I used to joke that I was going to write a series of novels where Donald Fagen and Walter Becker would use their time off of touring with Steely Dan to solve mysteries. Can’t you just picture it? They’re a perfect detective pairing; they’re snarky and sardonic, with a clever patter and a long history of writing songs around lowlifes. It would have been amazing and the most on-brand Libby Series of all time, combining my well-honed talent for writing mysteries with my deep and passionate love for the Dandom.
Tragically, Becker’s death last September put an end to this and many of my other Steely dreams (like getting to hear them do “The Second Arrangement” in concert again) but it did get me thinking about the core of hardboiled noir that runs throughout a lot of Yacht Rock.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, (coined by J.D. Ryznar in his eponymous and, frankly life-changing Channel 101 series) “Yacht Rock” generally refers to a style of smooth, often jazz-inflected music from the late 1970s and early 80s, bolstered by studio musicians (Jay Graydon, Steve Porcaro, Jeff Porcaro, etc) and, if you want to get hyper-specific, containing the word “fool.” Think Michael McDonald. Think Christopher Cross. The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” is Yacht Rock. Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” is not. Do not try to fight me on this, I swear to God, I will mess you up.
But true Yacht Rock is rarely the sappy elevator music too many people associate it with. In fact, a lot of it is downright hardcore. We’ve touched on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” and Boz Scaggs “Gimme The Goods” in previous columns, but let’s consider these lyrics from Christopher Cross, courtesy of “Ride Like the Wind:”
I was born the son of a lawless man
Always spoke my mind with a gun in my hand
Lived nine lives
Gunned down ten
It doesn’t matter if Christopher Cross doesn’t look like he’s ever ridden anything faster than a 10-speed or the fact that he wrote "Sailing," which is a pretty wussy song. Hell, I don’t even like this song and I want to know the whole story. Who did the protagonist kill and why? Is he a bullet for hire? Avenging the death of his Pops? Is the dude who wrote “Sailing” a secret badass? Of course he is. That’s Yacht Rock, baby.
The whole genre is full of dirty little gems like this one. Boz has “Lowdown” and “Georgia” on top of “Gimme the Goods.” There are too many Steely Dan songs to count, and that’s not even counting Fagen’s solo records, with “Good Stuff” off Sunken Condos and “The Goodbye Look” on The Nightfly. JaR's "GPS" is a great modern example of the genre, complete with a sweet-as-honey digital duet with our driver's navigation system.
|I'll never forget the day I learned my partner Kenny was dead.|
And I'll never let the bastards who killed him get away with it.
But looping back to the Dan for a second (don’t I always?) I do have to say that their song “West of Hollywood” was the inspiration for my story in Brian Thornton’s anthology TheHangman Isn't Hangin': Stories Inspired by the Music of Steely Dan. I am so excited for this anthology (I begged to be let in and he was kind enough to welcome me and when he comes to collect on my first born or my kidney or whatever, I won’t even complain) and honored to be included alongside some serious heavy-hitters.
So whether you’re taking inspiration from Mike or Boz, Kenny or Walt, or heck, even Cross, you don’t need a yacht to let the smooth sounds carry your imagination– or your pen– to the dark places in your soul