Transcript 96–Deacon Blues

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and it’s one of those names where spelling it is often part of saying it.

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Today’s trivia question is kind of an arcane one; let’s see how it goes for ye: what piece of weaponry, developed in World War Two, got its name directly from the musical instrument it resembles? Got that? A World War Two-era weapon, which gets its name from a musical instrument. What weapon was that? I guess I can also add that a variant of that weapon is still in use, but as far as I know they don’t really use that name anymore, except as a generic term.

I’ll have the answer to that at the end of the show.

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Today we’re talking about “Deacon Blues,” the second single from Steely Dan’s Aja album. Now, when I was a teenager I bought a bunch of singles, but for some reason I didn’t buy a lot of albums. Aja was probably one of the first albums I purchased with my own money, and it immediately pulled me in. Part of me was kind of irritated that there were only seven songs on the album because, hey: I paid for a full album. There should be ten or twelve tracks here. And the other part of me was irritated that there were only seven songs because Oh My Gosh This Is So Good. And I pored over the lyrics and the credits on the album, a little bit confused by the fact that, with the exception of Donald Fagen on vocals, nobody appears on all of the tracks, not even Walter Becker. Even fourteen-year-old me, who was more typically immersed in pop music, could sense that this was both a strange departure from their earlier sound, and a piece of genuine greatness.

Lyrically, the album was starting to move away from what Robert Christgau referred to as their “collgiate cynicism” and into a more introspective thing, and meanwhile Becker and Fagen were managing to merge rock, pop and jazz into a cohesive whole that we really hadn’t seen before.

One more thing about the album before I move into the specific song: rumors abound that the late comic performer Phil Harman was responsible for the album’s cover. Now, while Hartman was a graphic artist before he became famous, and IS responsible for several album covers, Aja wasn’t one of them. The art direction came from Oz Studios, and that minimalist cover photograph was taken by Hideki Fuji.

[DEACON BLUES]

“Deacon Blues” was born in Malibu, California, at Donald Fagen’s house, Becker came to the house and they were noodling around on the piano. Fagen told the Wall Street Journal that he had an idea for a chorus: If a college football team like the University of Alabama, which was a pretty powerful team at the time, could have a grandiose name like “the Crimson Tide,” then the nerds and the losers should be entitled to a grandiose name as well. Well…around that same time, the Wake Forest University team was not doing very well for the better part of the 1970s, and that team’s name was the Demon Deacons, so the popular thinking was that they were comparing Alabama to Wake Forest. However, Fagen says that they got Deacon from football player Deacon Jones, who was one of those players who got a lot of attention because of his outsize personality. Plus, it scanned nicely into the song. And, of course “blues” is both considered an alternate to crimson red, plus it ties in well with the overall attitude of losers.

Walter Becker has described the guy in the song as a “Triple-L Loser”. In that same Wall Street Journal interview, he said “It’s not so much about a guy who achieves his dream, but about a broken dream of a broken man living a broken life.”

Fagen added to this that a lot of people think that it’s about a guy who ditches his suburban life to become a musician, but it’s really more about the fantasy life of a suburban guy from a certain subculture, who can’t break out of his rut but in the long run also isn’t really willing to. It’s very earnest and at the same time very sad and poignant, because you know it’s just not going to happen. Even the dream itself isn’t especially big: learn the saxophone so that he can play whatever he wants, drink Scotch whiskey and die in a car crash. Becker calls it “one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire.” And if you’ve lived in or near this world, you can probably think back and realize you’ve known this guy. For me, it was the dad of a friend of mine, who had the relatively simple dream of owning a boat. Nothing especially big, just something he could go fishing in. A small boat with a motor and maybe a rudder. And he’d give us these lessons in his living room so that we could help him navigate when he got that boat.

Shoot, I haven’t thought about him in a long, long time.

Becker and Fagen said repeatedly that their habit is to work on the words and the music at the same time, which is a departure from many other songwriting teams. They look at the music as a single flow of thought, which allows them to kind of riff back and forth until they’re both happy with the result.

