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

DB – Verse II
You call me a fool, you say it’s a crazy scheme
Others have already tried to ridicule him and his dreams calling him a fool and his unconventional visions and dreams crazy ideas that will never materialize.

This one’s for real, I already bought the dream
He stands firm with conviction that he has found his dream and that he is determined to realize it.

So useless to ask me why, throw a kiss and say goodbye
He says, it is pointless to ask him why he does what he does and why he is going where he is going because others cannot see the dreams that he sees, and sees so clearly that he himself sees no alternative; it would be better if they would just throw a kiss, say goodbye and go away without trying to derail him from his path.

I’ll make it this time, I’m ready to cross that fine line
He is so sure he will make it to his envisioned destination and realize his dreams; he is ready to cross the fine line, from conformity and mediocrity to self-realization.




HC – Verse II
There she stood in the doorway, heard the mission bell
At the outset itself, aspiring musicians are shown the beautiful women and the luxurious life to induce them in. They too are quick to identify the potential to fulfill their dreams (mission) - acquiring money, luxury, women, and fame.


I was thinking to myself ‘this could be heaven or this could be hell’
He thinks, ‘it doesn’t matter how good or how bad this thing is, I’m doing this!’ Another sign of disregard for his values and morality.


Then she lit up the candle to show me the way
A candle is not bright enough to illuminate the entire location, but just the immediate surrounding areas, which mean the protagonist could only see the beautiful woman who escorted him (or in general, he only saw the finer things that were on offer). This also suggests that the Music Industry really didn’t show him the entire picture of what he was getting into, such as ambiguous contracts.


There were voices down the corridor, thought I heard them say
He knew there were others like him in the Music Industry, and his hopes were so high that all he heard was an equally happy crowd welcoming him to the place. The emphasis is on the word ‘thought’ meaning in the end it was an illusion of his mind. This could also mean other people who had already succumbed to the temptations and could not get out of the grip of the Industry were mockingly inviting newcomers, but since the other uses of the word ‘voices’ is usually for the protagonist’s thoughts, the earlier interpretation is more likely.

 

Verse II – Discussion and Comparative Analysis
Verse II opens with both protagonists in DB and HC at the doorstep of entering a new world of dreams; always keep in mind, however, the key distinction that separates their dreams: the musician in DB seems to have set his eyes on a very unique and ambitious dream which has rarely been attempted, much less triumphed, and thus attracting much contempt and very little support from his peers, contemporaries, and rivals, whereas the musician in HC is desperate to realize a dream that has been exalted and sold to him by popular celebrity culture, and is beginning to follow the predictable indicators (such as women, money, luxury, and fame) that he was always seeking as he is cheered on by like-minded others. This distinction is at the heart of my comparative discussion of the two autobiographical songs and is the fundamental premise that will be used in proving my hypothesis; that DB provides the solution to the problem posed by HC. From their relative positions, we can begin to comprehend the development of the second verse.

The protagonist in DB is standing strong to intense ridicule and taunts from the outside world, for he has dared to establish his uniqueness in whatever he does; and as you would understand later, by expressing his desire to produce works of art of a higher quality and brand value than is commercially expected, or at times, even accepted, he has posed a challenge in the eyes of many of his rivals who are only after a quick buck. His idealistic vision of music and his introverted and unpretentious ways have exposed him to ridicule by his exhibitionistic and ostentatious contemporaries who are quite content to churn out (per the protagonist’s high standards) mediocre gimmicks which can cater to mass appeal and therefore, can rake in the green, instead of going the extra mile or two vying for aesthetic perfection as he aspires. He is undaunted by the onslaught of taunts and jibes for he may have come to visualize his dream so clearly that he himself cannot see him sinking to the level of his rivals’ low standards and can only show them what he is talking about by realizing his vision.

Donald Fagen had always detested mass-produced output whether they were insipid works of art, stock personalities or any other recycled object of man’s creation. Conformity, for him, was akin to a prison in which he wanted no cell. Even at the young age of ten, he had disliked the neighborhood into which his parents had moved, for its boringly identical looking houses; and that unpleasant experience, so early on in his life, he says, made him realize that he had a different sense of taste to that of his parents, and the experience cost him his respect for their judgment. This sense of cultural superiority was well evident even in his High School days in New Jersey where he voluntarily ostracized his fellow students and developed an anti-social personality. It is quite possible that by shunning the association of many of his peers, he would have displayed a certain repulsive snobbishness to many that resulted in retribution in the form of attacks of jealousy and jibes of ridicule, the sentiments to which he alludes in the second verse.

