|John Ashbery received a National Humanities Medal in 2012|
That poet John Ashbery and Walter Becker, the songwriter/musician who was half of Steely Dan, died within a day or two of each other is coincidence, but they cohere in an odd way, and not just because they coincided in my life, a modest thing but mine own.
When I arrived at Knox College in the mid-60s, the bookstore was in the basement of Alumni Hall. You walked down a couple of steps into a foyer, with student mailboxes opposite the bookstore entrance. I seem to remember a display case on the outside of the building, but perhaps it was just outside the bookstore--anyway, that's where I first saw a book of poems called The Tennis Court Oath by John Ashbery.
I secretly liked the poems in it, their cadences and seeming chaos, the possibilities they permitted, but I wouldn't dare say so at the time. I'd just left Catholic school and I knew the dangers of heresy.
I didn't understand them of course, but some had a sustained power for me, while almost all of them had some insightful surprise, juxtaposed images and phrases that lit up and therefore lit up the world for a moment. They had a peculiar rhythm that resonated with me. For one reason or another or more, they made me laugh.
I followed Ashbery's work through the 60s and 70s (through The Double Dream of Spring, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Houseboat Days, As We Know.) I especially liked Three Poems ( prose poems) and I quoted from them in The Malling of America. (When I was writing it, I also had read the comic novel he wrote with James Schuyler about suburbia, A Nest of Ninnies.) In a way I was returning the favor, for his poems often quoted from pop culture and the latest zeitgeist. That the poems' voice seemed to be trying to make sense of it and not quite succeeding (but in an amusing way) was a rueful and reassuring reflection of my own earnest and scattered efforts. Ashbery also knew and expressed with flourish and sudden, memorable exactness (like a rock song hook) how these are new keys to both our exterior and interior realities.
Ashbery also suggested to me intuitions about worlds of which I have little or no experience. We had at least a somewhat similar childhood in small town, slightly pastoral America, and his parents were only a little above mine on the socioeconomic scale. But he went to Harvard (in a class with an astonishing array of well-known American poets) and after a stint as a copywriter, he lived in Paris and New York and wrote about art for art magazines, eventually becoming an editor. He was also homosexual, which provided yet another network within the art and literary world. I've read those poets from Harvard, read about Paris and for awhile read about and observed contemporary art enough to write a few published pieces for outsiders like me. I also shared with him an omnivorous interest in old movies, though he apparently was even more obsessive.
In more recent years, I've guiltily purchased a few of his many subsequent books when I came upon them at embarrassingly low prices. Most recently Planisphere which I've had near my bedside. Among its gems is "Partial Clearing" which ends:
Looking out the window reveals
that the weather is or isn't about to change.
Forelocks will be tugged in a fortnight
and other appraisers add to the already vehement
heap of misunderstood and eagerly approved evaluations:
a coming out into spring after a winter of
carefully worded captions. A love like self-love
upgraded to "pastoral." Yes, easy does it,
always. What you see will be held against you.
Even though Ashbery is considered one of the most important poets of his lifetime--which was 90 years--he didn't take himself too seriously, as the editors of London Review of Books note. (Still, he accepted all his many awards.) For an informed view on his later work, try Dan Chiasson at the New Yorker. Among many other appreciations out there, there's Katy Waldman at Slate.
I reviewed Steely Dan's first album for Boston After Dark/Boston Phoenix in 1972: Can't Buy A Thrill. I liked it, but then I reviewed and liked groups like the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils and Audience. When I reviewed Bonnie Raitt's first album for Creem--her first national review--I knew she was a keeper. Steely Dan however could have been a one album wonder.
They weren't though. The sound they created on their first album, the energy and above all the unique songwriting--sharply witty, allusive lyrics and great hooks--developed even more in subsequent albums, and they became an essential element of the soundtrack of surviving the 70s.
Steely Dan was Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, and they soon became known as such studio perfectionists that they never played live, didn't give interviews...I don't recall even seeing a photo of them. So when they reemerged in the 90s as a live band, it just did not compute. I never heard them live, never tried.
Jon Pareles, who goes back almost as far as me in rock alt. journalism but stuck with it in the big time, has the NY Times obit of Walter Becker. Becker dropped out of sight in the early 80s, a victim of heroin addiction, at about the time that Fagen released his Steely Dan-like album The Nightfly, which has a couple of songs I cherish with childhood references, the hit "I.G.Y." and "The New Frontier." Fagen's voice was out front on Steely Dan, so Becker's contribution has to be explained by Pareles and others.
Pareles describes the music as using "richly ambiguous harmonies rooted in Debussy, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, giving the songs a sophisticated core that would be widely influential across jazz and pop." The lyrics are narrative and impressionistic at the same time--many seem to be about an underworld or a street world that may be more of the imagination, though perhaps the references to drugs and dealers are informed. The William Burroughs meets Bob Dylan references in that first album help suggest that world. (The group's name comes from Burroughs, the album title from Dylan.)
They are also music of a generation. Later on "Hey Nineteen" would drive a stake into our 40s, but on that first album there was "Reelin' in the Years," one of those classic songs about aging which was written by someone feeling old in their 20s (cf. "Yesterday," "Bookends," etc.) but that resonate when age is actually attained.
I remember that my music editor Ben Gerson was particularly fond of the lines: "You been tellin' me you're a genius/Since you were seventeen/ In all the time I've known you/ I still don't know what you mean." Because, come on, this was Boston and we were all geniuses, and time was running out.
But now it's the chorus that sings to us: Are you reelin' in the years/ Stowin' away the time/Are you gatherin' up the tears/ Have you had enough of mine?