I tend to analyze everything I see, do, and think to an unwarranted degree, which today means explaining why I find Steely Dan to be the perfect sound track for doing yard word. But to get there, I have to start with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
During our most recent road trip, Mike Phirman and I found ourselves discussing CSNY’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”. Mike told me he hadn’t encountered it at all until college, and I audibly gasped. He elaborated by stating that he bonded with it immediately, but it seemed inconceivable to me that a musician of his caliber, with his wide-ranging musical sensibilities, wouldn’t have had it chiseled into his mind at an early age.
Of course I quickly realized I was projecting onto him my own mind’s reaction to the song. And after apologizing for staring at him like he was a five-legged chimpanzee, I explained that, to me, CSNY’s “Woodstock” is a song that has always existed. Not just in the sense that it was on the radio even before I was born, or because it was one of the first songs I can remember hearing. It’s more like a feeling that it was formed whole at the dawn of time, waiting patiently for billions of years until there were hippies and suburban kids soiling their diapers in the 1970s, and college students in dorm rooms in the 1990s, to listen to it. I still get the tingles and my eyes go kaleidoscopic when I hear the sweeping harmonies on the line “…and we’ve got to get ourselves…back to the ga-a-a-a-ARRRRRR-DENNNNNN!”
And CSNY’s “Woodstock” isn’t the only one–there are many other songs that give me that same sense of eternity; some of them are even relatively new. Kindly don’t judge, but among them are Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “From the Beginning”, Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar”, Don Henley’s “Sunset Grill”, the New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give”, and Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time” (remember: NO JUDGING. Thank you.)
It’s important to note that it’s the particular recording of a song, not the underlying song itself*, that elicits this “eternal reaction” in me. In terms of the sense of taste, if melody is “sweet”, lyrics “salty”, chord changes “sour”, and rhythm “bitter” (sorry, rhythm; someone had to be bitter), then sound production is “umami”, also know as “savoriness”–the thing that causes you to make a yummy sound. I find that something about how a particular vocal is captured, the exact placement of a cymbal, or a specific amount of reverb at a key moment can unlock more meaning than spending a weekend watching classic movies with the Dalai Lama (I have never done this, but would welcome the opportunity to be proved wrong.)
Almost all of Steely Dan’s music trips off the eternal reaction in my mind. It also lights up all five of the music-taste components, but most of all umami, probably because of the obsessive amount of care they put into their sound production. Whatever the reason, I find Steely Dan’s music to be transportive–and the perfect companion for doing yard work.
Yes, it’s also terrific for late night driving, late night strolling through New York City, late night sitting around on the couch, or late night falling asleep to Steely Dan, late at night. But on Sunday as the April sun beamed down I put in my earbuds, fired up the lawnmower and The Royal Scam, and spent the next forty minutes out of my skin and floating beyond mortality.
As the jaunty opening keyboard licks of “Kid Charlemagne” kicked in, my yard was transformed into a dangerous playground of drugs, fast lives, and wicked losers. The grass fell fast under my blade. I might have appeared to be just another suburban yutz wacking crisp edges along his walkway, but my neighbors didn’t know that I had a case of dynamite, I wasn’t afraid to use it, and that my advice to them was “Don’t Take Me Alive”. Shovel in hand, I shaped the ground with sensual abandon to the swirling strains of “The Fez”, and considered what seeds I might sow during “Haitian Divorce”. By the time “The Royal Scam” trudged off towards the horizon, I’d not only accomplished most of my tasks, but had successfully convinced myself that domesticity was only a state of mind.
Oddly enough, it was as I sat down just now to write this post that I read that Roger Nichols, the Grammy Award-winning man behind the sound board for all of Steely Dan’s albums, passed away today at the age of 66. I have to admit that until I read the obituaries and his wikipedia entry, I didn’t know anything about him. Though I’d always guessed (correctly) that anyone who worked with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker would have to share their same obsession with musical perfection.
But even if I don’t read another word about Roger Nichols (although I will, because it seems he was a remarkable man), I feel like I know him well through his role in helping shape Steely Dan’s transportive sound. Or that I at least know the parts of him that transcended his individual self.
I don’t mean that in a religious sense. But until we understand the human mind well enough to explain with a high degree of specificity where sensations like the aforementioned “eternal reaction” come from, why shouldn’t the ability to create an elevated state of mind in others take up residence in the intellectual holding pen we call “magic”?
I mean, what else except for magic could make yard work enjoyable?
*exception that proves the rule: Lennon/McCartney’s “Yesterday”. Even singing that in the shower gives me second sight.