Archive for the ‘Soundtrack of My Life’ 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.]


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.]


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?


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.


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 unparalleled, 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 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.


Comic Art Friday: Foster children

March 30, 2018

I’ve made the observation numerous times that ideas for my Common Elements commissions are sometimes triggered by the least expected stimuli. Today’s featured artwork makes a prime example of this principle.

Beautiful Dreamer, Jean Grey, and Ultragirl, pencils and inks by Carlos Rafael

Several years ago, I was channel-surfing late one night when I happened upon a documentary about composer Stephen Foster on the local PBS station. Foster, for the benefit of the non-history-buff segment of our audience, was perhaps the first American popular songwriter to achieve major commercial success. Many of his compositions quickly became staples of American music and remain familiar today, more than 150 years after Foster’s untimely death at age 37.

To the extent that I ever thought much about Stephen Foster, it was in the context of the not-terribly-subtle thread of racism laced through many of his lyrics. Foster wrote a considerable number of songs intended for minstrel shows, in which performers wearing blackface presented mocking caricatures of African Americans. These caricatures, and the epithets associated with them, find a home in such Foster songs as “Camptown Races,” “Old Black Joe,” “Old Folks at Home” (more commonly known as “Swanee River”), and “My Old Kentucky Home,” although these elements are frequently altered when the songs are performed today. (One of the most surprising facts I learned from the Foster documentary was that, although Foster’s oeuvre is filled with ditties about life in the antebellum South, Foster was born and raised in Pennsylvania and lived much of his adult life there, as well as in Ohio and New York. He may have actually visited the South only on a couple of brief occasions.)

As I viewed the documentary, though, it occurred to me that Foster also wrote quite a few songs that fall into a less controversial category: romantic ballads. This class includes some of Foster’s most enduring works — i.e., “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Jeanie (With the Light Brown Hair),” and “Oh! Susanna.”

That observation set off a lightbulb in my comics-attuned mind. Legendary creator Jack Kirby appropriated the name Beautiful Dreamer for the female member of his Forever People. One of the most enduring superheroines since the Silver Age is original X-Man Jean Grey. (I know, I know… Jean’s hair is usually depicted as red, not light brown. But that’s nothing a bottle of Miss Clairol couldn’t fix.) I had to ponder a while before I recalled that the adopted human name of Ultragirl, Marvel’s short-lived Supergirl riff, is Susanna Sherman, but with that realization, the picture was complete.

Or would be, maybe a decade later, when I finally got around to commissioning this project from Brazilian artist Carlos Rafael, best known for his work on such Dynamite Entertainment titles as Red Sonja, Dejah Thoris, and Battlestar Galactica.

Thus, another Common Elements concept wings in from left field.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks 14: As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly

November 23, 2017

Each year, since this humble (in the classic sense of “low to the ground”) blog began in 2004, I’ve paused on Thanksgiving Day to take stock of the many things in my life and in the world about me for which I’m grateful. If I took the honest measure of my blessings, I’d be typing nonstop between Thanksgivings, and I’d never get much life lived. (Plus, these posts would get even more unbearably lengthy than they already are.)

So I hit upon the idea of choosing just 26 items, sorted alphabetically, to represent by means of metonymy the countless people and things for which I am grateful.

It’s been an interesting year. The Pirate Queen began a new job, which she enjoys, and where she is appreciated and fulfilled. I landed one of my most daunting voiceover projects this summer, survived a hectic busy season with my largest client, and checked a box off my career bucket list by booking a gig for one of the most recognizable companies on the planet. We traveled a bit, as we are wont to do.

The Daughter hit a pair of milestones: she, like the Pirate Queen, began a new job — one that she’s been chasing hard for a few years — and she and her beloved (formerly The Boyfriend, now The Fiance) got engaged. They’ll be married next May, prompting yet another nomenclatural change. The Daughter is  thrilled to begin these new chapters in her life, and I am thrilled — with a father’s wistful trepidation — for her. She wishes her mother was here to share her joy. I wish that too. But as the old saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. So walk on, we shall.

