Call Me Deacon Blues
Updated: Apr 6
Steely Dan's song "Deacon Blues," from the album Aja, is one of their best. It is tuneful, snappy, full of wonderful images, and has a great sax solo. It came out in 1977, and has been a part of my life ever since. My relationship with the song has changed dramatically over the decades as I plumb its complexities, and I would like to share my history with it. I think it would be psychologically illuminating—and not primarily about myself. I am just a lens.
If you need the words, this link will take you to YouTube, where the video has them in the description.
"Deacon Blues" is a tale about an "expanding man" who enters the world of jazz. He succeeds after one or more failed attempts. ("I'll make it this time. / I'm ready to cross that fine line.") It is clear that he loves or comes to love his music: at the end he says, "I cried when I wrote this song."
But his music is not what most of the song is about. What the Deacon is mostly in love with is the lifestyle of the jazz world as he fantasizes about it. Near the beginning he sings
It seems like only yesterday
I gazed through the glass,
At ramblers, wild gamblers,
That's all in the past.
The romance of the jazz musician is portrayed throughout the song. He describes it in some detail, much more than about the music. Observe the refrain:
Learn to work the saxophone.
I, I play just what I feel.
Drink Scotch whiskey 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.
He has it all mapped out. He even knows how he's going to die (irresponsibly but tragically.) And he's even got a nickname picked out for himself. Big red flag here.
When I was teenager and even into my early 30s I was in love with this song, despite my occasional glimmers of the possible inauthentic aspects of it. The final couplet really got to me: "This brother is free. / I be what I want to be." Those lines were very moving to me. My personal motto has long been "Become who you are," and the Deacon's sentiment fits that. I identified with the Deacon's ambition and sense of liberation and was entranced with the romance of his lifestyle. It was not a lifestyle I had any interest in for myself (I have never even drunk whiskey), but one could say I was in love with the passion and romance of it.
It's interesting, though, that in referring to himself as "this brother" and saying "I be" instead of "I am" the Deacon suggests that he is either is black or thinks of himself as black. There is no suggestion earlier in the song that he is black, although there wouldn't necessarily be one. The way he gazes "through the glass" at something he clearly is not makes me think that he wished he were black, in a sort of Rachel Dolazel manner perhaps. Another possible red flag. More about this later.
However, that may not be the entirety of what's going on. The song plays with sentence structure all the way through. The refrain doesn't say "I'll learn to work the saxophone" or "I learned to work the saxophone." It doesn't even abbreviate and "Learned to work the saxophone." It leaves the verb unconjugated, as if the event is outside the normal flow of time: "Learn to work the saxophone."
The same thing occurs with "Drink Scotch whiskey and die behind the wheel." The verbs are also infinitive. The same pattern occurs in other lines as well. This might create the effect of the Deacon living in a dream, since we cannot tell the difference between what he does, did, or will do. He clearly is motivated by a wish. Is the wish truly fulfilled in reality or only in a fantasy?
Over the decades, as my own thinking on character developed, I came to see the Deacon as what I have labelled a "pretender." A pretender is a "wannabe" at the deepest and broadest level. When we think of wannabes we usually think of something fairly specific, like a rock star wannabe or an Elon Musk wannabe, and so forth, but in the full-blown pretender the inauthenticity is more profound.
The pretender personality type tries to adopt a sense of life, which is a phenomenon best explored by Ayn Rand in her writings about art. A sense of life is a moodlike feeling about self and world that exists at an almost metaphysical level. Everyone has a multifaceted sense of life, but the pretender simulates one for himself or herself. He or she strives to be tragic or pixie-ish or a diva or at least 31 other flavors, usually painted in broader strokes than a genuine sense of life. And he or she is only at most half-conscious of the pretense. If he or she were completely conscious of it, then it would be merely play-acting or fraud. Pretending always involves a serious element of self-deception.
