Music Analysis:
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Deacon Blues - The Loser's Camelot
Album: Aja, 1977)

Walter and I had been working on that song at a house in Malibu. I played him that line, and he said, 'You mean it's like, they call these cracker assholes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I'm this loser, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues?' And I said, 'Yeah!' He said, 'Cool! Let's finish it!'"

Those were the very words used by Donald Fagen, the co-founder and chief lyricist of the Jazz/Rock band, Steely Dan, to fondly recall an amusing dialog with Walter Becker, his musical partner, regarding the origins of the song, Deacon Blues, in an interview with the popular Rolling Stone magazine. Along with Becker, his bespectacled high-school buddy of similar wavelength, Fagen formed Steely Dan in the early 70s hoping to give life to a bagful of strange, non-sensical, and mysteriously allegorical lyrical concepts served up in uniquely sophisticated and suave musical idiom hitherto unheard of in popular music. The shabbily dressed duo were so introverted and reclusive, and quite the antithesis to the who’s who of show business at that time, that they would have been the laughing stock of tinsel town for their seemingly unrealistic ambitions; and without a doubt, few would have put their money on the two “losers’” chances of making it big in the cutthroat, over-the-top realm of show-business. Deacon Blues is the quintessential expression of their persistence and perseverance through such derision, and in spite of all the naysayers, remaining faithful to themselves and their highly original creative vision and their heroic triumph over them all - a celebration of the crossing of the fine line between the pressures of conformity to the pleasures of self-realization! Packed with a generous dose of self-assured and carefree romanticism that only Donald Fagen can fuse with such cutting satire, the irresistible punch line that got his like-minded creative partner wildly excited goes something like this…

“They’ve got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues”

To most Americans well-versed in the history of college (NCAA) football, these lines may not be too difficult to put in context; but if you are like me (or at least, in this context, like I used to be) – one of the many who are absolutely not in-the-know of NCAA Football history – I must offer you a small lesson of history, and I’m afraid the only one I could offer on this subject, which is otherwise wholly and always uninteresting to me; it will help you grasp the essence of the punch line, and thereby the spirit of the song, of which it is simply a brilliantly catchy summation.

The Wikipedia page titled ‘[University of] Alabama Crimson Tide Football’ states: “Between 1970-1979, the Crimson Tide was one of the most dominant teams in college football. Winning eight conference titles and three national championships, very few teams were able to defeat [Alabama coach, Paul ‘Bear’] Bryant and the Crimson Tide. Alabama was a combined 103-16-1 in the decade, a .863 winning percentage.” In other words, The University of Alabama’s football team under coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant had such a stupendous winning streak in the 70s, that they became the envy of many less gifted college football teams and their fans alike; and Alabama’s flamboyant and awe-inspiring title, the ‘Crimson Tide’ quite aptly glorified the team’s invincible and ‘grandiose’ image during that period. Contrast that with the performance of the Demon Deacon football team of North Carolina’s Wake Forest University during the same 70s period – a depressing 34-76-1, which translates to a meager 0.315 winning percentage – and you by now should be able to follow Fagen’s clever metaphor. Or can you?

To the casual reader or listener, the lyrics of Deacon Blues may seem like a random blend of clever verse signifying nothing of holistic substance – the trademark of most Steely Dan songs – but a reflective and imaginative listener would be able to see and hear, beneath the lighthearted playfulness and seemingly frivolous exterior, one of the most profoundly personal and deeply spiritual autobiographies ever put to verse. Lyrically as well as musically, it is a wonderful reflection on the protagonist’s journey of life nourished by sincere feelings, expanding self-awareness, unshakeable convictions and daring optimism.

When the producers of the Classic Album video series interviewed Steely Dan, its fans and critics for their episode on Aja, the British journalist, Andy Gill acknowledged the sincerity and profundity of the song.

“Deacon Blues is a great track. They’ve always had an affection for these kind of faded hipsters; but I think Deacon Blues takes that affection to an almost philosophical level. It’s become a...it brings a nobility to that kind of faded hipster attitude, which I think has very deep roots in their own personalities. They were both young kids most influenced really by bohemian beatnik attitudes of the late 50s and early 60s.”

Fagen and Becker’s ‘languid and bittersweet’ journey to realize their unique creative vision in an industry that promoted go-getter artists who churned out popular gimmicks packed with commercial value more than creating any work of originality and aesthetic substance, is an inspirational story that is worth sharing. It is with respect to this unlikely success story of Steely Dan that I wish to discuss the genius of Deacon Blues; and for the purpose of conducting an insightful analysis of the song, I will use The Eagles’ Hotel California – another remarkable autobiographical song of genius – as the second point of reference; because whichever way you dissect these two songs, while being thematically at diametrically opposing ends, they share a strange archetypal and structural similarity that extends a mysterious link that Don Henley and Glen Frey had established when they tipped their hats to Steely Dan with the line stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast. Inviting you to stretch the chords of your imagination to plot out these mind-boggling connections, explained and unexplained, let us delve into the brilliance and beauty of Deacon Blues.