2017 will be forever remembered in the North Bay as the Year of the Firestorm. If you live hereabouts, you know — and perhaps lived through — the devastating wildfires that destroyed thousands of structures across Sonoma and Napa counties. The Daughter and her Grandma were evacuated from their home for a week. Many longtime friends and acquaintances don’t have homes to which to return. The city of Santa Rosa and the other hard-hit communities will rebuild, but the lives that were lost will never be restored, and the precious possessions of thousands of people will never truly be replaced. I can’t put into words the sadness I feel for those I know — and so many others I don’t know — whose lives were irrevocably altered, even as I also can’t express my relief that my precious Daughter’s life was spared.

Walk on, we shall, indeed.

But enough preamble. Here’s the fourteenth installment of my annual Thanksgiving list. Next year, should we all live to see it, I’ll have to add a whole new table in the Word document where I keep track of each year’s offerings. (The chart is seven columns wide, and this will fill out the second chart.) For now, here’s what I’m grateful for… among so much else.

Almond butter. The Pirate Queen brought a jar home the other day from Trader Joe’s. In a world awhirl with chaos, the simple pleasure of an almond butter and blackberry jelly sandwich is an amazing comfort.

Blue Öyster Cult. This year on LearnedLeague (the world’s toughest online trivia league, and why haven’t you asked me for a referral yet?), I was privileged to write a quiz about a band whose music I’ve grokked since my high school days. (Yes, we had music then, you young punk. With electric guitars and everything.) I’ve still got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell.

Cabo San Lucas. Neither the Pirate Queen nor I had ever been to Cabo before our weeklong vacation there in February. We enjoyed our stay immensely. It’s not Hawaii — this was the first year in the last five that we didn’t visit my childhood home — but it’s lovely nonetheless. We’ll return, no doubt.

Draymond Green. He may be the third or fourth best player on the Warriors. He might also be the most irreplaceable. No one plays defense at a more intense level than Money 23. The Daughter has a picture of herself with him from a photo op before he rose to NBA All-Stardom.

Electricity. Thank you, Ben Franklin. (I’m still annoyed about that $100 bill question from Millionaire, though. Just so you know.)

Firefighters and First Responders. They couldn’t save every home and storefront in the North Bay, but they worked tirelessly and valiantly to save as many as they could, and to rescue and help as many people as possible. The community will never forget their efforts and dedication.

Gal Gadot. As a lifelong fan of Diana of Themyscira, I wasn’t fully convinced when the little-known Israeli actress landed the role. I’m convinced now. I’m glad Gal is our Wonder Woman. Change our minds, and change the world.

Hamilton. We had the opportunity to see the smash hit musical in San Francisco this summer. We did not throw away our shot. Few popular entertainments live up to their hype, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece gets as close as you’d imagine.

Ice hockey. I know, I know. I’m the guy who refers to hockey as “soccer on ice with sticks.” But thanks to the largesse of a good friend who’s a San Jose Sharks season ticketholder, we saw our first in-person game last season. It really is a heck of a sport to watch in person, in ways that don’t translate well on television. I’m a believer.

Jetways. I’m old enough to remember… okay, slow down; not the Wright brothers — but the days when you actually had to walk out onto the tarmac and climb a mobile staircase in order to board a plane at many airports. Give me the stretchable hallway any day.

Kilimanjaro. She rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.

Linseed oil. Also called flaxseed oil, it’s the stuff that keeps the insides of my cast iron skillets silky smooth and nonstick. Liquid gold, it is.

Monet and Munch. We toured a pair of spectacular art exhibitions this year: Claude Monet: The Early Years at the Legion of Honor, and Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed at SFMOMA. In general, I’m not especially partial to Expressionist art, but seeing the work of these two great masters up close was powerfully impactful. I’m already looking forward to the next Monet exhibition here in two years.

NextDraft. Every day, I check in with several news sites and aggregators to keeptrack of what’s going on in this crazy world. Dave Pell’s NextDraft stands as one of the best curated aggregators I’ve come across. Dave skillfully mixes links to the day’s hard news with items that are merely fascinating. Always topical, always informative.

‘Oumuamua. “Strange visitor from another world” used to just mean Superman. Now, it’s the first object officially identified by astronomers as having traveled into our solar system from interstellar space. A cigar-shaped asteroid estimated at around 500 feet in length, its Hawaiian name means “scout” or “messenger.”

