Sitting on my back porch, head still addled from this late season flu, I listen as the last chords of “Deacon Blues” fade away and permit myself a sardonic smile.
“They got a name for the winners —
I want a name when I lose…”
I am listening to Aja, Steely Dan’s mid 70s masterpiece, seven perfectly executed songs that manage to touch your soul while still exhibiting every iota of the “slick production” for which so many of us derided it when it came out. But then as now, I ask myself, how can anyone resist the crystalline chords of “Aja” or Wayne Shorter’s heartrending sax solo… Of course, I’m biased. Not only was I a huge Dan fan from Can’t Buy A Thrill on, but by the early 80s, I had the perfect system to play them on.
I was living in a finished basement room in Baltimore — one big room with linoleum tiled floor and pine paneled walls that had been a party room for a now defunct “outlaw” JHU fraternity. The room had been designed for live music, and while I wasn’t hosting live bands, I had the next best thing — Voice of the Theatre concert cabs.
My speakers, which I was storing for my boyfriend, were four feet high and maybe 2 feet wide and deep. They could fill a small concert hall. But that wasn’t what was great about them. It was the sound — warm, rich, round sound. It made almost anything sound fabulous, like the band was there in your living room performing just for you.
This was in the years of vinyl, so I was playing everything on my Technics turntable through a mid 60s tube amplifier. When you turned it on, it took a good 30 seconds to warm up, and there were glowing green indicator lights so you could find it when you had your mood lighting on. In short, I had a dream stereo.
Unfortunately, there were times when it was almost too much of a good thing. Warmth, yes, resonance, big time, but the bass response had a tendency to bring my housemates to my door telling me to “Turn it down!” I did, because they were older than me, but it always bugged me that I had this great stereo that I could only turn up to 1, maybe 2 on special occasions.
But even at moderate volume, it was a treat to listen to. Like the young man in the Memorex ad, I had an armchair positioned between the two speakers and spent many happy hours listening to such early 80s pop records as Quincy Jones’ The Dude, Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, and The Tubes’ Completion Backward Principal. I revisited most of the back catalog of Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell and experienced them anew. I discovered George Clinton and Talking Heads and found them strange but intriguing. And of course there was Joe’s Garage.
Becker and Fagen, high tech Luddites that they were, always held that CDs sounded like crap compared to vinyl. Listening to Aja tonight (on CD played on my computer through Radio Shack speakers), I laughed when I realized that the long gap between the middle two songs was probably a nod to the vinyl era when there would have been a necessary pause at the midpoint while you hopped up and flipped the record. Then again, Steely Dan also complained for years about the crappy quality of vinyl records put out by certain record companies, so who’s to say.
The days of discs and stereos are gone. Even the concept of the album, as a hotly antipated, fully-packed artistic statement seems to have passed, although I know people still release them. Instead, the music industry seems to be defined once again by singles, released digitally, and not even granted airplay in many cases. (Could Steely Dan have anticipated the demise of the medium at the time they wrote FM? I surely didn’t.)
I’ve never been one to confuse the medium with the message and had no trouble shifting to MP3s and smaller stereo systems, including the Walkman and later the iPod. But I’m struggling with the latest format shift, from MP3s that you can keep to a database of files up in the Cloud, which is, let’s face it, just a fancy name for some media company’s servers. Call me old (and you’d be right) but I fear that with this level of access managing, ad tracking, as-long-as-we-want-you-to control, music itself is going to vaporize.
Although many think of music, especially pop music, as ephemeral, and hence by its very nature vaporous, for me, great music is forever. Aja, I own. The copyright may belong to Becker and Fagen, but the music is mine. You can’t take that away from me. But with the Cloud, you can. Cloud music is never yours; it always belongs to the Company.
Steely Dan warned us about stuff like this, and managed to sound so smooth doing it that few even dreamt of the dark messages encoded in their songs. But I had a great stereo and wide open ears. I heard every word.