Archive for the ‘Listology’ category

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 32-25

March 2, 2020

[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). You’ll find a detailed introduction to the project, as well as notes on the songs I’ve numbered 64 through 57, HERE. Songs 56 through 49 are discussed HERE. Songs 48 through 41, you’ll find HERE. And songs 40 through 33, HERE.]

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We’re now halfway through the countdown. Just as it’s true that not one of the 32 Steely Dan tracks we’ve considered thus far has been terrible (even my least favorite Dan tune is a darned good tune), every song in the upper 32 is pretty amazing. This level and the one immediately above it — to be chronicled in our next post — are where I dithered the most over placement. Seriously, I could have placed the names of the eight songs below into a hat and drawn the order randomly, and most likely could have lived with the outcome. But since I didn’t have a hat handy, onward we go.

32. Barrytown (Pretzel Logic)
I can see by what you carry
That you come from Barrytown

When I think of the Steely Dan oeuvre, I don’t immediately think, “simple, catchy pop songs.” And yet, here is one. Then again, even at their simplest and catchiest, the Dan have something darker going on underneath. In real life, Barrytown is a neighborhood in Dutchess County, New York, practically next door to Bard College, where Donald Fagen and Walter Becker matriculated. (Achievement unlocked: Use “matriculated” in a blog post.) As documented in the song “My Old School,” which we’ll cover in a later post, Becker and Fagen didn’t have the fondest of memories of the townsfolk in the little burg where they attended classes. “Barrytown” is another poke at the stuffy swells who inhabited the area.

It’s frequently stated that “Barrytown” refers to the Unification Church — or the Moonies, as followers of the late Sun Myung Moon are commonly known — because the church’s seminary campus is located there. However, the seminary opened in September 1975, well over a year and a half after Pretzel Logic was released. Becker and Fagen were brilliant songwriters, but I don’t believe they were clairvoyant.

31. Parker’s Band (Pretzel Logic)
You’ll be riding by, bareback on your armadillo
You’ll be grooving high or relaxing at Camarillo

Although this song’s a tribute to legendary saxophone player Charlie Parker, it’s the drumming that makes it for me. Steely Dan didn’t employ dueling drummers very often, but the interplay here between Jim Gordon (who plays on most of Pretzel Logic, despite the fact that Jim Hodder — relegated to backing vocals on this track — was still “officially” the Dan’s drummer) and then-19-year-old Jeff Porcaro is nothing short of stellar. The rhythm is propulsive without being overbearing, fascinating without being flashy.

Ironically, it doesn’t sound an awful lot like something that Mr. Parker’s band would have recorded, but I’ll bet the Birdman would have enjoyed the shout-out nonetheless.

30. Kings (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
We’ve seen the last of good King Richard
Ring out the past, his name lives on
Roll out the bones and raise up your pitcher
Raise up your glass to good King John

Your guess as to why Fagen decided to sing a punchy pop tune about long-dead English royalty is as good as mine. Give me some fine backing vocals by the Greek chorus of Venetta Fields, Clydie King, and Sherlie Matthews, and a smattering of tasty guitar by Elliott Randall, and I don’t really care what the motivation was.

29. Don’t Take Me Alive (The Royal Scam)
Here in this darkness
I know what I’ve done
I know all at once who I am

As tasty and understated as Randall’s playing is on “Kings,” Larry Carlton’s is snarling and ferocious to the same degree on “Don’t Take Me Alive.” The stinging solo that opens the track comes as close to metal as anything on a Steely Dan record ever got.

Meanwhile, Becker and Fagen contribute yet another lyrical narrative about a dangerous man living on the dark side of society. When the boys began their professional careers as touring sidemen for Jay and the Americans, lead singer Jay Black referred to them as “Manson and Starkweather.” He may not have been as far wrong as we’d like to believe.

28. Gaucho (Gaucho)
Bodacious cowboys
Such as your friend
Will never be welcome here
High in the Custerdome

The title track from the final album of the Dan’s classic period is notable for three random facts:

  1. Jeff Porcaro reportedly played more than 45 separate takes of the drum track, pieces of which Fagen, Becker, producer Gary Katz, and engineer Roger Nichols cobbled together into what appears on the record.
  2. Jazz piano legend Keith Jarrett sued Becker and Fagen for plagiarizing his 1974 release “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours” in this song. The legal settlement earned Jarrett a co-writing credit and a million-dollar paycheck.
  3. The mythical Custerdome, famously mentioned in the lyric here, was described by Becker as “one of the largest buildings in the world… an extravagant structure with a rotating restaurant on top.” According to Fagen, “It exists only in our collective imagination. In the Steely Dan lexicon, it serves as an archetype of a building that houses great corporations.”

Tom Scott’s tenor sax riffing is pretty archetypical all by itself.

27. Show Biz Kids (Countdown to Ecstasy)
They got the shapely bodies
They got the Steely Dan T-shirts
And for the coup de grâce
They’re outrageous

Back in my days as a college radio disc jockey, I worked at a station where the cover of Countdown to Ecstasy bore a big, Sharpie-inscribed sticker: “DO NOT PLAY ‘SHOW BIZ KIDS’!” The conservative administration of our university was certain that airing a song in which Donald Fagen drops an F-bomb would lead to the moral disintegration of our community. Strangely, that community was Malibu, which in the early ’80s (and still today, for that matter) was pretty much ground zero for moral disintegration without any aid from college radio.

Now the truth can be told: I snuck this bad boy onto the turntable at least twice during my two-year stint, my expert timing and deft touch on the potentiometer preventing the offending word from beaming out over the Southern California airwaves. Society did not collapse. (I left the cut off my official playlist, though, just in case.)

By the way, that’s Rick Derringer kicking in with the nasty slide guitar. You know he don’t give a [REDACTED] about anybody else.

26. Reelin’ in the Years (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
You been tellin’ me you’re a genius
Since you were seventeen
In all the time I’ve known you
I still don’t know what you mean

On each of their first three albums, the boys from Bard tossed in a number that skewered their collegiate experiences and the people who made them miserable. This is the first of those excoriations (“My Old School” and “Barrytown” would follow) and the only one to be a major chart hit. Musically, it’s that now-iconic Elliott Randall guitar solo that buys the thrills for me.

In a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone, Fagen referred to this song as “dumb but effective,” while Becker opined that it was “no fun.” Seems harsh, but that’s Donald and Walter for you.

25. Josie (Aja)
Jo, would you love to scrapple?
She’ll never say no
Shine up the battle apple
We’ll shake ’em all down tonight
We’re gonna mix in the street

I have no idea what a “battle apple” is, but I imagine one would come in handy in a game of Street Fighter. What I do know is that Chuck Rainey and Jim Keltner bring some cool funky bass and stylish, rock-steady drumming to the skirmish, ensuring that we all come out winners. I desperately wanted to rate this song higher, but as you’ll see in the next post, I just plain ran out of space.

Also, me being me, I always imagine the title character of this tune wearing a leopard-print bodysuit with a long tail and kitten ears for a hat.

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 40-33

February 25, 2020

[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). You’ll find a detailed introduction to the project, as well as notes on the songs I’ve numbered 64 through 57, HERE. Songs 56 through 49 are discussed HERE. Songs 48 through 41, you’ll find HERE.]

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40. Any World (That I’m Welcome To) (Katy Lied)
I’ll be ready when my feet touch ground
Wherever I come down
And if the folks will have me
Then they’ll have me

Proof that Becker and Fagen were capable of writing a straightforward pop song when they were of a mind to do so. Of course, it stops being straightforward when you realize that the tasteful backbeat is being supplied by perhaps the greatest session drummer in the history of recorded music, the one and only Hal Blaine. If you have to find a last-minute fill-in for Jeff Porcaro, who handles the drumming duties on the rest of Katy Lied, you could do worse than Hal Blaine. In fact, pretty much anyone else you asked would have been worse than Hal Blaine.

I’ve always identified with the sense of wistful alienation embodied here, that feeling of not quite belonging and longing for a place where one truly could. I keep hoping that I’ll find that world where I’m welcome.

39. Bodhisattva (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Can you show me
The shine of your Japan?
The sparkle of your China?

I know that a lot of you will have “Bodhisattva” much higher in your personal rankings, and that’s fine. But I come to Steely Dan in large part for the lyrical creativity, and there’s not much of that in this song. That said, for what it is — basically, a riff-off between the band’s (they were still an actual band at the time of this second album) two guitarists, Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter — “Bodhisattva” is still pretty darned good. I would just enjoy it a little bit more had Becker and Fagen squeezed just a couple more verses in between the jams.

