Random thoughts, settings, characters, situations, perhaps leading somewhere

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Snapsongs: “Hey Nineteen” by Steely Dan

Thursday 24 January 2013 - Filed under Snapsongs

Perhaps it is a truism, but people tend to forget: children remember things. They also understand more than you expect. Perhaps their understanding has gaps or naivetes, but the basics are usually there. I say this because of my memory of one of my favorite songs from the early 1980s.

I was all of eight years old when it started getting airplay, and it wouldn’t be the first song you’d think an eight-year-old boy would gravitate toward while playing with Legos. (I use the incorrect terminology for the LEGO brand of toys because that’s how I referred to them at the time.) But “Hey Nineteen” by Steely Dan was one of those songs. It was cool, laid-back, had a workable beat, and had definite hooks. It was probably one of the more radio-friendly songs in the Dan’s oeuvre. And it had a mood that I could only describe as an appealing world-weariness. I know, I know, what does an eight-year-old boy know of world-weariness? Well, in 1980 there was quite a bit of that going on. The Carter Recession was still in full swing, there’d been lines at the gas station the year before, the Rust Belt was crumbling to ruin around me, and Candidate Reagan was honking the Evil Rooskie horn. The whole situation was a little iffy. Perhaps I wasn’t having an affair with a woman half my age in order to cover up my dismay at my increasing age, but my Dad’s job was in trouble and things were tight at home.

Thus, Donald Fagan copping a louche and distant singing persona was something of a catharsis for me, in a way. Here’s a guy who knows the situation’s bad. He’s with this girl, they have nothing in common, they can’t dance or talk together, and she doesn’t know who Aretha Franklin is. I couldn’t say I could have sung you a song by Aretha Franklin at the time, but the name was familiar and she was evidently a soul singer of some merit. (Soul, of course, was the type of music showcased by the TV show “Soul Train”, the long-drawn out intro of which was the unmistakable signal to my brother and myself that Saturday morning cartoons were over and it was time to go outside.) No matter how you sliced it, you had to be a little out of touch to not have even heard of Aretha Franklin. Couple that with the fact that this guy was big in Boston in 1967, which was before I was even born, so he’s obviously pretty old. His clueless girlfriend was nineteen, which was old, but not that old. Doug, my favorite babysitter who was a really cool guy, was about nineteen. So this guy must be older than my Dad. And he obviously didn’t make the jump to Scarsdale, where all the young and willing sweet things ended up. So he’s a bit lost, a bit out of his element.

So — a bad situation, but he’s evidently handling it. He’s somewhat disappointed with how things turned out, he’s a little depressed, but he’s gonna put a cool face on it. A somewhat disdainful face. A cynical face. If you wonder where Generation X gets its base-level world-weary cynicism from, look no further than here. My personal situation was different but the strategy was the same. Chill out, lay back, and let things take you along as they slide on down. Perhaps it was fortunate that I didn’t quite understand the lyrics in the final bridge. I knew that there was something that would “help make tonight a wonderful thing”, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I just kinda sang a nonsense mondegreen along with the words when the song came on the radio. In this case the Dan’s penchant for speaking in code — an easily-deciphered code if you were an adult and into tequila and cocaine like everyone was at the time, but a code nonetheless — may have prevented me from an early substance addiction.

And it wasn’t just the story contained within the lyrics, or the way Fagan sang them. It was also the construction of the song that made complete and total sense to me. I didn’t know what a harmonic was, but the triplet harmonics at the end of the verse lines were bright flashes of gold in a steel gray stage. The drumbeat was the perfect tempo for lettings thing slide. What I didn’t know, but now am amused to report, is that “Hey Nineteen” was the first track to make use of a digitally-timed drum machine for most of the beats. Becker and Fagan wanted a metronome-precise drum track, so one of their engineers went home and programmed a microcomputer he had kicking around to interface with an early digital sampler. The guitar noodling in the background, the simple tracking bassline, the layered voices for the chorus, they all provided aural gingerbread to mull over while listening to the radio laying right next to the speaker. And the extended lead-out, with the melodica lead weaving a very, very Seventies sonic signature through the drum fills and cymbal splashes. It fit, and it fit well. Just like my favorite bricks in my space Legos.

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2013-01-24  »  Edward Semblance