Music Analysis:
01 | 02 | 03 | 04 | 05
Deacon Blues - The Loser's Camelot
Album: Aja, 1977)

DB – Verse III
My back to the wall, a victim of laughing chance
Now that he has dared all the naysayers, become a laughing stock and a victim of ridicule, he has no other choice but to prove himself by realizing his dreams.


This is for me the essence of true romance

He says to be in such a difficult position, having his back to the wall, is what true love is really about, the strength to follow your heart’s dictates against the mind’s conditioning through external input.


Sharing the things we know and love with those of my kind
It is for him, about sharing the things that he knows and enjoys with people that are like-minded and can relate to his experiences, such as musical ideas and spontaneous insights.


Libations, sensations that stagger the mind
This line describes the ‘things we know and love’ in the previous line: profound sensations and feelings which they get about music and life and the alcoholic beverages they would imbibe in symbolic gratitude to the gods for making such divine feelings available to them.


HC – Verse III
Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends, ugh!
Our protagonist is now fascinated with this woman (again used very effectively to symbolize the luxurious life). Tiffany twisted means it is sophisticated and attractive yet convoluted and difficult to understand (which is by design to keep the aspiring musicians in the dark long enough to trap them). Mercedes bends, again, cleverly refers to the luxurious vehicles and curvaceous bodies, thereby pointing to the sumptuous life to which he was getting sexually drawn into.


She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys that she calls friends
He’s attracted to this voluptuous woman who already seems to have several pretty boys after her, but he is hopeful because she says those are only her friends! This is an elaboration of the convoluted life, which, while enticing the darkest desires of your mind, tries to show that it is somehow justified until your inhibitions disappear into thin air and you have no sense of moral control over your own life.


And they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat
Again, the use of brilliant cinematic direction to draw an effective picture in the minds of the audience of the protagonist’s growing attraction to hedonism.


Some dance to remember, some dance to forget
This is trying to say that newcomers who are yet to realize the downside of the hedonistic life, just like the protagonist, are hopeful about building a good relationship with this woman, while the others who have been in long enough to get trapped and have no escape, is dancing to forget their pains. Notice that this line represents the protagonist reflecting back on his experiences. As far as the story goes, he is only starting to get entangled in all the superficial glamour.


Verse III – Discussion and Comparative Analysis
The third verse of each narrative continues the contrasting trends that were developed in verses one and two, where the protagonist in DB has challenged the prevailing social prescriptions for achievement by following his unique path to achieving his dreams; while in HC, the lead character is willingly and blindly following the dictates of the Music Industry because he is desperate to prove himself in the only way he believes the world will recognize success. Thus, our ‘loser’ in DB is simply trying to achieve an ideal of music that he has in mind without any care for how the world will receive it, because what he is most concerned about is achieving his ambition and not whether the world will see him as a success, whereas our ‘winner’ in HC is following everything the outside world says will take him to the top.

Ever since he heard the sophisticated harmonies on the Jazz stations of Manhattan, for Donald Fagen, creating music was always about realizing a musical ideal that started to take shape in his mind; he was the quintessential perfectionist. That is why he calls his meeting with Walter Becker, at Bard College, in 1967, a momentous stroke of fate in his life. On one autumn day, he had heard some authentic blues licks emanating from the College Music Club at Bard as he was walking past it. The sound arrested him in his tracks and he immediately went in to investigate: that was when Fagen met Becker. They shared so many tastes and interests in common that Fagen says, “We were writing songs together within a day of meeting each other.” When the duo started to market their Dylanesque cryptic songs to publishers in New York City, they were extremely naïve and ill-versed with how to market themselves; they went from publisher to publisher, without any demonstration tapes, and armed with only a book of songs and a youthful romantic spirit to put on a good live performance for each co-operating publisher and hope to seal a deal. On most occasions, they were asked to leave, before they even had a chance to perform a single composition, but even the rare accommodating publisher, upon hearing their work, would either end up completely perplexed and lost or outright ridicule them as lacking commercial potential. For Fagen and Becker, they had no other choice in life but to achieve their musical vision, and these were no doubt devastating and depressing experiences that left them crushed and grasping for straws.