Lyrics

In discussing the lyrical composition of Deacon Blues (DB), the song will be broken down to five verses and the chorus; for each segment can be explained under a very simple implied theme – a structure that the abstract Don Fagen would most likely have imagined for his composition. As mentioned before, the theme’s essence will be analyzed with snippets from Fagen’s life story, most of which would be true of Becker’s life as well since the duo hail from similar backgrounds and are so like-minded, sharing a bohemian taste in music and literature, which admittedly had brought about their union at Bard College. Thereafter, comparisons and contrasts will be drawn of its content with that of its equivalent verse from Hotel California (HC) and the life of Don Henley, primarily, and where necessary, the lives of the other members of The Eagles.

As mentioned earlier, the structural similarities of the two songs are striking with HC having a A-A-B-A-A-B-A-A pattern where A is a verse and B is a refrain; DB follows a virtually identical pattern, but there is a significant point of departure in DB in that it ends at the fifth verse without going into a sixth as HC does, giving it a A-A-B-A-A-B-A-B structure. There is a very profound reason for this deliberate truncation of a sixth verse, which would have been so natural in any other Steely Dan composition known for its structural balance and integrity; and it took me some time to put this omission into context of Steel Dan’s artistry. The reason for this will be addressed towards the end of this analysis with the intention of using it as the final aid to seal my primary objective of drawing the comparison between the two songs, in order to establish the fact that Deacon Blues is the anti-thesis of Hotel California, or expressed in a more positive light, Deacon Blues is the solution offered to the problem posed in Hotel California.




DB – Verse I

This is the day of the expanding man
This is an era for people who learn and expand their awareness of self and the world.         

That shape is my shade, there where I used to stand
He has spent significant amounts of time listening, observing, studying, and learning subject matter to which he had taken a liking and has started to enjoy; perhaps he does his observations regularly from select locations (such as pubs, clubs, radio stations etc) that those locations where he stood, are now virtually showing marks of his shadow permanently engraved on the floor.
 

It seems like only yesterday I gazed through the glass
It feels not too long ago that he spent time gazing through the glass, as an observer to the process of creating great music, watching how others whom he admires very much (such as musical heroes) carried out their performances and displayed their art.
 

At ramblers, wild gamblers, that’s all in the past
Ramblers could be the name of one of the locations (a favorite club, for example) that he chose to spend most of his time learning and expanding his views; its name is used here to specifically highlight that he too was rambling in life as a directionless wanderer, and taking a wild gamble with his life spending so much time with something that many of his peers of similar upbringing would have neither engaged in nor recommended; both Fagen and Becker are Jewish Americans, and among their community, listening to Jazz music, which was dominated by African-American artists in the 1950s and 60s, would have been considered strange, let alone professing ambitions of creating and performing Jazz music. The key to realizing that he has now found a sense of conviction and direction is in ‘that’s all in the past’; for he is now sure that this is what he wants to do in life.


HC – Verse I
On a dark, desert, highway, cool wind in my hair
The protagonist, an aspiring musician, is leading a fast life lacking in hope, feeling empty and lonely. He is always high on drugs, wearing gelled up hair to be fashionable and desperately desiring attention of others (fame).


Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air
Colas (in Spanish) is said to be the most potent tip (the best part) of the marijuana leaf, so colitas mean little tails of marijuana! Therefore, this refers to the smoking of marijuana, to which rock artists are well known to be prone.


Up ahead in the distance I saw a shimmering light
Far away (in the Los Angeles music industry), he sees a glimmer of hope possibly after being offered a recording contract.


My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, had to stop for the night
Having seen some hope of achieving the money, luxury, and fame that he had always wanted, his mind fills up with desire and as a result he stops seeing clearly. He has no other choice but to see what the music industry has to offer.



Verse I – Discussion and Comparative Analysis
In their respective opening verses, the protagonists in both DB and HC are narrating their wandering state of life. However, while neither displays any sign of having found a dream or any sense of purpose in life, one can see that the protagonist in DB has started to learn and instinctively follow what he seems to enjoy (such as blues and jazz music) and he has absolutely no hang-ups of going against the norm because it is what he really enjoys doing; and towards the end, he has now started to visualize his future so clearly as suggested by that’s all in the past (such as the acts of rambling, gambling and gazing through the glass) that there is no turning back.

