Stay with me here:
Music is my life. Always has been. In high school, I was the guy with over 200 tapes. By college, I was always having to buy more blank cassettes, walking down the dorm hallways copying everything I could get my hands on. Today I can’t leave the house without 3,441 of my favorite songs on my iPod. I fall in love with new (or “new to me”) songs on a regular basis, and I’m always desperately looking for songs to fall in love with, artists to collect, catalogs to complete.
So why don’t I like Steely Dan? If you looked at my music collection, you’d expect to see them. They have much of what I like: impeccable musicianship, sophisticated and complicated (but not too complicated) songs and structures, a more intellectual bent than standard 70s rock fare. I definitely should like them, but… I don’t. I respect them, I completely understand that the quality of their stuff is first-rate, but… well…. I’m not sure if they leave me cold, or if I find them pretentious (imagine that), or what, but I don’t care for them. I’ll even say it: they suck.
And I don’t enjoy saying that. It makes me suspect that I am the one missing the boat. Their stuff is so high-brow, so universally lauded, that something must be wrong with me. Right? And yet, there it is: they suck.
This kind of bugs me. I give them every opportunity. Last night I finished – after three attempts – watching a Tivo’d episode of “Classic Albums” on their landmark “Aja” record from 1977. I wanted to finally find the last piece of the puzzle, find that missing “something” that I had been overlooking all those years. I wasn’t “getting” them, that must be it, so I’d let the “experts” take me by the hand and lead me through the process and explain to me why Steely Dan was as great as everybody has always said they are.
Looking up from the new Harry Potter book, Michelle didn’t know how to respond to this. “Steely Dan? I thought you hated them?” she said. “I don’t hate them,” I replied. “Yes, you do,” she said, “you say they suck.” “Well, yeah, I mean I do hate them,” I replied, “but, you know, they’re great.”
She went back to her book and I kept watching. And waiting. And guess what? There was no “missing piece.” Nothing I had overlooked. I did “get them,” but I still don’t like them. They still suck.
But not really. I mean, they’re good but I don’t like them. More precisely, I don’t love them, and that’s what I think I’m getting at here. There is plenty for me to respect and admire in Steely Dan, plenty for me to like, but, try as I have all these years, I never find anything there to love. I have never found anything to emotionally connect to with in Steely Dan. And, until recently, that has never been a requirement for me. But somehow, somewhere in there, it became one. A big one. Somewhere in there my tastes, my reason for listening to music or seeing movies or looking at art, went from an intellectual interest to learn about stuff to a need to emotionally engage with something, to fall in love. It is fine to respect and admire something, but that is not enough anymore. My response to Random Question #3 notwithstanding, it appears that I may have changed. Possibly.
Why am I thinking about this? After having this realization I looked back on the stuff I have written as well as the stuff I am writing now. I can clearly see some stuff that is fine and interesting and maybe even respectable, but which gives us nothing to fall in love with. And when I think of the stuff I am most proud of and ask myself WHY it is I am proud of it, and I can’t really explain, I think that is what it comes to: I am in love with it, and more importantly other people have fallen in love with it too. There is an emotional attachment there.
But how do you get that thing in there, how do you make that thing that people will fall in love with and put it in your work? How do I make Dead Guy a more engaging and satisfying experience than Steely Dan? Now there is much more at stake than “getting the story to work.” Suddenly the only thing that matters is that emotional attachment.
But emotional attachment… to what? The easy answer is “the characters” but that’s not really it. It’s part of it, yes, but not the whole thing. There are movies I love, but not because the characters are sympathetic or easy for me to identify with, or any of those things you find in screenwriting bibles. The story and the theme are important too, but again, not the whole answer. It’s like falling in love with a person – appearance, yes, intelligence, yes, personality, definitely – but you don’t fall in love with everyone you meet that has all three. We’ve all had people that were “perfect” for us, that friends and family couldn’t believe we weren’t crazy about, that we just weren’t that interested in. Like Steely Dan.
So… what exactly do I do with these new revelations? Beats me. But the one thing I cannot do is forget them.