However, their sheer persistence and determination to not compromise on their pristine vision of music paid off when they eventually got a break with Kenny Vance and Jay and The Americans (aka JATA). Later, with the likes of guitarist Denny Dias, who became an important member of Steely Dan and a lifelong friend along with their multi-award winning recording engineer, Roger Nichols, Fagen and Becker formed an inner circle of like-minded aesthetes with whom they could collaborate and ‘share the things they know and love…libations, sensations that stagger the mind.’ Being preoccupied with achieving their musical vision without compromise, they were quick to identify members of their band who were in sync with their thoughts, or at least, were able to adapt to their rigorous requirements. As you can imagine, some didn’t, and most couldn’t, and therefore were asked politely to leave. During many of their recording sessions, Fagen and Becker recall that they sometimes could not believe they had played some of the instrumental passages in their songs; very often it was natural to feel the presence of a divine hand in their work, and it is hardly an exaggeration for true lovers of Steel Dan’s exquisite music.

The members of The Eagles-to-be too, were getting their bearings in and around the boulevards of Los Angeles. Neither Henley nor the other members had any pre-conceived ideals of music or the well developed intellects and self-aware personalities that Fagen and Becker did at the beginning of their respective careers. As a result, The Eagles were quite easily absorbed into the system by the Music Industry. The Troubadour, during the 60s and 70s, was a microcosm of L.A., and it is the perfect example for how the Music Industry changed and shaped the lifestyles of young and ambitious artists who were put under tremendous pressure from within and without to compete, perform and be successful. For anyone without a clear vision, outside of the images fed by the media, it would have been extremely difficult to resist the manufactured culture in which they had to survive. What Henley tries to capture in this third verse about the plentiful supply of women and the luxurious life that were made available to them is perhaps best underscored by Linda Ronstadt’s words:

I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to be, if I was supposed to be true-blue and faithful to one man, or if I was supposed to be hanging out at the Troubadour every night. The women, and there were very few of us, were really oddballs. We didn’t know how to act, or what to do, or how we were supposed to be. We didn’t know whether we were supposed to be real earth mamas like Maria Muldaur, you know, with a baby under her arm and fiddle in her hand…or what.

Ronstadt, who was quite well known in the musical circuits during that time, had just hired a new manager named John Boylan to put together a new back-up band for her as she was frustrated with her previous producer’s lack of understanding of her music and style. It was Boylan who called in Glen Frey and Don Henley to form the band for Ronstadt. Later, they would be joined by Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon and the back-up band would be complete. The band sounded so good on their first performance that J.D. Souther says, “It was a combination that worked beautifully. Someone from East Texas, a guy from Detroit, another from the Central Plains, and one from Florida. There was nothing Southern California about that band. They were an all-American rock and roll outfit.

First impressions aside, many, including the Eagles and their close associates such as Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther very soon came to realize that the Troubadour buzzed with more tragic unemployed artists tying to find their stairway to heaven with loose sex, alcohol and drugs, than with professional musicians creating trend-setting music. By then, however, the band that was to become The Eagles had been born, though still without a name, and to many it was obvious that the band had the magic and the drive that was necessary to attain stardom.

At the end of Verse III, you find the lead character in DB with his back to the wall because he has challenged the prevailing paradigms of success and made himself a target; but he is happy for having found a small batch of like-minded friends with whom he can make great music and share his incredible musical ideas and creative experiences. The lead in HC, on the other hand, has witnessed all the wonderful luxuries that were on offer for him, if he was willing to stick it out there long enough and do what was required to ‘find it there.’ Hungry for success, he buys into it all. In the narrative, the lead in DB highlights the clarity of his awareness of his choices as well as their implications (such as feeling like being a victim because that is the price he has to pay for realizing a unique dream), and is comfortable with it (this comfort clearly is not a retrospective value he assigns to his experience) and has assumed responsibility for his choices. The lead in HC, however, seems to highlight that either he was not fully aware of the implications of his choices, or that he was aware, but in a fit of stupidity, disregarded the implications of his choices and went along for he really did not care. In either case, his intention is to disown at least some share of responsibility for his bad choices in order to draw the audience’s sympathy, because he feels as if he was victimized by a system.

