Steely Dan are an intrinsically New York band. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were native to the greater NYC area and made their initial bones as songwriters and touring musicians in the Big Apple. In fact, it was only when the duo were signed to ABC Records in the early 1970s that moving away from New York ever came up. The jazz-loving, city-dwelling east coast duo had to adapt to the unfamiliar sunny setting of Los Angeles if they were going to make it in the music business.
For a number of years afterwards, the Dan kept writing about New York, even if they were now a west coast band. Tracks like ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More’ make specific reference to the band’s absconding to the Golden State, while songs like ‘Babylon Sisters’ and ‘Bad Sneakers’ are pinned down by their California-centric lyrics. But one song from the band’s discography founds Becker and Fagen caught between their two spiritual homes: Aja‘s ‘Home At Last’.
“When we got to California, I don’t know if we were nostalgic in the general sort of way for New York so much as we were nostalgic as writers for this milieu that we left behind, and we weren’t finished writing songs with New York characters in them yet,” Becker recalled during the band’s appearance on Classic Albums. “So we kept doing that, and by the time were finished, we had moved back to New York, at which point we immediately started writing lyrics about California.”
Taking on a similar narrative tone as Homer’s Odyssey, ‘Home At Last’ follows a weary sea traveller as he searches for the end to his long journey. Although both Fagen and Becker noted the parallels between the tale and their own lives, Fagen noted that neither of them wanted to be too direct with the connection.
“A lot of our songs are about being homesick, I think, for New York,” Fagen observed. “I’ve noticed that, actually. I guess it was just our natural inclination to write some stories, really. ‘Home At Last’, the central metaphor was taken from Ulysses’ big problem trying to get back home, but we didn’t take it that seriously. It’s essentially just the idea that you write a little blues about Ulysses.”
Boosted by Bernard Purdie’s signature “Purdie shuffle”, ‘Home At Last’ was just one of a number of identity crises that took place throughout Aja. From the fatalist escapism of ‘Deacon Blues’ to the hipster burnout of ‘Black Cow’, Becker and Fagen became experts in a specific kind of longing and faded glory. ‘Home At Last’ just happened to be the song that was most closely tied to reality.
Watch Steely Dan dissect ‘Home At Last’ down below.