m sorry but I cannot tip because I don’t agree with your lifestyle and how you live your life.” Outraged Americans expressed their shock and horror at the mean note, sharing the picture and associated stories tens of thousands of times. Everyone patted themselves on the back for agreeing that this was hateful homophobic behavior. Thousands of dollars in donations poured in for the former Marine. The only problem is that the story had no basis in fact. The family whose receipt was shown proved that they had actually tipped 20% on their bill. Friends told media outlets that this was just the latest in a string of extraordinary stories told by Morales, who was dishonorably discharged from the military for failing to turn up to drills. She had told friends, reportedly, that she was the only survivor of a bomb blast in Afghanistan. She also reportedly made fantastic claims about incurable brain cancer, sustaining major damage in Hurricane Sandy and being impregnated by her father. At one point Morales claimed she would donate the gifts she received to the Wounded Warrior Project, but the group couldn’t verify if she made any donation.

The dramatic love life of Manti Te’o

Manti Teʻo, linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, played in college for the University of Notre Dame. One of the more interesting stories of the 2012 college football season was Te’o’s excellent leadership on the field after enduring the deaths of his beloved grandmother and beautiful girlfriend. His name was mentioned frequently as a Heisman contender and the deaths were mentioned in all the major media write-ups of his amazing season. In January of this year,Deadspin revealed that the very existence of the girlfriend was a hoax — an online relationship with a man posing as a woman.

Elan Gale’s fake fight on an airplane

On Thanksgiving Day, reality television producer Elan Gale tweeted out an imaginative tale of a very rude woman on a packed airplane. Twitter lost its collective mind over how awful this woman — who was berating a flight attendant, according to the tweets — was. She didn’t exist and Gale later revealed that he’d invented the woman as a way to entertain himself and his followers while on a flight. It being Thanksgiving, journalists went ahead and reported the event as fact without verifying it.

Read the rest of this entry »