Wade Ellis Wilby presents Hidden Track Storytellers. This is a creative writing workshop for fiction and nonfiction stories & poetry inspired by music.
My father turned 60 the other day which got me very nostalgic about the many great things he has taught me over the years. One of the greatest lessons I inherited was his vinyl collection. Back in the day, people use to write on album covers like high school year books. So not only do I have an amazing collection of classic rock and jazz, i also have love notes from my mom to my dad etched forever on the covers of so many historical records…Abbey Road being one of them – the album is covered with little pictures of “jan loves lew” – cute right?
Well, sometime after I ruined the family record player by trying to scratch with a Grado needle, and sometime before my friend bequeathed to me his turntables, I was left with only a cassette Walkman. It is at this point my Dad hands me two tapes : Aja and Gold, two monsters from the Steely Dan vault. This is the summer of my junior year in high school – 1997. And I didn’t know that when I pressed play on Aja, I would be entering into a deep part of the counter culture that only so many people were “in” on. The rest of the majority would pass off Steely Dan as “jazz fags”. Not my father, and certainly not me. And I have to tell you…the weed helped.
By now, I was deep into Phish and weed had saved my life two years earlier. I was a hot headed kid who just LOVED violence. The weed helped mellow that side of me out and opened me up to many different cultures and types of music and people. I am SO happy I decided to fire up before taking that first walk with Aja down my suburban street in Enfield, CT. It got me into that slippery, slithery vibe that is “The Dan”. Below is a story full of memories and lessons I associate with the record Aja. I hope you enjoy this trip through my youth and the summer of 97. (Went Rage Tales Not Included)
READ ON for more of this installment of Storytellers…
So I cash out the apple bowl in the backyard and give it a nice heave into the woods. No evidence. No Crime. Push play. The hiss of revolution never bothered me even as technology progressed. I have a romantic attachment to the sound of tape moving. I turned left out of the driveway as the clav starts its job and the sly groove starts to emanate from the huge DJ cans I had no qualms about wearing 24/7.
This was a completely different sound than anything I had ever heard before. Jazzy, sarcastic…is that a guitar in the background? What is this shit? And more importantly…WHAT THE FUCK IS A BLACK COW? That was my first lesson. There is a language here you must understand before you actually “get” Steely Dan. Guess what kiddo, turns out you DON’T know everything.
Many teenagers have that invincible complex that warps their mind into thinking they know all there is to know about, well, anything. This song…this moment…halfway down the street that ran in front of the house I was raised in…I found out I didn’t know shit; all care of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. If this musical relationship was going to continue I had a lot of questions I needed answered. Next lesson: DAD STONEWALLS ME. “Sorry son, you’ve go to find out why they sound like that and what they are talking about on your own”. He did throw a few names at me – Boz Scaggs and Chicago. But this was little to no help. It was time to dive right into this dark and jazzy netherworld.
Recipe for a Black Cow:
2 scoops vanilla ice cream
10 oz root beer
1 tbsp chocolate syrup
1 1/2 oz whipped cream
Once again, my search efforts only struck up more questions. But this was the Summer of ’97…and I had nothing but youth and time to burn.
I was about one year into a job with a local band at this point. I wrote the lyrics, my friends wrote the music and I was learning to do lights slowly but surely. We were getting booked from Thursday to Sundays some weeks, needing permission slips from our parents to go to half the shows cause they were in bars. If you are a parent heed this advice: LET YOUR CHILD GROW UP IN A VAN. That can also be interpreted as let them follow their dreams. My parents, while very reluctant, saw a passion in me growing (thank you Kuroda) and let me get out there and get my hands dirty with the best of friends.
So, one night in the Summer of ’97 I decide to drop the Aja bomb into the cassette player of “The Vuck”, a highly illegal box truck with two couches in the back, no seatbelts and enough paraphernalia to make Tommy Chong blush. There are so many intricate parts to this song that flow so well into each other. Our band was well on their way to writing some very progressive songs but nothing that gelled and flowed like this.
We all gazed into the New England night as these crooners went on about “no return” and “running to Aja” , which we had to believe was some broad and not the continent due to the spelling. And where was this “hill” they were up on? It was perfectly ok to create another world in a song, where you didn’t exist and neither did your beliefs. It could just be a story, with the music supplying the emotion. Also, an outro with that many disgusto drum fills doesn’t hurt either. This song always conjured a certain mood that I will always associate with rides home from gigs back to whatever lives we had at 17. You could write a song like this. You just have to dig deep your psyche and let your imagination run it. I just wished I didn’t have to work at 8AM.
Never has a song about dying behind the wheel been so inspirational. This album came to me at a time of great change. I was making decisions based on what I felt was right, and not my classmates or peers. I certainly wasn’t making any decisions inspired by any authoritative figures. I had embraced the counter culture with open arms. To me this was a song about being happy with the person you are, flaws and all. Here was this guy reflecting on a life of poor decisions and “crazy schemes”, but guess what…”this one’s for real. I already bought the dream.” Fuck yes he did, and so would I. And if one of these nights I decide to “crawl like a viper through these suburban streets” or “die behind the wheel” then so be it. It would be my decision.
I would play this song cruising around at night with my then girlfriend and she would say, “my dad listens to this in the basement”. (which by the way ALWAYS smelled very good) “Why do you like this stuff?” Because, my dear, you hate it. I am the suburban night. I am Deacon Blues. (no quotations as this is something I wished I had said and not an actual quote)
How does Home At Last interact LSD’s effects? What song led Wade to realize Michael McDonald is a fucking pimp? Does your town have a Josie? Come back tomorrow for the answers to these questions and more in the second part of Storytellers featuring Wade’s take on Side Two of Aja.