For example, it is clear that the protagonist in HC knew from the beginning that the woman had a lot of pretty boys and that she had expensive vehicles and splendid curves, to which he was attracted, but it is not clear whether he knew, at the outset, that the mind of the woman or, at large, the system itself was ‘twisted’; we cannot say for certain whether he observed that ‘some danced to forget’ their pains or misfortunes, and that if he had known beforehand, it would have been sufficient knowledge for him to have acted more responsibly. In other words, the protagonist in DB takes full responsibility for his choices for he knows he made the right choices; and he has already won the audiences admiration and respect as a result; his counterpart in HC, on the other hand, is already trying to delegate responsibility for his bad choices elsewhere in order to win the audience’s sympathy.


DB – Verse IV
I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets
He traverses the suburban streets, crawling like a viper, armed with sharp wit, yet unseen by others as anybody significant. This also refers to a preference to keep a low profile.


Make love to these women languid and bittersweet
He makes love to the suburban women in his typical slow and relaxed manner, always tinged with a hint of melancholy that is his nature, perhaps highlighting the fact that he didn’t subscribe to the aggressive love making styles that were glorified and practiced during the era of sexual liberation.


I rise when the sun goes down, cover every game in town
His day commences at nightfall when he crawls around the town performing at various occasions and audiences, at pubs, clubs, and wherever else he’s got a gig for the night. In another sense, this perhaps highlights the fact that he avoided the spotlight and being noticed by others, also building on his crawling through suburban streets to avoid being seen.


A world of my own, I’ll make it my home-sweet-home
He has grown into this routine of lifestyle and is very content in the world he has created for himself.

 

HC – Verse IV
So I call up the captain, ‘please bring me my wine’
Sold on the lifestyle on offer, he asks the Recording Industry owners (captain) to give him a chance to live like he’s witnessed on display; more specifically, he accepts a recording contract. Wine is used symbolically for blood, especially of Jesus Christ, which in turn means life.



He said, ‘we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969’
And the captain says, in disguised language, ‘we have not had that kind of enthusiasm since 1969,’ which is what the hopeful protagonist hears; in the owners’ terms, ‘spirit’ here means Christ or goodness, and ‘since 1969’ is a reference to the last year of the 1960s and therefore emphasizing the 1970s. So the owner is saying all goodness left this Industry around the dawn of the 70s! It heightens the complex terms and conditions that these Recording Industry owners put into already blind-sighted, aspiring musicians’ contracts that seem glossy on surface, but tells a whole different story in reality. Unless you thought in symbols and the context of the song, these two lines will simply mean what the protagonist hears. They are absolutely brilliant that genius is not a strong enough word to describe them!



And still those voices are calling from far away
This is saying that his hopes are still alive although possibly his initial aspirations have now changed or his hopes are slowly dwindling due to reasons he may not be able to comprehend clearly.



Wake you up in the middle of the night just to hear them say
His thoughts and excitement (and perhaps gradually building fear) wakes him up in the middle of the night. The duality of the meaning is incredible and slowly brings in the shift in the protagonist’s awakening to his reality, although not yet clearly enough.

 

Verse IV – Discussion and Comparative Analysis
The end of Verse III saw the protagonist in DB taking full charge of his challenging journey and his counterpart in HC starting to hint to the audience that he was not really in control of his journey although he craved and fell for all the fun that came with it. In Verse IV, DB highlights the low profile ‘world of his own’ that the lead character is building for himself by doing what makes him happy, for he has refused to go along with the herd who are following a different ballgame and shares none of what really interests him. Verse IV of HC, on the other hand, highlights how the enamored lead gets further suckered into the system while believing he was getting his cup of life.