38. Change of the Guard (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
If you wanna get thru the years
It’s high time you played your card
If you live in this world
You’re feelin’ the change of the guard

As we’ve discussed in earlier installments, at the time of the band’s debut album, Donald and Walter were still figuring out exactly what they wanted Steely Dan to be — and no doubt, their record label had some ideas about that as well. So we get a lot more compact, potentially radio-friendly rock numbers on Can’t Buy a Thrill than the Dan would serve up later in their career. But when you can turn Skunk Baxter loose to rip a couple of guitar solos to shreds, there’s nothing wrong with just letting it rock. Skunk serves up a taste here of the licks he’d later make famous as the Doobie Brothers’ lead guitar slinger.

37. The Boston Rag (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Any news was good news
And the feeling was bad at home
I was out of my mind and you were on the phone

It ain’t no drag, that’s for certain. I appreciate the songs from the Dan’s early albums that open a window into the musical direction that Becker and Fagen would ultimately pursue. There’s just enough smooth jazz floating through this mishmash of a track to hint at what lay ahead. And by mishmash, I mean there’s a lot going on here, and not all of the pieces seem as though they were intended from the start to fit together. (Where does that weird guitar — at least, I think it’s a guitar — bridge come from? Certainly not Boston.) In retrospect, however, you can listen to this tune and say, “Okay, now I see where this is going.”

36. Sign In Stranger (The Royal Scam)
And who are you?
Just another scurvy brother…

A round of applause, please, for the piano man. Paul Griffin, probably best known for his contributions to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61, Revisited and Don McLean’s American Pie, takes a seat at the keyboard and lets his fingers dance all over this bouncy little number. Griffin’s piano solo alone merits the price of admission, but his easygoing background propels the verses just as nicely. This is not the last time we’ll hear from Mr. Griffin on The Royal Scam — we’ll hear him rock the clavinet on “Kid Charlemagne,” and man the electric piano (and earn a rare co-writing credit alongside Becker and Fagen) on “The Fez.”

35. Your Gold Teeth (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Even Cathy Berberian knows
There’s one roulade she can’t sing

Back in my college days, when a Steely Dan album was spinning on my turntable practically all the time, I expended a fair bit of pre-Internet effort trying to track down the various references that pop up in Dan lyrics. I still recall trekking to the library to listen to a recording by Cathy Berberian, out of curiosity born from endless listening to “Your Gold Teeth.” It was an exercise I did not feel compelled to repeat. But I was happy that the song now made sense.

34. Dirty Work (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
Like the castle in its corner
In a medieval game
I foresee terrible trouble
And I stay here just the same

“Dirty Work” serves as a prime example of how musical perspective evolves over time. When I was first developing an affinity for Steely Dan, “Dirty Work” was one of my least favorite tracks, mostly because I despised David Palmer’s simpering, quavery lead vocal. As a more mature listener, however, I gained the ability to get past my distaste for the specific performance and appreciate the underlying song on its own merits. In particular, hearing “Dirty Work” as Fagen’s current version of the band now performs it live on tour, with the group’s trio of female backing vocalists taking over the leads, gave me renewed affection for it.

I’m still not a David Palmer fan — his label-enforced presence remains for me the weakest element of Can’t Buy a Thrill — but I’ve grown to like this charming, subtly subversive little ditty quite a bit.

33. The Royal Scam (The Royal Scam)
And they wandered in
From the city of St. John
Without a dime

For me, The Royal Scam — the album, not just its titular song — represents the moment when Steely Dan first achieved its full potential, when Becker and Fagen’s mad vision completely coalesced. Every album prior to this one moved a step forward, away from the quirky, eclectic pop-rock band of Can’t Buy a Thrill and toward the jazz-rock, session-legends-melange powerhouse that peaked with Aja. On The Royal Scam, the Dan arrived.

This track, which closes the album, is Walter and Donald saying — like the Caribbean immigrants whose tale the lyrics tell — “We’re here.” See the glory, indeed.

And with that, we’ve reached the halfway mark of this project. 32 songs down, 32 to go. It just keeps getting better from here on up.

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 48-41

February 21, 2020

[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). You’ll find a detailed introduction to the project, as well as notes on the songs I’ve numbered 64 through 57, HERE. Songs 56 through 49 are discussed HERE.]

Here’s where it begins to get tough.

I feel pretty strongly about the songs in the bottom one-fourth of the ranking — that is, the sixteen (or, if you’d rather, the two groups of eight) that we’ve already covered — being correctly positioned (at least, for me — your mileage may vary). I don’t believe that any amount of listening and reconsideration would move any of those songs out of my virtual basement. I feel similarly strongly about my top ten or twelve. Those will be my favorites all day, every day.

In between, however, there’s so much excellent music (and so little to nitpick about it) that it’s really difficult to differentiate what makes one song appeal to me more or less than the several others around it. There’s a league of space between songs #12 and #48, to be sure. But between, say, #48 and #24…? Not quite so much.

Let’s just do our best, shall we?

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48. “Glamour Profession” (Gaucho)
Brut and charisma
Poured from the shadow where he stood
Looking good
He’s a crowd-pleasing man

Speaking as a lifelong basketball fan, this song that’s partly about a basketball superstar has always sounded to me as though it was written by people who weren’t really interested in professional sports, or even knew very much about them. I suspect that’s probably true — Becker and Fagen never seemed much like hardcore spectators. On the other hand, “Glamour Profession” is also all about that drug life, and that I do believe Walter and Donald knew something about.

As a song, it’s just alright — as close to slick late-disco-era sheen as the Dan ever got. My main memory of it is that my original vinyl LP of Gaucho had a tiny scratch in one of the long instrumental breaks that caused the record to skip and repeat. Even now, when I listen, I hear that spot replaying over and over again in my head.

47. “I Got the News” (Aja)
Broadway Duchess
Darling, if you only knew
Half as much as
Everybody thinks you do

Proof that Michael McDonald really does make everything better. The slightest song on arguably the Dan’s finest album (we’re not going to hit another Aja track on this list for a good long while, friends), “I Got the News” bounces along just cool and innocuously catchy enough, until the bridge kicks in with those soaring McDonald vocals. All of a sudden, a merely decent tune becomes magical for just a few seconds. I spend the rest of the song waiting for McDonald to come back. He never does.

46. “Everything You Did” (The Royal Scam)
Turn up the Eagles — the neighbors are listening

I’ve never been certain whether the reference to the Eagles here was supposed to be affectionate or derisive. I suspect that when Henley, Frey & Co. returned the favor the following year, in their hit “Hotel California” (the line “they stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast”), they probably weren’t entirely sure, either. But that’s always been part of the Steely Dan mystique — the lyrics can often mean whatever you want them to mean.

45. “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” (Katy Lied)
Kids, if you want some fun
See what you never have seen
Take off your cheaters and sit right down
Start the projection machine

Becker and Fagen never shied away from the seedier elements of modern urban life. That’s nowhere more evident than in this sordid little vignette about a man who screens pornographic films in his home for innocent youth to watch. Hopefully Mr. LaPage either got busted or cleaned up his act somewhere along the line.

The musical highlight here comes from the sparkling vibraphone of Steely Dan stalwart Victor Feldman. (Seriously, when’s the last time you heard a vibraphone on a pop-rock record?)

44. “Monkey In Your Soul” (Pretzel Logic)
Won’t you turn that bebop down
I can’t hear my heart beat
Where’s that fatback chord I found?

The Dan’s unique twist on mid-’70s funk, “Monkey” features some down-and-dirty riffs by an all-star horn section led by saxophone legend Plas Johnson, who’s best known for his solo on Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme.”

As the final track on Pretzel Logic, this song marks the end of the ride for the original “band” version of Steely Dan (although Jim Hodder was still officially the group’s drummer, he doesn’t play a single lick on this album; he does, however, contribute backing vocals to “Parker’s Band”). Skunk Baxter would head off to the Doobie Brothers; the Dan’s other regular guitarist, Denny Dias, would continue as a session player all the way through Aja.

43. “Green Earrings” (The Royal Scam)
Greek medallion
Sparkles when you smile
Sorry, angel
I get hungry like a child

If the white-hot drumming of Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on this track doesn’t get your attention, check your pulse. Elliott Randall spikes some searing guitar work throughout, and Denny Dias slides in for a sweet solo midway through. This is another song I feel as though I’m ranking much too low, but only because so much greatness has to get crammed in ahead of it.

42. “Razor Boy” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Will you still have a song to sing
When the razor boy comes
And takes your fancy things away?

“Razor Boy” is noteworthy in the Steely Dan catalog mostly for the presence of veteran jazz player Ray Brown on string bass. By the early 1970s, one didn’t hear a lot of upright bass on rock records outside of what remained of rockabilly. But Brown’s the perfect fit on this jazzy number that hinted at the musical direction Becker and Fagen would fully embrace by the time of Aja. Things would only get jazzier from here.

I still wish the razor boy would keep his grubby mitts off my stuff.

