Sunday, July 17, 2022

Steely Dan, Aja (1977)

These folks don't do the music I would have expected given the name. Steely Dan sounds like a bar band and yet they do what is called jazz rock or yacht rock. It's this big, bounteous sound.

Sounds like 70s soundtrack music. Of course, that's me reading the history the wrong way. It's because of bands like Steely Dan that 70s soundtracks sounded like they did rather than Steely Dan copying a 70s soundtrack.

What interests me with Aja is how some of the musical motifs (I wish I knew more musical jargon, sorry) get repeated later in the history of music. Like, now I'm listening to the title track, a seven-minute song, in which there's an extended jam with drums, sax, guitar, and piano. There's an echo effect in the sound design. I know I've heard Tears for Fears, Phil Collins, and other bands of the 1980s use a similar echo effect on extended jams to give their songs a fuller, richer sound.

This album is easy listening. Real zest for life here. Comes off as though it was easy for the band to craft, though I highly doubt it. I like it.

Since I have nothing more to say about the album, let me tell you a little story. But before you read on, a content warning: the following contains descriptions of a sexual and violent nature. Reader discretion is advised. Here goes.

There once lived an avant-garde writer named William S. Burroughs. He was a junky (morphine and heroin), lifelong. To look at the man, you wouldn't know it. Google him and you'll see a tall, gaunt, big-chinned white man in porkpie hat, thick black frames taking up most of his face, and he'll either be sporting a suit and tie or a Mr. Rogers sweater. This man once went on a bender that took him and his wife and friends from the United States down into Mexico.

One night, when he and his wife and friends got drunk and stoned, they took turns shooting Coke bottles off one another's heads. It was Burroughs' wife's turn. "Don't miss," she joked. He aimed and shot her in the head.

For many years hence, there's been speculation about whether this shooting of his wife was intentional. On the one hand, it seems like her death was an accident. It was the drugs, one could say. It was the stupidity of the activity, shooting bottles off of one another's heads. What were they thinking?

On the other hand, Burroughs and his wife had had frequent knockdown drag-outs, it was said. Often, the man seemed downright contemptuous of his wife, demeaning toward her, perhaps privately abusive. He may have even told others he saw her as a burden. And while Burroughs was married to her, obviously a woman, he was himself sexually fluid, and preferred men to women. After his wife's death, he dated only men.

To return to the details of this transnational bender, before Burroughs killed his wife, Burroughs and his wife and friends got drunk and stoned and had a Bacchanalia involving a metal prosthetic phallus they took turns putting on and using on one another. They woke up not recalling particulars of what had transpired, but they had evidence of all sorts that all sorts of things had transpired.

All of this—the drugs, the Bacchanalia, Burroughs shooting his wife—was written up in a surreal novel by Burroughs called Naked Lunch, published in 1959. In the 70s, some young fans of surreal, avant-garde literature read this book. They thought it was really far out.

These young fans, longhaired men really into groovy scenes, formed a band. Only they needed a name. One of the young men, Walter, recalled the passage in that far-out book Naked Lunch in which Burroughs' character surrogate and the wife and friends have the Bacchanalia and make use of the metal phallic prostheses. What was the name of that prostheses? Walter wondered. He racked his brain. Oh, yeah. He remembered. Steely Dan. Walter turned to his bandmates and said, "Why don't we call ourselves Steely Dan?"

And now you know the rest of the story.

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