Late last week was the nadir of my despair about current events. It’s hard to imagine how the images and stories of abuse from Iraq could be worse. When I heard yesterday about the beheading of an American I just felt sick. If American exceptionalism is to have any real cachet it must be because we hold ourselves to a higher standard than the rest of the world.
While wallowing in despair about current events last week I was listening to Steely Dan and the Gang of Four, two items that perfectly captured my sense of decadence and despair. Instead of NPR my CD player blared out “The Boston Rag” and “Show Biz Kids” while going to work; “Natural’s Not In It” and “I Found that Essence Rare” on the way home.
The appeal of Steely Dan is a strange one. In college (90-94) the common denominator of my generations musical culture was the 1980s. I hated that decade every time “Safety Dance” got played at some party. My antipathy has died off a bit since then, but not by much. I don’t remember anyone else who enjoyed the Dan. My interest had roots in memory, “Deacon Blues” and “Peg” are two of the earliest pop songs I remember hearing on the radio. As the years wore on I grew to enjoy Fagan’s deadpan delivery of the scathing lyric, and combination of fatalism and cynicism that never seems to be out of style.
I discovered the Gang of Four in the middle of the 1990s. I’m not sure where I first heard of them. I think it had something to do with the Infinite Zero label that had rereleased Solid Gold and Entertainment. Entertainment in particular is a brilliant album, going from one blistering condemnation of the world to another. They, too, were working at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s like Steely Dan, which may or may not be a coincidence. Perhaps the 1970s had the same aura of exhaustion that seems to be the only response I can muster to the present day.