41. “Your Gold Teeth II” (Katy Lied)
Who are these children
Who scheme and run wild
Who speak with their wings
And the way that they smile

Speaking of jazzy, Donald and Walter’s predilection for the genre is writ large all over this one. I’ve never quite understood why this song is labeled as a “sequel” to “Your Gold Teeth” from the band’s second album; aside from the lone repeated lyrical hook, the two tracks could hardly be more different. Denny Dias, who just might be the real unsung hero of the Dan’s classic period, delivers yet again with a simmering, shimmering guitar solo.

The Steely Dan 64 Project: Songs 56-49

February 17, 2020

[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). You’ll find a detailed introduction to the project, as well as the beginning of the ranking, HERE.

As stated elsewhere, your own perspective on how these songs compare to one another may — and most likely will — be different. That’s absolutely okay. There’s no right or wrong, just individual taste. What matters is celebrating the legacy of Donald Fagen, the late Walter Becker, and their host of collaborators, and the incredible music they created.]

56. “Throw Back the Little Ones” (Katy Lied)
Hot licks and rhetoric
Don’t count much for nothing

A jazzy little (no pun intended) number featuring another of the many spectacular guitar solos that Elliott Randall contributed to Steely Dan records over the years, starting with “Reelin’ In the Years.” Not one of my favorite Fagen vocals, but a decent tune overall.

55. “Fire In the Hole” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
A woman’s voice reminds me
To serve and not to speak
Am I myself, or just another freak?

Fagen doesn’t often get enough credit for the brilliance of his piano playing. He’s razor-sharp on this track. Nothing in popular music sounded quite like this in the early ’70s, except maybe Marvin Hamlisch’s Scott Joplin-tribute soundtrack to The Sting.

54. “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” (Pretzel Logic)

In compiling this ranking, I despaired of where to place “East St. Louis Toodle-oo.” At one point, I considered omitting it altogether. It’s an unusual item: the only instrumental number in the Steely Dan catalog, and the only track not written or co-written by Becker and Fagen. Composed by Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley in the 1920s, it exists only to showcase the boys’ affection for jazz — an affection that would morph into an obsession, starting with their next album — and, I suppose, to fill a bit of space on Pretzel Logic, which contains a number of short songs.

The unusual guitar work is fun — Becker’s talk-box and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s pedal steel make for interesting twists on the original arrangement’s muted trumpet and trombone, respectively — but I don’t know that it really adds much to the Dan legacy outside of a footnote. Well played, gents, but I can’t slot it any higher than this.

53. “My Rival” (Gaucho)
I was the whining stranger
A fool in love
With time to kill

I actually remember listening to “My Rival” for the first time and thinking, “That’s kind of a creepy song.” I didn’t know until decades later that Becker and Fagen had created this weird little number for the soundtrack of a horror film: Phobia, directed by the legendary John Huston. Knowing its origins explains the song’s gooseflesh-raising vibe, but doesn’t make me love it any better.

52. “Pearl of the Quarter” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
She loved the million dollar words I say
She loved the candy and the flowers that I bought her
She said she loved me and was on her way
Singing “Voulez-vous”

I’m already on record [see “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” at #62] as not being enamored with the Dan’s occasional dabbling in the countrified end of the musical pool. Still, there’s something ineffably sweet about hearing Fagen sing a more-or-less straightforward love song… okay, he’s in love with a streetwalker here, but in love nevertheless. Skunk Baxter and his pedal steel guitar get an opportunity to shine.

51. “Only a Fool Would Say That” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
Unhand that gun, begone
There’s no one to fire upon

One of the brighter, bouncier tracks on the Dan’s debut album, “Fire” showcases some deft-fingered guitar by The Skunk, and a vocal by Fagen that actually sounds as though Donald was in a good mood that day. The fact that a song this cool checks in this far down in the rankings is testimony to just how much excellent stuff lies ahead.

50. “Third World Man” (Gaucho)
Smoky Sunday
He’s been mobilized since dawn —
Now he’s crouching on the lawn…

The final song of the Dan’s classic period is something of a ringer: an emergency fill-in for another, allegedly better number entitled “The Second Arrangement,” most of which was accidentally erased by a studio assistant. Becker and Fagen made several attempts to rerecord the lost track, but couldn’t recreate the magic to their satisfaction. Instead, they dusted off a piece they’d written for (but not used on) an earlier album, swapped out most of the lyrics, and gave it a new title. There’s some awesomely gritty, snarling guitar by Larry Carlton here, but “Third World Man” remains an odd fit against the ultra-smooth pop-jazz that makes up the rest of Gaucho.

49. “King of the World” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Show me where you are
You and I will spend this day
Driving in my car through the ruins of Santa Fe

Most of Steely Dan’s music has a timeless feel to it; songs that were recorded more than 40 years ago still sound fresh today. “King of the World” is an unfortunate exception to this rule. The electronic keyboards that feature so prominently here have “cheesy 1970s exploitation flick” stamped all over them. Which is too bad, because the post-apocalyptic storyline of the lyric is intriguing, and the rest of the band contributes some super-tight playing, drummer Jim Hodder in particular.

The Steely Dan 64 Project: Introduction and Songs 64-57

February 14, 2020

After months of listening, pondering, arranging and rearranging, my Steely Dan 64 Project is ready for prime time.

What is the Steely Dan 64 Project? So glad you asked. I will explain. Or at least, I will sum up.

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As many longtime readers know, the musical partnership Steely Dan — it’s not quite accurate to say “band,” at least not for most of the Dan’s history — holds a unique place in my consciousness. I’ve often remarked that Steely Dan got me through college, and that’s true. No other recording act spent as much time in my speakers during those critical years as did Donald Fagen, the late Walter Becker, and the ever-changing cast of superlative musicians they assembled to make a series of uniformly splendid albums.

There are many, many groups, bands, and solo artists whose work I adore. But the seven studio albums released by Steely Dan from 1972 through 1980 stand out for me in a special way. I wouldn’t claim that those seven records are the greatest ever. Music, like all art forms, is subjective — it’s a fool’s errand to make objective comparisons about anything so dependent on the individual tastes of the observer. And there are plenty of specific songs and performances that I treasure as much, if not in some cases more than, anything in the Dan’s catalog. Suffice it to say that these seven albums form a body of work that has resonated with me deeply for decades. Over the past few months, I’ve spent a fair amount of hours revisiting these records, and considering each component in a way that I never had in my 40-plus years of Dan fandom.

Which is where the Steely Dan 64 Project comes in.

The seven studio albums of Steely Dan’s prime period — beginning with 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill and ending with 1980’s Gaucho — comprise a total of 62 songs. During this same timeframe, the Dan released two additional tracks: one, a film soundtrack theme; the other a bonus track on a “Greatest Hits” package. These two songs bring the total to 64.

It’s my contention that none of those 64 songs sucks.

That’s a statement that I don’t believe can be made about many other popular music acts with discographies of similar size.

The Beatles were arguably the most important band of the rock era — without question I consider them so, and in my mind, there isn’t a close second. But you and I both can name some undeniably terrible songs the Fab Four released for public consumption. (Including at least a third of the White Album.) When I think of all of the other bands I particularly enjoy, every single one of them put out at least one truly embarrassing clunker. In most cases, several such clunkers.

It’s a credit to the notoriously anal-retentive Becker and Fagen that they never let a single stinker clutter up their published repertoire during their prime years. This is not to say that they weren’t capable of making a stinker; the first single released under the Steely Dan name, “Dallas,” is unabashed dreck. (Its B-side, “Sail the Waterway,” is marginally better… but only marginally.) But Walter and Donald were savvy enough never to allow that horror to deface one of their albums. (“Dallas” does appear on an early Japanese compilation, the content of which I suspect the boys never personally authorized.)

However, the fact that I find all 64 songs in the core Steely Dan repertoire worthwhile doesn’t mean that I love all of them equally. The Steely Dan 64 Project is my attempt to rank these songs in order of my personal preference, and to talk a bit about the reasons why each song lands where it does on my list.

I want to emphasize that this ranking is purely a subjective, individualized analysis. Your mileage will, and should, vary. I also want to note that my ordering makes no real attempt to be qualitative; the fact that one track occupies a higher slot on my list than another does not mean that the musicianship, songwriting, arranging, or production on either track is better or worse. It just means that I like the higher-ranked song better. Or at least, I did at the exact moment when I pronounced this list closed. If I rewrote the list again, no doubt things would move up or down. That’s how music works. It’s about how it connects with you in the moment.

Note also that this ranking does not include any of the songs from the Dan’s two later albums, Two Against Nature (released in 2000) and Everything Must Go (2003). Both albums are worthy additions to the Dan discography (the former being somewhat more worthy than the latter, in my opinion). I don’t, however, have the same long-term relationship with that material that I have with the classic-period recordings, so it’s tough for me to judge it on the same level. Therefore I didn’t try. (You should absolutely check out these two albums, though.)

