Aja: More That A Continent…


The Era…

In the 1970s my social contemporaries we largely tied to the music of Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, Rush, Pink Floyd, and the like. Not that I didn’t have an ear for it too, I did. Listening to the rock & roll of the day was among my primary hobbies. It was an era when vinyl was king, and the thematic or the complete album was central to FM radio. Though this was also the era of disco and the early stages of punk rock, the FM radio of the day was all about dirty hippies making well-orchestrated masterpieces.

Counter to most of my friends at that time, one band I focused on more than Frank Zappa, Uriah Heap, or Deep Purple was Steely Dan. This was a band most of my friends couldn’t connect with, yet they were my obsession. With those who did though, it did seemed like we spoke another language.   Being a Steely Dan fan at the age of 15 landed one a very good seat at the rock & roll nerd table at school – just behind the kids from the short bus.

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The Scope and The Band…

Steely Dan’s heyday was from 1972-1977, though they are still active today. Starting with their first album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, the primary players were producer Gary Katz and musicians Donald Fagan and Walter Becker. Many musicians showed up on Steely Dan albums through the years. In the early years, the same dozen or so players were granted parts on most of their first five albums.

As the band evolved, the varying players were depended on to raise their game with each successive album. If they did not, they would be used less or not at all. Notwithstanding that as their music style changed, there might be less of a need for a flugelhorn, and thus less of a need for flugelhorn player Snooky young. By the time their 5th album, The Royal Scam was released, the hierarchy of Fagan, Becker, and Katz was firmly in place, but also beginning to strain. Though it would be a year before the world would hear their 6th album, that year took forever – at least for me.

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The Album…

We all know what it’s like to anticipate an album release. In the pre-internet, non-digital music days of my teens, this was the first album I remember truly waiting for. All we had in 1977 was teasers from Rolling Stone magazine, word of mouth from friends, and hints from DJs to tell us when a new album might be out. The buildup for Steely Dan’s 6th album was overwhelming – by design. When Aja was finally released in 1977, I was at Peaches Records & Tapes before anyone that day.   I took my fresh copy directly home and listened to both sides over and over for a couple of days on the Marantz stereo of my teens.

From the first track, Black Cow, I realized this album was distinct from any of their previous albums. It was large. Though they had always been a jazz influenced project, I never considered Steely Dan anything other than rock & roll. In hindsight so many years later, I consider Aja the first jazz album I ever owned.

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This was Steely Dan’s best album – period. Aja was made when producer Katz still had some say and control over the rotating players of the project that Fagan and Becker abused in process. Aja was Fagan’s vision, but it was to be was Katz’ finest work as producer. From beginning to end, there’s not a single bad track:

Black Cow

Aja

Deacon Blues

Peg Home at Last

I Got the News

Josie

No matter where my tastes in music have drifted through the years; punk rock, country, Americana, the paisley underground, blues, and jazz, Aja has been a constant, and has never been out of my rotation. I have owned Aja on vinyl 3 times, on cassette, on CD, and now I stream it digitally on a regular basis. Though the delivery system has changed through the years, the effect has not.

Listening to the song Deacon Blues frames my mind in the same way sitting on a jetty and staring the ocean’s vague horizon does. Time slows down. I relax. I breathe more deeply, and forget all things but the moment. Listening to the song Aja after a long day is like the first glass of wine before dinner; it subdues the monkeys perpetrating lesser thoughts in my head.

The Memory…

All these years later when I think of the 70s as a collective, I don’t default the image of a powder blue Volkswagen Bug with bold flower stickers all over it, Richard Nixon, The Godfather, images of Vietnam, hot pants, women’s lib, or even the Rolling Stones. When I think of the 70s, I think first of Aja, its album cover, the arrangements and the artistry it contains. I think of driving my Ford Fairlane to the edge of town alone on a Friday night, turning my Pioneer Super Tuner to 11, and laying on the hood — transporting my soul to a place I can’t fully define.

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If the fingerprints of my past are responsible for the all marks that have made my soul so scuffed and leathered through the years, being touched by Aja gives that soul a smooth feel and a golden tone – if only for an hour. Be well… rc

please take a moment to scroll up and honestly rate this.  thank you

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Please check back in a few weeks to see what happens when I hit the STOP button on the blender in my head.  Oh, and there’s this from Steely Dan’s album Pretzel Logic.  Enjoy!

13 responses

  1. Thanks for the memories, Roy! Music was so important to me then also. I had just started playing guitar, which I loved. I remember Steely Dan and their bluesy sound. I liked so many artists and groups than. I couldn’t learn a foreign language, but I could memorize the words to a thousand songs!

  2. Love this piece, Roy. I am a fan of (or at least I enjoy) every band you listed, but I admit, although my knowledge of music from “before my time” is extensive (I was 1 in 1977)…the only knowledge I have of Steely Dan is Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. I do, however, have a Steely Dan cd I borrowed from a coworker 15 years ago, who then quit before I could return it. It’s Disc 2 of what I assume is a Box Set. I have retrieved it from my shelf and will listen to it tomorrow. None of the songs you listed from Aja are on it, but I’m going to start with what is free and sitting on my shelf. 😉 Music is a wonderful, powerful thing. The way you write about it is very relatable. If this is an example of the direction your writing is going to take in the future, I am on board for the ride. 🙂

    PS. I also grabbed The Moody Blues Days Of Future Passed, because it’s been awhile…so thanks for the reminder!

    • But I’ll bet you were a sophisticated 1 in 1977 🙂 All Steely Dan is good, so whatever Disc 2 is, it won’t let you down.

      As for the Moody Blues, that album will be remembered 100 years from now. I truly believe that. And as always, Shannon, thank you!!!

  3. I’ve been a die hard Steely Dan fan for as long as I can remember. My first kiss was accompanied by “Do It Again”, playing in the background.

  4. When I hear some of the good ol songs of our time,I flash back to fond memories. Of a time and place,an event which made an impression. Like the grooves on the vinyl.
    As goofy as it was back in the Summer of ’74 ” The Loco-motion” by Grand Funk Railroad, ” Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot to name a few.

  5. Love Steely Dan! And love a sophisticated band that pens lyrics that include the words “languid and bittersweet”! I always felt that Steely Dan was the thinking person’s rock band, and appreciated the artistry they brought to their albums. Aja is truly a gem, one of the rare handful of albums I have owned that, as you say, has no bad tracks. ( The Police’s self-titled album and Dreamboat Annie are also on that list). Thanks for the trip down memory lane – I smiled when I read about going to Peaches to get the album. Good times! 🙂

  6. Steely Dan always makes me think of Jeff “Kid Charlemagne” Gilbert and his 8-track tapes, of which I still own. They even worked when I got my 8-track system out for a “Dia de Los Muertos” art installation to outdated technology some years back. I had no idea of your connection with Aja; if there’s music I associate with Roy Cohen it’s Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” but not for the obvious reasons people would think.

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