Steely Dan: The Royal Scam (1976)

Four years old.

Standing with my face pressed against the front of the jukebox at Jerry’s Pizza King, outside Tampa. Chaser lights flashing. Music blasting. If I reached with all my might, I could almost touch the selector buttons. “Do It Again” at full volume. I heard that song so many times that I assumed every other child was listening to the same thing in their heads. (Two years later, it would be Side One of Apostrophe that my tender little mind and heart would be absorbing through osmosis and repetition.)

College. Austin, Texas. Sun Harvest Farms, hawking produce. Muzak. “Hey Nineteen”. “Peg”. “Babylon Sister”. My psyche’s hazy aural backdrop. I should find out who this is and get some. On compact digital chromium oxide cassette.

And pretty soon, it’s all I’m listening to. Again. But this time, by my own choice. Wait. Never mind. I have no choice. It’s the only thing that consistently soothes me.

Orlando. Indianapolis. Puerto Rico (“the city of St. John…”). Back to CONUS. Japan. Years fly by. Circumstances change. But The Dan is always there, playing in the background. Even put out some new stuff. (Most of which I love.) But the classic soundtrack remains.

Fast forward to present day. Back to vinyl. Digging in to the meat of things. Who played on what. Reviews. Interviews. And best of all, instant access to direct quotes from Don and Walt themselves. DVDs revealing ‘behind the scenes’ of tracking sessions. Mixdown sessions. How many lead guitar breaks were considered for that song. Who said what. Who propped up a cardboard sign in front of his drumset. A doorway into a dreamworld.

But those doors never take me as far through those inner hallways as the music itself. They might show me a little more of Don and Walt. But as it turns out, that was never what I was searching for. As it turns out, I was searching for more insight into my own self. And somehow the music is the mirror.

“Arch pop ditties.” The inner sleeve notes on Aja are hysterical. Suitable for framing. And give some real insight into the genius of these two guys. There. I said it. I guess by now, Gentle Reader, you’ve figured out that the Black Wax team strongly approves of the musical pursuits of Steely Dan.

I downloaded the Internet and found that The Wikipedia has this to say about The Royal Scam: “The album was not as highly rated upon its release as its predecessors with most reviewers noting that it did not seem to represent any musical advancement.” Of course, hindsight is 20/20. The Royal Scam is a work of art, and as such, is celebrated on turntables from Topanga to Watts. Brooklyn, even.

Side one

  1. Kid Charlemagne” – 4:38
    Guitar solo by Larry CarltonThe Wikipedia tells us it’s a song about Bear. Upbeat. Cryptic. When I was eight years old and the bicentennial stickers were at eye-level on the glass doors of every convenience store, the funny pants, the crazy moustaches and all other accoutrements (sights, sounds, smells) of the era were like water to the fish: so normal, common and accepted as to be seemingly invisible. More than 35 years later, the lyrics elicit a smile and vague memories of a wild time. Sorry I was only a kid and missed it, but it’s probably a good thing I was only a kid and missed it. A sad and wiser man, all the same.
  2. “The Caves of Altamira” – 3:33[7]

    Larry Carlton. Mister 335. Hero.

    Tenor saxophone solo by John KlemmerIs that hope I hear in the chord progression?

    My friend Wiki says, “The lyrics, written in first person on the theme of art, follow in typically abstruse fashion the story of a young boy who would avoid society by entering a cave and admiring cave paintings on its walls.”So, art as escape… the cave of the psyche… make up your own.

  3. “Don’t Take Me Alive” – 4:16
    Guitar solo by Larry CarltonHere’s a little gem I found at
    http://www.guitaretab.com/s/steely-dan/18296.html :

    • Date: Mon, 2 Oct 1995 20:31:44 -0300
      From: Bruce & Peggy Mackinnon
      Subject: s/steely_dan/don't_take_me_alive.crd
      INTRO:
      First slowly strum out a G7#9 with this shape: EADGBE
                                                     355466
      This may look like an impossibility, like a cruel, unusual and
      unplayable chord, but it can be done. You must use the power
      of the force. First you use your ring (3rd) finger to cover
      BOTH the 4th and 5th strings on the 5th fret (straight down on
      the fingertip, not barred), and next you  use the baby finger to
      barre both the 1st and 2nd strings on the 6th fret. Of course your
      index finger is on the 6th string, 3rd fret, and your middle
      finger is on the 3rd string, 4th fret.

      Thank you, dear friends, for shining a light on that godforsaken first chord. Like the opening chord to “A Hard Day’s Night“, it wakes many of us guitarists from our peaceful slumber. Killing dreams. Crushing souls. Well, mine anyway.

  4. “Sign in Stranger” – 4:23
    Piano Solo by Paul GriffinGuitar Solo by Elliott RandallStories of the seedy underworld. Like most Dan songs. I can almost see these cretins standing in line, queueing up politely as they can. Slowly winding back and forth through the little rope barriers, quietly working their way toward the Glass Booth. Lady behind the glass sitting there with a bored look as one after another shuffles up, pushes giant wads of cash through the slot and fills out the application to make those mugshots disappear. But even the tempo and erratic piano solo suggest a looser, more laid-back, under-the-table approach to things. Maybe a bit more informal than signs with arrows and “for service ring bell”. To each our own, right?

    The Dan in 1970

  5. “The Fez” (Becker, Fagen, Paul Griffin) – 4:01
    Guitar solo by Walter BeckerIt would be decades before I’d learn that they weren’t talking about the guys with the go carts. The tradeoff for losing innocence is finally being in on the joke. Bittersweet. But worth it, I think, in the end.