Just to name a few examples, If it's fair to infer something about their underlying personalities from their public self-presentations, then I believe comedians like Dave Chapelle and Ricky Gervais are pretenders. Christopher HItchens and Jordan Peterson were/are probably pretenders. Justin Bieber probably is. Tucker Carlson likely is (as are many of his liberal counterparts). I don't think you have to dig very deep into their personalities to find the pretense. Look at Ronald Reagan's folksy manner. Most people who are chronically sarcastic or self-righteous are pretenders. However, it can be difficult to judge someone's character from the way they present themselves in public. Perhaps pretenderism is more common in the US than in the rest of the world because here a person is not defined and restricted by a social role as much as they might be elsewhere. Paradoxically, we have the freedom to be inauthentic.
I wrote a book about pretending and other things called Killing Cool: Fantasy vs Reality in American Life. As the title suggests, I think that one of the prevalent senses of life that pretenders try to conjure is coolness. You can be "ahead of the curve" cool or "against the current" cool, among other things.
After many years, I started to see that the Deacon is a pretender who's after a kind of coolness. Clearly, he's a wannabe jazz musician, but I think that it goes deeper in him. He doesn't just want the trappings of the musician, he wants the sense of life of one, too. One quatrain stands out for me:
I crawl like a viper
Through these suburban streets.
Make love to these women,
Languid and bittersweet.
Lots of mood there and not very appetizing if you think about it.
But in all fairness, let's consider another possibility; let's consider a line from Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian: "the mask, given time, becomes the face itself." Maybe the wannabe at the beginning of the song becomes Deacon Blues by the end. Based on the fact that he cried when he wrote one of his songs, I would say that he does become at least to some degree authentic, but it's not a simple or complete metamorphosis.
Only after I became aware of my own youthful pretending did I see the deeper currents of the song more clearly. Seeing the self-deception in my own life was like waking from a dream. I didn't want to go along with the tide, crimson or otherwise. I wanted to be aware of myself and the world directly, not as part of a made-up story. I would still have a sense of life of course, but it would be organic, not pasted on.
Why did I paste one on in the first place? I have to cut myself some slack here. I was young and still trying things on. Teenagers almost invariably go through some kind of pretender phase. I wanted life to be meaningful, and the Deacon certainly had found meaning for himself. And I was compensating for being depressed and anxious a lot of the time. During my college years I often felt as if I were climbing out of a pit and only seeing a little light over the top edge to keep me moving. The song gave reassurance, and I even did a little drawing of the Deacon and put it up on my dorm room wall.
My overt pretense in my college years was a mixture of smart-ass and existentialist. (I was even an anarchist for awhile.) My private romance, however, was with two Steely Dan songs: "Deacon Blues" and "Rikki, Don't Lose that Number," along with Derek and the Dominoes' "Layla" and Jefferson Starship's "Miracles." They were private because I didn't share them with anyone in my life until I met my future wife years later. I had gotten many of my musical tastes from a friend in high school during a period when I was emotionally devastated, but these four songs were purely mine, and I listened to them often. I believe that this pattern—public pretenderism and private poignancy—is very common, especially among young people.
It's funny because there are many Steely Dan songs I really don't like. With Donald Fagen's idiosyncratic vocals and the frequent faux jazziness of their music, they frequently come off as pretender-ish to me. I came to regard "Deacon Blues" as unwholesome, albeit catchy.
What do Fagen and Walter Becker, the duo that comprised Steely Dan, think of "Deacon Blues"? Do they identify with the Deacon or see through him or some of both? It's hard to be sure. Fagen has said that it is as close to autobiographical as they ever got, which suggests that the duo wouldn't be too hard on him, but the same time, both members of the group referred to the Deacon as a loser. They also have said that the University of Alabama giving its team such a grandiose name as "the Crimson Tide" was laughable, and by implication the protagonist of the song picking out an over-sized name was pathetic.
But matters get to be more complicated. In his description of the song from his memoir, Eminent Hipsters, Fagen wrote:
[It] toyed with the cliché of the jazz musician as antihero. It was kind of a takeoff on that old essay by Norman Mailer, "The White Negro," not to mention our lives up to that point. . . . the alienated white suburban kid thinks that if he learns how to play bebop, he'll throw off the chains of repression and live the authentic life, unleash the wild seeds of art and passion and so on.
