One interesting thing about Donald and Walter is that perfection is not what they're after; they're after something that you want to listen to, over and over again, so we would work, then, past the perfection point until it became natural . . . So it was like a two-step process: one was to get to perfection and then the other was to get beyond it….—Dean Parks, guitarist
Over the years in my column, I've written an ongoing series of Rock record appreciations under the heading "Perfect Album"—Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti; Sweetheart of the Rodeo by The Byrds; Billy Squier's Don't Say No; Dire Straits' debut. There'll be more. But I'm going to make a pronouncement: Aja, Steely Dan's signature LP, just might be the most perfect album ever in any genre.
In an all-genre LP Olympics, Aja competes against icons and titans: from Kind of Blue and Take Five to Exodus and Legend; Off the Wall and Thriller to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison; Glenn Gould's 1955 Bach: The Goldberg Variations to Joni Mitchell's Blue and Ladies of the Canyon. There's that double-LP soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. Which Sinatra album to pick? Which Ella LP? And, of course, there are all those perfect Rock albums, including the highest Himalayas, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Aja achieves its primacy, in part, by transcending genre. In a procession of canonical albums, Aja glides past an elegant, solitary swan: seven songs of understated, unsurpassed beauty; just under 40 minutes of irresistible melodies, trademark esoteric lyrics, all laid down with finesse and deceptive ease. And all of it category-defiant.
Released on September 23, 1977, Aja goes this way:
Home at Last
I Got the News
If Aja was a wine it would be Chateau D'Yquem, not just a "First Growth" but a "Superior First Growth," a designation of which D'Yquem is the only recipient.
There's a truly fascinating 1999 documentary on the making of Aja, one in a series called Classic Albums (you can watch it on YouTube.) Many "Behind the Scenes" or "Making of" docs focus on the drama within a given band (for example, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours), but occasionally, a look at how the musicians crafted an album can entertain, as well as deepen your appreciation of the music. This film will leave you in awe of a record you've loved for years. Virtually everyone involved—Becker and Fagen, as well as a small army of musical mercenaries—gets interviewed. To see and hear how these seven songs were made brings home Steely Dan's genre-defying status. And genius.
At one point, the late British music critic Andy Gill says with great insight and warmth:
Jazz-Rock was a fundamental part of the 70s musical landscape. On the one hand you got, you know, groups which were basically Rock bands with horn sections, like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears, but on the other you've got some Jazz musicians who, following Miles Davis' lead, were working in an area which was then called Fusion—people like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Stanley Clark, and, pre-eminently, Weather Report. Steely Dan were unlike either of those. It wasn't Rock or Pop music with ideas above its station and it wasn't Jazzers slumming. It was a very well-forged alloy of the two—you couldn't separate the Pop music from the Jazz in their music.
As a Rock 'n' Roll outfit, Steely Dan was unlike any group with one illustrious exception: The Beatles. Like the lads from Liverpool, they became exclusively studio musicians.
The Beatles stopped playing live after 1966 for two reasons: their fans' deafening screams made it impossible to hear themselves and they feared they might be assassinated onstage. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen simply didn't much care for touring. So, they didn't. Their debut LP, Can't Buy a Thrill, hit the shelves in November of 1972. After releasing two more albums, their last live performance was July 5, 1974 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
Aja was Steely Dan's sixth album. By the time Becker and Fagen set out to record it, they had honed their studio skills to a glittering edge. Steely Dan had become an aesthetic, not a group but a unique approach to making music. For each song, they assembled a custom-tailored constellation of the brightest stars in the musical firmament. As Donald Fagen explains:
Around the time we recorded Aja we'd figured out what it was we sort of wanted to do, you know, musically. We realized we needed session musicians who had a larger palette of things they could do who were also good readers, because they were coming in cold.
Rick Marotta, who takes well-justified pride in his drumming on "Peg," saw this aesthetic in action from the vantage of the hired help:
Ya gotta love 'em. But it's not like you're really good friends and you'll go in there and you'll play and you try to get into it and they'll say 'yeah, that's really good' and then the next day somebody else is doing it: a whole new band! It wasn't like they played musical chairs with the guys in the band, they played musical bands! A whole band would go and a whole incredible other band would come in!
In some ways, Aja is not so much an album as a Platonic form. Many of the sounds and textures that give the record its distinctive signature were first imagined by Becker and Fagen and then realized through laborious tinkering and layering of tracks.
In the Classic Albums documentary, Becker and Fagen often sit at a giant mixing board deconstructing their songs, isolating tracks—the bass line, the drums, even alternate guitar solos that didn't make the cut—or playing a song with only a few of its components.
One of the tastiest deconstructions is of "Peg." Actually, it's astonishing.
They shoehorn several alternate guitar solos (each by an alternate guitarist) into the song and then they isolate Jay Graydon's first-take solo with what Walter Becker astutely points out is its sort of "Hawaiian section." But the build-up of Michael McDonald's backing vocals on the chorus illustrates the extraordinary lengths to which Becker and Fagen would go—and how challenging they could make it for their fellow musicians. McDonald had appeared on every Steely Dan album since Pretzel Logic, so he had an idea of what lay in store, and yet: "Peg doesn't sound like much of a part, but the harmonies were so close—that was a real learning experience for me, to sing a chord, you know, part by part with myself." The results ravish, but boy did Michael McDonald earn his pay!
