Different Perspective

With the plethora of spy (okay, “surveillance”) cameras in Britishland city streets, this pic has often been described as ironic:

Me, I just see another typical IngSoc cock-up: the camera stand is too short to see into the window, so they turned it around to face the street instead.

That’s how Orwell got to write Animal Farm and 1984, unnoticed by the authorities.

The Dan

I was truly saddened by the death of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker earlier this week, and I was going to write something about him and Donald Fagen when I remembered that I’d already done so back in October 2007. I found the piece, re-read it and cannot add a single thing to it. Here it is.

No Pumpkins Here

After revealing my love for the music of ABBA and the BeeGees last week, I got an email from a Reader:

Okay, I can’t believe you like that commercial crap, with your taste in classical music and all. What is your favorite kind of music then?

Leaving aside the classical music for a moment, to concentrate on errrr “modern” music, I have to say that I prefer complex music when it comes to pure listening pleasure.

“Favorites” is a loaded term, because in making that decision, it almost depends what I last listened to.

You all know about my “art rock” preferences (eg. Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, Happy The Man, and Jethro Tull), so I’m not going to talk about that stuff here.

Those who know my dislike for jazz, however, may be surprised by a band whom I absolutely love, and whose albums I have in their entirety: Steely Dan.

There is a need and a time for straight-ahead rock, and then there’s a time to enjoy the dense, complex music patterns of Messrs. Fagen and Becker.

I started off with Steely Dan’s Royal Scam album—I’d heard their earlier hits like Reeling In The Years, but for some reason I never got round to listening to their albums. Then, on a whim one day, I bought Royal Scam along with a couple of other tapes, to listen to on a long car trip I was taking.

For the next four days, the Steely Dan album was the only music I listened to—none of the others could hold up. To this day, if I hear a single song off the album, I have to get the CD out and listen to the rest.

Lots of words have been written about Steely Dan’s music, so I’m not really going to add many of my own to the chorus. Suffice it to say that whenever someone asks me to list my favorite songs of all time, it’s really difficult for me—because I can’t even list my favorite Steely Dan songs, so much do I enjoy them. The arrangements are tight and dense. I use the word “dense” a lot with their music, because there’s really no other way to describe the busyness—there’s always a lot going on with the instruments, but even within each instrument, all sorts of stuff is happening. (The next time Donald Fagen plays a straight major chord will probably be his first.)

And all the musicians who’ve ever played with Fagen and Becker have been artists and craftsmen of the highest order. To see exactly how good these guys were, you have to try and play a few Steely Dan songs—and I don’t mean an approximation of the song, I mean an exact copy of the song, to see how good these guys really were. I think I only ever managed a few: The Fez, Don’t Take Me Alive, With a Gun [duh], and Boston Rag. Players like Skunk Baxter, Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton were the norm, not the stars—and current bassist Freddie Washington is beyond astonishing in his virtuosity.

But above all, one has to allow that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker themselves are brilliant musicians, and beyond-brilliant composers and arrangers. The cerebral, cultured Fagen and explosively-funny, irreverent Becker combine to make music that is… cerebral, cultured, funny and irreverent. And just to make things more confusing, they look like a pair of Ivy League college professors:

I’m also love with, in addition to the music itself, the wry, ironic feel to the lyrics and melodies. This is really unusual for me, because when it comes to that kind of thing, I’m an unashamed sucker and romantic. Hell, I’ve shed many a tear on maudlin ballads of the Streets Of London genre, but of course, tears are not what comes from listening to the hip, sly and obscure Steely Dan lyrics—that would not be cool, after all; and “cool” is a word which describes Steely Dan’s music better than any other. “Cool”, in lesser hands, could easily lead to “cold”, but it’s impossible to feel that way when listening to, say, Any Major Dude or Pretzel Logic.

And if you can’t see the comic genius and intellect of the people who wrote this letter and this article, you’re beyond redemption.

For the musicians among my Readers, I tend to prefer Skunk Baxter’s guitar work over Larry Carlton’s, not for any technical reasons—Carlton is a genius—but simply because I like Baxter’s sound for this kind of music. But that doesn’t stop me from preferring Royal Scam (a “Carlton” album) to any other of their offerings.

Did I imply from the above that I have a “favorite” Steely Dan album? Well, maybe. Royal Scam is certainly the first among equals, but then again, that’s just because I haven’t heard Countdown To Ecstasy or Pretzel Logic recently.

So I’m going to go and remedy that situation, right now. You could do worse than follow my example.

If you’ve never heard Steely Dan before (and there may be one or two sad souls who haven’t), and you like your music to have a complex, slightly jazzy feel, then here’s Amazon’s main Steely Dan page. Help yourself, to any one. You will not be disappointed, regardless of your choice; and how many bands can you say that about?

(I’d recommend the Citizen Steely Dan set for a starter choice, myself.)

And of course, not all Steely Dan’s lyrics were cynical and ironic.