Enough introduction. Over the next several posts, I’ll present my ranking of the Steely Dan 64. Think about where each song would rank on your personal chart. Again, we’ll disagree on the numbers — that’s totally cool. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s just me sharing what I think and feel about this music that has meant so much to me. What you think and feel is just as valid. Where I hope we agree is that it’s fun to revisit these legendary tracks, relive some memories, and reflect on the unparalled, uncompromising genius of Becker and Fagen.

So let’s begin with the bottom eight. (Since 64 is the square of eight, I’ve decided to break the ratings into eight-song groups. As we get closer to the top, the groups may get smaller.)

64. “Through With Buzz” (Pretzel Logic)
You know I’m cool, yes, I feel alright
‘Cept when I’m in my room and it’s late at night

Well, something had to be at the bottom of the list. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to be through with “Buzz” — at a hair over a minute and a half, it’s by far the shortest song in the Steely Dan catalog. It’s a bit of a throwaway; I wonder whether there was, at some point, more to the song than this, but maybe Becker and Fagen decided to strip it down to bare essentials. Still, it’s a great vocal by Fagen, and a rare use of strings on a Steely Dan record. (I think “FM” is the only other Dan track with violins.) One cultural note: Fagen’s tossed-off homophobic slur hasn’t aged well.

63. “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More” (Katy Lied)
Lucy still loves her Coke and rum
But she sits alone ’cause her daddy can’t come

The mystery of Daddy’s departure from the Big Apple remains unsolved. I suspect he’s doing hard time upstate.

62. “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
The whole of time we gain or lose
And power enough to choose

My antipathy for country music (an oxymoronic phrase if ever there was one) is well documented, and the instrumentation on “Brooklyn” veers ever so slightly too far in a country direction for my taste. There’s something weirdly dissonant about this Nashville-lite arrangement butted against the smooth, soulful vocal trio of Venetta Fields, Clydie King, and Sherlie Matthews. (That said, the pedal steel work by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is choice.) Like most Dan fans, I don’t really dig David Palmer on lead vocals, but I think he’s fine here. And no, I have no idea why Brooklyn owes anyone anything.

61. “Charlie Freak” (Pretzel Logic)
Poor man, he showed his hand
So righteous was his need
And me so wise, I bought his prize
For chicken feed

A solid song, tightly written and performed. Donald Fagen’s pulsing piano riff alone makes it worth the price of admission. For me, “Charlie Freak” ranks this low mostly because it’s dark, angsty, and depressing — the sordid tale of a youthful drug addict, who’s dead by the final verse. Granted, the Dan did a lot of material that’s not exactly cheerful or uplifting, but most of their more morose numbers are redeemed by an arch joke or a witty turn of phrase here or there. “Charlie Freak” is just sad.

Also, the title reminds me of “Charlie X,” one of my least favorite episodes of Star Trek — which is, coincidentally, also about a kid named Charlie who could be accurately described as a freak, and who also comes to a rather unfortunate (albeit not fatal) end. That mental connection probably doesn’t help me love this song any better. Sorry, Charlie.

60. “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
My poison’s named, you know my brand
So please make mine a double, Sam

Mentions my name and Jesus in the same phrase repeatedly, so it can’t be all bad.

59. “Rose Darling” (Katy Lied)
With only you and what I’ve found
We’ll wear the weary hours down

Steely Dan didn’t perform many unapologetic love songs. “Rose Darling” is about as close as they got. I hope Snake Mary enjoyed a good night’s sleep.

58. “With a Gun” (Pretzel Logic)
Did you pay the other man with the piece in your hand
And leave him lying in the rain?

High Noon, Becker/Fagen style. Side 2 of Pretzel Logic (for those of you who remember when albums had sides) includes several shorter selections that represent the Dan’s last genuine attempt at being an actual band that recorded radio-sized (that is, three minutes or less) pop-rock tunes. “With a Gun” is one such tune.

57. “Chain Lightning” (Katy Lied)
Don’t bother to understand
Don’t question the little man
Be part of the brotherhood
Yes, it’s chain lightning
It feels so good

The groove on this track is so laid-back that I’m surprised the record didn’t slide off the turntable. Rick Derringer contributes a tasty guitar solo.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks, Volume 16: End of the Decade Edition

November 28, 2019

As they say in the biz, better late than never.

It was never going to be “never,” but a variety of circumstances complicated my posting the annual Thanksgiving list in time for the holiday this year. But, for those of you who’ve been waiting with bated breath — or baited breath, if you had sushi for lunch — here we are, a few days past due but none the worse for wear.

For the benefit of any new readers: Every Thanksgiving since the inception of this little slice of the Internet way back in 20[mumble], I’ve devoted a post to expressing my gratitude for the many things and people who make my life worth living. Since my blessings far outstrip the stamina of my typing fingers, I developed the idea of an A to Z list, choosing one item for each letter of the alphabet. It’s a form of metonymy: the part stands for the whole. Or, in this instance, the 26 listed items stand for everything else for which I’m thankful this year.

As I now do separately from the list, I give thanks first and foremost for the people closest to me: for my wife, referred to herein as the Pirate Queen for reasons I’ll not bore you with here; for The Daughter, referred to herein as The Daughter for reasons that I would hope would be obvious; for The Son-In-Law and the four-legged Studio Assistant and The Daughter’s Grandma; and for the memory of KJ, my late first wife, taken from the planet far before her time. (Breast cancer screening: Do it.) I love you, each and every.

All that having been offered, here’s the 16th edition of my Thanksgiving list — the last such list of the 2010s.

This year, I pause to give gratitude for:

Audient iD14. After years of faithful service from my venerable USB audio interface, I decided to upgrade to this sturdy, compact little box. I love its clean sound and simple functionality. Most of all, I love its capacity for a second microphone input, which I’ve never been able to implement previously, and which doubles my studio recording capacity without muss or fuss.

Brazilian steakhouses. Who doesn’t love sitting at a table while one server after another slices off hunks of delicious grilled meat for one’s dining pleasure? (Well, I suppose you vegetarians, but you know that we carnivores are going to eat you anyway when the zombie apocalypse happens.) The Pirate Queen has promised to fete me at a nearby example on my upcoming birthday. And yes, I know that it’s called a churrascaria. But I have something else at “C,” which is…

The Casbah, my affectionate name for our old and now new-again home. We first moved into The Casbah back in the summer of 2014, only to leave it behind a year and a half later when we relocated to shorten the Pirate Queen’s commute. As happens in life, circumstances changed, and the Pirate Queen’s current employment made a return to The Casbah (which had become a rental property during the three years prior) more advantageous. With our tenants having moved on, we undertook an extensive renovation of the old homestead, and returned at the beginning of the summer, almost exactly five years after we moved in the first time. It’s nice to be home.

Duck buns. A local izakaya called Sasa serves them — duck confit with hoisin sauce on steamed bao. Think of those mediocre pork buns you get from your favorite Chinese takeout joint, amped up to the nth degree. The Pirate Queen describes them as “little pillows of heaven.” She’s not wrong.

Endgame — that’s Avengers: Endgame if you want to get all formal about it — the final chapter in the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Okay, technically Spider-Man: Far From Home was the final chapter, but that felt much more like a throwaway epilogue after Endgame.) This one had everything you’d want in the conclusion of a saga: shocking surprises, heroic quests, love lost and found again, tragic sacrifices. And, best of all, every hero in the MCU to date teaming up for the battle to end(game) all battles. The superhero-loving kid in me squeed. Martin Scorsese may not think it’s cinema, but it’s plenty cinematic enough for me.

FM (No Static At All) by Steely Dan. Back when I rode the airwaves, I frequently started my morning DJ shift with this number. Even now, when it comes on the radio, I can improvise an opening over the instrumental intro and hit the station ID a split-second before Donald Fagen’s vocal kicks in at 26 seconds. Incidentally, I’m working on a project in which I’m ranking all 64 of the songs on Steely Dan’s classic-period albums (Can’t Buy a Thrill through Gaucho, plus the two non-album tracks released during that time frame). I predict this one will land in my top 10.

Greta Thunberg. Powerful proof that one small voice can change the world.

Hope. In dark times like these, we need to find and cling to it more tightly than ever. If we give up hope, we give up, period.

Idris Elba. He could make a dramatic reading of the LL Bean catalog sound compelling. He makes some peculiar choices in projects at times — he appears to be one of those actors who just can’t say “No” to anything (I mean, Hobbs & Shaw? really?) — but whatever he’s in, it’s going to be worth watching when he (or even just his voice) is on screen. James Bond? Sure. Why not? I’d pay money to see that.

Jimmy G. I’m still not fully on the Garoppolo train, but results don’t lie. A 49ers team I thought would be sub-.500 this season is 10-2 at this writing. The guy’s doing something right.