Patek Philippe. I narrated the first-ever full-scale North American exhibition by the world-renowned Swiss watchmaker this summer. In the process, I learned a ton about the craftspeople who design and build these incredible (and incredibly expensive) timepieces that can not only tell time, but in some instances play symphonies, display lunar cycles, and calculate dates hundreds of years into the future — all using mechanical, analog functionality. No microchip, no battery, just precision clockworks.

Quesadillas. Because hot, melty, delicious cheese.

Red Special, the one-of a kind guitar built by Brian May in his garage when he was a teenager, and which has lent its unique tone to Queen albums and concerts for more than four decades. I recently saw Brian wield his legendary axe in person for the first time in 35 years, and both guitar and guitarist amaze me still as much today as they did back then. If Brian and the Red Special had never given the world anything besides “Fat Bottomed Girls,” it would have been gift enough.

My Steel Will 1505, a.k.a. the Gekko, has featured as my everyday carry pocket knife for most of the past year. Solid, sturdy, and wicked sharp, with its maroon Micarta handle scales and black D2 steel blade, it’s both a workhorse and a creature of quiet beauty.

Thumbtack. The online service offers access to all kinds of local professionals, from electricians to mobile disc jockeys to personal trainers. Plus, they keep the Pirate Queen gainfully employed, for which we are enormously thankful.

Feel the rain on your skin.
No one else can feel it for you —
Only you can let it in.
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips.
Drench yourself in words unspoken;
Live your life with arms wide open;
Today is where your book begins —
The rest is still unwritten.

Vision. Last night, I stood on a BART train next to a blind man accompanied by his golden retriever guide dog. Even with my acute myopia and astigmatism — easily remedied by contact lenses — I am blessed that, unlike that unfortunate gentleman, I can open my eyes and see the world. Today, I’m not taking that for granted.

Women — and I have some wonderful ones in my life: the Pirate Queen, The Daughter, her Grandma, and more treasured friends and colleagues than I can list, along with the memory of KJ and the three decades we shared together. Our culture is currently awash with a tsunami of women finally feeling emboldened to speak out against the abuse, harassment, and disrespect they’ve experienced, and I applaud and support them. Be heard, sisters. Your voices matter.

XTC. Quirky, edgy, and impossible to categorize, Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, and company formed one of the most underrated bands in the history of pop music. “Generals and Majors,” “Senses Working Overtime,” “The Mayor of Simpleton,” and the controversial “Dear God” — even if you didn’t understand all of the ideas (or didn’t agree with them), you had to admire the style.

Yeast — fueling bakeries and breweries for thousands of years. Except during Passover.

Zapper — that’s what I call my racket-shaped electric wand that strikes fear into the hearts of flying pests that dare disturb the sanctity of my abode. I’m perfectly content to let buzzing bugs buzz outdoors in their own environment, as long as they don’t attack me. But if you come into my airspace, critter, I’ve got some voltage waiting for you.

And as always, friend reader, I’m grateful for you, and the time you take to peruse my rambling prose. May you and yours find much for which to be appreciative on this Thanksgiving Day.



Comic Art Friday: You’re my best friend

July 22, 2016

Throughout the long history of my Common Elements commission theme, the overwhelming majority of its concepts have sprung from my own fevered imagination. Not to be all egocentric about it, but it’s my theme, after all. There’s a certain undeniable kick that comes from looking at an artwork and knowing that the scenario depicted therein only exists because I thought of it. It’s for that reason that, although numerous people have suggested Common Elements ideas to me over the years, only three pieces in the gallery represent someone’s combination of characters other than my own.

This is the second one that someone else even paid for.

Green Arrow, Captain Marvel Jr. and Max Mercury, pencils by John Heebink

Damon Owens is a fellow comic art collector residing in the Houston area. (Yeah, I know — unfortunate. But I can’t get him to move.) As is true of my own collection, Damon’s focuses primarily on commissioned pieces (the majority of comic art collectors hone in on published pages). And, also like my own, Damon’s galleries often revolve around themes. He’s probably best known in the collecting community for The Brotherhood, a series of artworks depicting various African and African-American superheroes as an Avengers-style team of Damon’s own devising. Damon’s other themes include teamups involving (in separate themes) Black Panther and Juggernaut; Cage Matches, a series of reenactments of great battles in the career of Luke Cage; and perhaps most notably, two themes centered around obscure heroes from comic book history: Operation Obscura (mostly solo pinups) and The Dead Universes Project (in which characters from various comics publishers that no longer exist find themselves inhabiting the same fictional universe). All clever, all amazing in scope, and all well worth a look.