However, when it came to their foray into big time show business, even the most sympathetic admirer would have given both Fagen and Becker very little odds of success; for taking them at face value, it was quite obvious that their indolent introversion coupled with a cavalier unconcern to market themselves in any traditional sense put them at a natural disadvantage in an industry where cutthroat assertiveness scored and exhibitionism reigned supreme. Kenny Vance of the popular sixties band, Jay And The Americans (JATA), was one of the first to audition the aspiring songwriter duo of Fagen and Becker. Vance’s first impression of them is hardly surprising; “insects, with no vibe coming from them” and “librarians on acid” is how he described them. Their performance of a series of cryptic songs which was to form the identity of Steely Dan later, however, left Vance highly impressed and with a strange intuition that he needed to work with them in spite of not understanding any of what their songs really meant!

Vance was not alone in being shocked by the duo. Future lead guitarist and close associate of Steely Dan, Denny Dias and his fellow band member Keith Thomas recalled their first interaction with Fagen and Becker in very similar terms…“Fagen looked like [French actor] Jean Paul Belmondo on acid” and Becker looked like a “Nazi youth camp!” Dias says, “I remember thinking either these guys are gonna suck horribly or they are gonna be fuckin’ geniuses! And they proceeded to play twenty of the most original songs I’d ever heard in my life.” “Where the hell did these guys come from? And it wasn’t like they were playing variations on three chords, this was dense, interesting stuff, particularly at that time,” Thomas and Dias wondered, stunned by the bizarre material and the even more unconventional authors they had just witnessed. These were the first impressions of men who had a certain instinct and musical taste to persist with Fagen and Becker long enough to give them a chance, so it is not difficult to imagine the sort of ridicule they must have had to endure by others less gifted with such sharp instincts.

Long-time collaborator, Seven-time Grammy Award-winning Recording Engineer and friend of Steely Dan, the late Roger Nichols perhaps had the best insight to the duo’s mindset having seen them at work from beginning to end.

I was always amazed that they pretty much heard in their heads what it was gonna be like completed. So they knew right away when you get a bunch of musicians together and they are cutting the tracks, and Donald and Walter would be sitting in the control room going ‘no, this is not it, this is not gonna happen, so maybe we’ll try this other tune with these guys.’ Then they’ll get another band in to try the tunes that didn’t work out; and all through the project, they would know, ‘uh..nope…that’s not it, that’s not working, this is what I want’..and it was amazing when the thing got done, finally I could see what everything was gonna be like, but they knew from the very beginning.

It is such clarity of vision and a sense of certainty in their abilities of realizing this idealistic vision of music that they capture in the second verse, especially the last two lines, “so useless to ask me why, throw a kiss and say goodbye, I’ll make it this time, I’m ready to cross that fine line.

While the protagonist in DB persists in defying the norms of socially conditioned aspirations to realize the dreams of his own imagination, his counterpart in HC is in the process of exploring the opportunities that popular celebrity culture has conditioned him to value and seek. He is immediately enticed by the attractive lady escort at the entrance and is quick to recognize on display all that had been promised to him in magazines, television shows and the whole media machine. He has made it to the Promised Land!

One of the featured landmarks of the Los Angeles Music Scene is the Troubadour – a hot spot of music-makers and the place-to-be if you wish to bump into the who’s who of the Music Industry. The place brought together some of the best talent and record company executives mixed in with a rich variety of alcohol, drugs and stunning, not-so-innocent girls in town to seal the deal. Henley recalls his first visit to the Troubadour soon after arriving in L.A.

“The Troubadour was the first place I went to when I got to L.A. I had heard about how legendary it was and all the people who were performing there. The first night I walked in I saw Graham Nash and Neil Young, and Linda Ronstadt was standing there in a little Daisy Mae kind of dress. She was barefoot and scratching her ass. I thought, ‘I’ve made it. I’m here. I’m in heaven.’” (To The Limit, p. 40)

These changing and rather confused sentiments of success and failure, pleasure and pain, which were not so obvious at the beginning, are well reflected in the second verse and the first refrain that follows.

 

DB – Refrain
Learnt to work the Saxophone, I, I play just what I feel
He spends his time trying to master the Saxophone, playing tunes that he feels like playing, possibly highlighting his dislike for practicing with prescribed material.


Drink Scotch Whiskey all night long, and die behind the wheel
He enjoys Scotch Whiskey all night long, and he would care less if he dies in a car-crash. Again showing figuratively he would much rather do the things that he loves and enjoys without care for ramifications.


They got a name for the winners in the world; I want a name when I lose
Winners are variably given titles of appreciation; he, too, is asking to be called a name for he knows he is perceived by society to be a ‘loser.’ He is sarcastically suggesting he is unaffected by how much of a loser others perceive him to be.