Side two

  1. “Green Earrings” – 4:05
    Guitar solos by Denny Dias (1st) and Elliott Randall(2nd)I can see her. The dental work. The way she pushes her hair back behind her ear without even being aware of it.
  2. “Haitian Divorce” – 5:51
    Talk box guitar solo by Dean Parks, altered by Walter BeckerHopelessly in love with the way “soon everybody knew the thing was dead” happens before we’re even through with Verse One. Ever been divorced? New York City’s tie with sunny islands / foreshadowing for the end of the album is happening here in spades. I could make up something here about intertwining story lines and hypothetical spectres. Best if I just stick to personal opinion. I like it.

    Modern-day Dan.

  3. Everything You Did” – 3:55
    Guitar solo by Larry CarltonThis is not my beautiful wife. This is not my beautiful house.
  4. The Royal Scam” – 6:30
    Guitar solo by Larry Carlton
    Quite possibly one of the greatest Dan songs of all time. Cold. Calculated. Brooding. The lyrics are pure poetry. Contrast. Bright colors against shades of gray. The American Dream. The lies we tell to keep it alive, even as we’re being plowed under.The percussion work is brilliant. Actually, it feels rather pointless to say that any aspect of the music is brilliant or amazing, since all of it is. “That wave is so WET!” Okay. Whatever.Still. The crazy, subtle hand percussion that happens at the very beginning of the song, behind the piano (the tapping, clicking, whatever it is) really adds to the spookiness. The darkness. And this is truly the perfect song to summarize the entire album. The seventies. The American Dream.

    Call me a jaded cynic. Call me what you will. Steely Dan for President.

    RATING: 11 Stars out of 11. The Perfect Album in every way.

    EPILOGUE: Lots of love for Mister Whatever on the Webs. For starters, go here: http://www.steelydandictionary.com/

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Rant: Five Weeks without a turntable

I’d always wondered what I’d grab on my way out the door if the house ever caught fire.

Now, with the wife and the cat safely outside, eleven p.m. on a cold, December, Colorado night, getting my answer didn’t seem nearly as satisfying, or romantic, as I’d hoped. Hopping on one leg down the hallway, wallet and keys in the backpack on my arm, trying to put on my jacket and a boot simultaneously, it all became unceremoniously clear:

1) Wife’s new Martin acoustic. A no-brainer.

2) My ’96 PRS CU24. Also a no-brainer.

3) Laptop (WITH power cord). My connection to the world.

That was it. As we stood outside in the 10-degree F. weather for more than two hours, surrounded by emergency vehicles of all shapes and sizes, I realized that my two-week winter vacation (scheduled to start the next day, which I’d planned to spend writing and recording for the new album) was shot.

And I was right. That two weeks would be spent living in a local hotel, driving to the house each day, checking on the cleanup crews, talking with insurance agents (who were all on vacation for the holidays, naturally), wandering around town trying not to spend money frivolously, wishing, just WISHING I had my kitchen back so I could make a simple sandwich in the privacy of my own home without having to place an order, wait for the food, wait for the check, wait for the waiter to return with my card and the check, figure the tip, and try, just TRY to get out for less than $20, only to head back to the hotel for a late afternoon/early evening mind-numbing cocktail and prayers to the Hotel Gods that tonight’s new neighbors would not have small children who were excited to see the historic train, located some fifty feet away.

To be expected, no doubt.

But what I’d NOT expected was that today, more than Five Weeks later, on my birthday, no less, I’d STILL be without albums and turntable! As it stands at this very moment, all 600 or so LP’s are safely stored in an upstairs closet, where cleanup crews could not find them proudly displayed and accidentally send them crashing to the floor as they tried to move an entire 7-foot tall book case loaded down with precious vinyl.

“Better safe than sorry,” said I, and took it upon myself to make no fewer than 23 trips up and down the fifteen stairs to hide them safely out of sight and mind, protected from the clumsy fingers of the unannointed.

And let me tell you, Five Weeks is a long time.

Long enough to grow numb to the silence-enshrouded dinners. Long enough to forget the joy of arranging and rearranging. Long enough, in fact, to forget what I even have in the collection at all.

But today marked the end of cleanup crews. The end of painters, plastic drop cloths, and unexpected visits from clean and sober folks who talk way too loudly. Not quite the end of insurance paperwork, but we don’t live in a perfect world. Not yet.

And yet now, with freedom on the horizon, it occurs to me that there’s No Better Time than the present to rearrange our living situation. “If EVER there was a time to make those changes, it’s NOW, BEFORE making that second batch of 23 flights up and down the stairs with armloads of albums.” While I can’t bear the thought of another single day without being able to listen to my vinyl, at the same time, I can’t seem to decide on the best way to store them so they’re all at EYE LEVEL, within reasonable proximity to the turntable.

Prologue: the vinyl, back in action, a few days after this rant.

This, of course, is to say nothing of the issue of arranging the albums themselves. I’ve never been an “alphabetical” kind of guy… how can the Beatles and Black Sabbath be neighbors? Back in the day, I always arranged by emotional state. One of my favorite on-screen moments is John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity… arranging his albums autobiographically. And Dick, walking through the stacks of LP’s, as if in a trance, trying desperately to sound cool… “I could help you… uh… man… if you want…” or something like that. I’m not going to google the script right this moment.

My point, if there can possibly be one on a night like tonight, is that I’m tired, and I want to listen to my records again. But there are miles to go before I drop the needle on the wax again. Maybe this weekend? (Maybe tomorrow, maybe next summer… Girl, I just don’t know…)

Bottom line: Life without vinyl sucks. Life with vinyl, but without the means to play it, is treacherous. And life with a ton of vinyl that you love, that was NOT destroyed in the house fire, that is stashed away in the closet at the top of the stairs waiting for you to come bring it back into rotation, is, somehow, divine.