Song Of The Day 2/14/2017: Steely Dan – “Show Biz Kids”

The Final 44

Gazebo of Dreams

Dad went into his own practice as a residential real estate appraiser. One of the homes he evaluated was in a subdivision called Sunrise Woods. It was located in a suburb called Orangevale, about a half-mile from the informal border of Citrus Heights. The house was both modest in a style befitting the neighborhood, and appreciably ornate once you got past the front door. There was a water feature in the front yard. Seriously.

The backyard was one of the greatest the American middle class has ever seen. The pool had a  dark bottom, as opposed to the sickly pale turquoise that almost every other pool in the world had. There was a lawn on the north side of the pool which was perfectly sufficient. There was another lawn on the south side, smaller but intimate. All around the border of the yard was some ridiculously quaint landscaping with rocks, shrubs, clumpy soil, plants and small trees. The dining room windows were full-length and exposed to the whole backyard.

Then there was the gazebo.

Not one of those $300 gazebos you can get at Walmart and fold up when you’re done with it. This was a permanent gazebo, built into the ground on the east corner of the backyard. It had its own foundation. You can imagine how frequently it got used in the summer for food and beer and other things the rest of the subdivision was best left in the dark about.

At the time my Dad’s office was in the living room on Brooktree, but seeing the gazebo gave him the great idea. He could have it converted into an enclosed space, a miniature cottage, and put his office there, completely detached from the rest of the house, less susceptible to interruptions from the rest of us. My sister Linda was about to get married so there’d be one less person in the house.

So after Dad appraised the home he went ahead and bought it. We moved into the house on Cerromar Circle. The gazebo was converted into a single-room stand-alone unit.

This modification would directly impact me in a very large way a few years later that I’m sure you now all see coming.

I Lost It at the Mall

Sunrise Mall was the focal point of commerce in northeast Sacramento County. I heard from someone it was the second most profitable shopping mall in America per square foot. I’m not sure I buy that statistic, but it wouldn’t be a total shock if it were accurate.

Personally I’d never seen anything like Sunrise Mall in my life when I first went into it. It was dizzying. Sunrise Mall had a water feature too, right in the middle of the complex. There were a number of competing department stores that somehow all got along. They had a Weinstock’s. You remember Weinstock’s? They also had something called Liberty House. I can’t remember whether the Mervyn’s was there when we first started going there or not, but there was at some point. I think the Liberty House became a Macy’s at a certain point. I might be leaving out a Sears too. Was there a JC Penney’s? Christ, so many options.

The decor in Sunrise Mall was based on octagons. Lots and lots of octagons. Maybe they were theft deterrents.

There were a Farrell’s Ice Cream restaurant and a four-screen movieplex. There was also a beautiful thing called Swiss Colony that sold a lot of meats and cheeses and had a sandwich counter in the back. Most importantly for me there was a Wherehouse Records store. That was my nerve center for a couple of years, until Birdcage Walk opened across the street, and with it a Tower Records. We’ll discuss that later too. Now Wherehouse is online-only and will pay top price for your CDs. They’re part of something called Trans World Entertainment.

Every Wednesday I’d go with my mom and Cathy to Sunrise Mall, because I think Wednesday was Dad’s chess night. They’d go to the Liberty House café and have salad for dinner.  I’d go off into the mall and eat at McDonald’s or Swiss Colony, because I was not all about salads at the time as I am now. Then I’d go to Wherehouse. I don’t think I ever saw the same cashier twice.

I also went to Waldenbooks because they were the only place that sold Billboard magazine, in which I was shocked to learn there were sixty more spots after the Top 40 Casey Kasem was selling me every Sunday.

Let's Go Get Stoned

If you get a chance to read the Roots’ Questlove’s autobiography Mo’ Meta Blues I recommend it highly. It’s a great book, for one thing. Also, except for a few probably obvious details, it reveals that out of all the musicians I’ve read about, Questlove’s childhood experience was most similar to my own in some frighteningly exact ways.

We both absorbed Rolling Stone in our youth. And we both can recall—to this very day—the star ratings that Rolling Stone awarded specific albums in their review section.

I’ll just run off a few: Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom got four and a half (out of five). Nirvana’s Nevermind got three. Steely Dan’s Gaucho got a paltry one and a half. T Bone Burnett’s The Talking Animals got three and a half, but Trap Door got four and a half. Marshall Crenshaw’s debut album got four and a half. Paul McCartney’s Tug of War got the full five. Hall & Oates’ Private Eyes got three, but Big Bam Boom got four. Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates got the full five. Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones got four. So did Todd Rundgren’s Healing. Madness’ Absolutely got exactly one star, which was really undeserved. U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, three. Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold, four. Bob Dylan’s Infidels oh, I can’t remember if that was four and a half or five. OK, there’s a slip-up.