The King Kam, because I’m not typing “the Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel” more than once. (Even there, I copied and pasted.) We spent a lovely few days at this fine downtown Kailua-Kona establishment on the Big Island of Hawaii in the spring. It’s centrally located, with a small, relatively secluded sandy beach (a rarity on the Big Island). The dining options are meh — except for the onsite location of Ululani’s Shave Ice, which is killer — but there’s plenty of excellent food within walking distance. Worth checking out if you’re staying in Kona.

Library science. The Daughter is currently studying for her master’s degree in this field, and she is thoroughly enjoying the process, hard work though it is. She has a passion for both learning and helping others, so I believe it’s a perfect fit for her.

Museum putty. When we created the new gallery space for comic art in our back hallway, I finally found the solution for keeping pieces from slipping within their frames. How did I ever collect art without this stuff?

Nissan Altima. The Pirate Queen finally replaced her aging Toyota coupe this fall, with a shiny new red metal machine. I’m glad that she has a trustworthy car that she enjoys driving.

Ocean Avenue Veterinary Hospital, taking good care of Studio Assistant Tazz since he joined our merry band. The doctors and technicians at OAVH have always been accommodating with our little guy, who suffers from stranger anxiety and is a challenging patient to handle. No matter how much fuss he makes, he’s always greeted with smiles on his next visit.

Paschall, Eric. The brightest light in a dull and dismal Golden State Warriors season. The Paschanimal, as TV commentator Kelenna Azubuike dubbed him, plays with a high-revving motor and surprising skill for a second-round draft pick. It’s early days yet, but he looks like a keeper.

Quarter-scale statues. When I acquired my Taarna from Sideshow Collectibles, I never thought I’d ever want another. But… even a Taarakian avenger needs friends. And thus over the past year, Diana, Kara, and Elektra showed up. I have to admit, they add presence to my studio. But I suspect they talk about me when I leave the room.

Repeat clients. A couple of years ago, I was privileged to voice the audio tour when world-renowned watchmakers Patek Philippe held their Grand Exhibition in New York. I was equally privileged that they hired me again to voice this year’s Grand Exhibition in Singapore — at least, the English-language version. It’s always life-affirming when people regard your work highly enough to ask you back.

Scene study. I made the conscious choice this year to focus more of my ongoing training on pure acting, as opposed to voiceover-specific workshops. I’ve had some encouraging feedback in my recent scene study classes, and I feel as though I’ve taken some major steps forward as an actor. Hopefully, that will translate into booking more work in the coming year. But even if it doesn’t, the growth is good for me. Old dog, new tricks.

Trivia Nationals. For each of the previous seven years, I’ve journeyed to Las Vegas in the blistering heat of summer for a weekend of trivia mayhem. This year, the previous event gave way to the new Trivia Nationals, which brought together quizzers from all over North America for a fun-filled, action-packed gala. I’ve already booked my ticket for next year’s gathering. Maybe I’ll see you there (hint hint, nudge nudge).

University Challenge. Speaking of quizzing, one of the highlights of my week is watching the latest installment of University Challenge, the venerable British quiz show that pits foursomes from various UK colleges against one another in a grand tournament of knowledge. This season, a young friend of mine is playing on one of the competing squads, and another is hoping to land on a team for next year’s run. And, as brilliant as the contestants are, it makes this old Jeopardy! champ feel just a bit perkier when he pulls out a fact that the kids don’t know.

Vistaprint. My favorite resource for everything from business cards to the custom-designed “No Soliciting” sign on The Casbah’s front gate. The Vistaprint folks never disappoint with the quality of their printing or materials, or with their budget-friendly pricing.

Windows. Part of the renovation at The Casbah involved replacing all of the original windows with new double-paned models that do an outstanding job of keeping out both the elements and outside noise (within limits, of course — there’s no cure for the landscaper’s leaf blower) and letting in the view. I get to sit at my desk daily and watch the birds and squirrels go about the business of foraging in the trees in our front courtyard. It’s good to be reminded there’s a world beyond the walls.

X-23. She’s the clone daughter of Wolverine, who inherited her dad’s retractable claws and healing factor. Not a bad gig if you can get it.

Yellow Productions is actually a YouTuber named Chris Raney, who presents travel videos he describes as “fun, informative, and entertaining.” Most of the time, his videos are just that. Part of what makes Chris’s videos enjoyable viewing is that they are clearly not the work of a “professional travel writer,” but just a nerdy guy who loves to travel the world and share helpful tips about the places he goes. Chris can be infuriating if you know the subject better than he does — his Hawaii videos drive me insane, because he consistently mispronounces Hawaiian place names, and gets details about local culture wrong — but he always maintains a cheerful approach and gives worthwhile information more often than not. His videos about Southern California (he’s a San Diego resident), Las Vegas, and East Asia (his wife, referred to as “OC Girl,” is of Asian heritage, and they travel to Asia more frequently than to other overseas locales) are particularly useful.

Zatarain’s. I cook from scratch most of the time, but I’m not above using prepackaged help in the kitchen now and again. Zatarain’s rice mixes, especially their red beans and rice and jambalaya varieties, produce tasty side dishes in far less time than it would take me to create them from ground zero. Throw in some sliced sausage, leftover turkey, or shrimp, and you’ve got a decent meal.

And finally — I say this every year, but it’s still and always true — I’m thankful for you, friend reader. May you and those you care for enjoy health and happiness in the 2020s.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks, Volume 15: Crystal Turkey Edition

November 22, 2018

As unlikely as it seems, this post marks the 15th anniversary of my yearly Thanksgiving Day blog entry. Given that crystal is the traditional gift for a 15th anniversary, I will attempt herein to be as transparent, sparkling, and multifaceted as possible.

Those of you (and you know who you are) who’ve kept up with these posts over the years know that I have many, many people and things in my life for which I am thankful. I don’t take that responsibility of gratitude lightly. I earnestly, honestly appreciate how blessed my life is.

When I roll over the side of the bed every morning, even when that effort comes accompanied by the creaks and crackles of advancing age, I am grateful that I have two feet to stand on, and legs that support the standing. I know there are millions of people in the world who can’t get out of bed and would give anything to do so. And, as I go about my day, I am thankful that I have a comfortable home, clean clothes, abundant food and water, work I enjoy, the entertainment of a companion animal, and the love of a life partner. I know there are millions of people who have few, or none, of these, and would sacrifice anything they do have to possess that which they do not. I am not better, or more deserving, than they. I am merely more fortunate. Again, I don’t take that for granted.

And especially when I find myself living in a state where entire communities have been consumed by disastrous wildfires over the past year-plus, robbing people of every material possession and a lifetime of treasured memories…

I take none of this for granted.

Because I have far more things to be thankful for than I can enumerate, on Thanksgiving Day it’s been my custom these past 15 years to focus my gratitude on a list of just 26 items, one for each letter of the alphabet. Some items on the list are trivial (indeed, some are literally that). Others are profound. All stand in the place of many, many others that I simply haven’t time in one day to name. It’s just my way of acknowledging how deeply moved in soul and spirit I am when I pause to consider how rich my life is, even in those countless moments when I feel poorly within.

With all that said, on Thanksgiving Day 2018, here are the things for which I’m giving thanks.

Air. In our part of the world, it’s easy to forget about air — we have it fresh and without limit… until an event like the fire that destroyed Paradise, California clouds the atmosphere with toxic fumes and ash for days on end, even for those of us living a couple hundred miles from the event. After breathing soot for two weeks, today’s clean air (courtesy of our first rains in months) gives us NorCal residents something extra special to celebrate.

Bob Almond. My comic art collection began in earnest almost simultaneously with these annual posts, 15 years ago. During that time, one artist’s work has come to be represented in my galleries far more frequently than any other — more than 50 times, at last count. It might be easy to miss that, however, because Bob Almond toils as an inker, an embellisher of other artists’ pencil drawings. Bob’s unique ability to meld his ink lines with a broad variety of styles — always enhancing, never imposing or interfering — gives me the confidence to keep putting projects in his capable hands, knowing that the art will always return to me better than when it left. And, as founder of the Inkwell Awards, Bob labors tirelessly to gain recognition and appreciation for other practitioners of his craft — artists whose work often goes unnoticed, but is indispensable to the art form we call comics.

Confetti. I play quite a few online trivia games (although fewer all the time, it seems, as some of the upstarts have gone or are going out of the picture). I have the most fun playing the Facebook-based Confetti every weeknight. Confetti’s distinction is that it allows one to play in concert with one’s Facebook friends, seeing their responses to each question in real time and benefiting from their collective wisdom. Assuming, of course, that one has smart friends. I just happen to be lucky that way.

