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On getting to the point: the storytelling genius of Steely Dan #ds106 #media260

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One doesn’t have to subscribe to alarming (and probably alarmist) tales of diminishing attention spans to recognize that this sentence, given the medium in which it appears, runs the risk of being just too damn long.  In blogging, brevity is usually desirable. It pays to get to the point. 

This does not mean that blogs should be dry, inexpressive, unembellished. Twitter and haiku have both shown that brevity can be a spur to creativity, a productive constraint. It is possible to express a great deal in few words.

Songwriting, too, imposes limits. Lyrics in most popular genres are comparable in length to short poems rather than short stories. And too often those lyrics say very little. The banal recycled phrases littering the radio dial (an old media metaphor that’s just about hanging in there) tell us nothing much.

But some songwriters tell us stories worth hearing. Two of the best are Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, particularly when working together as Steely Dan. You don’t have to enjoy the music to appreciate the economy with which they can draw you into a world, a situation, an emotional drama in the space of the first line or two. They draw on science fiction, Hollywood (in particular film noir), and a sleazy sensibility. Their characters are seedy, their narrative style terse and ironic.

Here are a few song openings that illustrate this skill in getting right into the middle of the action and create a need to know what happens next.  Many are from Katy Lied (1975),  The Royal Scam (1976) and Gaucho (1980): almost any song from those albums would fit here – great collections of stories.

Read and enjoy. If you have particular favorite examples of the great storytelling opening, by great songwriters in any genre, I would welcome examples in the comments.

Agents of the law
Luckless pedestrian
I know you’re out there
With rage in your eyes and your megaphones
(Don’t Take Me Alive – probably my favorite example of the economic scene-setting opening)

When Black Friday comes
I’ll stand down by the door
And catch the grey men when they
Dive from the fourteenth floor
(Black Friday – striking imagery, immediately evocative of stock market crashes and financial meltdown but using concrete acts to reflect those abstractions)

Rose darling come to me
Snake Mary’s gone to bed
(Rose Darling – so simple, but in 10 words we have: three characters – one with a fascinating name; the implication of illicit sex – made explicit in the next two lines; and an invitation to one of the characters that draws in the listener as well – “come to me”)

Katy tried
I was halfway crucified
I was on the other side
Of no tomorrow
You walked in
And my life began again
Just when I’d spent the last piaster
I could borrow
(Dr Wu – again, three characters: here Katy, the person the song is addressed to, and the narrator; note how ‘piaster’ economically places us in exotic territory for a western audience: the whole song is a kind of bitter-sweet orientalist fantasy)

I remember the thirty-five sweet goodbyes
When you put me on the Wolverine
Up to Annandale
(My Old School – this could end well, this could end badly – this being Becker & Fagen, the latter is a safe bet)

Charlie Freak had but one thing to call his own
Three weight ounce pure golden ring no precious stone
(Charlie Freak – you know this will end badly for poor Charlie)


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
(Haitian Divorce – summary of a hot-burning, fast-burning-out romance in three lines; the fourth line puts us into the interminable present of a failed marriage)

Where did the bastard run
Is he still around?
Now you gotta tell me everything you did baby
(Everything You Did – real menace here: will the narrator take revenge?)

We’re gonna break out the hats and hooters
When Josie comes home
We’re gonna rev up the motor scooters
When Josie comes home to stay
We’re gonna park in the street
(Josie – wow, who is this girl? What else are they going to do? Bet it will be fun)

Way back when
In Sixty-seven
I was the dandy
Of Gamma Chi
Sweet things from Boston
So young and willing
Moved down to Scarsdale
Where the hell am I?
(Hey Nineteen – one of many great later Dan songs about aging gracelessly; nostalgia established from the first three words)

Outside the stadium
Special delivery
For Hoops McCann
(Glamor Profession – drug dealing in Hollywood; straight into the action)

The wind was driving in my face
The smell of prickly pear
[My rival – show me my rival]
The milk truck eased into my space
Somebody screamed somewhere
(My Rival – pure film noir)


Johnny’s playroom
Is a bunker filled with sand
(Third World Man – what’s Johnny playing at?)

Bad news breaking in 18A
Missy’s kitty turn inside out she say
(Two Against Nature – now that’s just not right)

It must have been my lucky Thursday
Your dad went on that spree
Before the crew could put out the fires
You hopped a bus for NYC
(Janie Runaway – watch out, Janie! Here’s a whole news report about a drunken rampage, a fire, a runaway teenager plus the perspective of the narrator/predator introduced in four lines.)


(Images and lyrics from

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