The Shuffle Diplomacy Tour rolls on. Saturday night, Steely Dan played the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, a brand new, beautiful outdoor venue situated near the Black Warrior river, not too far from the campus of the University of Alabama. This was the band’s first visit to Tuscaloosa, a town still recovering from a devastating tornado that passed through in April. I have family in town, but fortunately they all were relatively unscathed. My in-laws did have some minor roof damage, but that was it. Others were not so lucky. I saw the destruction first hand, and I know that many lives were changed dramatically. Hopefully, Steely Dan provided a brief respite for those who lost so much in the storms. Two Against Nature!
Saturday wasn’t Dan’s first concert in Alabama. That distinction goes to Orange Beach (The Wharf) in 2009. However, it was their first time at the home of Crimson Tide. I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to go, but I was there in spirit. I do have a cousin who attended — her first Steely Dan concert. We exchanged a few texts during the show. And of course they played “Deacon Blues.” And of course the crowd loved it. I wonder if you could hear them from across the river.
They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
The call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues
Growing up in Tuscaloosa, in the era of Bear Bryant, you were a Crimson Tide fan. You just were. And when you heard a tune on the radio that talked about the winners in the world, and that cited the Crimson Tide as the prime example of such a winner, you took note. Granted, it’s a superficial reason to notice a song, but there was also Pete Christlieb’s saxophone. The song became a staple of local radio — FM radio. In fact, the Crimson Tide’s Million Dollar Band has periodically rotated the tune through its active repertoire ever since.
Later, as you get older and (hopefully) wiser, you realize that Dan were probably agnostic about the Iron Bowl. You figure out that the point of “Deacon Blues” wasn’t really to sing the praises of the Tide, or of NCAA football, or of any sport for that matter. You get that Dan were making a study in contrasts: a down-on-his-luck deacon in the church of the blues, approaching his last stand, his back against the wall, pleading his case to those of his kind, versus a champion with a winning streak like that of the Tide, in the 70s, under the Bear. And crimson is about as far away from blue as you can imagine. Or is it?
Much has been said and written about “Deacon Blues,” but perhaps my favorite description comes from Walter Becker himself. In the 2000 DVD documentary, Classic Albums: Aja, Becker proffers this:
“The protagonist is not a musician. He just sort of imagines that that might be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire. And who’s to say that he’s not right about a thing like that?”
Wow! Let us pause and ponder. 🙂 It’s probably unwise to try to add to that. But here goes. I see “Deacon Blues” as nothing less than Steely Dan’s Declaration of Independence, their Danifesto, if you will, the distilled essence of Steely Dan. If there is one overarching theme, one important take-away from the entire Dan body of work, it’s contained in “Deacon Blues.” It’s about doing it your own way, about being behind the wheel, consequences be damned. It’s about taking possession of your freedom. It’s about the victory found deep inside defeat. If you’ve never shed a tear while listening to this tune, then I submit you’re not really listening.
And the Dan were clearly teaching by example. With Aja in particular, they had bought the dream, fully implemented the crazy scheme. Were they a rock band? Were they a jazz band? Or were they the singular example of a genre of their very own? Were they a band at all? Were they studio hermits? Or were the studio and the session players merely additional instruments at their disposal? Were they a brand? A concept? A philosophy? A new religion? Whatever they were, they were exactly who they were supposed to be. I think Donald and Walter were just unconcerned with established labels and stale, preconceived notions of how music should be created. And I think that remains true for the current incarnation of the band as well.
I’ve lived in Atlanta now for as long as I lived in Tuscaloosa, but I still have a special affinity for my hometown. When I saw the tornado devastation, and I came to terms with the fact that places I remember so fondly were no longer there, I realized how much I still love the place. It was there that I first heard the Dan on my radio. Long before “Deacon Blues.” I love that Steely Dan went to T-town to sing about the Crimson Tide and winners, losers, and gold teeth and such. I love that there’s a new amphitheater by the river. I love that my cousin — an Auburn fan — was in attendance. Perhaps music transcends team rivalries. In your teens, you are grabbed by the mention of a favorite team. But in your forties, you are held by something deeper. You’ve lived a little. You realize the Dan were way ahead of you. This too is the essence of Steely Dan. It’s not a band you grow out of. It’s a band you grow up with and into.