“Aja” – Steely Dan

0

Some albums in your collection, however important they are musically, take on an importance in your life that goes way beyond some sounds coming out of boxes in the corner. Sometimes an album worms its way through your defences to connect up with all sorts of other parts of life and, before you know it, the songs have become inextricably entangled with memories of friends, family and lovers; and there’s no way of untying those knots. “Aja” is one of those albums for me; it has mellow memories of my student years, memories of friends met along the way and tragic memories of one of those friends taken when she had everything before her.

“Aja” was released in October 1977 and the timing was perfect for me. It was the start of my second year at Uni and I’d escaped from halls into a flat where I shared a room with a mate from my first year. We were both musicheads, both played guitar after a fashion and I had a reasonably good stereo. It’s fair to say there was music playing from the moment one of us woke up until the last head (usually mine) hit the pillow. I had a well-paid summer job (which I could tell you a few stories about), so I hit Dundee every October with plenty of readies to support the local record shops.

I was already a bit of a Steely Dan fan, so “Aja” was a no-brainer for me. As I listened to it end-to-end for the first time, I read the lyrics, the list of musicians involved on each track (which I now realise was a guide to the best session guys in the world at that time) and the sleeve notes written by Michael Phalen after spending some fraught and unprofitable time with Becker and Fagen trying to extract some sensible contributions. Typical of their contributions was the description of “Peg” as a ‘pantonal thirteen blues with chorus’; luckily Michael wasn’t a guy to bear a grudge.

It was a strange time for a band like Steely Dan; they were the antithesis of the punk philosophy. I loved the energy of punk/new wave/power pop but I wasn’t willing to take the slash and burn attitude to older music (it cost me a fortune to buy this stuff, no bloody way was I just ditching it). The album took an age to make, the playing was exquisite and there were only seven tracks, none of them less than four minutes long. Just compare that to a Ramones album with fourteen songs, none much more than two minutes long (and I loved The Ramones as well), but “Aja” was about pure musical class, cryptic and coded lyrics with a seedy undertone and some outrageously good solo playing. I didn’t realise at the time that I’d bought a jazz album.

And talking of jazz, that was exactly the kind of cigarettes that accompanied listening to “Aja” for my university years; it was the perfect match, mostly laid-back arrangements, lots of space and perfect to chill out to. It was one of half a dozen albums that always found their way to the deck over the next three years, however many new albums I bought. I wasn’t even choosy about picking favourites; there are seven tracks, “Black Cow”, “Aja”, “Deacon Blues”, “Peg”, “Home at Last”, “I Got the News” and “Josie” and they’re all stunningly good. I would happily listen to any of those songs at any time. But the university idyll couldn’t last forever and I settled back in with my family for a while after graduation. It was the beginning of the Thatcher era and I was living in Mansfield; it was obviously going to be grim, or so I thought.

I settled into a temporary job and listened to a lot of depressing post-punk until something very strange happened. On the regular Friday night out, a mate suggested a visit to The Red Lion, a fun pub (think sleazy, cheesy and very camp) that had just taken off. I was hooked, and after the second visit I landed a weekend bar job there. If the memoirs ever come together, there’s a chapter there that might need very careful legal scrutiny. And that’s where I met Gill (beautiful with a razor-sharp wit) and her friend Denise, both nurses doing part-time bar work. Within a few weeks, we’d all decided to share a house together on Woodhouse Road with another friend, Andy, and I was living a student life again.

I brought one important thing to the party; my record collection. Within a few days, Gill had discovered “Aja” and I realised I would never really own the album again. As much as I loved you Gill, I have to say you absolutely trashed that album; fingerprints all over the first track on each side, and the album never, ever went back in its sleeve. Did it matter? No it didn’t, because she loved the album with such a passion I couldn’t get angry about it. It wasn’t unusual to walk in and find Gill in her underwear ironing that night’s outfit while listening to “Aja” (we always popped a head round the living room door before inviting guests in). We were great mates anyway, but this album was something that created an everlasting bond. While we shared that house, we both formed the relationships that defined our lives (and a few that didn’t); and “Aja” was always there in the background.

Life moved on, the way it does in your early twenties when you think you’ll live forever, and we all left the house to move in with our various partners but kept in touch, directly or on the grapevine as we moved in our chosen directions. Gill started a successful business, fell in love with a nice guy and they had three beautiful daughters. I drifted through nightclub and pub management, the dole queue and self-employment and finally, in 1992, landed a job in entertainments for the armed forces. It was great news and I was all ready to make a new start on a residential training course. Everything was good; and then the doorbell rang.

Denise was on the doorstep, in tears. Gill wasn’t with us any more; she’d had a massive brain haemorrhage a few days before while out shopping and her life support had just been switched off. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to deal with a sudden death (from the other side of the doorstep), but this was someone I’d lived with, and loved, and I thought would always be a part of my life. She had a loving husband and three daughters under five and she had gone, forever. Because of the new job two hundred miles away, I couldn’t get to the funeral (an older me would say ‘Fuck the new job’), so I had to be represented. I still miss Gill to this day; she was the kind of person that took up a huge space in your life and there was a huge hole when she left.

And what was left? Well, I still love “Aja”, and every time I listen to the album, particularly the vinyl version that still has all of the marks and noises left by Gill, I remember that beautiful person ironing in her bra and knickers and singing along to “Peg” at the top of her voice.

And there’s a postscript to this story. On October 30th 2017, I finally got to see Steely Dan live on a double bill with The Doobie Brothers at the 02. The band, as you would expect, was absolutely superb, but the atmosphere was slightly muted because of the death, less than two months before, of Walter Becker. A few gallons of silent tears were shed that night, but mine didn’t really have anything to do with mourning Walter Becker.