Doctor Who. Until this season, I haven’t been a regular viewer of Doctor Who, the venerable BBC science fiction series, since the days of the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker in the 1970s. When the show was revived several years back, I sampled an episode or two of each new incarnation of the Doctor, but was never drawn back into steady attendance. Then came the Thirteenth Doctor, played with charm and spunk (and a goofy-to-American-ears Yorkshire accent) by Jodie Whittaker, the first female actor to be cast as the Time Lord. In the Doctor’s own phrase, “Brilliant!”

Egg foo young. Yes, I know, it’s not real Chinese cuisine. But sometimes, I just gotta have it. It’s probably the gravy.

Freddie Mercury. I have yet to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the recent biopic starring Rami Malek as the legendary front man of Queen. Part of my reluctance is the reviews. The greater part, though, is my fear that nothing could compare with the reality of Freddie, perhaps the most uniquely talented performer in rock history, and one whose music and memory means so much to me.

Garlic. Can’t cook without it. Okay, maybe breakfast. But not after that.

Hawaiian Airlines. Truly the friendliest airline in the skies. You’d be friendly too if every one of your round trips ended in Hawaii. At the Pirate Queen’s insistence, I got a new credit card this year that earns Hawaiian Airlines flying miles. Maybe one of these years I’ll earn enough miles to just stay.

Infinity War. Every time I think the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gone about as far as it can go, Kevin Feige and company find a whole new way to turn things up past 11. Coming in hot on the heels of Black Panther — quite possibly, the greatest superhero film ever made, and one that could have dominated this Thanksgiving list had I not decided not to be quite so obvious — Avengers: Infinity War raised the stakes and broke our hearts by taking our Panther (and several other Marvel headliners, including Spider-Man and Doctor Strange) away. The sequel can’t get here fast enough. (Also, Black Panther 2.)

Journalists. I’ve never practiced the trade — the closest I came was my years as an online film reviewer — but I trained at university as a journalist. I value the talent and commitment of those who tell the true stories within our world, and deliver the news even when those in power would undermine and even physically thwart them. Now more than ever, we need legitimate journalism, and we all need to support those outlets and individuals determined to publish the truth.

Kansas. This summer, the Pirate Queen and I spent a weekend in Central California centered around a concert by the classic rock band Kansas. This was the fourth time I’ve seen Kansas live — the first was on my 19th birthday, at the Cow Palace — but the first time in more than 20 years. I still love the music. Kansas is the only significant American band to focus largely on progressive rock for the majority of its career (yeah, I know, Styx — but they were only prog-ish, and at that, only sometimes). Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Maybe not… but who cares? All we are is dust in the wind.

Lutron. One of the many things I love about our little abode here at Pirates Cove is the auto-dimming LED light fixtures, manufactured by a company named Lutron about whom I know nothing. Great lights, though.

Marriage. In the words of a certain Impressive Clergyman, “Mawwiage is what bwings us togevvah today.” In May, The Daughter entered into vows with The Son-In-Law. It was a beautiful day, and they still seem totally happy together six months later. I’m glad she found someone special to share her heart and her life with (and he does indeed seem like a great guy). I’m glad that the Pirate Queen and I found each other, too. Ain’t love grand?

Notability. An essential tool in my everyday working life — I import all of my scripts into it, where I can annotate and mark them up as I will. I also use it for note-taking in workshops and sessions, and for general brainstorming. If you can use a high-quality document markup / notation tool with a wealth of functionality, I highly recommend Notability. (Not a paid endorsement. Just a satisfied customer.)

Outrigger Reef Waikiki. We stayed here on this year’s trip to Oahu, and it immediately became our new favorite hotel on the island. Centrally located on Waikiki Beach, the Outrigger Reef offered a ton of features that we liked: unmatched location, warm hospitality that personifies aloha, first-rate beach access, a reliable breakfast venue, super-convenient layout that minimizes walking (something that can’t be said of many large resort hotels), great pool, live music nightly, and a Starbucks. I almost hate to mention it here, because now you people will fill it up the next time we want to stay there.

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco has presented a couple of exhibitions in recent years featuring the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an association of 19th-century British artists and writers. This year’s show afforded the opportunity to see a number of stunning paintings by the Brotherhood’s leading lights: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. I’m always impressed by art that keeps me thinking about it for days after I’ve seen it. The Pre-Raphaelites and their acolytes accomplish that.

Quizmasters. Having written a few quizzes for LearnedLeague and elsewhere, and played thousands more, I’m acutely aware of how difficult it is to compose top-shelf trivia questions and answers. I’m in awe of people — including LearnedLeague Commissioner Thorsten A. Integrity and newly inducted Trivia Hall of Fame member Paul Paquet — who manage to do it consistently over long periods of time.

Radio. As some of you know, I was a radio disc jockey in a previous life. Thanks in part to the SiriusXM subscription that came with our new Subaru Forester, I’ve been listening to more radio of late. It’s a format that I hope never goes away.

Stan Lee. Some idolized Marvel Comics writer/editor/publisher “Stan the Man” and gave him perhaps more credit than he deserved. Others in their zeal to counteract Stan’s penchant for self-aggrandizement were perhaps too quick to denigrate his contributions. All I know is this: Stan Lee co-created (we can disagree as to what percentage) several of the most iconic characters and stories of my lifetime, including some that had a tremendous impact on my youth and beyond. I can’t say this about many people whom I never met, but I would be a dramatically different person today were it not for Stan Lee. Rest in peace, and excelsior.

Taarna. I don’t like to talk myself up, but for some years, I was among the primary resources online for information about the 1981 animated science fiction anthology film Heavy Metal. I compiled and maintained the Squidoo lens spotlighting the movie, contributed significantly to its Wikipedia entry, and wrote material about the film for several (mostly now defunct) websites. My art collection reflects my obsession, with its gallery of commissioned artworks featuring Taarna, the lead character in Heavy Metal’s concluding segment and star of its iconic poster. When Sideshow Collectibles announced early this year that they were releasing a statue of Taarna, I knew I had to own one, even though I’m not a statue collector. The Taarakian defender now upholds The Pact from a shelf in my office/studio.

Ukulele. I decided a while back that I wanted to learn to play the ukulele. This decision did not come without trepidation — I took years of guitar lessons as a youngster and never got very good at playing the guitar. (Which is a charitable way of saying that I totally sucked at playing the guitar.) I’ll probably never be very good at playing the ukulele either. But even my clumsy fretting and strumming brings me joy. That’s something, yes?

Victoria Coren Mitchell. One of the world’s best female poker players, and the presenter of one of my favorite quiz shows, Only Connect. Is there anything she can’t do?

Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. I fell in love with the Tiki Room on my first visit to Disneyland, way back in 19[mumble][mumble]. When I visited with the Pirate Queen in February of this year, I found my love unabated. It’s cheesy yet classic, dated yet timeless, silly yet charming. The performances by the lead voice actors (Wally Boag, Thurl Ravenscroft, Fulton Burley, and Ernie Newton) remain engaging, despite their broad (some might say stereotypical, and some might not be wrong) accents. There’s always at least one Audio-Animatronic character that doesn’t function quite perfectly. And yet, the moment the Tiki Room show concludes, I want to queue up again for another round. It’s one of my favorite childhood memories. Also, Dole Whip.

Xenon. It’s the noble gas used most frequently in film projection lamps. When you go to the movie theater and look at the brightly lit screen, you’re seeing xenon at work.

Yacht Rock. It’s not just a musical genre — it’s a way of life. The smooth, studio-crafted, jazz-inflected sounds of such late-’70s/early-’80s acts as Steely Dan, Toto, Kenny Loggins, Christopher Cross, Al Jarreau, and the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers are my jam. (One of my jams, anyway.) Please don’t confuse true Yacht Rock with that stuff that gets played on the SiriusXM channel of the same name — most of it’s Nyacht Rock. (Hint: Jimmy Buffett is Nyacht Yacht Rock.) For the real deal, check out the pioneering 2005 web video series Yacht Rock, and Beyond Yacht Rock, the subsequent podcast hosted by connoisseurs JD Ryznar, Dave Lyons, Hunter Stair, and “Hollywood” Steve Huey.

Ziploc bags. I don’t know who invented them, or how that individual came up with the technology. But how did we ever live without them? The ones with the slider sealing mechanism? Pure engineering genius.

And as always, friend reader, I’m grateful for you. Thanks for stopping by on yet another Thanksgiving. I hope you’ve found much to be thankful for today. If you have, share some with someone who has a little less.

Peace.

Comic Art Friday: Common Elements Sesquicentennial

December 1, 2017

When I began my Common Elements commission series back in 2004, the thought never really seeped into my consciousness that one day I would own 150 of these custom artworks. And yet, 13 years later, here we are.

Mary Marvel and Isis, pencils and inks by Ramona Fradon

From the beginning, Common Elements has been a labor of love. (Or maybe obsession.) Not only has it afforded me the opportunity to interact with more than 100 individual comic artists — 111 at present count — but it’s also served as a unique testimony to my spider-web-like thought process.