DB’s opening emerges from the childhood and teen ages of Fagen and Becker, both of whom had become jazz and blues enthusiasts at such an early stage in their lives. If many enjoyed those exotic African-American musical idioms openly or secretly, in the early to late 50s, it was still quite outlandish for children from their Jewish Caucasian background to entertain thoughts of becoming jazz or blues musicians. While their peers were getting immersed in the pop-rock phenomenon of the 50s, Fagen and Becker were much happier around the new ‘exotic’ musical idiom and its mighty exponents such as, Count Basie, Charles Mingus and Coleman Hawkins. They soon became avid fans of the Manhattan radio stations that streamed a constant flow of jazz music that they found much to their liking and taste. Those early years laid the foundation for their uniquely ambitious dreams that were about to unfold, and they started to dream of becoming bohemian musicians ‘mixing with the nocturnal crowd, making first class music in dingy clubs’ (Guide to SD, pg. 34). They were both stubborn individualists and rebellious spirits and had rejected formal musical training at a young age and still confess to be essentially self-taught musicians. In spite of being identified for his talents at the piano early on, Fagen refused to take sight-reading lessons and taught himself music by emulating complex jazz chords and harmonies that he listened to on his favorite records (SD, Pg. 8); he still admits to having great gaps in his musical knowledge as a result. Becker too, learned to play the guitar from other players, some apparently younger to him, but always at a very informal level.

To compliment their mutual admiration of jazz music, the acerbic duo shared a fascination for beatnik literature of their time and bonded immediately; and within a day of their meeting they were writing songs together. In Becker, Fagen says, he had finally found his long-sought creative partner who shared his idealistic vision of music. A mutual friend of Becker and Fagen highlights, ‘their personalities were already well developed at Bard [College]; while most other students were at emotional and intellectual sixes and sevens, Becker and Fagen were already in the process of cultivating the acute sense of irony that would become the basis of Steely Dan. They seemed to know exactly what they wanted in any given situation.’ The opening verse of DB seems to be Fagen’s attempt to capture those experiences that helped lay the foundation of their budding dreams.

On the other hand, the protagonist in HC, also an aspiring musician, is leading a rock-star-wanna-be lifestyle; unhappy with his current state of life he pours over television shows, magazines, and music albums studying and emulating the stereotypic rock star mannerisms and engaging in California-dreaming. He is desperately looking for any opportunity to cut a few record deals, meet plenty of pretty wanton girls, indulge in lots of drugs and booze, and end up rich and famous like his heroes who had already made it big in tinsel town. He yearns for a glimmer of hope, and at first sight, is overwhelmed by the reruns of his dreams and loses his good senses; effortlessly, he walks into an enterprise with no proper investigation.

To the Eagles, as to many other aspiring musicians and artists growing up in the 60s, California was nothing short of the ‘promised land.’ Unlike Fagen and Becker, who grew up in New York and had their musical origins in the aesthetically savvy east coast, Don Henley, Glen Frey, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon, they all came to Los Angeles (L.A.) from different parts of the United States seeking to rock and roll their way to the Californian dream - sex and drugs, fame and fortune, and everything that comes and goes with it! Henley left his small farming hometown in Linden, Texas, loathing farm life in the ultra-religious Baptist-belt and abhorring arrogant rednecks that bullied the shy and scrawny boy so much that he developed a deep and lasting insecurity of his manliness; many say, it must have been these traumatizing childhood and early teenage experiences that haunted him throughout his life in LA and left him running from one girl to another to prove to the big bad world that he too was man enough to secure any girl he wanted; Californian hedonism must have welcomed her next big prey in the innocent and insecure Henley! Henley recalls fondly, his first, awe-inspiring impression of Los Angeles…the Capitol Records building appearing from a distance as a giant turntable stacked with records, as he was just exiting Freeway 101 (To the Limit, 39); perhaps it is this symbolic moment of entry into the ‘promised land’ that Henley captures in lines 3 & 4 of the first verse in HC.

Similarly, Frey had realized as early as his hormones started to kick in that the best way to get a lot of girls soon was to put on a guitar and start playing. Unlike the shy and introverted Henley, Frey was an outgoing, street-smart kid who got his face bruised on more than one occasion trying to steal many a girlfriend for himself! And hailing from the Motown City of Detroit, Michigan, he would have found many opportunities to build a career in music there, but instead, the foolish romantic followed his beloved sweetheart who had just dumped him to move to California and join her sister for a singing career, determined to win her back and bring her back to his beloved Motown! Just to get into the mood of his impending cultural migration, he imbibed the whole California media soup of Surfer Magazines, Beach Boys albums and even took a few dozes of acid. Later he confessed, “I mean I was a victim of the media, just the same as everyone else was…and I just went out there.” The Eagles’ vision of LA life, like that of most aspiring musicians who headed West in the 70s seeking fame and fortune, were shaped by the multi-faceted media-machine, and there were certain things that they would look forward to – such as complete liberation, and in Henley’s case, liberation from the threat of purgatory!
 
Essentially, the first verse of both DB and HC is about two wandering and aspiring musicians finally settling in at some envisioned place, ambition or dream. The difference is that the protagonist in DB seems to be well aware of having taken a massive gamble, going against every norm that society has laid out for him, and has defined a unique dream for himself, which he is now determined to realize against all odds. The protagonist in HC, on the other hand, is following the dream that has been cut out for everybody by popular media and by the prevailing norm of a rock-star’s life. At the heart of their narratives, you can clearly see this distinction – of following the dreams one sets for oneself in DB versus following the dreams society sets for oneself in HC – consistently shining through and guiding the protagonists development of their respective stories to their final climaxes.

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