In Verse IV, Fagen refers to the very private personal life that he (and Becker) led and grew to enjoy. Both Fagen and Becker were known to shy away from the spotlight (‘I rise when the sun goes down’) and do most of their work in the studio where they would spend hours and hours until they perfect every nuance of a song the way they wanted to hear it. At the beginning, Fagen had tried to avoid attempts by his team and management to convince him to become the lead singer of the band, because he personally did not like how his voice sounded, but later, upon realizing that nobody else was able to truly express the attitude and character of the lyrics and stories of their songs, Fagen reluctantly agreed to take the lead singer’s mantle. Keith Thomas, one of the original members of Steely Dan says, “They wanted a soulful voice with a lot of blues feeling and with a lot of personality, too – they wanted a fuckin’ impossible voice!” Fagen’s reluctance to be the lead singer stemmed from his introverted, shy personality, more than anything else. Becker did not want to even have a shot at singing; he was much happier playing bass guitar behind the scenes! It wasn’t a secret that both Fagen and Becker were terrified of live shows and the harrowing physical demands of tours; they may have been gifted with extraordinary musical talents, but they were far from being tailor-made to fit the typical rock star persona. ‘Languid and bittersweet’ was how they liked to approach many things in life, and per line 2 of Verse IV, the same attitude seems to have extended to their bedrooms as well.

When they finally did get an opportunity with the backing of ABC Dunhill Records, a major recording company in Los Angeles, thanks to an independent producer by the name of Gary Kannon (later Gary Katz), who Fagen and Becker knew in New York, they didn’t waste any time in moving to California. Their assignment was to write songs for the Dunhill label. However, soon enough, they got tired of having to force themselves to write to other artists’ tastes and themes, and convinced the label to back their own band so that they could write and produce their own material; their work were so unique that no other artist could have executed them with a modicum of justice. Before long, they had convinced their favorite players from New York, including Denny Dias to land at ABC Dunhill and were making a pitch to ABC to hire them for their band; and ABC had not even agreed to a band! They eventually did and Steel Dan was officially born. They realized that this break was a rare golden opportunity, but had to prove themselves commercially very soon if they were to have the continued backing of ABC.

They knew that it would be difficult to be commercially successful if they wrote lyrics that were completely alien to the audience used to off-the-shelf Top 40 hits. So they resorted to let their songs and style grow with the audience by starting with simpler themes and into more sophisticated ideas; the trick they employed was to keep the audience hooked to the song with brilliantly catchy melodies and pristinely clear sound before they could dismiss any song for arcane, and to some, possibly, tiresome lyrics. After the group produced its first album Can’t Buy A Thrill in 1972, Fagen and Becker did not have a choice but to start touring around the United States, and later Europe and other countries, to promote their albums, as record companies expected bands to do. Fagen, as reluctant as he was, started taking the lead singer role, and much to others’ (and perhaps his) surprise found that he was the perfect front man for Steely Dan. The original Steely Dan lead guitarist, Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter says,

Donald turned out to be a great performer. There’s a streak in Donald that runs to be a great stage presence, I mean he’d literally go nuts. He’d buy himself a plastic organ and go up there in a vest and drive people nuts. They couldn’t believe this guy, you know. So I think somewhere down deep inside of Donald there’s a – if not a love – a certain genetic understanding of live performing. No, they didn’t like it, but they hadda like some of it, ‘cause it was pretty funny. And one thing was really nuts, everybody really liked the band when we played. I guess we had something for everybody, ‘cause we used to pound it out. I mean, everybody would sweat their brains out. Donald would work, that guy was out there working.

