The Steely Dan 64 Project, Song 3

[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; songs 8 and 7; songs 6 and 5; and song 4.]

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3. My Old School (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Well, I hear the whistle but I can’t go
I’m gonna take her down to Mexico
She said, “Oh no —
Guadalajara won’t do”

Unlike many songwriters, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen didn’t tend toward autobiography in their collaborative oeuvre. Steely Dan’s songs tend to be more about colorful characters and subversive situations than about the auteurs themselves. Which, at least in my opinion, is probably a good thing. The fact that we don’t come to know Becker and Fagen too intimately is part of what gives their music its mystique.

Having said that, once in a while we do get a glimpse into the personal histories of the boys from Bard College. It happens in “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Barrytown” on Pretzel Logic, and it happens most famously in this cut from the album immediately preceding that. “My Old School” leaves no doubt about the level of affection — or lack thereof — that Walter and Donald felt for their alma mater: “I’m never going back to my old school.”

The song alludes to an incident in which Becker, Fagen, and others got arrested for marijuana possession, thanks to the efforts of a Dutchess County prosecuting attorney who would later go on to much greater infamy in the political world: G. Gordon Liddy, referred to in the lyrics as “Daddy Gee.” We get shout-outs to “Annandale,” a.k.a. Annandale-on-Hudson, the upstate New York town where Bard is located; “the Wolverine,” a passenger train line that stopped in nearby Rhinecliff and serviced students traveling to and from Bard; and the rejected possibility of fleeing from authorities by running off to Guadalajara, Mexico. Seems awfully far, but the arm of the law has a long reach.

“My Old School” makes an entertaining showcase for the original Steely Dan band. Aside from the frequently employed chorus of female backup singers and a four-man horn section added for the occasion, the instrumentation is handled by the five founding members (minus erstwhile singer David Palmer, who’d been jettisoned by this point). Jeff “Skunk” Baxter features most prominently on lead guitar, but for my money, the real stars of the arrangement are the rhythm section. Becker provides some nimble, slyly funky bass lines, while drummer Jim Hodder contributes solid, steady, almost Ringo Starr-like percussion.

Altogether, “My Old School” stands out as both an iconic creation of its time — man, there were a ton of horn-playing rock bands in the early 1970s — and a prophetic statement about the jazzier path Steely Dan would take in the future. At the same time, it’s just a perfectly crafted, flat-out fun pop-rock number that takes us ever so slightly behind the curtain for a peek at the two men behind it. It ranks this highly in my countdown for all of these reasons.

“My Old School” is as fine a piece of work as the original version of the group ever came up with, which is why it’s the only track from the first two Dan albums — the only ones to feature that founding band — in my Top Ten.

Only two tracks remain. By now, you know what they are.

But in what order did they end up?

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

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