The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 6 and 5

[NOTE: The Steely Dan 64 Project represents my ranking, in order of my personal preference, of the 64 songs released by Steely Dan during their “classic” period (1972-80). These links will connect you to a detailed introduction to the project, as well as notes on the songs I’ve numbered 64 through 57; songs 56 through 49; songs 48 through 41; songs 40 through 33; songs 32 through 25; songs 24 through 17; songs 16 through 13]; songs 12 through 9; and songs 8 and 7.]

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And then there were six.

6. Any Major Dude Will Tell You (Pretzel Logic)
Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears?
Well, look at mine
The people on the street have all seen better times

For the longest time, I had no idea what a squonk was. Okay, full disclosure: for the longest time, I had no idea what Donald Fagen was even saying in that line. Was it skunk? Spark? Spock? And why would any of those shed tears? (Especially Spock.)

Only decades later would I discover that the actual word was squonk. And only quite some time after that, when my buddy Tom Galloway explained it to me in detail, would I understand the significance of a squonk’s tears. Fortunately for you, there’s Wikipedia. (I’ll save you a click: a squonk is a grotesque mythical creature, allegedly native to Pennsylvania, that literally cries itself into a puddle of tears when frightened.)

When I say that Steely Dan got me through my college years, “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” is one of two songs — the second of which we have yet to cover in this ranking list — that played the largest role. There were days (and nights) when I played this track over and over, and over again, as a reminder to myself that things that seem horrific in the moment — as they often do, when one is in one’s salad days; young and green — eventually get better. True, sometimes they don’t get better. But that would make for a far less repeatable song.

Compared to the majority of tunes in the Steely Dan catalog, “Any Major Dude” (I’m just going to start conserving keystrokes now) is a simple song with a simple message. That’s part of its beauty; you don’t expect anything this direct and uplifting from the two guys Jay Black (of Jay and the Americans) referred to as “Manson and Starkweather,” so it comes as a pleasant surprise. It’s also a surprise that this track, one of the catchiest and most accessible in the Dan’s oeuvre, wasn’t released as a single; instead, it featured as the B-side (look it up, whippersnappers) to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”

Dean Parks opens the song with a light acoustic guitar riff, followed by both Fagen and David Paich (later of Toto) on electric piano. Denny Dias handles the brief guitar solo. Those are the highlights. Sometimes, as in this instance, that’s all you need.

Given everything that’s going on in the world at the time of this writing, we all could benefit from the refrain: “When the demon is at your door, in the morning it won’t be there no more… any major dude will tell you.” Let’s all hope the major dudes have this one pegged.

5. Hey Nineteen (Gaucho)
It’s hard times befallen
The Soul Survivors
She thinks I’m crazy
But I’m just growing old

Those of you who know me in the real world know that 19 is a special number to me. Both my birthday and my late first wife KJ’s fall on the 19th of their respective months; we chose as our wedding date the 19th of the month in between them. I was 19 when KJ and I began dating, in a year whose digits added up to 19. Our daughter, whose birthday does not fall on a 19th, still chose a 19th as her wedding date to honor both her mother and me. It stands to reason, then, that “Hey Nineteen” would be one of my favorite songs by my favorite musical act. If you think I’m kidding about that, know that I drove around with these license plates on my car for a lot of years.

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(And no, COVID-19 certainly does not count as “special.”)

Today, “Hey Nineteen” would probably be entitled “Okay Boomer” and written from the perspective of the young woman. But this is Steely Dan, and it was 1980, so instead the lyric follows the mindpath of a man approaching middle age who finds himself on a date with a teenager just a year past legal, and discovers that the two of them have nothing to say to one another. (Becker and Fagen were both in their early 30s when Gaucho was released, but I’ve always envisioned the protagonist of “Hey Nineteen” as somewhat older than that; late 30s or early 40s.)

Of course, for a lot of men of a certain age, the prospect of hooking up with a girl still young enough to warrant the use of that word would be a fantasy come true. Typical of the Dan, however, this song serves as musical reinforcement of the ancient maxim, “Be careful what you wish for — you might get it.” Our hapless narrator has to come to grips with the fact that his companion doesn’t relate to any of the things that are important to him, including music: she doesn’t even know who Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is. (For a contemporary parallel, think of today’s 18-year-old pop music wunderkind Billie Eilish, who, in a recent interview with Jimmy Kimmel, didn’t know who Van Halen were.)

Fagen’s character pushes past his middle-aged angst with chemical assistance from “the Cuervo Gold” and “the fine Columbian,” and by focusing on the fact that his young companion “sure looks good” when she dances. But listening along, we know this interaction won’t end happily. Miss Nineteen will move on to more age-appropriate social connections — or perhaps won’t; patterns sometimes become habits — and our narrator will resign himself to loneliness until the next Nineteen comes along… because again, patterns sometimes become habits.

“Hey Nineteen” slides perfectly into the pocket of Gaucho‘s easy-rolling soul-jazz groove. A couple of musical choices catch my attention upon repeated listening. One, while Steely Dan frequently made sterling use of female backup choruses — at least, when not exploiting the talents of Michael McDonald — this song employs a pair of male vocalists (Frank Floyd and Zachary Sanders) in much the same way. Contextually, this makes sense; the male voices subtly echo the insecurities spinning in the narrator’s head. Second, the rhythm section plays a particularly vital role here. Becker on bass and Rick Marotta on drums lay down a deceptively casual floor for the rest of the instruments — most memorably, Fagen’s synthesizer — to glide over.

Peaking at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Hey Nineteen” marked Steely Dan’s third and final foray into the Top Ten (following “Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”). For an act that produced so many enduring radio staples, the Dan rarely managed a major chart splash.

But when they hit, they hit.

The Final Four arrive next. And in all honesty, any of these last four could be #1, depending on my mood. (The same is true of both of the songs covered in this post, each of which was #1 at various points.) This ranking will represent the mood I was in the day I pronounced this project completed.

Explore posts in the same categories: Listology, Reminiscing, Soundtrack of My Life, Steely Dan 64 Project, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

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