Monday, 14 February 2011

Steely Dan - Haitian Divorce (1976/ No. 17/ 9 weeks/ ABC)

Koo! I'd forgotten that Steely Dan ever had a hit in the UK. Even though this is a brilliant song by a favourite band, it has to be said that its minor chart success looks mystifying to someone who was only three at the time. This is a highly unnerving and odd single, in both sound and theme. And taken from The Royal Scam, too! - Perhaps their most difficult album, certainly the one which I find most harsh and cynical.

Steely Dan are the perfect example of a band who can fascinate simultaneously with their music and lyrics. The music is ostensibly smooth, usually very pleasurable to listen to in its melodies, but also highly intricate. It's often something of a trope to say how you continue to hear new things in favourite music, but each arrangement and line in a Dan song always seems to be playing with the other elements in a sprightly, teasing, fashion, and to develop in a way which you weren't expecting and can never quite figure out why that should be - people who know about these things tell me that these records are full of musical jokes. Crucially, this music is jazz-derived, rather than rock-derived, allowing more room for the potential of surprise. Its sometimes a coded insult to call a music sophisticated, but there's too much playfulness and pleasure in ingenuity here for the obvious cleverness to ever become forbiddingly smartalec.

And then there are the lyrics. Always either in the third person or playing a character, they are literary in the sense that they seem to depict an entire world and illuminate the dilemmas of the people who live there. And what a company the people in Steely Dan songs are; shysters, often criminals in one way or another, drug dealers, call girls, alcoholics, tired businessmen, wild rich children, panicky adulterers. The singer's view of these people is unflinching but allusive, never heavy-handedly satirical. The allusiveness comes through references to history, location, vague plans... not as cryptic-crossword puzzles, but through telling details and a sense of these people's place as the unwitting products of a specific point in history.

The times in my life that I've particularly turned to Steely Dan albums have been when I've felt myself having to rub shoulders with a bad crowd; people who you'd call "self-styled", in some way manipulative or particularly insincere. I feel that these songs perhaps provide the best key for imagining the dark motivations of such people.

The combination of the jazz intricacy and writerly allusion makes the music sound particularly alien to me. I'm rarely so conscious of American music sounding this foreign.

So what would our pop listener of January 1977 have heard in 'Haitian Divorce' that would persuade them to put it into the top 20 for a week? Perhaps they detected an amusing story, a revenge tale of a bad marriage made in haste between two disagreeable people;

Babs and Clean Willie were in love they said
So in love the preacher's face turned red
Soon everybody knew the thing was dead
He shouts, she bites, they wrangle through the night
She go crazy
Got to make a getaway
Papa say -

OhOh! No hesitation!
No tears and no hearts breakin'
No remorse!
OhOh! Congratulations!
This is your



The Haitian divorce means, of course, VOODOO! It's a chance for Babs to wash Clean Willie out of her hair with some judicious bad behaviour in the Caribbean. The song is certainly highly aware of the condescension and exploitation inherent to the way that this American woman is treating the "primitive" Haitians;

She takes the taxi to the good hotel...
Bon marché as far as she can tell ...
She drinks the zombie from the cocoa shell...
She feels - alright! She get it on tonight
"Mister driver
TAKE me where the music play"

She finds what she was looking for - a release of inhibition, a flirtatious release of dangerous forces;

At the Grotto
In the greasy chair
Sits the Charlie with the lotion and the kinky hair
When she smiled, she said it all
The band was hot so
They danced the famous Merengue

I think that there's something particularly queasy, and slightly horrible, about the way that this song unfolds. The music certainly underscores this mood. Not just in the choppy reggaefied framework, not the bubbling vibes and layers of keyboards, but especially in the ceaseless guitar solo, played through a talk-box guitar, making a nauseous, chokey sound like a cat struggling with a hairball, making the whole story something distasteful yet inescapable.

There's an unhappy ending, of course. An uneasy reconciliation between Babs and Clean Willie, but the Voodoo holiday casts its poisonous spell, in a Rosemary's Baby style;

Now we dolly back...
Now we fade to black...

Tearful reunion in the USA
Day by day those memories fade away
Some babies grow in a peculiar way
It changed, it grew, and everybody knew
Who's this kinky so-and-so?

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad that Steely Dan managed a hit in the UK - I suspect that the reggae stylings may have made it more palatable for a broader UK audience - whereas I don't think this was a hit in the US. Steely Dan were played quite a bit by Johnny Walker on Radio 1 and assorted DJs on Capital in London. I bought it on a 12" single that featured 'Do it again' and two rarities: 'Sail the waterway' and 'Dallas'. Like several of the songs from 'The Royal Scam' those tracks dated back to their early days as (quirky) songwriters for hire.
    AKA lonepilgrim