Thursday, November 04, 2004

Chuckle-Head Song #8: Haitian Divorce, by Steely Dan

Steely Dan – these guys provoke so many chuckles from me, I just might resort to a “Top 10 Dan” at some future point (which might well alienate my fledgling audience). It’s tough to single out which Dan song tickles my funny-bone most, but a quick survey of song titles off The Royal Scam pretty much guarantees I’ll have to settle on one from that disc.

I first came to Steely Dan quite some time after they’d officially called it quits; still being young and excitable (I was 15 when they released Hey, Nineteen), I devoured their entire oeuvre in a single, hallucinatory Saturday. Their genius seemed uncontestable, so when I opened Citizen Steely Dan and read in the enclosed book all the nasty reviews they’d snickered at and collected over the years, I was gobsmacked. Ten years and countless listening hours later, I can kind of understand where the critical nastiness came from, even if I think it’s ultimately wrong-headed.

It can be disconcerting for rock critics to encounter a musical form that, while clearly produced by rock’s claimed instruments of choice, has more in common with Broadway musicals of the 1940s than it does with the young and earnest rebels of the day. It's not uncommon to see statements like, “Donald Fagan and Walter Becker are the heart and soul of Steely Dan.” Actually, it’s more accurate to say that Fagan and Becker are dueling imps, joined at the brain. If Steely Dan is anything, it’s their commercial brainchild, a musical forum where, against all odds, their carnies, goons, misfits, addicts, losers and deluded freaks come to life via the breath of Fagan & Becker’s combined cleverness (or don’t, if you remain unconverted).

Haitian Divorce was a throw-away, penned in the studio when Fagan and Becker learned that their producer had just come back from a weekend in Mexico with his wife, the sole purpose of which was to procure a cheap divorce. It’s cruel fun to think of the look on this hapless guy’s face, when he first heard lyrics like,

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

In the course of this casual, giddy song, things go from bad to worse for the stormy lovers/quarrelers. Babs flees to some remote (we assume Haitian) hotel, “drinks the zombie from the cocoa shell,” and engages in increasingly ill-advised behavior. When the song’s first bridge emerges, we’re:

At the Grotto
In the greasy chair
Sits the Charlie with the lotion and the kinky hair
When she smiled, she said it all

There follows one of rock’s most remarkable guitar solos, which tracks a dirty, “waa-waa” sound through five chord changes before landing back on its feet. The outcome?

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?

This is your Haitian Divorce

Hmm. Just looking at the naked lyrics doesn't exactly put me in stitches, but I doubt anyone who's heard the song can keep from grinning. Donald Fagan's singing is a queasy admixture of lisping, ironic detachment combined with a nasal projection of genuine emoting. Fagan takes a sort of MAD Magazine pleasure in the discomfort of his characters, and it's impossible not to giggle along. To slip into Alfred E. Newman's vernacular for a moment, you feel like grabbing "Clean Willie" by the polyester lapels and hooting, "Why'd you marry her to begin with - you clod!" And when all is said and done, isn’t laughter the best, most unexpected gift upon completion of one’s divorce?

Chuckle-Head Song #7!

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