First of all, the mention of bebop seems to confirm my interpretation of the Deacon being a white kid who wants to be black, because Fagen and Becker are white, and bebop was an almost exclusively black form of jazz. The Deacon, it would seem, is a "white Negro," and we could say something similar about many white people who embrace what they see as the black mystique through hip-hop and black celebrities. This kind of pretenderism is practically an American national pastime. Norman Mailer himself, with his phony hipsterism and glorification of psychopathy, was a clear-cut pretender.
More importantly, Fagen's description is, perhaps unintentionally, ironic in its use of the word "authentic." Apparently, some people feel you have to become inauthentic in order to become authentic. I think Fagen might actually see it that way. Well, almost anything would be better than being alienated white suburban kids, I suppose, and hard-drinking jazz musicians might serve as an alternative model for living. And after all, Fagen and Becker themselves escaped their suburbs by becoming quirky musicians who named their band after a dildo from a William S. Burroughs novel. Who are the pretenders now?
Pretenderism is often an attempt at a short-cut, an attempt to leap over the hard work of growing from where one is, step by step in true authenticity, to a centered best life. "Deacon Blues" is a clear example of a man trying to re-invent himself in one fell swoop, instead of developing himself: he's just crossing the line into a ready-made lifestyle.
Becker has said that the song is about "a broken dream of a broken man living a broken life." He has also said, "The protagonist is not a musician, he just sort of imagines that would be one of the mythic forms of loser-dom to which he might aspire. And who's to say that he's not right?"
So is the Deacon right or not? From their remarks it is clear that both Fagen and Becker are ambivalent about the song and its protagonist. Maybe the listener should be as well. The Deacon, though a pretender, works hard and loves his music. He is autobiographical for his creators, so they can't think of him as completely pathetic, even as they see through him. We are clearly meant to regard his life as interesting and passionate, although he goes about achieving these qualities in a somewhat inauthentic way.
His personality is unusually complex for popular music. Even his creators can't quite settle on a simple evaluation. He calls for a nuanced reading. I would even say he's a paradox, because he represents an inauthentic path to a liberated life.
Over the decades "Deacon Blues" has pulled me this way and that. I loved it in an almost unqualified way when I was young. I started having reservations about it after I grew up. I saw through it when I hit middle age. I have felt embarrassed for letting it represent my soul. I wrestle a lot with my tastes because I am not willing to settle for surface appeal.
But now, I think my later reaction was itself a bit superficial. Liking "Deacon Blues" as a romantic fantasy is not as benighted as liking "Every Breath You Take" as a romantic fantasy, when the latter is actually a stalker anthem. There is much to admire about the Deacon, and the song is very well constructed and appealing.
The problem is that the his healthy passion is mixed in with his fantasizing and an attempt at making growth too easy. That's what is so seductive about pretenderism, and why it is so important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and end up becoming dried up and judgmental. People are complicated. The world is complicated. Rather than forcing everything complicated into little boxes, I choose to follow Whitman and say, "I am large, I contain multitudes."
So why has all of this come up now? Recently, I had a very good day. I had a wonderful conversation with my wife about current affairs, I got some writing done on a philosophical topic that had bedeviled me, and I had a messenger discussion with an admirably logical Facebook friend about a subject we were both very interested in.
I felt jubilant. I was realizing my potential and becoming who I am. I put a post up on Facebook, stating "This brother is free. / I be what I want to be."
When I told my wife about this, she went wide-eyed with disbelief. She scolded me for leaning on that epitome of a pretender character for an expression of my jubilation. I deserved her scolding. I had let myself get drunk on my mood instead of really focusing on the authentic joy of the day. I rewrote the post, spelling out the events of my day and concluding
I have become what I wanted to be, and I live the life I have wanted to live. Despite all the things that are not going right, I am happy.
That's better. And 50 of my friends shared my joy, which was very nice. But despite not letting the song's protagonist be the emblem of my soul, I'm still going to love "Deacon Blues." My reservations only deepen my esteem, because complexity gives the world texture, and I thrive on texture. Naturally, I had to write about it.