July/August 2012
Peter Coviello

The Talk That Does Not Do Nothing

Fighting Over Music (Often Drunkenly, With the Same Person, For twenty Years) Is A Valid Critical Enterprise; It Is Also a Type of Love Song

Discussed: Dylanishness, The Million-Petaled Flower of Steely Dan’s Uncoolness, Coke-Binge Obscurantism, Gradual Overcoding by a Minutemen Cover, The Land of Undead Dreams, Abject Betrayal, Intermingling Enthusiasms, Bourdieu as Applied to Hipsterism, Argots of Appreciation and Invective

Fair warning: this is not to be a wading into the deeper waters of Steely Dan esoterica. I’m not going to parse the weird bleakness of “Charlie Freak,” explain the boom on Mizar-5, unravel the time signatures of “Your Gold Teeth,” or take up your evening “speculating for hours on the meaning of a certain enigmatic question in the lyrics of ‘Any Major Dude,’” to steal a phrase from Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. Nor do I have much of technical interest to share with you, about the harmonic intricacies of the solos of Larry Carlton and Skunk Baxter, or about the Dylanishness of Donald Fagen’s diction and phrasing, and even less about the precise quality of the impress of mid-century American bebop on the early-’70s pop ambitions of this one band. Sorry. Instead I want to tell the story of a long fight I once had about Steely Dan—a fight that turned into something else.

The mise-en-scène of this fight will be, I think, familiar to many of you. It was significantly after midnight. You would not at this point have called us extremely drunk, but sobriety had in truth been forsaken some time earlier. My friend John and I were in his basement just then, foraging among the varieties of finger food that had gone unconsumed at the party he’d thrown. And here at the tail end of a day that began with his child home sick from school, and that somehow devolved into the project of playing, with this child, the complete discographies of a number of ’70s bands in reverse-chronological order—at the end of this day and this night, we were listening to records, and fighting about them. The question before us was simple: which is the greatest Steely Dan record? Very few among us, I am betting, will have no knowledge of this kind of talking, or would fail to recognize its characteristic features and form: its cheerful counterfactuality, its ambulatory indirection, its easy shuttling between a style of largely absurdist speculation and sudden pockets of very serious assertion.

John was the ideal coconspirator for this kind of fighting, for a multitude of reasons, only two of which I’ll mention: he and I had by this time been talking this special kind of talk for better than twenty years, and there are few people in the world for whom I feel a love as comprehensive or as detailed. I’ll return to that conjunction—talking, love—in just a moment.

But first: Steely Dan? Steely Dan? Listen: I know. If only because to those disinclined to the band, such disinclination typically takes the form of an ardent and vocal dislike (rather than, say, indifference), I do not need to have explained to me the million-petaled flower of Steely Dan’s uncoolness. Here’s what I say to the haters: fair enough. I do not need to be persuaded of the jazz-nerd preciousness of much of the affection for this band, of the tedium of some of their coke-binge obscurantism (or of its explication), and least of all of the irritatingness of the particularly male, particularly boy style of hyper-appreciation that surrounds them: those exquisite parsings of the finery of technique, execution, and mastery, or of the academic nuances of influence and pedigree. (Like many of you, I have been that boy.) The phrase yacht-rock gets at the self-satisfaction and the pretense quite nicely, I think—and gestures, too, toward the almost total lack of propulsive, uncoiled fury in their catalog: of rocking—and so needs little elaboration. Preciousness, pretense, production value, and a certain rocklessness: not much to wonder at in the absence of any real through-line of Steely Dan’s influence in the otherwise omnivorously cannibalizing world of post-punk and indie rock, where so many of my most ardent affections, and John’s, continue to reside. (Post-rock would be an exception here, at least on some points, though I don’t take much of it to be marked by the aesthetic of Steely Dan.)

But our fight, though undertaken with something other than high seriousness, was neither backhandedly dismissive nor premised on the covert coolness (what a friend calls the “double-reverse coolness”) of appreciating something so banal. There was too much of something else – earnestness, you might say, or joyousness, or love – for either of these. And so it was that while burning the fuel of these other affects our fight, that evening, enlarged and expanded itself, and became a new thing. Now, there are people in the world who find fights about questions with no possibility of a definitive answer to be pointless, and worse: wasteful (another word for this is “masturbatory”) and maddening. I do not understand these people. For as the dispute grew more intricate, and its terms more porous and entangled, John and I experienced what I would like to call a revelation, such as are said to be commonplace among mystics, and philosophers, and other idle persons.

It’s easy enough to dismiss this kind of hyped-up talk: it does not cure cancer, expands the gross domestic product very little indeed, and quite cheerfully partakes of the kinds of pleased self-captivation for which the tweedy classes are even today renowned. And yet and yet. I will confess I have never been able to foreswear my own fascination with the talk that gathers around the objects we love most in the world – typically slight, useless things (in Robert Lowell’s phrase) like books and songs and paintings and movies and such. That talk, after all, does not do nothing.