Now, at one point in that Wall Street Journal interview, Fagen says that the line about the “expanding man” may have been influenced by a 1953 science fiction novel by Alfred Bester, called The Demolished Man. The both of them were science fiction fans, but the relationship of the song’s character to the novel is tenuous at best. Because here’s the thing: around that same time, I read The Demolished Man. It’s about a future society where a large segment of the population has extra-sensory perception, that is, they can read minds. And the main character in the story commits a crime, so he needs to find a way to prevent others from reading his mind so they don’t know that he did it, because the punishment for the crime is “demolition”, which is the telepathic stripping away of memories and the upper layers of personality, which leaves the person open to re-education. Now, the expanding man sort of sees himself as climbing evolutionary levels, and maybe seeing his options. As he’s ready to “cross that fine line”, which he hasn’t been able to before, we retreat back to the chorus, with the whole fantasy sequence playing out again. So the connection to the book is largely a matter of a parallel construction of its title and not much else.

The song was recorded at Village Recorders in West Los Angeles. Guitarist Larry Carlton took the demo tapes and transcribed them into an arrangement for the rhythm section. Carlton described the arrangement as tight, but also with enough breathing room for other parts of the song, such as the horns and the background vocals that would all come in later.

Saxophonist Tom Scott wrote the horn arrangements, and he was told that they needed to have a light feel, like a Duke Ellington kind of sound. When he heard the demos and the completed rhythm section, he immediately had a sense of what needed to be done, adding notes which hinted at dissonance but weren’t actually dissonant. In addition, Gary Katz arranged with engineer Rudy Van Gelder for most of the instruments to be recorded very close to the microphones, giving them an intimate sound and the ability for any given instrument to jump out a little bit when needed.

Once everything was assembled, Becker and Fagen realized that the song needed a sax solo. They knew exactly the sound they were looking for but they didn’t know the musician’s name. He was the guy who played the saxophone on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson whenever they went to a commercial. So they got Gary Katz to contact NBC and ask around, and that’s how they found Pete Christlieb. So one evening after The Tonight Show finished taping, Christlieb went over to Village Recorders to do the solo.

Christlieb listened to what they had so far, and he recognized the chord changes as being jazz by their nature rather than the blocky pop chords, so he realized he had some space to improvise a little bit. And, in fact, Becker and Fagen told him to do just that. By all accounts he was told to “play what he feels.” So he listened again and recorded his first solo ever. They listened to the playback and liked what they heard, but asked him to do a second take, and that’s the one they used. As Christlieb later said, “Next thing I know, I’m hearing myself in every airport bathroom in the world.” He was in the studio and out again in about a half-hour.

Finally, as far as production goes, I should note that the long fade-out was very deliberate. Fagen says that he wanted it to feel like a dream fading off into the night. Becker once said in an online chat on America Online in 1994 that when it was finished he wanted to hear it over and over, which is never the case for him.

“Deacon Blues” was Steely Dan’s fifth Top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, making it to Number 19 in the spring of 1978 and spending eight weeks toal on the chart. So far as I know, it didn’t chart anywhere else, though the album peaked at Number Three in the US and Number Five in the UK.

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And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to name the piece of World War Two military hardware that got its name from a musical instrument.

Well, in order to answer this one, we have to go back to World War One, and a Marine Corps rifleman named Robert Burns, who most people called Bob. Bob was a good marksman but he was even better as a musician, and he managed to put together a Marine Corps jazz band, which played all over Europe to entertain the troops. Burns was also a comedian of sorts, and he put together an instrument mostly out of gas pipes and a whiskey funnel. Now, the way this instrument was designed, you could change the length of the pipes and therefore the pitch of the notes, sort of like a trombone but with a much narrower range of notes because the pipes were so wide. Most of the pitch changes were done by the performer himself, adjusting his lips as he buzzes into the tubes. Here’s a clip of Burns playing along with singer Shirley Ross:

[CLEMENTINE]

When Burns joined the Marines he built another one out of stovepipes, and used it now and then to comic effect in the jazz band performances. Later on, he used it in comedy bits on radio and in films, so the instrument got to be kind of well-known.

The instrument gets its name from the Dutch word bazuin (buh-zyoo-in), from which we got the English slang word “Bazoo,” meaning boastful talk. Burns took that word and turned it into the name of his instrument, the bazooka. And when, in World War Two, they first started developing the M1A1 Rocket Launcher at the Aberdeen Proving ground here in Maryland, Major General Gladeon Barnes, trying the weapon out, said, “It sure looks like Bob Burns’ bazooka.” And the name caught on. Nowadays people use the phrase “rocket launcher” to refer to most shoulder-mounted hollow tubes used for that sort of thing, but people still use the word “Bazooka” as a generic term.

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is to be Like a Virgin.

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