Request Line: “Maxine,” “Peg”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 11, 2010
Reader James Kushner e-mails:
“Maxine” by Donald Fagen
Thirty or so years later, I’m still blown away by the whole Nightfly album– how the prince of hip cynicism released an album that looked back on his hopes for maturity and sophistication from when he was a kid, and did so with no irony or cynicism at all. The frustrated adolescent sexuality and dreamy longing of “Maxine” is the high point of that album. And oh, those close harmonies.
Or, you might have a stab at “Peg” by Steely Dan. I regard this as the defining Studio Pop Construction of its era, in the same way that “Good Vibrations” was the defining Studio Pop Construction of the ’60s. (Rick Marotta is the hero of that recording.)
P.S. Re “Jessie’s Girl”: I remember reading, long ago, that that song did not have any bass guitar in it. Listening to it closely through my crappy computer speakers, I couldn’t tell if that was true or not. If so, that would be remarkable for a radio-friendly rock hit, no?
I think I can probably make time for a stab at both. One I know extremely well and one I don’t really know at all, so hopefully they’ll balance out.
I’ve heard about The Nightfly for a while, and I think I even had it downloaded at one point, but all I’d really heard from it before this point was the hit single “I.G.Y.,” a delightfully breezy number that I always assumed carried some seething undercurrent of regret and/or resentment. Of course, the more I read about The Nightfly (and from your request itself), I gather that this may have been the one time in his career when Donald Fagen’s snazzy pop songs didn’t disguise sordid tales of gang rapes and last-stand benders, and weren’t delivered through a sneer and a double-scotch, but were rather just straight-faced, wide-eyed takes on the era of his adolescence. A little weird for me to think about–Fagen (and by proxy, Steely Dan) without the snide wit seems like it would make as much sense as an Andrew W.K. album with only a mild sense of enthusiasm. An interesting experiment, though, so let’s see.
After a couple of listens to “Maxine,” I can’t really say that I’m much moved by this. Even if it’s not as bitter as his traditional material, and if the harmonies and subject matter (“we can’t have sex yet, sucks“) suggest a sort of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” vibe, the song still feels very cold to me at its essence. Maybe it’s the harmonies themselves–they’re pretty, certainly, but they’re not terribly melodic, and the fact that Fagen tracks his voice so many times…it’s just hard to sound particularly sincere when there are ten or so of you singing at once. The song itself is draggy, and while the lyrics have a certain urgency to them in parts (especially the primary “Try to hold on, Maxine” hook), they’re just delivered too laconically and affectedly to land with any real kind of punch, and the chintzy production certainly isn’t helping to pick the song up either. I don’t know, maybe it makes more sense in the context of the album, maybe its sound and feel just takes acclimating to, but I’m just not feeling it.
“Peg,” I never have trouble feeling. Some songs always sound good and this is one of them, a structurally, lyrically and melodically immaculate number that tries very, very hard to be perfect and is more than rewarded for its efforts. I’d never quite thought about it in such terms, but if you wanted to call “Peg” the “Good Vibrations” of its era, I don’t have any problem with that. The comparison works on how both songs connect on a pure pop level, but boast productions so intricate and layered that you could listen to both about a dozen times in a row and each time find something new to fixate on that you might not ever have noticed before. And if you wanted to call drummer Rick Marotta the hero of the recording for the crisp shuffle he gives the song to ride on (not to mention his excellent work on the cymbal in the intro, and his single hit that snaps the song into action), you’d be absolutely right. But you’d be just as right to give those honors to John Grayson for his scorching guitar solo, Chuck Grainey for his percolating bass line, Michael McDonald for his soaring backing vocals, or Tom Scott for his stellar work on the lyricon. (Or so I assume, anyway–I have no idea what the fuck a lyricon actually sounds like. Is it that thing playing the hook that doesn’t sound quite like a saxophone?)
If you want my personal opinion, however–and if you’re writing in, I have to assume that you probably do–I’d have to say that the song’s true hero is none other than Fagen himself. I am absolutely in love with the rhythm and melody of the verses to this song. Fagen bobs and weaves his way through them like a masterful pitcher, constantly changing the speed and eye-level of his pitches, keeping the hitter off guard. No two phrases on the verse are quite alike, and little things he does–the way he drops up and down the register on the “I keep it with your letter” section, or how he stretches the word “smiiiile” on the penultimate line after an entire stanza of staccato’d syllables–my lord, it’s all just so much fun to listen to. And then, once you’re finally out of all the trickery terrain of the verse, Fagen and McDonald just hit you with the fastball on the chorus–that loud, ringing “PEEEEEGGGG!!!” that beautifully relieves all the tension built up in the two verses before the song finally gets there. It’s an absolute clinic, and we’re just lucky that Fagen doesn’t charge us tuition for the privilege of pulling up a chair to his senior seminar.
My favorite part, though, is at the end of the very first verse, where he just drops the title “Peg” in there, almost inaudibly, almost unwillingly, as if he just couldn’t wait to get the name out there and let it slip accidentally. I was having a conversation with my friend Lisa the other day about Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” and we agreed about our favorite part of the song being during the “Do you remember when / We used to sing” bridge, when after a steady stream of “sha-la-la” chants, Morrison quickly deadpans “Just like that…” It’s a throwaway line for sure, but that’s the reason why it stands out so much. By just about any measure, “Brown Eyed Girl” is one of the most flawless pop songs recorded in the last 2000 years, and not a note of it sounds remotely risky or uncalculated–except for that line. It’s a nice little off-the-cuff reminder that as brilliant as the song is, it’s still a quintessentially human work, and it’s not immune to a little spontaneity when so inspired. That barely-perceivable “Peg” at the end of the verse has the same effect here, ensuring that as scientifically constructed as the song appears, it never feels quite mechanical either. These things really can not be undersetimated.
And as for “Jessie’s Girl,” I’m pretty sure I can hear a bass line going throughout the loud part of the verses and into the chorus. It’s not particularly loud and it mostly just follows the guitar line, but unless it’s just some weird effect of the keyboards, it certainly sounds like a bass to me. And given that bass tab exists out there for the song, I’d say that’s pretty conclusive. Too bad, almost–would’ve been a nifty new little factoid about a song we all thought we knew pretty well already.
Please continue to submit your article requests in the comments section below, or at twitter.com/intensities. If I don’t get to it the week of the request, I will soon enough thereafter.