Monday, January 20, 2014


"Miss Marlene" / Donald Fagen

Fast forward 28 years, and here's the return of Steely Dan -- or at least the keyboard half, Donald Fagen -- still hitting that jazz-rock groove. If Fagen's 2012 album Sunken Condos doesn't equal classic Steely Dan on every track, when it does, it's something fine indeed. The cool jazz sound and oddball lyrics score some intellectual sophistication, but before we get too pretentious, the song's rock guts kick in. Hipster irony? Oh, folks, we are way beyond that here.

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

I'm immediately swept along by the song's syncopated charm, its plush textures, the slight blurt of a horn section, the antiphonal electric guitar, those slinky chord changes. The chorus sets the scene in some Big Lebowski universe set at the local bowling lanes. "Can’t you hear the balls rumble? / Can’t you hear the balls rumble  / Miss Marlene / We’re still bowling / Every Saturday night." Dig how he swells into 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 verbally riffs 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 plot here, but it's such a particular, specific slice of life, I'm totally absorbed. It's a busy social milieu, with back-up singers oozing into the ends of phrases, the clutter of various instruments going their various directions, only the percussion track keeping steady like a ball rolling down the alley. I could swear I hear the murmuring voices at the bar, the machines in the arcade, the clatter of the ball return.

Fagen does give us glimpses of the girl in the picture -- rolling like a pro in 2007 when she was just seventeen, "With the long skinny legs, child / And your hoop earrings." (Prime pool hall skank or wild child free spirit? You decide.) 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.

11 DOWN, 41 TO GO


NickS said...

I know those streets and their skinny-jean clientele. I'm with her trying to grab that cab.

Do you think she grabbed a cab, left, and never came back, or was she hit by the cab?

My first read of the lyrics was that she was hit (which also appears to be what the person who put the video together thinks, since there's a shot of a broken windshield), but there isn't much evidence either way, other than that "dark street" and "so fast" signify danger (and the fact that she was heartbroken and, "throwing back hurricanes" makes it sound like she was quite drunk).

But it could fit the lyrics equally well for her to have just decided that she didn't want to spend her Saturdays bowling with a bunch of older men and went away to college and forgot about them all.

Holly A Hughes said...

Hmm. I didn't think that she was hit by a cab, though you make a good case. It just doesn't feel like a death song to me, though. I guess I'd still go for the idea that she's flitting off to another party. But this song doesn't have to be autobiographical, does it? Maybe she's not hanging with older men -- maybe Fagen is her age, in the fiction of this song. I always assume the "I" is the artist, but maybe not.

NickS said...

Maybe she's not hanging with older men -- maybe Fagen is her age, in the fiction of this song.

I thought about that when I wrote the comment, and I agree that it doesn't have to be Fagen himself. But I just couldn't see him creating a narrator which was _that_ much younger. Also I think of bowling leagues as attracting people older than 22 (at the time of the song), but that may be wrong.