The Steely Dan 64 Project, Song 2

[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; song 4; and song 3.]

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2. Deacon Blues (Aja)
You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream

If music can be described as “glossy,” then “Deacon Blues” is glossy.

It shimmers and shines in a way that almost feels visual, even though the experience itself is entirely auditory.

Perhaps more than any other single track in the Steely Dan catalog — with the possible exception of its album mate, the title tune “Aja” — “Deacon Blues” represents the fullest realization of the Becker/Fagen aesthetic. This is that “thing,” for lack of a more effective word, that the duo had been driving toward since the beginning of their collaboration, and with stronger force since their disassembly of the core band post-Pretzel Logic.

Like “FM,” which it greatly resembles — right down to the Pete Christlieb tenor saxophone solo — “Deacon Blues” feels very much “lived-in” for me personally. The imagery of a man coming to grips with the intangibility of his hopes and dreams resonated powerfully with me when this song first hit my turntable (it was a thing, kids; look it up). The teenage angst of my early college years fit right alongside the midlife-crisis vibe. I listened to “Deacon Blues” frequently during that period — and by “frequently,” I mean several times back-to-back on days when I felt the yearning.

As Steely Dan songs go, “Deacon Blues” feels more transparent and accessible than many. The lyric dances through plenty of Becker and Fagen’s signature obtuse wordplay, but even when the references seem muddled — is “Deacon” a shout-out to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, or to NFL Hall of Fame defensive end David “Deacon” Jones? (hint: it’s the latter) — the thematic thread is crystal clear. Doubtless, this played some part in the tune’s chart success: it climbed to #19 (there’s that number again) on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the fifth Steely Dan single to hit the Top Twenty.

Part of what makes “Deacon Blues” so compelling for me is the rich musical tapestry over which Fagen and the female backup vocalists (the ineffable trio of Venetta Fields, Clydie King, and Sherlie Matthews once again) weave their story. Longtime Dan sideman Victor Feldman opens the proceedings on electric piano. Three superlative guitarists (Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour on electric, Dean Parks on acoustic) counterbalance a smooth-as-satin Tom Scott horn chart. Becker on bass and drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie lock down an easy-swinging rhythm. It all just melds. Like a perfectly grilled ham and cheese sandwich.

I’ve already mentioned the Pete Christlieb sax solo — at the time of the session, the Bard brothers only knew Christlieb from his work in the house band on the Tonight Show. The veteran jazzman came into the studio and laid down two improvisational runs — a rarity in working with the persnickety Becker and Fagen, who were notorious for demanding endless retakes before finding one acceptable. Christlieb’s second shot is the one that appears on the recording.

So, yeah. I love “Deacon Blues.” Love, love, love “Deacon Blues.”

Why, then, is it #2 in my rankings, and not #1?

Because #1 has many of the same benefits, but it also adds one other key element that makes it an exceptional track.

You already know — assuming you’ve been keeping tally — what #1 is.

We’ll talk about it in our next post.

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

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