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 sixth installment of the series. To start from the beginning, click here.
Even though I’d taught that whole year, teaching and rediscovering and falling in love with the Odyssey, this would be my first foray into full-time high school-teaching. It excited and terrified me and proved as difficult as you’d think it would. But as hard as it was, I could bond with my stern but wonderful and wry department head and boss about Steely Dan. We had discovered this nexus, along with our love for Milton and Homer, and even on days seeming grim, I knew I could at least bring up Steely Dan, and we could talk about that.
My first year, one of my favorite students and his awesome sister introduced me to a Steely Dan song I didn’t know, one that would become one of the most meaningful for me and one of my favorites: “Home at Last.” And that song named for me a series of feelings growing ever stronger and more powerful. Like my students, I read the Odyssey in 9th grade, and also like them, didn’t find it captivating at the time. That came much later when I substitute-taught 9th grade “at my old school,” for my 9th grade teacher. That opened my eyes to the wonder of Homer’s work. I’ve since taught his wild and beautiful Epic several times now, and each time makes it dearer to me.
It makes me think of fathers and sons but also mothers and daughters, and who we are as human beings — wives, mothers, godmothers, lovers, innocents, travelers. It makes me think of my Home and what it means to miss it when I’m gone. I spent four years in San Diego, teaching and learning, and it was terrible and wonderful, and every time I took that two-to-three hour drive North on the 5, I’d put on some Steely Dan, and they’d shepherd me home.
Those last few months, I couldn’t bear to leave the school or the sea, but I couldn’t wait to be back in LA either, and I just kept hearing “now the danger on the rocks has surely passed. Still, I remain tied to the mast. Could it be that I have found my home at last? Home at last?”, and each time, the IV7 chord and its longing filled me, and tears welled in my eyes. I was so close, but no matter how close we come to what we want and what we can do, we will still find ourselves tied to the mast at some point. Maybe we never free ourselves from it.
A coworker called my attention to a one-day course for teachers on the Odyssey at Bard College, that funky, granola haven by the Hudson. Essayist and classicist Daniel Mendelsohn would be leading a plenary discussion, and we would be talking about the work the whole day. I felt like in visiting the place — yes, that Annandale— for this reason, I paid homage to Fagen and Becker’s college selves as well as my love of the Odyssey and their love of the Odyssey, that “tired sea song,” as we see it in “Home at Last.”
At that time, I was dating a guy with some musical overlap but what felt at that time like fundamentally different taste. He looked forward to Coachella every year, and he couldn’t fathom how anyone would like Steely Dan. He said they played too technically well, had no heart, had no soul, were too “white.” It seemed he saw it almost like a combination aesthetic-political issue, the kind who saw Steely Dan appropriating jazz and blues without their quite getting it or using it right, which seems like a facile observation to me and an insult to Steely Dan’s respect for the music they learn from. And that’s when I pinpointed something I already knew unconsciously — Steely Dan is the antithesis of the music we’d hear at Coachella and that they don’t belong there, but not for the obvious reasons.