This wonderful documentary, by the way, has two shortcomings: it doesn't examine "I Got the News" (they do play it while the end-credits roll) and Steve Gadd isn't interviewed, the virtuoso drummer on the title-track equally well-known for the beat he created for Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." Even on an LP bursting with superb drumming, Gadd's work on "Aja" stands alone. It's not merely dazzling technical proficiency. Gadd is an artist, he places his jaw-dropping skills in the service of making music. His famous flourishes during the instrumental segment express as much as the sublime Wayne Shorter saxophone solo which they accompany; no moment captures his artistic fealty better than his legendary "click" at 4:57: amidst the whirling electron cloud of his fills he stops to clack his sticks together a single note.
Iconic albums often have iconic covers; that cover belongs in the Louvre, The Met, and the Tokyo National Museum. It's a real photo. Of a real woman. Hideki Fujii, born in Tokyo in 1934, snapped this beguiling picture of Japanese model Sayoko Yamaguchi. It captures an essence of Japanese art: the oblique reference, indirection, understatement, wabi-sabi. Like a visual haiku, romantic and erotic, it shows so much using so little, it discloses its meaning via implications of form. Can you see the shape of her hair?
It's an exquisite image, right down to that stylized font. And it perfectly complements the title-track, a pictorial equivalent of its nuance and dazzling romantic ambition. Fagen recounts how all of it began with a real person:
Aja is the name of a woman. I had a friend in high school and he had an older brother and he went to Korea and married a Korean girl and brought her back and her name was Aja. And we thought that was a good name. It was a very romantic sort of image—the sort of tranquility that can come of a quiet relationship with a beautiful woman.
The sort of tranquility that can come of a quiet relationship with a beautiful woman….
What an unexpected piece of poetry to end that story. In a way, that's how I feel about my connection to Aja—the album, that is. As I've grown and evolved, Aja—already fully-grown and an integral catalyst of my evolution—has moved alongside me, informing innumerable moments, shaping sonic expectations, never failing to make me happy, a reliable source of tranquility.
My earliest memory of the music goes back to the album's debut. I clearly remember a September day as a kid in 1977 practically skipping down Skillman Avenue in Queens, listening to this new song "Peg" on a small transistor radio. Instant understanding, sonic satori. Right from the start, with its trilling melodic line a la Woody Woodpecker, the song tasted as delicious as an ice cream cone, as refreshing as an ice-cold, glass-bottle Coca-Cola. Bright, cheerful, infectiously rhythmic, the drumming crisp, the lyrics pleasingly obtuse: Pop perfection.
As I continued my musical education by listening to New York's once-great Rock radio stations, I soon discovered more treasure: "Josie," "Black Cow," "Deacon Blues," and the title-track. "Josie" became a favorite for a long time.
No song is better at putting the hook in you than "Josie." It's all hooks! That intro shimmers with mysterious allure, like a limo door opening briefly to reveal the most astonishing set of legs in stockings and high heels you've ever seen. And then the super-cool is all over you: that bass line kicks in, that slick rhythm guitar, those tight drums, and Fagen sounding as soulful and hip as anyone north or south of 125th Street. And he sings lyrics of maximum mythos.
Who is this Josie? What does it mean that "she prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire"? Why is she the pride of the neighborhood? (And does anyone have her phone number?)
It's ample testimony to the quality of Steely Dan's music that I immediately loved the slower "Black Cow" and "Deacon Blues," even at 12 or 13 years of age, and found the song "Aja" fascinating. Around this time I acquired my first copy of the LP and discovered the remaining two songs, "Home at Last" and "I Got the News."
I realized early on that the music of this album represented the height of an aesthetic wound up with the city—Manhattan—and the epitome of cool.
When I got my license, driving into the city demanded Steely Dan and the music of Aja. To be listening to "Josie" as I crested the arc of the 59th Street Bridge at night, Manhattan in cross-section before me like a vast glittering castle that had let down its drawbridge to grant me entrance. Strike at the stroke of midnight . . .
In the years to come, so many scenes, so many vistas, so many meals and moments heightened by the elegance of this album. And the music remains uncanny; no time attaches to the mellow coolness of "Black Cow;" the majestic sublime of "Aja;" the shuffle and hippest swagger of "Home at Last" or "I Got the News;" the oft-overwhelming humanity of "Deacon Blues."
Fagen says "Deacon Blues" "is about as close to autobiography as our tunes get." He may not realize it can be autobiography for us all. That chorus!
Learn to work
I, I play just what I feel,
Drink Scotch whisky
All night long
And die behind the wheel.
They got a name for the winners in the world,
I, I want a name when I lose:
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide,
Call me Deacon Blues.
And what heartfelt transcendence with which to end the song, the record, and send the listener off a happier, better person:
I cried when I wrote this song,
Sue me if I play too long,
This brother is free,
I'll be what I want to be . . .
If I could only choose ten records to take with me on a one-way trip to the Andromeda Galaxy, Aja would be one of them. It has provided me an essential Life Soundtrack since I was 10 (the year it debuted.) At every point in my life, in every setting I've lived—Queens, Long Island, Oahu, Manhattan, Dublin, Princeton—I keep returning to this most perfect album. Or as Donald Fagen sings in the title track:
when all my dime-dancing is through,