Thursday, January 17, 2013

"Miss Marlene" / Donald Fagen

Hijacked again!

You know, I considered Donald Fagen's 2012 CD Sunken Condos for my 2012 "best of" list. I regret to say, it did not make the cut. My long-time Steely Dan affection not withstanding, Donald Fagen minus Walter Becker loses that lyrics edge that always made the difference for me.

But a few weeks into the new year, I find that I cannot dismiss this album. The hooks are still there, the funky-jazz groove still compelling. So what if every song isn't equally good?  There's still a track or two of prime material here, and the more I listen to them, the more they possess my brain.

And hey, we just don't have enough songs about bowling, do we?

In the manner of all Steely Dan numbers, it took a little while for the chorus to sink in. And when it did, I was a little dumbfounded. Is this really what he's singing about? "Can’t you hear the balls rumble? / Can’t you hear the balls rumble  / Miss Marlene / We’re still bowling / Every Saturday night." Are we in some hipster Big Lebowski universe set at the local bowling lanes?

But after all, why not? And I'm soon swept along by the song's syncopated charm, its plush textures, those slinky chord changes.  Dig how he hangs on the unresolved chord of "ruuummm-ble," willing the chord to resolve. I imagine him standing at the end of the lane, tilting to the side, urging his ball to veer into a better trajectory.

In verse after verse he plays with the conceit, filling in all sorts of esoteric bowling-specific references -- "when she release the red ball," "The ball would ride a moonbeam," "down the inside line," "You were throwin' back hurricanes," and my personal favorite, "We drop the seven-ten." In my limited bowling career, I have never been able to clear that split between the 7 pin and the 10 pin, but I've got the lingo if nothing else.

There isn't much story here, though Fagen does give us glimpses of the girl in the picture -- "With the long skinny legs, child / And your hoop earrings." (Prime pool hall skank, if you ask me.). And then the denouement in the sixth verse: "You ran into the dark street / At University Place / The cab came up so fast that / We saw your laughin' face." I know those streets and their skinny-jean clientele. I'm with her trying to grab that cab.

This is not a classic pop song; it does not make a major statement. Fagen probably thought up the lyrics in five minutes on a bowling evening, humming them under his breath as he waited for the automatic ball return. But I'm in no mood to quibble. Just sink into that fat instrumentation and let it roll.   

Donald Fagen delivers a very specific brand of goods, and does so consistently, song after song, album after album. The cool jazz sound and oddball lyrics score us some intellectual sophistication, but before we get too cerebral and pretentious, the song's rock guts kick in.  Hipster irony? Oh, folks, we are way beyond that here.


jimbob said...

Thanks for this post -- I've grown obsessed with "Miss Marlene" and am happy to see someone else did too!

Holly A Hughes said...

Heh heh. So glad to have some company!!

Anonymous said...

...I always think of Fagan/Steely Dan as "Rockland County Chic" even though I believe Donald was born in Jersey and Rockland County is in New York even though it really should be in New Jersey. Got it, Holly?

A nice piece, as always and keep up the great writing.

The song in MY head right now, from "The Royal Scam" set is the crackling, incendiary, and very
unPC "Haitian Divorce."


Anonymous said...

I'm fairly certain Miss Marlene was inspired by female pro bowler Kelly Kulick.

Unknown said...

I guess it would be too much if Donald made the lyric, "you ran into the dark street / at Brunswick Lane".

Pretty ironic that Miss Marlene was bowled down like a pin, no?