1. It’s Memorial Day today, which is always a notable commemorative holiday in my family, given the many generations worth of veterans (me and Marcia included) shaping both branches of our family tree. Thankfully, none of said family members died in service to their Nation during our lifetimes, but any and all of us could have, as an integral part of taking our respective oaths of office, and I deeply respect and honor the families who mark the day more meaningfully. I’m having a bit of a supplemental reaction to Memorial Day this year, too, having spent much of the past three years researching and writing about fallen military figures with my writing partner, Rear Admiral Jim McNeal, and then promoting the fruits of our labor: Side by Side in Eternity: The Lives Behind Adjacent American Military Graves. An over-arching theme throughout the book is a study of the ways in which survivors have honored (or occasionally dishonored) their fallen colleagues, from the American Civil War to the present, complemented by an assessment of the emergence and evolution of the National Cemetery system, within which so many of our fallen veterans lie. If your own reflections on the day include open questions about the ways in which families and society at large respond to the deaths of military and military-adjacent individuals, the book might help answer some of them, in what we believe to be an informative and engaging fashion. You can click on the cover image below for links to order your own copy, if you’re so moved:
2. And while I’m pimping books: last week, I posted a piece about the importance of pre-orders in the bookselling world, and respectfully asked you, dear readers, to help support the pre-launch campaign of my next book, Ubulembu and Other Stories, which comes out on August 1. I was really very pleased to see how many of you did so, with some moderately attention-getting numbers being posted in the days that followed. Thank you for that, most deeply and sincerely. The more copies of Ubulembu that are pre-ordered, the higher the probability that brick and mortar bookshops will stock the book right from its release date, and the higher the likelihood that critical outlets will notice and engage with it. I’m eager to keep pushing pre-sales through June and July, so if you’ve been considering acquiring your own advance copy, I’d remain most grateful if you ordered the book from the outlet of your choosing. You can click on the book cover below for information on where to order it, once again with my thanks.
3. And how about some chit-chat about a book I didn’t write, to cleanse the mental palate a bit? Marcia got me a great book for my birthday, called Quantum Criminals: Ramblers, Wild Gamblers, and Other Sole Survivors from the Songs of Steely Dan. Written by Alex Pappademus and illustrated by Joan LeMay, the book is one of more entertaining, informative, and opinionated rock biographies I’ve read in recent memory, crafted through an original lens: each chapter is anchored around one or more of the (usually sketchy) characters found in the lyrics composed by the Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. That type of oddly-angled rock analysis often produces overly precious product, but Pappademus’ prose is as perfectly sardonic as it could possibly be when examining the lives and works of the grimly cynical Messrs Becker and Fagen, and his deep research and insights into the Steely Dan canon gave me a surprisingly large amount of fresh perspective, given how long and how deeply I’ve been immersed in and obsessed by their work.
I covered my history with the Dan in fairly lurid detail during my Favorite Songs by Favorite Bands series, and you can read that report here. But I think what made Quantum Criminals resonate so deeply with me was the fact that I’ve obsessed over Steely Dan’s quizzical lyrics in similar ways to Pappademus and LeMay, often in partnership with my equally obsessive, nerdy, and cynical friend Wilson Smith (RIP). Way back when (in Internet terms), Wilson and I created two deep digs into the Steely Dan lexicon and shared them online, and I re-share them with you today, even as I encourage you to score and read Quantum Criminals, whether you’re a Dan Fan or not. It’s that good of a book.
The first Dan-related lyrical project Wilson and I posted was anchored in the fact that Becker and Fagen extensively used imperative or directive forms in their lyrics, regularly and aggressively. A sample: “You better tell me everything you did, baby,” from the The Royal Scam (1976) track “Everything You Did.” Not “would you tell me?” or “could you tell me?” or “won’t someone tell me?” They used straight up command forms, directed your way, no doubts about it: “You better tell me.” Donald and Walter didn’t ask you for your advice or ideas or thoughts or suggestions; if they wanted them, they gave them to you, as orders, or commands, or statements that this was the way it was going to be. You there: “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening,” over and over and over again. It’s a key part part of their menacing lyrical charm, I think.
So Wilson and I created an interactive page called “What Would Don and Walt Do? (WWDWD)” The core concept was that Becker and Fagen were the coolest, wisest people in the world, and they’d laid out brilliant rules for living in their lyrics. You could type in a burning life question at your desktop, hit a button, and receive a message from the Dan, as a sort of Magic Eight-Ball or Oblique Strategies approach to changing your thinking or actions, with every one of the commands given having been culled from their lyrics. And there were a lot of them. The original WWDWD website crashed ages and ages ago, but I was able to preserve its text, include the complete list of Dan Commands, and I posted the whole thing in my obituary for Walter Becker after he flew away in 2017. You can read the complete WWDWD text here.
The second Dan Fan project that Wilson and I created stemmed from our observation that the world(s) that Becker and Fagen created are deeply rooted in very precise places, a huge number of which are specifically named over the course of their nine studio albums. Steely Dan’s realities aren’t generic ones, but are rather set in their own places, precisely, which always makes them seem more real, more lived in, and more meaningful than less observational fare might have been. They are universal in their precision, and precise in the universality of their messages because of that. So we created a map of The Geography of Steely Dan, also long obliterated by the entropy of the Internet, though once again, I was able to preserve the text, which I also re-posted shortly after Walter Becker’s passing. We titled it “Show Me Where You Are,” from a lyrical line in 1973’s “King of the World.” And, of course, true to form, it’s in directive, command form. You can read the whole thing here.
Needless to say, reading Quantum Criminals has put me on deep Dan listening jag this week. Damn, damn, damn, were they good. I’d most strongly suggest that you nab yourself a copy of the book, and then pile up a good Steely Dan playlist, and embrace your inner Jerome Aniton (if you have to ask, you’ll never know) because one thing I can tell ya, Brother, he is here tonight, Mister Magnificent One is here, the Beautiful One is here, you little old pretty one, you here too. You know . . . whatever . . .