Many of you will know the 1977 Steely Dan song “Deacon Blues,” which gorgeously captures the sex-and-smoke-tinged sadness of Los Angeles. Like most great LA stories, it’s a song about living a life inside the scene of so many misfired aspirations, so many best hopes both unrealized and, rather gruesomely, unextinguished. (Los Angeles: Land of Undead Dreams.) You know the quotable lines: “I cried when I wrote this song / Sue me if I play to long”; “They got a name for the winners in the world / I want a name when I lose.” I want a name when I lose. To be on the losing side of the city, but to be distinguished in that losing by a name: that is the ambition of this character, a man cynical and beaten but too languorous altogether to be called hard-bitten or hard-boiled, whatever the noir-ish echoes to be heard there.

But there in John’s basement, as the talk ramped itself up into unsought dimensions of argument, the ions in the air began to charge and reassemble. And so, like Keanu seeing the lines of code pouring down the walls, at last we understood: Deacon Blues is the name of this character, at this time in history. But he has other names and he lives in other songs. Other songs, from across the whole range of the Steely Dan/ Donald Fagan catalog, feature the man who would become Deacon Blues – the same person, the same guy – but going by different names and frozen at different moments on the temporal curve of a life that bends, with sad inexorability, toward just this west coast desolation. Who else, we realized in a gasp of comprehension, who else is Lester the Nightfly, title character of Fagan’s first post-Steely Dan record, The Nightfly – “I’m Lester the Nightfly, hello Baton Rougue / Won’t you turn your radio down / Respect the seven second delay we use” – who else is Lester the Nightfly but Deacon Blues at an earlier, infinitely brighter moment, when he’s an early-60s late-night radio DJ, pouring out “jazz and conversation / From the foot of Mt. Belzoni”? How much more rich in poignancy do both songs become when understood to be narrated by the same person? “I’ve got plenty of java and Chesterfield Kings,” Lester the Nightfly says, “But I feel like crying / I wish I had a heart of ice.” Yeah yeah: but we know that in 15 or 20 years he won’t even bother with the crying.

“The Nightfly,” under this dispensation, becomes a song about heartbreak, but youthful heartbreak – the kind that carries with it the secret thrill of entrée into the tumultuous world of adult romance – and “Deacon Blues” becomes a song about the desolate places you find after your heart just won’t break anymore. (Of course you don’t lose points for thinking this narrative tracks along the same arc that runs from Camelot optimism to late-70s malaise.)

But there is more. A few months later I came back to Chicago and John picked me up at the airport. He didn’t spring it on me at once. In the car, maybe 20 minutes into the drive, somewhere on the Northwest side, he spoke these words: “I’ve been thinking about ‘Doctor Wu.’” And he had. “’Doctor Wu’ appeared on Steely Dan’s 1975 album, Katy Lied. For there, in “Doctor Wu,” is where the real corrosion happens, where we find a major crisis-point in the trajectory from Lester the Nightfly to Deacon Blues. In a way that had somehow always escaped me – maybe because of the lovely Phil Woods saxophone part, or because of the sweet silly comedy of its names and its queries (“Are you crazy? Are you high? Or just an ordinary guy?”), or because of its gradual overcoding in my mind by the Minutemen’s amazing “Dr. Wu” cover– “Doctor Wu” is an exceptionally rough little song, about a bad patch that gets, abruptly, worse.

“Katy lied,” is how it begins. “I was half-way crucified / I was on the other side / of no tomorrow.” Well, ok. But only after the second verse do you get really any of idea of what he is talking about here. It happens so offhandedly you can pretty easily miss it. (As I did, for about two dozen years.) “Don’t seem right,” the second verse begins, “I’ve been strung out here all night / I’ve been waiting for the taste you said you’d bring to me.”

Oh – strung out… the taste you said you’d bring to me – oh wait. The singer of this song is half-way crucified because he’s a junkie. Doctor Wu is this song’s Kid Charlemagne: he is the nicknamed dealer. But it’s not just a song about being strung out in Biscayne Bay. It is instead a song about being strung out, trying to find your score, going to your girlfriend’s house, and finding her fucking your dealer. “Katy lies / You can see it in her eyes / But imagine my surprise / When I saw you…” He knows from the first Katy lies – they’re junkies: that she fucks someone else isn’t what’s shattering here – but the dealer? Their dealer? This, somehow, is what makes the scene radiant with abjection, what makes it the finding of the bottom beneath the bottom. And this is what happens to Lester the Nightfly: he begins playing jazz radio, gets into a scene that goes bad and druggy (as jazz-scenes do), finds himself strung out in Biscayne Bay – and then, in flight from this freeze-frame moment of maximal humiliation, wends his way to California, there to crawl like a viper through the suburban scenes. Twisting through a decade’s worth of songs, in other words, is the unfolding, through different moods and scenes and inflections, of the story of one character’s life. Which might be a metaphor for the ways that John and I had unfolded as characters in the time it had taken us to make these connections.

