Steely Dan Sunday, “I Can’t Write Home About You” (1980)

*** STEELY DAN SUNDAY INDEX ***

“I Can’t Write Home About You” – Another unfinished gem in the can.

Outtakes from the time around the Gaucho recording sessions that have leaked out over the years revealed remarkable tunes penned by Becker & Fagen: “The 2nd Arrangement,” “Kulee Baba,” “The Bear,” etc. One of the crown jewels that unfortunately was never fully recorded nor released for public consumption is “I Can’t Write Home About You.” It’s a song less wry, sardonic, Dylanesque, observational, and distant than much of their discography. The tune, chord changes, and lyrics are more sophisticated, complex, jazzy, yet in a way far less impenetrable. Sad. Wistful. Even personable. More “Lush Life” and less “It Ain’t Me Babe.”

Most of all, “I Can’t Write Home About You” boasts some mighty, meaty hooks that might have had the masses humming and whistling like “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.” Many believe that the erased “2nd Arrangement” was the biggest miss. I’d argue that “I Can’t Write Home About You,” “Kulee Baba,” and “The Bear” could be bigger misses.

The singular version floating out there is a demo with piano, Rhodes, and bass, and as a consequence, the songwriting is front and center rather than arrangements. We can only imagine what the song possibly could have sounded when adorned by the usual Steely Dan orchestral treatment.

Here, the protagonist is a young man who ventures to a darker film noir side of town, a siren’s call he cannot resist. An adult world of smoky jazz bars. Part cool, part underground…something irresistible late night.

Here, in the heart of the city the night world has no name
I wrote a letter last night and I tried to explain.

We start off with a jazzy altered blues theme, which could have been written anywhere from Pretzel Logic to the Gaucho sessions.

Here, they say life is reckless and free
And I guess that I agree

A very nice hook similar to other Gaucho session songs, and a transition toward the chorus as the melody becomes even more lyrical, rife with accidentals like Aja or The Nightly

My whole world is here.
I’ll make it clear…but oh, no…

The big transition to…

CHORUS
I can’t write home about you
I can’t write home about you
Folks back home, they got a four-letter word about it
I heard about you

And quite a monster hook, repeated for added effect with a downward denouement reminiscent of “Deacon Blues” or “Aja.” A marvelous piece of songwriting.

Rich girls. Bring their money downtown to hear those cat-house blues
Thin men. With a dollar three-eighty with nothing to lose
Tonight, I’ll find myself in their song
Then I’ll know that I belong

My whole world is here.
I’ll make it clear…but oh, no…

Walter and Donald thematically are drawn toward that seamier side of life after dark. Addictive times late night, fantastical, perhaps an affair with an older lady of the night… or perhaps an upper-class young gent who has found something on the other side.

CHORUS

BRIDGE
Gin and Rose’s
Hold on, we’ll spiral down
Soul dancing at the café
Bottom of the underground

Down at the Bottom, romanticized and almost fantastical with a dash of sour and sad…Gin and roses – a gimlet and a Raymond Chandler reference from the Long Goodbye: “a real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s lime juice and nothing else.”

…suggesting that ICWHAY is more of a period piece – the early 50s…or imagining being immersed in a film noir novel setting.

A tasty Rhodes solo follows, and then,

Tonight, I’ll find myself in their song
Then I’ll know that I belong

My whole world is here
I’ll make it clear…but oh, no…

CHORUS
Repeat

While we will probably never hear the full monty, the song melds together some of the best sides of both Donald and Walter, and their dichotomy. Jazz and blues. Acerbic and winsome. Sweet and sour. Yet, part of an emerging vector in adult jazz pop sound that’s classic yet post-modern. Ironically, a path never finished, with more hints on the brilliant Nightfly album.

John Lawler

J.M. Lawler is researcher living somewhere left of the Rio Grande, Texas, where he practices science - until he gets it right. He was first exposed to Steely Dan by a neighbor and the static of AM radio at a young age. Reach John at jml2621@gmail.com; contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.