Charlie Freak had but one thing to call his own
Three weight ounce pure golden ring no precious stone
Five nights without a bite
No place to lay his head
And if nobody takes him in
He’ll soon be dead

On the street he spied my face I heard him hail
In our plot of frozen space he told his tale
Poor man, he showed his hand
So righteous was his need
And me so wise I bought his prize
For chicken feed

Newfound cash soon begs to smash a state of mind
Close inspection fast revealed his favorite kind
Poor kid, he overdid
Embraced the spreading haze
And while he sighed his body died
In fifteen ways

When I heard I grabbed a cab to where he lay
‘Round his arm the plastic tag read D.O.A.
Yes Jack, I gave it back
The ring I could not own
Now come my friend I’ll take your hand
And lead you home.

R.I.P. Walter

 

Blenheim Salon Part 2

So after having ogled the cars etc. in the exhibition area (and the avenue leading into the exhibition, see yesterday’s post), Your Humble Narrator ambled off to the auction hall, where sundry items of deliciousness were to be found, pre-auction. Once more, I shall say but little, just post a few examples. The model dates are approximate, for reasons which will become apparent later.

1963 MG:

1950 Jaguar Mk V:

1958 Mercedes 300S:

1962 Sunbeam Tiger:

1965 Lancia Flavia (This car was so beautiful — the picture does not do it justice — that I wanted to marry it so that it could bear my children. Suffice it to say that of all the automotive pulchritude on display, even Mr. FM had found it memorable.)

1958 Jaguar XK 140:

Now, I have to confess that Mr. FM was getting somewhat impatient, tapping his watch and muttering something about “getting going before darkness falls”. Also, I have to confess that by this point, some six hours since our arrival, I was starting to feel the effects of the open bar at the Privé — let’s just say that I’d consumed fairly substantial quantities of wine, champagne and J&B — and I think Mr. FM was trying to spare me from the indignity of loud proposals of marriage to some of the cars. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.

So he bundled me into the Range Rover and off we went — but curiously, not along the same road we’d come in on. Instead, he took an abrupt turn off the main road and plunged down into a series of hills and dales along an allegedly two-lane road that was so narrow, I would have had trouble riding a Fiat 500 down it without grazing both rearview mirrors on the roadside hedgerows. Then, as the evening sun was getting close to the horizon and we reached the bottom of a valley, he pulled off onto a small piece of open land and said, “You might want to take a picture of this.”

And I did; more than one. First, the house of (I think) the owner of the property:

…followed by a couple of vistas:

Good grief. Words cannot describe the beauty of the Cotswolds. You just have to see it for yourself.

Then we went home, and Mr. FM and I finished the day’s festivities off by imbibing vast quantities of whisky before retiring for the night.

Altogether, an unforgettable day, and one for which I will be eternally grateful to my gracious host.

A Second Guilty Pleasure

Longtime Readers may recall that I’ve confessed to a guilty pleasure: reading writer John Sandford’s novels (both the Lucas Davenport- and Virgil Flowers sagas). Well, old Lucas is getting a little long in the tooth (although his latest career move seems to have rejuvenated him), and I’m a little iffy about Virgil Flowers’ character, so subconsciously I’ve been looking for a replacement guilty pleasure — and I think I’ve found it.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Volker Kutscher‘s Inspector Gereon Rath of the Berlin CID’s Homicide Division. Except that whereas Davenport and Flowers are both set in contemporary Minneapolis, Rath is busy solving murders in Depression-era Berlin — to be specific, 1929-1938: one of my all-time favorite periods of history, and my dream setting for a novel*.

I think Rath is one of the best characters in fiction, of any genre, and I am so fortunate to have discovered him. (By the way, I found Babylon Berlin by chance at Foyle’s Books, which makes up for my disappointment at their “modernization” of the venerable establishment.) I read the novel in one night, and went straight back the next day to buy Silent Death.)

And the novels really are terrific: as I said, Babylon Berlin took me just one night to read and Silent Death only a little longer than that, because I didn’t want it to end quickly, so much was I enjoying it. Sadly, only these two (of the half-dozen Rath novels extant) have been translated into English so far, so I won’t be able to binge-read them; but you can be sure I’ll buy the rest as soon as they’re available. (Sadly, my conversational German is adequate, but my literary German is schrecklich, so I’ll just have to be patient.)

Even better, Babylon Berlin has been made into a 16-part TV series for German TV, so if anyone from Netflix is reading this… oh, wait: someone’s on the ball already. I can’t wait.


*I was contemplating writing a companion piece to Vienna Days, to be set in 1928 Berlin, but there’s no need now: Kutscher has relieved me of the responsibility. So: 1900 Budapest it will have to be.

Back Home

…at Free Market Towers, where little has changed, of course. There may be a new servant or two, but I haven’t seen them yet — no doubt, I’ll make their acquaintance at the next flogging.

Speaking of which, a friend sent me a genuine hippo-hide sjambok as a present, which of course I’m going to pass on to the Free Markets.

The servants are not going to enjoy this…