The Free Ride blog this week takes me to the lyrics of my all-time favorite band, Steely Dan, and their pop hit from the 1980 Gaucho album, Babylon Sisters. After the Santa Ana winds blow and they drive west on Sunset to the sea, Fagen sings a verse of his fantasy date on the beach that includes the line,
Back to that line in a minute. But first a disclaimer: As a once-obsessed fan of the Dan’s music, I know better than to try and deconstruct any of their lyrics. I read once where they considered the vocals just another instrument in the band, and the words were chosen as much for their sound, as you’d choose notes on the sax or chords on a piano, as they were for any particular meaning. Top that off with their early lyrical inspiration from William Burrough’s heroin-induced hallucinogenic novel, Naked Lunch, and you realize that there’s probably not much to decode. And throw in the probability that most of their later songs are not much more than jazzy versions of middle-aged male fantasies, and you know about as much as you need to know about Becker and Fagen’s poetic inspirations. Not to knock their fantasy life; jogging with show folk on the sand and drinking kirschwasser from a shell certainly has its place.
While I chose to ramble today about Babylon Sisters because of what it says about freedom, I also chose the song because the Gaucho album played a key liberating role during a particularly frightening and restrictive time in my life. I had just entered college, a big deal for me as a first generation student, and I had not prepared myself for college particularly well. I had not been a studious high schooler, and I had spent the summer before college doing little more than drinking and mischief making, and then landed on campus and had to actually go to classes. I found myself scared sober and out of my wits. I wasn’t sure I could cut it, and was sorely afraid of disappointing my parents if I couldn’t. My hall director sensed my nervousness and suggested I join him on the college newspaper staff – he had discovered my love of music and thought a music review column would be up my alley and would get me out of the worry zone. I joined the staff, and toward the end of the semester wrote my first review, of Steely Dan’s Gaucho.
Fast forward a few weeks to my first major exam as a college student, in Professor George Peery’s Poli Sci class. I studied hard, and when the test was over I was not at all sure how I’d done. A few days later, Professor Peery passed the exams back, and when I looked at mine all I saw was red ink all over it. I was devastated; I knew what red ink meant. I couldn’t bear to turn to the back page and see my grade, so I just packed it away and went to my dorm room, dejected. For the next couple of days I planned the phone call to my parents, explaining that I’d have to come home because I was flunking out. Before I made the call, though, I screwed up the courage to look at the grade. It was a 98. Then I read through all the red ink that Peery had covered my exam with, and what I found was loved the Gaucho review! and note after rambling note responding in detail to the things I had written about, from Larry Carlton’s haunting guitar riff in Third World Man to Fagen’s Fender Rhodes sound to my disappointment in the group’s continuing pop-ward shift. Not a word about Poli Sci. Peery’s communique, in and of itself, was enough to free me from my self-doubt and instill in me all the confidence I needed to make it in college.
In addition to writing about the music in that review, I do remember reflecting on one lyric, the phrase referenced above: it’s cheap but it’s not free. It struck me, because another first-semester college discovery was the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose book Cost of Discipleship made a profound impact on me. Bonhoeffer talked about grace that was free, but not cheap. I pondered what the difference might be. Free but not cheap, cheap but not free. I surmised that the fantasy world of Fagen and Becker was full of cheap cotton candy thrills, for which they generally had to pay a price afterward. The not so fantastic world of Bonhoeffer was full of costly thrills that emerged from his being totally free, but it eventually led him to a point of no return and cost him his life. I still think about the difference. I wonder if I still don’t travel between those two worlds.
Tell me I’m the only one.