However much Donald may have enjoyed his crazy performing streaks on stage, the aesthete in him finally got tired of the long tours, hectic schedules, the alcohol, casual sex and the mindless partying - the “jock atmosphere” of touring - as Fagen called it, and he and Becker eventually settled down in the studio trying to perfect their music to achieve the ideal he started off to achieve. You could say, he had finally found a ‘world of his own’ and he was determined to make it his ‘home sweet home.’

Don Henley, Glen Frey, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon were now a team and they performed together for the first time at Disneyland in July 1971 as the back-up band for Linda Ronstadt. They sounded so great together, better than any other band that backed up Ronstadt before; immediately after the first gig, Henley and Frey started talking about forming their own group. Around this time, a current mogul of the Music Industry, David Geffen, then a highly ambitious street-smart upstart with a finger to the pulse of the nation’s youth, had been frustrated with several failed confrontations with arrogant old men in charge of recording labels who had no taste in youth or music, and had started his own Asylum Records label and were in search of talented artists to promote. Determined to build a different type of a business model at Asylum, he initially insisted on signing capable artists without payment advances, but were given ample freedom to develop unique musical ideas. Frey knew Geffen, and not long after Geffen had established the label, he signed up himself and the rest of Ronstadt’s back-up band under Asylum; and after extensive negotiations on the terms of contract, the original four members signed the contract with Geffen in September 1971. As the Beatles closed down their shop and parted ways, their wanna-be American counterparts, ‘The Eagles’ were born. None of them realized how true their dreams were to be!

Geffen’s immaculate instincts knew he was on to something big and was hell bent on making The Eagles his golden goose. He spent huge sums of cash to get the boys in show-biz condition, including getting their teeth fixed, but all of his expenses on the boys were of course, to be collected from future sales of albums! He hired a British producer by the name of John Glyn to polish the band up. Glyn was shell-shocked at first, seeing how horrible they sounded as a rock ‘n roll outfit, and very wisely recognized that the boys had naturally beautiful voices and all of them put together, created beautiful harmonies. However, the type of loud rock and roll they played shamefully drowned the best attributes of the group. Instead of rock stars, he saw in the Eagles an all-American country band and handed them acoustic guitars and banjos. They all had big egos, but they all wanted the money as well; so, while not everybody was happy dumping the macho rocker’s persona, they did not want to miss out on this opportunity to work with a legendary producer either; and Glyn will be proven right. By the dawn of 1973, the likes of Take It Easy, Witchy Woman, and Peaceful Easy Feeling had taken the United States airwaves by storm and The Eagles had arrived.

With their arrival on the music scene came all of the fine things that they sought in California – money, luxury, fame, and all the gorgeous girls in the world. With the rise of The Eagles, the star of David Geffen too, started to shine brightly; his faith and efforts in supporting a different brand of ‘cultured’ artists paid back rich dividends; but Geffen, the lover of quality music, was above all, Geffen the businessmen and the lover of money, and without prior notification to any of the artists, he had sold out the Asylum label for a princely sum of $7 million to Warner Brothers. None of the proceeds of the sale went to either The Eagles – Asylum’s cash-cow – or any other artist on the label that were part and parcel of Geffen’s success; and most under the label felt betrayed, not just monetarily, but because under a mega-conglomerate, they would not have the same artistic freedoms they enjoyed when Asylum was an independent label. Henley still carries that bitter feeling of betrayal with him; in his acceptance speech at The Eagles’ induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1998, he couldn’t contain himself and said, “Hell, I’d even thank David Geffen!” Geffen, on his part was unmoved by it all and went from music to movies to becoming the business tycoon he always wanted to be. The whole episode left a bitter taste on Henley and Frey; they realized how soon things change in Tinsel town!

At the end of Verse IV, we find the lead in DB, after much struggle, comfortably settling into a low profile lifestyle that he enjoys and is very happy with the freedoms that he has won to work towards his vision of music. The lead in HC, on the other hand finds himself still under the grip of the Music Industry because he too has fallen prey to the traps of fame and fortune; and while music making is a very important part of his life, his new obsession with power and profits has brought him much distress and conflict.

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