People who know me in the real world will attest that I have a bizarre knack for mentally tying disparate things together. Mention a movie, a book, a song, or even just a word, and I immediately think of a dozen other items that connect in some way to whatever you mentioned. (If you want to know the secret to my dubious success as a Jeopardy! champion, that’s two-thirds of it right there.) Sometimes those connections are obvious. Sometimes they’re ties that almost no one else would identify. And that, of course, is Common Elements in a nutshell.

(Which reminds me: I really need to get Squirrel Girl into a CE. And yes, I already have a couple of ideas.)

When I realized that the next Common Elements piece I commissioned would be #150, I wanted to do something special to mark the anniversary. Then a note scrolled by on my Facebook feed indicating that Eisner Hall of Fame artist Ramona Fradon was celebrating her 91st birthday. Since I don’t know of any comic artists who are 150 years of age and still drawing breathing, I figured that the legendary Ms. Fradon was as close as I was likely to find. Toss in the fact that Ramona also penciled Common Elements #91 (featuring her co-creation Metamorpho alongside Hourman), and the appropriateness could not have been more clear.

Knowing the lovely lighter tone which with Ms. Fradon depicts characters, I assigned her the pairing of Mary Marvel and Isis. Those of you of a certain vintage will remember that Mary’s brother Captain Marvel (called Shazam in more recent DC comics, mostly due to trademark conflicts involving the several Marvel Comics characters known as Captain Marvel, all of whom postdate the Big Red Cheese) headlined his own live-action Saturday morning TV series in the mid-1970s.

Originally, Filmation — the studio that produced the program — wanted to pair Captain Marvel with his sister Mary. Depending on whose account you believe, either DC wanted more money in broadcast rights fees for the use of Mary Marvel than Filmation wanted to pay, or DC refused to offer Filmation Mary’s broadcast rights in order to keep her available for future TV/movie projects. Whatever the particulars, Filmation decided to proceed without Mary. Instead, they created a new character called Isis, who shared several of Mary’s attributes — an ordinary young woman (an adult schoolteacher, unlike the teenaged Mary) gained a costume and superpowers (based on figures from Egyptian mythology, whereas Mary’s derived from mostly Greco-Roman deities) by speaking a magical incantation (“O mighty Isis!” instead of “Shazam!”). Thus, The Secrets of Isis became the companion series to Filmation’s Shazam!

DC published, concurrent with the TV show, a comic book series featuring Isis. They didn’t hire Ramona Fradon to illustrate it, but as you can judge from our featured artwork, they would not have been wrong if they had. (No slight intended to the talented Mike Vosburg, who drew most of the Isis comics and did a fantastic job.)

Interestingly, a retooled version of Isis recently joined the cast of the TV series, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. The new character, played by actress Tala Ashe, goes by the code name Zari instead of Isis, for reasons that you can easily surmise if you’ve read or watched the news anytime in the last decade. And though she doesn’t transform, she does wear an amulet resembling the one originally worn by Isis.

In honor of Common Elements’ 150th, I’ll share a few random facts about the series to date:

Most prolific pencil artist: Ron Lim, with six Common Elements credits (CE #’s 48, 80, 100, 111, 118, and 124).

Most prolific inker: Bob Almond, who has inked 15 Common Elements projects thus far, and will doubtless ink more in days and years ahead.

Characters most frequently represented: Wonder Woman and Vixen, with four appearances each (although none together). Six characters have made three appearances: Storm, Valkyrie, Luke Cage, Ms. Marvel, Mary Marvel, and Black Cat (that’s Linda Turner, the Golden Age Black Cat; the modern-era Black Cat, Felicia Hardy, appears only twice, counting one commission that is currently in progress). A total of 39 characters appear twice each.

Characters who appear in multiple guises: Four Jean Grey (as Marvel Girl and Phoenix), Steve Rogers (as Captain America and Nomad), Michael Jon Carter (as Booster Gold and Supernova), and Greer Nelson (as Tigra and The Cat).

And the saddest list of all — the artists who have passed since contributing their Common Elements creations: RIP Herb Trimpe, Rich Buckler, Ernie Chan, Dave Hoover, Tony DeZuniga, and Al Rio. I’ll extend an honorary mention to Dave Simons, who was working on a Common Elements commission at the time of his passing. The concept Dave was assigned was later commissioned to, and completed by, Dave’s longtime collaborator Bob Budiansky (CE #92).

Questions I’m asked:

What’s your favorite Common Elements commission? I’d never be able to narrow it to just one. Even if I chose a Top Ten, I might pick an entirely different group if you asked me on another day. Thus, my standard answer: “The next one.”

If money were no object, who’s the “holy grail” Common Elements artist? It would be difficult to top a Common Elements piece by Adam Hughes, Alex Ross, or Mark Schultz. There are several others close to those three, but whom I realistically think I might be able to land someday.

Are there artists who are no longer with us whom you regret not commissioning when you could have? So many… but at the top of the list (limiting the scope to artists active since I began Common Elements) would have to be Mike Wieringo and Darwyn Cooke. My all-time dream would be Dave Stevens, but Stevens would have been unattainable even when he was still alive and working.

Name three artists from any period in history you’d resurrect to draw a Common Elements commission. Titian, Alphonse Mucha, and Albert Joseph Moore. Add one from comics history: Matt Baker.

How many Common Elements concepts are still on your to-do list? Probably another 150… and the list grows all the time.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Triskaidekaphobia Edition

November 24, 2016

Welcome to the thirteenth installment in my annual outpouring of gratitude. Each Thanksgiving since 2004, I’ve devoted this space to a reflection on some of the many people, places, and things that have graced my life. Because counting my blessings can become an infinite task once I get started, I’ve developed the device of choosing 26 representative items — one for each letter of the English alphabet — to stand as testament to the overwhelming abundance that I can only begin to address.

Without further ceremony, here are the things I’m thankful for on Thanksgiving 2016.

Antenna International. If you’ve ever toured a museum or other public attraction and used the audio guide, you’ve heard the work of this fine company, which specializes in the production of said audio guides. I recently had the privilege of narrating Antenna’s audio guide to Vikings: Beyond the Legend, an exhibition currently on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center. If you’re in southwest Ohio or the vicinity, go check it out.

Beef Jerky Store. A highlight of my annual trip to Las Vegas is a pilgrimage to this downtown establishment adjacent to the Fremont Street Experience, where I load up my suitcase with tasty snacks. When I was a keiki (that’s “child” to your mainlanders) in Hawaii, we called a place like this a crack seed store — “crack seed” being the Hawaiian term for various kinds of dried fruits, nuts, and other dehydrated edibles. Visiting the Beef Jerky Store takes me back to those long-ago childhood days.

Comixology. This year, I officially transitioned my comic book reading from paper to digital. Comixology is the app for that. (It’s been an adjustment, but I’m resolute.)

DubNation. What a year we’ve had as Golden State Warriors fans! Our team set an NBA record for success with an unprecedented 73-9 record; missed repeating as world champions by an eyelash; then in the offseason added Kevin Durant, one of the greatest players in the game, to a roster that already featured three superstars in two-time MVP Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. After decades of wallowing in mediocrity and worse, it’s a grand time to be a citizen of DubNation.

Evernote. I don’t know where I’d be without this app. Certainly dinners at our house would be far less interesting, because Evernote is where all of my recipes reside.

Family. As always, I’m grateful more than anything for those who love me most — the Pirate Queen, The Daughter, Grandma, Studio Assistant Tazz, and KJ, whose memory lives forever in heart and spirit. My extended ohana also includes numerous friends and connections, both nearby and far away.

Graboids. That’s our household nickname for reach tools. They come in handy for picking up dog toys and other items that middle-aged backs and knees hate bending for.

Hillary Clinton. The election didn’t go her way, but I’m still proud that she earned my vote.

Inkwell Awards. Founded by longtime comic book inker Bob Almond, the Inkwells annually acknowledge some of the most important — but least heralded — artists in the field.

Juice. Because who doesn’t love juice? Make mine cranberry.

Kamala Harris. California’s attorney general will make an outstanding impact as our new junior Senator. I was honored to voice several of Ms. Harris’s campaign ads this season. I don’t think she got elected because of my work, but I’m not saying I didn’t help a little. Maybe.

Luke Cage. Just when you think that Marvel Studios and Netflix couldn’t possibly outdo themselves after the stellar Jessica Jones, they follow up with a series that takes street-level superheroics up yet another notch. Terrific performances by Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson, and Mike Colter as the titular Power Man made this a must-binge.

Mcusta. Two of the most attractive specimens in my folding knife collection come from this Seki City, Japan bladeworks. I could admire my Mcusta Katana and Tactility all day long. Some days, I do.

NewPark 12. The glorious IMAX theater in our new local multiplex even enthused the Pirate Queen — generally not a fan of the cinema experience — about going out to the movies. It’s the first time I ever sat in a theater seat that I wanted to take home to my living room after the film ended.