They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, call me Deacon Blues
As described at the beginning of this essay, Alabama here refers to the University of Alabama (American) Football team, which is popularly known as the ‘Crimson Tide’, especially during their incredible winning streak in the 1970s. Deacon refers to North Carolina’s Wake Forest University’s Demon Deacon team, who on the other hand had one of the most devastating decades in the 70s and was publicly well known for it. Here he uses the words ‘Deacon blues’ as a double-edged metaphor. In one sense, he is referring to the sad and depressed nature of the Demon Deacon team, which he feels is akin to how others perceive his personality, but in another sense he is referring to his love of Blues music as a source of great joy to him; again he is highlighting what others perceive as his loser’s approach to life may just be what makes and keeps him happy and while he is very aware of the world’s perception of him as a loser, he couldn’t care less and will continue to live his life as he enjoys it!




HC – Refrain I
Welcome to the Hotel California
He is hearing all sorts of voices singing him a warm welcoming song. This could be a warm welcome that the Hotel arranges for their guests, or previous visitors placing lavish praises on the Hotel experience.


Such a lovely place (such a lovely place), such a lovely face
All he hears is the repeated raving about how beautiful the Hotel is. Reflectively, here the protagonist may be alluding to what he perceives to have been a repetition technique the Hotel employed to condition its guests as well. Unable to overcome his joy and see through the conditioning, he too agrees with the chorus as he admires the beauty of his escort.


Plenty of room at the Hotel California
They say, in spite of the runaway popularity of the Hotel, they still have plenty of room for everyone.


Any time of year (any time of year), you can find it here
They say that all throughout the year, everybody who visits has had a great experience.

 


Refrain – Discussion and Comparative Analysis

The two refrains capture the essence of the contrasting approaches of the two protagonists’ in pursuing their dreams. In DB, you can see an emphatic expression of how he dares the world in following his own feelings and visions without serious care for others’ views and criticisms of him or his approach, whereas in HC, the lead character follows the invitations and recommendations of the outside world, as depicted by the Hotel’s welcoming chorus, without question, self-reflection, or investigation; in other words, the protagonist in HC is driven by aspirations of becoming what the world perceives to be a winner, and thus he follows the voice of the world rather than his inner voice; in DB, on the other hand, the lead character confidently rebukes all criticisms the world launches at him, even at the risk of being called a loser over and over again, and follows his own inner voice and feelings along a path which he sees very clearly.

Although Donald Fagen played Piano and Keyboards for Steely Dan while also being the band’s rather reluctant lead singer, his favorite instrument was the Saxophone. He picked up the instrument out of his deep adoration for Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, who were the pioneers of Bebop and the undisputed virtuosos on the Saxophone during his formative years. Bebop (as well as their antecedents Jazz and Blues) developed as a musical idiom simply because the likes of Parker and Coltrane dared to spontaneously improvise on melody, harmony, rhythm and technique while they played ‘just what they felt.’ Therefore, it is this carefree expression of spontaneity of feeling and the utter disregard for conforming to confining rules and regulations as a guide to creating music that Fagen tries to capture with the first line, while employing it very effectively, in a larger context, as a metaphor for his general attitude towards life at the same time.

The protagonist says he savors a glass of Scotch Whiskey from time to time as well, perhaps, just enough to calm his nerves before he gets on stage to perform or in order to relax his mind to compose music. Fagen was by no means a conspicuous alcoholic; in fact, he outright rejected the hedonistic lifestyles practiced by his contemporaries, even by his own band-members at times, who were into the celebrated and idolized rock & roll lifestyle of drinking until you drop; neither is he, as the song may suggest to an uninformed listener, a character prone to revel in reckless self-destructive tendencies such as driving under the influence of alcohol and ultimately ‘dying behind the wheel,’ fatal practices to which many of his contemporaries probably did succumb in many instances. The second line is an expression of sheer indescribable joy at having found what he truly loves and knowing that he is well on his way to realizing his dreams, in spite of all the taunts and jabs that he continues to receive from the outside world. It is his own way of returning a jab at the world which has no clue of what he is doing, but disapproves of it the same, simply because that is not how the rest of the world goes about achieving dreams or living life; and it is this triumphant spirit that he wraps up with a punch with the last two lines. You may know of such joy and be able to relate to the sentiments expressed by Fagen, if you too were to discover yourself and establish your independence from the dictates of public perception.

Don Henley headed west looking for greener pastures and without having such grand visions of creating pristinely original music; and unlike Fagen, who, by the time they hit the L.A. Scene, had already forged a formidable friendship with Becker, Henley did not even know a single member of what would ultimately become known as The Eagles, although he did move to L.A. with his own band from Texas. While he was gifted with musical and creative talent, his main goal was to become successful no matter what it took. More so than anything, he may have wanted to prove his red neck bullies back in Texas that he too was man enough for the world. The refrain “Welcome to the Hotel California” describes how The Music Industry and its congregants cheered Henley’s first entry to come indulge in the luxuries of it all, representing how the outside world sold the materialism and hedonism to him.

Their respective refrains, thus establishes the key distinction of the two narratives: one (DB) follows the dictates of his inner voice while the other (HC) follows the outside world’s dictates because he has no clear vision of his own that is different to what he has been conditioned to envision.

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