Two Postmodern Prophets: Walter Becker & Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)

I have always liked the line in “The Sounds of Silence” where Simon & Garfunkel sing “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls.” Thankfully, sometimes they are also written in songs, such as this one from the exuberant 1975 album “Katy Lied” by Steely Dan:

 

 

ANY WORLD (THAT I’M WELCOME TO)

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. All songs ©1974 MCA Music Publishing, A Division of Universal Studios, Inc. (ASCAP),

If I had my way
I would move to another lifetime
I’d quit my job
Ride the train through the misty nighttime
I’ll be ready when my feet touch ground
Wherever I come down
And if the folks will have me
Then they’ll have me

CHORUS:
Any world that I’m welcome to
Is better than the one I come from

I can hear your words
When you speak of what you are and have seen
I can see your hand
Reaching out through a shining daydream
Where the days and nights are not the same
Captured happy in a picture frame
Honey I will be there
Yes I’ll be there

CHORUS

I got this thing inside me
That’s got to find a place to hide me
I only know I must obey
This feeling I can’t explain away

I think I’ll go to the park
Watch the children playing
Perhaps I’ll find in my head
What my heart is saying
A vision of a child returning
A kingdom where the sky is burning
Honey I will be there
Yes I’ll be there

CHORUS

I believe that Donald Fagan and Water Becker were two prophets of the postmodern situation, with their songs written in the 1970’s. Many of their songs are cynical and nihilistic, such as their 70’s anthem “Deacon Blues” that powerfully and poignantly captured the nihilistic mood that was beginning to prevail following the naive idealism of the 60’s.

“Any World that I’m Welcome To” almost sticks out like a sore thumb in their body of works, with it’s optimistic hope. It is a wonderful piece of songcraft and it always amazes me what they could do in two to three minutes! But this song amazes me mostly, in relation to most of their other songs, because of its optimism.

But it is an optimism born of disillusionment. The feeling of “disembeddedness” prevails as the singer bemoans his life, job, and “place” of living. He is ready to board a train but to where? The train travels through the “misty nighttime” seeming to imply that it is a trip in the dark where the destination is unseen and unknown.

The destination does end up being ambiguous: “any world that I’m welcome to…”. It will be any place where his “feet touch down” which perhaps signifies a sense of groundedness. It will also be a place of welcome that is known as such because “the folks will have me.” If he finds such a place he will gladly call it home, saying “if the’ll have me…then they’ll have me!

So what does he want to leave behind? The culture of disembeddedness characterized by the absence of welcome, belonging,  family, and blessedness. In short, he wants to find the place where the “folks” are,  which is a familial image. This was why the 70’s was in one sense the golden era of the cults, where the disillusioned often traded their independent reasoning and dysfunctional families for the “welcome” received by the open armed “families” (cultists) who seemed to be present everywhere. Thankfully this phenomena was partly curtailed by the very cynicism and nihilism of the disillusioned who saw a carrot dangled in most everything, and certainly so in the cults.

But here Fagan and Becker are simply acknowledging the fact that there is a genuine human need for “the folks.” Even if it is but a “shining daydream,” in relation to our present experience, we all need it. Because of this need they say

I got this thing inside me
That’s got to find a place to hide me
I only know I must obey
This feeling I can’t explain away

This real need for “folks” is not negated by the fact that there are false “folks” in the world. Therefore, driven by this “thing inside me,” the undaunted seeker as through a vision “hears” the words and “sees” the hand of someone from the place he seeks to find:

I can hear your words
When you speak of what you are and have seen
I can see your hand
Reaching out through a shining daydream

This visionary “person” must be one who speaks of what he is, speaks of what he has seen, and reaches out a hand that can also be seen. There is a strong emphasis here on the authenticity of the messenger and the message, and on compassion.  I found it especially interesting that Fagan and Becker also seemed to evoke the biblical images of the returning “prodigal son” of Luke 15, and the primary message of Jesus of a “kingdom” (that for them is a place where “the sky is burning” which I think essentially signifies a kingdom that is transforming). The singer seeks  re-enchantment by going to the park to watch the children playing, to find in his head something already in his heart, to see the visions of return, welcome, belonging, and even kingdom:

I think I’ll go to the park
Watch the children playing
Perhaps I’ll find in my head
What my heart is saying
A vision of a child returning
A kingdom where the sky is burning
Honey I will be there
Yes I’ll be there

If he could find this kingdom, he knows he would go there without hesitation, saying says “Honey…I will be there, yes I’ll be there!” I find it extremely interesting that he begins speaking of a desire for “any world” but ends up with the hope for “a kingdom.”

Thank you, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker, for such a wonderful song. I believe this song was prophetic of the challenge we postmoderns face today. Who is the authentic witness with a true vision of  another place? Where can we find welcoming “folks” of true community? Where can the child return to? Where is the kingdom where the sky is burning?

And perhaps most importantly, what is the criterion the postmodern seeker uses for determining the answer to these questions? Fagan and Becker have revealed that the main postmodern criterion may be…

Any world THAT I’M WELCOME TO,

Is better than the one I come from

Honey I will be there…

This postmodern criterion explains a lot concerning where people are today in the choices they have made, for good or for bad. Furthermore, understanding this criterion may be necessary to convince postmoderns that there is a “better” world.

BMC 2/21/12

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Disclaimers:

I am not saying that I believe that Fagan and Becker, or Paul Simon, are “Prophets” in the full biblical sense. But I am saying that they are recognizing and communicating truth as some of the Greek poets had done and which was recognized by the Apostle Paul when he was in Athens as recorded in Acts 17:28.

I am also offering this as my own interpretation of their song, and obviously cannot know for sure what they had in mind. But as far as the main theme of the song being about the longing for a place to “belong” I think am on the right track.

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