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Steely Dan – Writer-insighter
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Pretzel logic

Long long ago when the world was young and me, well, I was younger too a band called Steely Dan used to play a song called Pretzel Logic in the days when bands apart from The Archies had to usually write their own songs, then play them on instruments they had to learn and then sing them themselves. I know!!! How fake is that!?!?! It’ll never catch on.

Well it did, because there wasn’t any other way of doing it.  People like Frank Sinatra never sang a darned thing they’d ever written because that’s not what they did and so far as I can guess, Elvis and Suzi Quatro didn’t either. Suzi Quattro. I mean, what? As someone who is a little over 21, each time I see this I can’t believe I saw this. It wasn’t just the obvious bra-less ness, (like OMG) or even the leather jumpsuit, or the huge hairy blokes she surrounded herself with (and apparently it was the drummer, I seem to remember, if I got that right). It wasn’t just the fact that back in ’73 this stuff went out on air live at 7:30 on a Thursday on Top of the Pops.

Suzi Quatro.  A healthy influence on fourteen year-old boys, back then. It explains a lot, doesn't it?
Suzi Quatro was considered a healthy influence on fourteen year-old boys, back then. It explains quite a lot, doesn’t it?

That’s right morality crusaders. Ever wondered why youth street crime went up? Back in the day you could leave your back door unlocked, if you’ll pardon the expression, because every malenky nadsat droog was safe at home trying to memorise every stitch in the  seams in the lingering crotch shots the BBC thought appropriate before the watershed. And there were quite a few.

Were they strange times? I don’t know. Like any time, we all thought it was normal, even when we heard stuff like Sparks singing some of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. It wasn’t just the bloke who played the keyboards and looked a bit like Hitler, or his androgynous brother (how weird was that, man? as we said back then). It was the whole, you know. Thing. We were fourteen or something. Why did we have to deal with stuff like this? I mean, it wasn’t 1918, except for the Souix.

But then, why did we buy it?  Because we did. We all bought hugely into the whole sad song laments of Americans dragging thirty (how old? Nobody’s THAT old, man) not least because back before the whole interwebby thing and Wikipedia it wasn’t easy to find out that Ian Hunter was born in 1939.

I’m sorry, I still need to pause to let the horror of that statement go away a bit. “I got out my six string razor and hit the sky.” As we said back then, what does that even mean? Did we ever listen to the words when we heard bands like Eagles, singing coked-out dead-end laments like Desperado and Hotel California? How did that resonate with someone less than half their age, living 5,000 miles away on an estate in Trowbridge? Because it did.

Probably it meant just the same as it means now. The words change but the feeling doesn’t. Someone said to me yesterday, “you’re good with words when you speak. But when you write it down it’s shit. Sorry.” And sometimes, she’s right. I can’t catch that feeling, the way the music made us feel, the way it probably makes younger people feel now. Same things, different words. The same feeling, just a different way of saying it. I thought that as we sat on our bar stools as the music played. This hasn’t changed in three decades, for either of us.

For me, it was always Deacon Blues. Back before I had to do something about un-becoming the expanding man in the opening line (yes I did, yes you can, buy the programme…) Steely Dan’s song did it for me. It got in my head. It became my anthem. I don’t drink scotch whisky all night long. Not for years. I don’t drink drive. But I sometimes think the real thing I should do is learn to work the saxophone and play just what I feel. I’ve been called many names when I’ve lost, usually short ones but they still don’t call me Deacon Blue.  There are days, more often nights, when I wish they did. Somewhere in that parallel universe, sometimes, just sometimes when the nights are getting longer and the apple wood smoke is heavy on the ground, when the winter starts to feel its way through your clothes, somewhere they still do.

And pretzel logic? Oh, you know how that works. Or maybe you don’t, if you’re lucky. It’s late and the words make perfect sense at the time and they curl back on themselves and make their own sense, in a big circle, like one of those who was that Dutch guy who did the drawings of lizards running upstairs in a circle. You want another?  You drive here? You know how that thinking works and where it’s going, at least until you sober up.

So as The Archies used to say, pour a little sugar on it, baby. Just pour a little sugar on it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

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Learn to play the saxophone

Back in Wisconsin – it’s not a bad start, is it?

