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HOW I TURNED DOWN STEELY DAN
by Jon Gordon
"It ain't no sin, it ain't no crime, it's just a dance we do in the summertime - Burn baby, Burn baby, Burn baby, BURN Tonight!" I still remember this snatch of lyric, and a chord pattern of ascending minor thirds. The song, a lighthearted look at the Harlem riots, was one of several equally bizarre songs Walter and his friend played for me that day. Then they wanted to know where they could find work playing these songs -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.
I was the kid -- a 14-year-old guitarist in a band of 17-year-olds. In our year or so of existence, we were called The First Foundation Blues Band (after Asimov), Chaos, and finally, The Pipe Dreams. We played Socialist Workers Party Youth dances, high school proms, and even did a one-nighter at the Night Owl Cafe, where we callously fired our bass player between shows. Our last performance was a Sunday afternoon "concert" at the Bitter End, for which we gave away so many freebie tickets that we ended up splitting 50 cents four ways, after the house got its cut. Then all the other guys went away to college.
My ex-bandmates had seemed all-powerful, all-knowing. They had actually taken drugs. They had actually had sex with their girlfriends. But perhaps most awe-inspiring was Walter. He played guitar and harmonica well. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of music and musicians -- even esoteric stuff like Coltrane and Sun Ra.
Walter gave me invaluable nuggets of advice interspersed with stories so wild, no intelligent person would believe them. He told me to listen to Buddy Guy playing with Junior Wells to learn how to play funky and with restraint - great advice for any guitarist. But then he told me about some guy named Jimmy James at the Cafe Wha' who, Walter claimed, played guitar with his teeth. I was sure Walter was teasing me, as the older guys often did.
So Walter went away to Bard College. The Pipe Dreams were disbanded and forgotten. I joined other bands, and started making pocket money playing frat parties and mixers. Then one Winter Break, I got a call from Walter. He was in town and wanted to visit me. I said OK.
Walter came over with this weird, nerdy looking friend of his from Bard. His friend sat at my piano and they played "Burn, Baby Burn". They asked me where they could find work.
I have to admit that I was freaked out by the whole experience. On some level I may have appreciated that Walter was a visionary, but I strongly suspected that he had a couple of screws loose. I told Walter and his friend that I thought their songs were really strange and I didn't know where they could find work. They left. [Editor's note: What my nerdy pal and I actually asked Jon that day was whether he wanted to be part of the band we were trying to start. He told us he was way into the blues band he was playing with at the time, and that was the end of that. Evidently this particular detail cannot be accessed by the "Jon Gordon" personality particule at this time. Rebirthing, or maybe a session or two with the Production PuppetsTM, should be able to help Jon make contact with this painful and traumatic memory.]
A number of years later, I was in the audience at a taping for a Don Kirshner-type rock concert show. The lineup included a new group called Steely Dan. I had heard Steely Dan on the radio and was curious to see them. Then I saw Walter milling around near the stage. I went over to say hi.
Walter asked me how I was, and I droned on and on about some band I was in at the time. Then Walter said he had to go, and offered to bring me backstage. I said no thanks.
Later, when Steely Dan took the stage, I was very surprised to see Walter and his weird piano-playing friend fronting the band. And that is how I discovered that, at the age of 15, I had turned down Steely Dan.
Since missing the Steely Dan boat, Jon Gordon went on to work as guitarist and musical director for Madonna and Suzanne Vega. Jon is featured as a soloist on three of Ms. Vega's U.S. singles, including triple Grammy nominee "Luka" for which he shares arranging credit. He now works as a music producer, arranger and composer at his own studio facility, Jon Gordon Music Productions, in New York City.
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