OtterBox. I dropped and shattered my iPhone this summer. (Thanks, AT&T, for the speedy and relatively hassle-free replacement.) The sturdy case on my new device will, one hopes, prevent future mishaps of a similar nature.

President Barack Obama. Thank you, Mr. President, for eight years of honorable service. I truly believe that history will be far more kind to your legacy than the obstructionist Congress of your second term has been.

Quatermass and the Pit. One of my all-time favorite weird sci-fi classics. You’ve probably seen it here in the U.S. under the title Five Million Years to Earth. Basically, we’re all the descendants of giant grasshoppers from Mars.

Ray’s Crab Shack. A local spot serving up mass quantities of delicious seafood. Don your plastic bib, glove up, and get your crustacean on.

Steely Dan. Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you, my friend, that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen got me through college, and many melancholy hours since. There are 66 songs on the Dan’s seven classic-period albums (beginning with Can’t Buy a Thrill and concluding with Gaucho), and not a single one of them sucks. I don’t know any other musical act about whom I can make that statement. 1977’s Aja ranks as one of the finest albums in the history of recorded music.

Treebeard. In my studio-office stands a gnarled walking stick that I acquired at a Renaissance Faire many, many years ago. It’s outfitted with a wrapped leather hand grip and bears the carved face of a bewhiskered wizard at its head. I call it Treebeard. I believe there may be magic in it.

Universal Studios Hollywood. I spent a week there early this year, as an alternate contestant for a TV quiz show that ended up not requiring my services. But I got to stay in a nice hotel, tour a theme park, preview the then-unopened-to-the-public Harry Potter attraction, see a couple of movies, hang out for two days in the soundstage where The Voice is taped, and make several cool new friends — all at a TV production company’s expense. You could have a worse vacation.

Van Jones. The CNN commentator kept it real in the midst of insanity on Election Night 2016. Thanks for eloquently saying what many of us were thinking, Mr. Jones.

Waimea Canyon. As has been frequently noted in this space, I spent a goodly chunk of my childhood in Hawaii. Until this spring, however, I’d never visited the island of Kauai. If you’ve never stood on the edge of “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” you owe it to yourself to get there at least once before you die. (Going after you die probably won’t have the same effect.)

Xenozoic. Mark Schultz’s sumptuous adventure comic — best known to non-aficionados as the source material for the fondly remembered animated series Cadillacs and Dinosaurs — remains a classic of the medium. The collected omnibus volume is the closest book to my desk on my office-studio bookshelf.

Yoda. “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Live by these words, should you.

Zuckerberg. Thanks for keeping the Pirate Queen gainfully employed for the past year, Mark.

I am eternally grateful to you, friend reader, for your ongoing support of these random ramblings. May your life overflow with reasons to give thanks.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Now 100% Punkin Chunkin Free!

November 26, 2015

Here’s something I’m not thankful for this Thanksgiving: Punkin Chunkin, a staple of my Turkey Day TV viewing, was canceled for the second consecutive year. Some silly folderol about liability or some such foolishness cost the annual event, which involves people hurling pumpkins incredible distances using homemade machines straight out of the Rube Goldberg instruction manual, its venue, and organizers haven’t been able to locate another suitable site.

The bottom line is that some lawyers are making a pot of money arguing, and I’m denied my Punkin Chunkin.

Anyway… I still have plenty else to be grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day 2015. Therefore, as has been my tradition in this space since 2004, I’ve made an alphabetical list sampling 26 of the thousands of people, places, and things that make my life worth living.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for:

Adele. The British songstress released her first new album in four years this past week, and it’s as lovely and haunting and emotionally riveting as anything she’s done before.

Bruce Lee. My boyhood hero would be celebrating his 75th birthday tomorrow, had he not been taken from us far too soon way back in 1973. Lee was the only movie star whose poster hung on my bedroom wall amid the Star Trek glossies, comic book cutouts, and Runaways album covers throughout my teenage years. Enter the Dragon remains the one film to which I can turn off the sound and voice every line of dialogue. (At least, I used to be able to do that. I haven’t tested myself in a few years.) Rest in peace, Little Dragon.

Clients. Here’s a shout-out to the folks who buy the skills and pay the bills. I’ve worked with and for some really cool people this past year. I hope they — and many others — will continue to hire me. Please.

Dumbarton Bridge. The least famous, and by far the least sexy, of the San Francisco Bay’s crossings, it’s about to become critically important to us because we’re moving within a stone’s throw of its eastern anchorage. The Pirate Queen starts a new job on December 1, and her daily commute will span the Dumbarton. Although, when she’s on it, it will immediately transform into the Smartbarton.

Education. I’m a firm believer that when you stop learning, your brain dies. And you start voting for Donald Trump.

Ferrett Steinmetz. The Ferrett, as he likes to be known, was one of the first bloggers I followed on a regular basis. This year, I got to meet him in person, as he toured the country promoting his first science fiction novel, Flex. Its sequel, The Flux, came out last month.

Grilled lobster tails. If I were writing the menu for my last meal on Earth, I’d start with a few of these, served with Cajun spiced garlic butter. You know you want some.

Houses. For the second year in a row, the Pirate Queen and I find ourselves (for the moment, at least) with two — one we’re moving out of, and another we’re moving into. The new one closed escrow on the Pirate Queen’s birthday. I’m grateful every day to have a roof over my head when so many people have none.

Idina Menzel. Because someone who knows how to say her name correctly should be thankful for the former Mrs. Taye Diggs. We’re seeing her in person Saturday evening in the road company of If/Then. It would probably be too much to ask for her to just throw in a random chorus of “Defying Gravity,” just because I love that song, and her voice on it.

Jessica Jones. I just finished the final episode of Marvel’s latest Netflix series yesterday. As good as I’d hoped the show would be, it exceeded my expectations by a Hell’s Kitchen block. Krysten Ritter, who’d never really impressed me in anything before, absolutely crushes the role of the downbeat ex-superheroine-turned-private-eye. And her chemistry with Mike Colter as the unbreakable Luke Cage flat-out sizzles. I’m already salivating in anticipation of the Cage series.

KM, for being the greatest Daughter any dad could wish for, and to the memory of her mom, KJ, for all of the shared history.

Lucille, the legendary axe of pioneering blues guitarist B.B. King, lost her master this past May. The thrill indeed is gone.

Masterpiece, the PBS vehicle by which Downton Abbey comes to us Yanks. Downton‘s final season premieres here in the States in January. I’m sure going to miss the Crawley clan.

NBA Championship, won this year for the first time in 40 seasons by my beloved Golden State Warriors. Given that they’ve begun the sequel season on a 16-0 run thus far, I have high hopes that the Dubs might bring a second Larry O’Brien Trophy home to the Bay. To Steph, Klay, Draymond, Bogues, Barnes, Iggy, Mo Buckets, Shawn, Festus, and the rest of the dudes in blue (slate on Saturdays): Thanks for all the thrills. You make DubNation proud.

Oysters. Because delicious.

Panama hats. I have a nice one from Goorin Brothers for sunny East Bay days.

Quizzing. Whether it’s my nightly session of LearnedLeague, or my annual trip to Las Vegas for the Trivia Championships of North America (that’s TCONA to you), or teaming up with a couple of buds at the Project READ Trivia Bee (a hard-fought second place this fall, behind the team we narrowly bested to win last year), quizzing is my jam.

Rush. As Geddy Lee once wailed in his inimitable helium-on-steroids voice: If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

Slippers. Or sleepahs, as we say in Hawaii. Without something on my feet, I might fall down. Nobody wants to see that.

Tsunami Brainz. Did I mention that my improv troupe had a name, at long last? We do, and Tsunami Brainz is it. We’re gearing up for our first show, possibly in January.

Us — the Pirate Queen, the Studio Assistant, and me. I am thankful every day for our little family. I feel the love in the room.

VocalBooth. My gorgeous new-to-me workspace is a Diamond Series Platinum Edition. I’m still getting used to its finer points and tweaking the acoustics, but it’s an amazing place to play.

Waikiki. The Pirate Queen and I spent a week in March in my childhood home, and enjoyed a fantastic time touring, beaching, dining, shopping, and just relaxing. I often forget how much I miss Hawaii until I’m there.

Xi, the Greek letter for which there is no direct equivalent in our Latin alphabet. Not to be confused with the letter chi, which corresponds to our X.

Yukon Outfitters. I own several of their Tactical series carry bags. They make excellent stuff to put your stuff in.

Zillow. When you need to find a new house quickly — as we just experienced such a need — it’s the place to look. I found our new place in a single search session.

As always, friend reader, I am also thankful for you. May you and those you love enjoy a thoughtful and festive Thanksgiving. And stay home tomorrow, for pity’s sake.