Steely Dan Sunday, “Surf And/Or Die” (1994)

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*** STEELY DAN SUNDAY INDEX ***

A slight modification of the surfer’s variation on the “no guts no glory” credo, “Surf And/Or Die” is a eulogy of sorts to a real-life young friend or acquaintance in Becker’s home environs at Hawaii who perished in an accident. Becker is squarely on his game in the wordsmithing department, contemplating mortality and trying to make sense of a premature death while portraying the anatomy of a fatal hang gliding mishap. He speaks to the victim who’s now in the hereafter, as he tries to handle some basic, immediate post-mortem tasks, like getting the deceased’s car driven back safely and notifying the grandmother. Becker’s wordy, almost stream of consciousness prose juggles all these threads of thought with deftness and wit that rivals the best lyrical moments of Steely Dan.

And it’s so vintage Becker. No other rock musician, not even Fagen, can come up with lines like these:

In a near random universe there are still certain combinations
Picked out from all other possible ones
Which, when given some time and the just-right circumstances
Not too far from the earth or too close to the sun
They will dance and they’ll spin in the embrace of the trade winds
Playing havoc with the hearts and the upturned faces down below
Until the laws of curved spacetime, susponed without warning
Kick back in with a vengeance for the last act of the show

He mated these heavy verses to a song structure that has no bridge or chorus, but Becker left no room for recurring phrases, anyway. It’s a circular combination of chords richly rendered by a shimmering guitar, and underpinned by a Talking Heads styled slab of funk constructed by an active, thumb poppin’ bass by Fima Ephrom and real drums this time (courtesy of Ben Perowsky).

Somewhere in the middle of the track a drone discreetly creeps in, getting more and more noticeable until by the end that’s all that’s left of the song. It sounds a lot like Tibetan monks reciting a Buddhist chant…because that’s exactly what that commotion is. As it’s a prayer for the dead, it in its own way resolves the feelings of confusion and helplessness about death into a soothing call for repose of the soul.

Could this be the high point, the crowning achievement of 11 Tracks of Whack? Yeah, I’m saying that.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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