Music as craft: "Hey, listen to this!"

Few things compare to the sudden burst of pleasure you get when someone you care about comes to understand something you care about.

Thus, once again, we turn to one of my favorite subjects: music. Since my teenage years I've been something of a closet fan of Steely Dan. Why? I couldn't really say; when I first began listening to them, I wasn't quite clear on what I liked.

But I do remember babysitting Keenan Gillispie, waiting for his parents to come home after they'd been out late. I would turn out the lights, all except for the dimmest lamp in the room; dig bare toes into the Berber carpet, and put my headphones (to a tape player! shush!) on my head….and listen.What was it, exactly? I think now I know. Originally I would describe them as 'clever,' but now I think the term 'wise-ass' is better. A review I read summed it up well—the members of Steely Dan were the painfully-bright, misfit, wise-cracking kids who sat in the back of the classroom and made vicious, merciless fun of everyone else stuck in the room with them. While managing straight A's.

So, along through the years, I picked up a few albums—though not all. Picked up Donald Fagen's solo, Kamakiriad. Never did manage to find Walter Becker's solo album (nor Fagen's other solo, Nightfly).

When I heard, this past year, that Steely Dan was producing a new album, I was quite pleased. Caught them on Storytellers. Loved the new material. Joked for months that, "Yeah, I'm gonna tune into the Grammys, even though I know they don't have a chance in hell of winning anything for Two Against Nature."

Jeff can attest to the high-pitched "I'll be damned!" squeal, tone rising sharply on the last word, that came out of my mouth when they actually did win album of the year.

But it, apparently, took hearing Becker and Fagen's wise-ass commentary while being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to get Jeff intrigued about the band.

While delving into Women in Love, curled up under covers in the master bedroom, I heard familiar music. Jeff had spent a while today looking at the site Becker and Fagen had constructed, and I think hearing all this commentary finally got him interested enough to listen to some of their music.

Though, even now, I'm at a loss to explain why I like the music of Steely Dan so much. Maybe it's a misguided wish to be able to speak with such pith or sarcasm-laden wit. Perhaps Jeff wondered why it took five years into our relationship before he found out how much I liked this band; perhaps he now wonders what else I'm hiding in plain view inside our massive, ever-expanding, CD collection.

Postulate: then, as now, Steely Dan created music that isn't for public consumption. It's a guilty pleasure, a solo—but active—listening activity that doesn't work well in groups. It is not music to put on the stereo and turn up while cleaning house. It's music to put in your CD player while you've got headphones on and half an hour to puzzle over the lyric sheet. To listen to music not just as enjoyment and fluff and ear candy, but music as craft, as art, as painstakingly intricate endeavour, takes effort and solitude and time to think.

Jeff was greatly amused to listen to me talk about the music. "But—listen to this!" I'd say, skipping to another song. "Isn't this cool?" (So much of my music can be measured in terms of the "Isn't this cool?" factor, but that's a subject for another entry.)

Was he surprised to learn that a subject I hadn't discussed openly in the past three or four years was one that I was so passionate about? Possibly; I am maddeningly onion-like, especially when it comes to music, due to my lack of technical knowledge about it. Jeff has the musical training; I freely admit that I do not. Jeff sings, can play a couple of instruments, and can read music. I, given a few hours and nobody looking, can eventually puzzle out a line of notes in treble clef, as long as they're in the key of C.

(But, I will add, it is a painful and tedious process, best left to others. Give me words instead.)

Jeff could probably tell me what it is about the music that I find so incredibly fascinating, but it's almost like finding out how your Christmas presents got under the tree. I'd rather not think about it. It's just nice, for the first time in my life, to have someone else around now that I can play "Cousin Dupree" to.