Actually it’s not a brilliant start if you know Wisconsin. Nothing much happens there. It’s a land of lakes, America’s dairyland, full of pine trees, water and mosquitos, empty roads and rain clouds a lot more of the time than I expected that summer. A place of big old wooden barns on farms that looked like something out of a child’s picture book, or the American picture books I grew up on, anyway. Hexmarks cut into the lintels told an older story, one the Scandinavian settlers brought with them in the 1800s when they came to clear this land.

Like any country place, there wasn’t much there. The local people were either desperate to get away or sometimes just desperate, trapped and often as not contemplating a lifetime of temporary jobs and drunkenness, pretty much the two options available when some of the lakes had eight feet of snow of them four months of the year.

I saw an elk there, splashing through the shallows near an island I’d sailed too, so impossibly huge it was like a dinosaur up close. On land I wouldn’t have got so close. Writing this is bringing a lot of memories back, so much I nearly wrote  gotten.

I was on summer camp. I went there to teach children to shoot because I couldn’t find a job in England that summer. I didn’t want to join the Army or be an accountant or a solicitor and where I lived there didn’t seem to be much else to do as the factories shut and the ordered world my parents talked about seemed to be as credible and real as anything else parents ever say, which in my house wasn’t much. For eight weeks six days a week I drilled the basics of not shooting yourself or anyone else by accident or design into groups of five children, aged between eight and sixteen. I bought a twelve year-old Chevrolet and tooled around the backroads like a Springsteen refugee, sometimes with one of the counsellors from one of the other summer-camps nearby.  Where I grew up we sometimes had Max Boyce singing how the pit-head baths were a supermarket now; if I drove around Eagle River today I could reflect on how Nancy-Jean was a professor of performance art now and won awards for her story-telling children’s books. The difference seemed significant to me, then and now.

The time and place for Nancy-Jean’s story and how I drove down to Indiana and cleaned up a sawmill the wrong side of the railroad tracks isn’t now; now was when I started to learn to play the saxophone. I had a friend on camp called Mel Taylor. I still can’t find-out what happened to him. He came from Kentucky where every boy learns to shoot and fish the same way you learn to tie your shoelaces anywhere else. His uncle made speedboats and played the saxophone. He’d loaned Mel his old one to take to camp, see if he wanted to learn to play it. He did a little, I did more, so a few afternoons a week I’d borrow this old tenor sax and take it out to the shooting range after we’d closed, or out into the woods beyond if I was feeling more uncertain about the sound than usual. Mel was able to show me how to put my lips on the mouthpiece, just about and the rest was up to me. I had a load of Glenn Miller songs in my head, along with Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Motel’s Total Control. It was a long time before I could even think about having that over anything I played.

I wanted to come back to London and join a band, maybe stay with a friend in Camden while I worked the pub-band circuit, drinking Scotch whisky all night long and playing just what I feel. A foggy wet winter on Eversholt Street was a lot different to anything Steely Dan had in mind though, as I knew already.

That’s how it started. It’s still going on. There isn’t anything much about saxophones in Not Your Heart Away, except I kept playing Kate Bush’s Saxophone Song while I was writing it. I kept hearing that sound in my head for pretty much always.  You’ll find me in a Berlin bar, in a corner brooding. You know that I go very quiet when I’m listening to you summed-up a lot of that book, listening to my memories, listening to ghosts of the past and the future. That’s just what I feel. I’m still learning to play it. These days it’s a 1924 Martin Low Tone.

 

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Low Tone

Back in 1995 I got a saxophone for Christmas. I thought it was a shotgun.

It was an easy mistake to make, the kind that could happen to anyone. We’d gone down to a flat we’d got hold of in Lyme Regis and while it was all French Lieutenant’s Woman it was freezing and bleak and apart from walking there wasn’t a huge amount to do. When I brought the bags in from the car I thought the heavy square box was a cased 12-bore, which was unexpected but then, so was a saxophone.

I’d wanted to play one for years but got slightly beyond the age when you can tap on garage doors and ask the teenagers practising if you can jam with them. No thanks to Jimmy Saville, but as Louis Jordan used to sing, you cain’t get that no more. 

I was about thirteen when I bought my first LP, the original RCA Victor Glenn Miller recordings from 1943/44. Nobody liked that, then. Older people who knew it from the first time around didn’t seem to listen to it, but maybe they’d heard about enough of it already. I still can’t see how that’s possible. People my age weren’t into it then. It’s nice to know that one or two are now. It wasn’t just me.

