Features, Yestalgia

Grad School, “Babylon Sisters,” “Hey Nineteen,” and “Kid Charlemagne”

I’ve loved Steely Dan for about 20 years. When I heard they would be playing Coachella last year, I felt so perturbed, I just had to respond. That gave me the excuse to really explore my love for The Dan, to unpack my thoughts on their music (and on Coachella), and to consider how all of that means, at least in part, meditating on the self and the passage of time. This resulted in a labor of love essay, titled “Reelin’ in the Years/Close Your Eyes, and You’ll be There,” which we have here broken into seven, discrete but also connected pieces, ones we will be publishing as installments over the coming weeks. This is the fourth installment of the series. To start from the beginning, click here.

Little could compare to how I felt about three, “new” songs Steely Dan gave me during grad school: “Babylon Sisters,” “Hey Nineteen,” and “Kid Charlemagne.” In middle school, I’d skipped over them because I just couldn’t get into their sound. Frankly, I thought them terrible. And then one day, maybe it was being 23 or 24, I listened to them again and really “heard” them this time.

I really liked Kanye at the time (still do). It’s true I’ve always found his manner ridiculous (you’re supposed to), and I’ve always found his lyrics inane at best (focus: Louis Vuitton, models, coke, and threesomes), offensive at worst (he flows about one night stands over Nina Simone’s cover of “Blood on the Leaves” in the background. You didn’t hear Carole King singing about her love life using Anne Frank quotes interspersed in the songs.), but if there’s one good thing about Kanye, it’s his producing (and his shamelessness). He can mix, and he samples amazing music. He has great taste and vision, and his music’s exposed me to a lot of great stuff, like “Celebration” introduced me to the melancholy and awesome KayGees’ “Heavenly Dream.”

So when I heard “Champion”’s sample of “Kid Charlemagne,” I felt happily surprised Kanye would like The Dan. And the fact that Steely Dan, curmudgeonly as they seem, let him sample one of their songs, made me see both Kanye and Steely Dan differently.

As far as “Kid Charlemagne,” when I listened, really listened to it, it blew me away. I just couldn’t believe that guitar solo. Forgive the cliche, but it’s out of this world. It comes out of nowhere to sweep you up for less than a minute, and then it’s over, and you just have to go back and listen to it again. There’s a bridge from 2:15–2:26 and then that solo, that epic solo, from 2:27–3:07. Once you’ve heard both, you can never not have heard them. Nick Hornby dedicates an essay from Songbook to “Kid Charlemagne,” and much of the essay centers around that solo.

I think of the first part as the “heartbreak bridge” because of its chord progressions and the sequence there. If it were to play in a film, it would show a dejected guy striking out yet again. There are a lot of minor iv chords, and basically, it just feels like a bummer.

Yet the solo modulates through several keys while skipping through a rapid series of electric guitar notes. It runs through a fever dream of sounds, like a hallucination, but not in a self-indulgent, acid-taking-sounding way. It has desperate urgency. It bears almost no relation to the rest of the song, cool and poignant as the rest of it is. But the song wouldn’t be THAT song without it. It’s non-intuitive and interesting to listen to and hard to figure out and play, but the work’s worth it. What’s “Kid Charlemagne” without it but a tune about a drug lord in San Francisco? And that’s not what it’s about for me at all. Who cares about the lyrics? I like “…is there gas in the car? Yes, there’s gas in the car…I think the people down the hall know who you are,” but more because of the sounds it makes than because it shares anything intelligent or meaningful.

And people always talk about Steely Dan’s lyrics. But for me, that’s never really been their appeal. These are clearly sharp guys and seem over-keen to show you how articulate they are. But I don’t need them to prove that to me because what matters is what the sound of the words does when it joins the rich harmonies and very context-specific sound. They have some true, lyrical moments. But to me, it’s more about what they evoke than what they actually say. In our warped, likely simplistic and false understanding of the Heisenberg Principle, we claim we change things when we contemplate/gaze upon/listen to them, and if that’s what it really means, then that really holds true for music in general and Steely Dan specifically. I can’t know for sure what they intended to mean or say or even evoke; all I can know is what I feel when I listen to their songs. And their songs result from the sum of their words, music, performance, and recording. So the words create part of the equation, but they don’t stand alone.


courtesy of bestcarinf.com

I know that when I listen to “Babylon Sisters,” it can’t concern any city but LA. I’ve often “drive[n] West on Sunset to the sea” while listening to it, just so I could inhabit the music, even just for a few lines. I imagine that if I just “close my eyes…[I’ll] be there.” It doesn’t really matter where “there” is, but I think it’s LA. It’s home. It’s not necessarily the ’70s. I wasn’t even born then, though my parents each moved to America, met, and fell in love then, so that’s personally significant. But it’s more that in Russian nesting doll fashion, I revel in a nostalgia for a nostalgia. I’ll listen to the song, and it will remind me of other times I listened to it and the things it meant and the associations I had then. And there’s something about the way they say, “Well, I should know by now that it’s just a spasm, like a Sunday in TJ, that it’s cheap, but it’s not free.” It sounds like a feral snarl, a yearning broken sound. And you can project whatever you want onto that. They may mean something, but I can think of how nothing’s free.

The horns and synth are cheap, cheesy, and trashy, kind of like a sad wedding band, and that’s all part of it, the idea that “here come the Santa Ana winds again,” those hot, dry, and dangerous things that could just as easily be a metaphor for something arid and depressing. There’s a reason they call the desert Desolation.

Then there’s “Hey Nineteen.” Yes, it makes me miss listening to Steely Dan in college and at 19 (and not think about its actual plot — a bunch of older lechers hooking up with “pretty, young things”), but there’s something about that opening riff that takes me immediately to a place of wistfulness and that incredible, heart-swelling, lonely, tear-eliciting, near-ending recitation of “the cuervo gold, the fine Colombian — Make tonight a wonderful thing; say it again: the cuervo gold…” in which you feel you need to cling, one last time, to a happy night…or something like that.

May 23, 2016

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Deborah Stokol Deborah Stokol is a high school teacher, musician, and writer living in Los Angeles.

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