I have said that John and I had been, in essence, fighting about Steely Dan for 20 years, and that we loved one another, though I think it’s perhaps truer to say that fighting about Steely Dan is both how we came to love one another as well as the form that love found for itself, one mode of its enactment, its nurturance, and its renewal. There is nothing unique in this. It is what you do when you are young, but not only (I think) when you are young: you love things (songs, records, books) and in the abundance of that enthusiasm you talk, you measure that love with and against others’. You mix your words and your delight up with that of another person, or of many people, and you feel out what’s provoking, or disquieting, or otherwise pleasing about how those words and those enthusiasms rub up against one another. What you forge together is a kind of idiolect, a semi-private argot of appreciation and critique, ardor and invective. This is one of the things you do when you fall in love: you and your beloved make a language together – with words, theories, your bodies – a language that you refine and refashion over many years, and that eventually comes to carry within it much of your history together.

I’d want to say, then, that what you’re doing when you’re fighting about slight useless beautiful things you love is, in effect, criticism – if we can torque the idea of the critical enterprise hard enough so that it takes seriously the joyousness, the inflooding sense of richness and abundance, by which we are sometimes possessed both in the presence of an object and also in and through the talking, with others, about the object and its captivations. Criticism, in this vein, encompasses something other than exposure, deconstruction, or critique, and is not a thing you do in response to some deficit, falsity, duplicity, undermining paradox, or elemental inadequacy in the object itself. It is not sustained by a sense of that joyousness as, at base, a species of false consciousness. (Which is not to say objects of our love cannot be or contain all these things.) Criticism might also be understood as the making of a language – and with it the making of a special, precious kind of sociality, fractious and lovestruck – whose roots are in ardor and captivation, something kindled by those moments of exhilaration that songs so commonly produce. Talking is not the cancellation of such passages of joy, not the mark of joy’s consignment to the fallen realm of discourse (in this I’d depart from certain kinds of post-structuralist accounts of joy, of joy as jouissance, for instance). Talking is instead, or can be, the mode of joy’s enlargement, its enactment.

Of course, a lot of the current thinking about object-love kicks another way. If you follow the current uses of a writer named Pierre Bourdieu, especially around the matter of what gets called “hipsterism,” you’ll know what I mean. For some, the lesson of Bourdieu is in essence this: investments in a particular subset of objects, particularly aesthetics objects, are always also claims of distinction. They are strategies by which the subject of an unrelentingly capitalized culture can insist on his or her own place in a steeply hierarchical scale of value that, just because its groundings are aesthetic and not strictly material, evanescent and not quantifiable, is characterized by an extraordinary and micro-calibrated sort of viciousness. And of course we all know people like this, people who expend great quantities of capital in these economies of cool, for whom the performance of a given enthusiasm is likely to be more knife-fight than impromptu symposium. A place like Brooklyn, for example, does not want for specimens. (Nor for that matter, I am here to tell you, does the academy.) But for all the cultural-studies hate directed at the hipster demographic in just these terms – the arraignments of hipster kids as living, subway-congesting emblems of aesthetic choice as vehicle for invidious distinction (I’m in, you’re out) - still I would want to say that such an approach seems to me less wrong than partial, an unviably delimited way of understanding what it is that transpires between ourselves, the objects of our devotion, and the social world we create with and around our languages of devotion. Here’s what I mean: when I see kids bedecked in the accoutrements of a given emerging micro-style, I do not default to the language of affectation, because that language, whatever its latent critical acuity, seems to me to misapprehend the other qualities – the ardor, the generous enthusiasms – that might in that moment be finding their expression.

So when I hear people fighting about some new band I don’t know, or what’s awesome and why, or what’s an abomination and why, I don’t necessarily hear in that clamorousness the perseverance of some economy of cool that in its relentless hierarchy mirrors with eerie, sad precision the system of late-phase capitalism in which it is enmeshed. That fighting, this talking: these are also, often, love songs. In them are the residues of moments of exhilaration and delightedness so captivating that they want only to amplify and extend themselves. What you can hear in such talking is the sound of people learning, or remembering, how to be in love: in love with the possibilities of objects, in love with the possibilities of other people, and in love with the possibilities of the scene of belonging that loving things in this garrulous way is always making and unmaking. Part of what’s so exhilarating, too, is that in this scene of talk, there are no experts, only enthusiasts and co-conspirators. There, where we’re all frauds and hustlers, the world cracks open a little bit, and even a band as precious and yacht-rocky as Steely Dan – Steely Dan! – can find a place at the table of joy.

Peter Coviello is a professor of English at Bowdoin College, where he talks mostly about Whitman, joy, Mormon polygamy, and American literature. His newest book is Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century American Literature.

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