I don’t know what it is about that sound. It wasn’t so much Tex Beneke who arguably had as much to with establisahing how the band sounded as Glenn Miller did himself or Charlie Parker or even, as we learned, them Duke boys’s big city uncle, Bill Clinton. It was all of it, the wrap-around warmth of the sound. That would have been something I could have done with, back then. It was reassuring, somehow, the reassurance helped by the distance between then and now, because you can’t hear that Big Band sound in England, something like Moonlight Serenade without realising why all those Americans were here, bringing the tunes with them. Close your eyes to that music and you can still see the Fortresses and Liberators slowly waltzing through the sky, the quick step as the bomb loads drop away, the dainty pirouettes of the fighters boring through the formation, the innocent wisp of smoke from first an engine, then a fuselage and then the pyre of twelve men dropping through five miles of sky. It was an odd childhood. We were haunted by the War. Nobody talked about it. It was so big nobody had to. My school was full of kids with names from two thousand miles away whose parents hardly ever spoke about how they got there. Every toy-shop window had the plastic 1:72 scale Airfix memorials to the jeeps and tanks and planes and boats lots of our fathers knew much too well back when they were just ten years older than we were, looking through the glass from the street.

Learn to play the saxophone

But it was still good music. It was what I wanted to play. And later, when I heard it, I wanted to play Louis Jordan and the Motels and Dexy’s Midnight Runners and of course, of course Kid Creole and the Coconuts and Springsteen and Steely Dan and Cole Porter. I liked that honeyed sound. I liked the seduction of it all. Who wouldn’t? When I was on summer camp one year in Wisconsin I used to take a friend’s uncle’s sax out into the woods and learn how to make sounds with it and by the end of camp I could run through some of the easier Glenn Miller tunes from the memorial library in my head as well as have a stab at the solo in the Motel’s Total Control. There was someone I really, really wanted to play that to. One day, maybe.

Learning to read music would have helped and it still would, but until then I just have to play just what I feel, in the absence of a more formal, structured approach. I know I should. I will. But I’ve got stuff to do first. You know how it is. I’ve got to listen to Deacon Blue – no, the real one, the one Deacon Blue got their name from – a lot before I go back to Every Good Boy Deserves Favour on the stave. That’s the song I want at my funeral. How cool would that be?

The Spring I got my sax I had four top front crowns done. I spent nearly two hours getting my teeth ground off. The dentist told me it wouldn’t hurt and he was right, but he warned me it would probably do stuff to my head, stuff you couldn’t see. He was right about that too. He’d told me to bring a CD in. He forgot to say bring a CD that is going to take your attention for a long time but one you don’t mind never listening to again. It was Mozart. I haven’t been able to listen to it ever since. After that I was more than a little wary of biting hard on anything for months, even though my brand new Terminator-style replicant teeth would have happily bitten straight through the mouthpiece and looked darned good while they did it. Even so, I didn’t want to play sax for a long time.

Me and Teresa, sax and voice

Once I’d had a dream of living in Camden and playing in pub bands. That was a dream that might have happened if I’d (a) had a saxophone then and more importantly (b) done anything at all about it. Just recently someone was getting a band together, a reunion of a band they’d had at university. I said I’d play. I’d never, ever played in public before and up to the night before I was still wondering if anyone I was with would ever talk to me again if I said I wasn’t going to do it. But I did it, thanks to some wonderful support. It taught me something I wish I’d learned a long, long time ago, even if I do still remember how that music used to make me smile. Friends don’t care if you mess up. They care a lot more if you don’t do what you can.

When I got back home after that weekend I’ve tried to get an hour a day practising, accompanying those old tunes, the really old ones and the ones that when I first heard them weren’t old at all. I looked up my Martin Handcraft on the web, using the matching serial numbers to find out when it was made. This particular Low Tone, so old they didn’t call them tenor saxes in those days, was made in the summer of 1924. I’ve cleaned it as well as practiced more with it. I’m going to get a decent brass mouthpiece because I think it deserves something a little better than the £9.99 piece of plastic I’ve been using and losing control of the reed on, after about half an hour. Odd to think of it being that old though. That same sax, all the way from Indiana, was around before every one of the musicians I’ve been talking about here. Any one of them could have played it. I don’t know how, or when it got to England. But I can make a story about it.

 

 

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