Steely Dan Sunday, “Mr. Sam” (1975, unreleased)

Last week we rented a Room with a View and peered into the heart of the Katy Lied recordings, which revealed a dyanamic between the musicians still present in the released album but muted by the noise reduction snafu. Another glimpse of what could have been and a victim of the aural meltdown — yes, oxide did come off the master! — can be experienced through the “Mr. Sam” outtake from those same Katy sessions.

If the “Your Gold Teeth II” outtake is built around a live segment and a coy jazzy ditty, fortified by crack musicianship and interplay among the players, then “Mr. Sam” was the steam-powered Andrea Doria, mighty and luxuriously hook filled, on a collision course with oblivion.

“Mr. Sam,” as a composition, embodies everything one would expect from a song of the mid-Jurassic period of Steely Dan. A very peppy sounding number: upbeat ear candy covering up another story of something gone very, very wrong. It sounds classic, and just may be. After Katy Lied was resuscitated following the DBX disaster, the choice of an initial single may have suffered as well.

The punk jazz-blues scorcher “Black Friday” was sent out as a flagship to unfortunate deafening silence. A song really out of place in the mid-70s American music scene where treacly singer-songwriters, pre-disco, and the Bee Gees dominated the scene as folks looked towards escape post-Nam and Watergate. The Ramones and Blondie were still underground at CBGBs, and somewhere in England future members of the behemoth Police were showing members of the Sex Pistols which 3 chords to use and how to play them. Walter Becker more recently regretted not releasing the more emotive, lyrical, and near nostalgic “Bad Sneakers” as the first single. It’s possible that “Mr. Sam” could have been a candidate at least in sound, but it is close to the edge.

“Mr. Sam” lurches out of the gate strong with a catchy see-saw piano intro featuring Michael Omartian. A bit of “Here at the Western World” attitude permeates the speakers. Omartian, Chuck Rainey, and Jeff Porcaro again the featured players, along with Hugh McCracken on acoustic guitar and Donald Fagen’s vocals. Typical of the period, the lyrics are darkly sarcastic, subversive, funny, arcane, and a little threatening. Salacious stories of loserdom, inside the belly of the American beast. However, this one pushes the envelope.

Although the narrative is a bit obscured and incomplete, the storyline seems to be very loosely based on the Jerry Kosinski novella Being There, made in 1979 into the cult classic movie with Peter Sellers, the story of a simpler gardener who becomes more than he seems, or seems more than he is.

The outtake is quite crisp and clean. The verse really pulsates as Porcaro and Omartian drive the number with an R&B backbeat that would have Barry Gordy salivating! We open with “Mr. Sam” the master gardener and his high society mistress of the house. Huge hooks made for AOR and radio play. It’s a real grabber.

He
Used to work here
In her garden
But he don’t no more

Spellbound
By his posies
He caressed them
On the greenhouse floor

She
Was the lady
On the outside
Searching, elegant, finally

He
Was the lowball
Cocker Spaniard
That we all ignored

Mini-chorus

Mister Sam don`t look so good no more
I`ve never seen him cry out loud before

The Lady Breaks Bad

One
Lovely evening
Left abandoned
By her China man

She
On the rebound
She amazed him
With her sleight of hand

Smoking
Fragrant opium
Wild gambling
All the signs of a lifetime of

Leisure
With no worries
Every detail
So precisely planned

Mister Sam don’t look so good no more
I’ve never seen him cry out loud before

Things end badly. Downer surrealism takes a punch in the gut. We’re left unsure of the fate of The Lady. Sam may now be working in chains:

Long
Past midnight
In the half light
Just before the dawn

Broken
Sorry animal
By the greenhouse
On the southeast lawn

Standing
Almost human
Crying please
And the screams could be heard

We are told
By a neighbor
Who was wakened
By his tuneless song

Mister Sam don`t look so good no more
I`ve never seen him cry out loud before

It’s a bit unfinished. A solo could have been added. Extra embellishment? Lyrics massaged and obscured more for radio play? I’m not sure Steely Dan would have been allowed to stab the beast repeatedly as a single with the neighbors listening, but sure would have loved to have heard “Mr. Sam” released. That task was left later to the Eagles.

As Denny Dias exclaimed after listening to the wreckage, post noise-reduction: “Mr. Sam don’t sound so good no more.”

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.
  • http://www.onlyafoolwouldsaythat.com Charlie Freak

    I’ve always thought Donald used “Sam” as the name for the “Sellers-like” character because he was a gardener…Lord of the Rings connection, which I know Donald read quite a bit when he was younger.