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Steely Dan - Who is this gaucho, amigo?

Remembering Steely Dan

Memory. It's like a wheezing pump-organ with clogged pipes, an imperfect, creaking apparatus that weaves strands of imagery, place, emotions and association.

Music evokes those memories. Sometimes it creates them. And none more pungently than Steely Dan, combining irresistible melodic hooks with succinct instrumentation, and the alternately scathing and tender lyrics that deliver those strange urban scenarios.

The paradox of combining complex jazz-fused rhythms and subversive irony in popular songs has branded Steely Dan on the consensual hallucination of the 70s.

If you were lucky enough to live through those times then you add your own life to the reservoir of data you draw on every time you revisit the weird imaginary landscapes created by two of the most cynical anti-heroes that celebrity has given us.

Can't Buy a Thrill was the green glass in those tall-necked Yalumba magnums, two litres of robust red wine that scorched the liver as it soothed the throat like mildly acidic mollasses.

Seeing the lubricuous lips of the cover art through the green glass and the red haze, and hearing the suspiciously funky rasp of indefatigable percussion, rippling jazz guitar licks, soaring guitar solos, sinister lyrics in tortured accents as though the words were being forced through an old wringer.

I heard that record in a tropical city in the far north of Australia's cystalline coastline, a city beaten senseless by summer rain, with gaping holes and washaways in the main street outside the railway station, hippies floating past in billowing cheesecloth like escaped mosquito nets.

We played the songs and sang along to them thumping the floorboards in the ricketty flat with its dark green bannisters and fibro walls until the people downstairs sent their grandmother up to tell us to stop. Her face was lined with the grief of lost Ulysses.

It was only later that the world of black cards in the land of milk and honey began to take hold and supplant my memories with their fiction. Talking about those songs with friends who listened to Steely Dan started to draw the threads through the eye of a recalcitrant needle. I was mindlessly captivated with a world of salads and sun where a boy with a plan could wear a white Stetson hat. It was my everlastin' summer,and I could see it fadin' fast ... replaced by theirs. My poison was named, they knew my brand. So please make mine a double, Sam.

"Drive west on Sunset to the sea. Turn that jungle music down, just until we're out of town..."

I got into the car and immediately it was filled with cigar smoke and conversation. We knew some guys in a band on the edge of town in a house on stilts that backed onto the Toowong cemetery. The night was dark with shadows and glossy leaves. The moon shed a nightclub glow across the landscape, the arching trees and the tombstones.

The steps were grey splinters framed with stains of white on each edge. The railings were like pieces of driftwood. Inside, the stuffing was bursting out of the chairs and people were making out, signing contracts with their wet eyes across a haze of green smoke. Our cigars and black duffel coats looked like gangsters in their midst, but we were among friends.

Someone slipped a shiny black disc out of its pale green ghostly label and cranked up the stereo. It was Countdown to Ecstacy. The sheer astonishment of Bodhissatva is my most incandescent Steely Dan memory of all time. It's like the spear in your side that leaves the indelible stigmata of something beyond all your expectations.

Pretzel Logic was a deep green carpet like succulent seaweed in the old stone building where we lived behind the serrated cactuses growing through the window and onto the main road. It was the first Steely Dan album that came with an air of expectation. The others were like bricks thrown sideways through the windows of my life. It was the soundtrack to late nights, writing worlds within worlds and drinking Guinness, eating potatoes and consuming coffee in prodigious quantities until our eyes were red coals glittering in the darkness.

Katy Lied was a rainforest of tender sensation, a rare feeling. It matched my mood of being in love with being in love. I read The Odyssey, a spindle of light in the growing dark, but also, like an insatiable sponge, I also absorbed the skin-deep sophistry of Schopenhauer.

I was back in the tropics. I had no reason to be there, except for some absurd longings and an unbelieveably, stupidly platonic frame of mind.

One night I was so obsessed with the necessity to siphon the nectar of every moment I slept on the tiles high outside the edge of the house, filtering the green and waxy-white odours of the flowers. So tired. Drifting, then startled awake by the cold. In the morning, the wet grass was ridiculous, and the bees were making absurd noises in their hives.

"This is no one night stand, it's a real occasion, close your eyes and you'll be there."

A freeway ramp, mist on the river, Steely Dan... That's the image imprinted on my mind for the year of 1976. A white 1966 Hillman with a wooden dash and red seats. Hissing tyres on the black bitumen, silver trees in the streetlights, pocket parks with black shadows, cops cruising in late model Falcons and the big machinery smell of the rail goods yard. French cigarettes so fat and round with dense, black tobacco it looked like they were going explode in your hands.

"The Royal Scam" was Becker and Fagan at the height of their writing powers -- not that they didn't go on to achieve more and build on what they'd laid down on this record, but this was where they shifted into high gear. The mythologising, the complex chords, the irresistible chorus hooks, the guitar artistry, the precision and control. "See the glory of, see the glory of, the Royal Scam." Drive down through the city, between the city parks, down the deserted city streets in the grey light of the false dawn, and onto the free-way ramp that swung out through the mist that came up the river in the cold morning.

"It's everything they say, the end of a perfect day, distant lights from across the bay."

AJA was mysteriously trapped in record collections. The cover, almost an event horizon with the power to draw light from its surroundings, in the K-mart collections of people who had it between "Tubular Bells", "Dark Side of the Moon", David Bowie, Kiss and Peter Frampton. And I remember the sadness I felt when I was out at someone's place for an obligatory dinner and it got piped through the bubbling macaroni cheese and ostentatiously expensive wine.

"Here come those Santa Anna winds again."

Metallic green. It was the colour of my car, the same metallic green behind those awkward, dancing shadows on the cover of Gaucho. It was the second Hillman I had owned, even more ancient than the white Superminx. When the housing for the cooling system sprang a leak, we fixed it by hammering in a splinter of pine into the galvanised metal pipe. When the carburettor needed attention, I took it apart, but I couldn't get it together without woodscrews, because the real screws had fallen down through the engine bay into a stormwater drain.

When we replaced the clutch plate outside a house in a hillside suburb I was underneath the car on my back holding the driveshaft as we separated it from the gearbox. I never imagined a driveshaft could hold so much oil, or that it would be so hot and black. I felt like Jed Clampett.

During Gaucho, or so the story goes, because Becker and Fagen listened back to the recording so many times, the oxide was worn clean off the tape. I can't get that image out of my head. Music erased by listening to it too closely. Leaving only a residue of metallic green dust. Drifting. Pushed by a pervasive wind, through the elevators and supermarkets and hotel lobbies of the world.