The guys in Brooklyn had specific instructions to not encourage education on worldly music, so I had to educate myself. Rolling Stone was crucial in that. I’m pretty sure the first Rolling Stone publication I purchased was The Rolling Stone Record Guide, which gave retroactive star ratings to a bunch of albums in rock history that were released before RS went with the star rating system. (Sgt. Pepper got four out of five, less than almost all the other albums in their catalog—an assessment I do not disagree with.) Contributors included Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus… I don’t remember if Lester Bangs was included, but he wrote for Rolling Stone for a bit. Marsh, Marcus, Bangs, Robert Christgau and J.D. Considine were names I knew as a kid. I wonder if my friend Sam had something in there. The RS Record Guide was a keystone book for me, and got severely weathered over the years.

It was also the first magazine I ever saw that had the word “fuck” in it. That was a jolt. That wasn’t something we saw in Dynamite. Naturally the guys in Brooklyn thought RS was a smut peddling Babylon-whore of a rag, and my mom (and ergo my dad) had to enforce its limited exposure in our house.

Walter and Donald Look Surly

I’m not going to bash my parents, by the way. We’ve gotten along great for the last 25 years and they have been completely supportive of everything I’ve gone through or accomplished in that time without question. Being a parent myself I understand how complex and difficult the role can be. So I’m not about to throw them under the bus.

I’m just saying that their attitude towards the music I listened to was not always favorable.

Dad never got into rock and roll, even though he was born less than a year before Elvis. He was a huge Dixieland jazz and big band buff, and liked popular vocalists like Kay Starr and Sammi Smith. He didn’t get into the Beatles until he was about 65, I think. So there was that disconnect once—but every time I find myself spelunking into the 1940s or 50s to find material for my radio show, I always come across something I’d like to introduce to my dad. I thought his music was square when I was a kid. Well, some of it might be. But these days I get excited hearing something from his generation that I’m just hearing for the first time. I’m glad he got me to want to go back and find it.

The guys in Brooklyn, though, strongly advised against too much of the rock music, because Satan had operatives in every recording studio in the world, and personally groomed all rock stars to follow him down into the dregs of Hell’s most active volcano. So my mom tried to keep watch on that.

I had to be careful about leaving album covers out. I didn’t have any metal or KISS records at all, so the album covers I kept around didn’t have openly satanic or lustful imagery that were obvious demon food.

But the artists I liked sometimes posed in a less-than-chipper, sometimes glaring, possibly very tired way. And my mom felt that, viewing these portraits, that they really looked “demonized.” (People in the guys from Brooklyn’s religion used the word “demonized” to mean “possessed.”) Some of my album covers were thrown away or ordered off the premises because the artist faces looked stern and unsmiling, and therefore under Satan’s control.

We’re talking albums like Bruce Springsteen’s The River. My mom ripped that cover up because Bruce “looked demonized” on the cover. Bruce Springsteen. Seriously. She thought Bruce was a Satan-rocker. I also had posters of the Commodores and ELO on my wall and was told I was idol-worshipping a bunch of drug takers and adulterers.

The biggest conflict we had was, I kid you now, about Steely Dan.

Now, granted, many of Steely Dan’s songs had unsavory characters and situations in them. But the jazzy background made them sound more like cautionary tales than endorsements of said characters and situations. You could not call them controversial.

But the inside portrait of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen as shown in the middle of their double-album Greatest Hits collection set my mom off. She thought they looked like sleazebag, “demonized,” terrible persons.

Here is the picture we’re talking about:


See the cloven hooves? Oh, well, you can’t, ‘cause the photo cuts off at their knees.

Anyway, an argument ensued. I protested that Steely Dan may have looked—geez, maybe slightly unenthused?—but that there wasn’t anything wrong with their music. It wasn’t a bacchanalia full of wrecked livers, venereal disease or animal sacrifices.

It was decided that, to confirm if there was really was nothing inherently evil with Steely Dan’s music, that my Dad would listen to their Greatest Hits album to ensure I wasn’t being seduced to the dark side.

Fine, I said… knowing full well they were going to have my hide, because there was a song on Steely Dan’s Greatest Hits called “Show Biz Kids”—and it was the only Steely Dan song at that time to contain the word “fuck.”

I prayed that Dad would get sick of the exercise after Side One and just would not get around to “Show Biz Kids” because it was on Side Two.

No luck.

After about 25 minutes he called me and my mom back into my bedroom. They’d found the f-bomb:
Show biz kids, makin’ movies of themselves
You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else
There was a moment of dreaded pause before I made what I still consider a not-bad defense: “Well… I didn’t write it!

They found that very funny. They then told me I would not be obtaining anymore records because I “had enough” of them. That prohibition ended quickly, though, after I bought Styx’s Cornerstone album.

I interviewed Donald Fagen in 2006. I kind of wish I’d asked him his opinion about this, and whether he or Walter had ever worshipped Satan. But you know, he probably would’ve said “yes” just to mess with me.

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