In addition to being an inventive and prolific collector, Damon is also well known as a genuinely nice guy, revered by artists and fellow collectors alike for his generous, supportive nature. Proof of his generosity stands before you in this incredible Common Elements artwork that Damon commissioned from comic artist John Heebink and gave to me, for no other reason than… well… Damon’s just like that.

Best of all, Damon totally nailed my Common Elements theme. It took me a few minutes of puzzled staring before I tumbled onto the common element: Freddie (Freeman, a.k.a. Captain Marvel Jr.); Mercury (speedster Max Mercury); and Queen (Oliver Queen, that is; better known as Green Arrow). So it’s both a perfect — and perfectly sly — example of my signature concept, and a tribute to one of my all-time favorite musical acts.

Damon, when it comes to the many good folks I’ve come to know through my collecting hobby, in the immortal words of Freddie Mercury and Queen — you’re my best friend. Seriously.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

June 3, 2016

The tricky part of developing my Common Elements themed commissions is rarely the concepts themselves. My brain just naturally takes the bizarre twists and turns that uncovers previously unseen linkages between otherwise unconnected comic book characters.

No, the difficulty often lies in finding the right artist for each concept — particularly when the concept screams out for an artist of specific style, or personal background.

Take today’s featured artwork. I came up with the idea of bringing these three ladies together several years ago. Let’s introduce them, from left to right:

Gogo Yubari, Nico Minoru, and Vixen, pencils by Adriana Melo

Gogo Yubari, the schoolgirl-bodyguard-assassin played by Chiaki Kuriyama in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 1. When Gogo first appears on camera, Beatrix Kiddo, a.k.a. The Bride (QT’s muse Uma Thurman), introduces her with this ominous observation: “Gogo may be young, but what she lacks in age, she makes up for in madness.” The Bride’s battle with Gogo and her meteor hammer (a chain with a spiked ball on either end) is one of the highlights of the movie. (If you have to ask why a character from a Tarantino film is being lumped in with comic book characters, you haven’t seen enough Tarantino films.)

Nico Minoru, sorceress leader of the team of superpowered youths known as The Runaways. Nico, who for a while went by the superhero sobriquet Sister Grimm (no relation), inherited the ability to wield magic from her villainous parents. In the Runaways, Nico partners with other offspring of evil metahumans to help right the wrongs done by the preceding generation.

Vixen, longtime member of various Justice League permutations, and before that, of Suicide Squad. The first black superheroine in the DC Comics canon, Vixen’s a longtime personal favorite of mine. She possesses the power to tap into a mysterious force called the Red, through which she can utilize the abilities of any animal on Earth. Her code name comes from the fox-headed Tantu totem she wears.

Okay, so you’re thinking, three butt-kicking women you wouldn’t want to trifle with — but what’s their common element? Those of you old enough to remember the popular culture of the 1970s and ’80s will recall these three all-female rock bands: The Go-Go’s (yes, I know; never use an apostrophe to create a plural noun — but that’s how they spell it), hitmakers behind such classics as “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat”; The Runaways, the “Queens of Noise” who introduced the world to future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joan Jett; and Vixen, the glam-metal rockers best known for their 1988 hit “Edge of a Broken Heart.”

The perceptive among you now understand the challenge I faced with this Common Elements concept: I couldn’t very well assign a piece featuring three female characters who share names with all-female rock bands to a male artist. That just wouldn’t do. But it also wouldn’t do to assign it to a female artist just because she was female. It had to be someone whose drawing style fit with the bold, tough, take-no-prisoners attitudes and attributes of the trio being depicted. And for the longest time, I couldn’t come up with an artist who seemed right for the role.

Then one day, Adriana Melo‘s commission list opened up.

Clouds parted. Trumpets blared. Angels sang. I knew I’d found the perfect artist at last.

Adriana is no stranger to drawing powerful women in action. She’s been, at various times, the regular artist on Birds of Prey and Rose and Thorn for DC, Witchblade for Top Cow/Image, and Ms. Marvel for… well… the other guys. I’d have been hard-pressed to come up with a talent better matched to this concept — and her finished creation proves it.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.