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Music

The song Steely Dan wrote about "feeling alienated"

@TylerGolsen

Throughout their initial decade of writing and recording, Steely Dan became experts at the anti-love song. Favouring “hipsters” and down on their luck figures as characters, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen would use city life, old jazz phrases, and references from literature to focus on the losers of the world. While songs like ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ occasionally came out, most of their songs had a biting edge.

No song in the band’s catalogue hones in on a more desolate figure than ‘Deacon Blues’. Like most of the band’s works, the track follows a wannabe of some kind: in this case, a jazz musician, or someone who idolises jazz musicians. He wants to be one himself, but he needs a persona. Winners, like the Alabama football team, get grandiose names like “the Crimson Tide”. But this guy is a loser, so why not crown himself “Deacon Blues”?

It’s certainly not a straightforward tale, especially once Becker and Fagen start bringing in references from outside the jazz world. “The concept of the ‘expanding man’ that opens the song may have been inspired by Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man,” Fagen said in Marc Myers’ Anatomy of a Song. “Walter and I were major sci-fi fans. The guy in the song imagines himself ascending to the levels of evolution, ‘expanding’ his mind, his spiritual possibilities, and his options in life.”

In this way, it might sound as though the central character of ‘Deacon Blues’ might not be the down and out type that Becker and Fagen usually write about. But in the band’s appearance on the Classic Albums series, Fagen admits that the roots of the song’s lyrics came from the yearnings he and Becker had as white kids obsessed with jazz.

“‘Deacon Blues’ is about as close to autobiography as our tunes get,” Fagen explains. “We’re both kids who grew up in the suburbs. We both felt fairly alienated. Like a lot of kids in the fifties, we were looking for some kind of alternative culture — some kind of escape, really — from where we found ourselves.”

Whoever the “Deacon Blues” character is, he’s not the major jazz saxophone player he wants to be. Instead, he “just sort of imagines that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire,” Fagen says drolly. “Who’s to say that he’s not right?”.