My Old School (1973)

Steely Dan

Written by Donald Fagan and Walter Becker
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“My Old School” is cool as the proverbial cucumber, featuring a blend of Bebop, Modern Jazz, and hard-driving Rock guitar licks, with classic Soul back-up vocals. It boasts slick, poetic lyrics laid out in an impressionistic narrative. And the band is as tight as a snare drum on opening night of a 20-city tour. It hits on every possible cylinder.

Yet, in its time “My Old School” rose only to #63 on Billboard’s pop chart, indicating that the world was not quite ready for the kind of classic Rock fusion that Steely Dan was putting out.

Bard College On The Hudson River

Dan rose out of the atmosphere of the innovation-driven college, Bard, on the upper Hudson River, (right) hard by the flowing creative spring of the Catskill Mountains that nurtured The Band, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison in the late ‘60s into the early ‘70s. More recently the region has given us The Felice Brothers, a band of no small accomplishment.

“My Old School” tells the muddied story of a marijuana bust on the Bard campus (one in which everyone taken to the Duchess County jail was released and exonerated). Students deemed the college administration complicit in having an informer/narc planted. In songwriter Fagan’s eyes this was unforgivable for an ultra-liberal, ultra-creative school, although many years later he would accept an honorary doctorate from Bard.

The song touches on an atmosphere that has long disappeared nationally, although magically survives through the Bard tradition. It recalls an America already passed by.

I remember the thirty-five sweet goodbyes
When you put me on the Wolverine
Up to Annandale

The Wolverine was the name of a long-distance train that ran from New York through Michigan to Chicago in pre-Amtrak days. (It survives as a short-run train serving Michigan.) Annandale-on-Hudson is the location of Bard, just north of Rhinecliff, New York.

This is where the story becomes impressionistic:

The Wolverine Up To Annandale

Oleanders growing outside her door
Soon they’re gonna be in bloom
Up in Annandale
I can’t stand her
Doing what she did before
Living like a gypsy queen
In a fairy tale
Well I hear the whistle but I can’t go
I’m gonna take her down to Mexico
She said oh no
Guadalajara won’t do

“My Old School” – Listen here:

Oleander doesn’t grow in the cold country of the upper Hudson, but it is nevertheless a highly poisonous ornamental plant. And the girl referred to in the song, who is “living like a gypsy queen in a fairytale,” might have some metaphorical connection to the shrub. Beautiful and poisonous like belladonna. The connection is not entirely clear, but the singer/narrator’s view of the girl is very clear: “I did not think the girl the girl could be so cruel, and I’m never goin’ back to my old school.”

Meanwhile, the music is intoxicatingly robust, produced in the wall-of-sound style that burnished much of the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

A full four-member saxophone section is prominent and does some serious wailing.

Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s guitar solo is a blazing, jazz-inspired, wah-wah-tinged mini-masterpiece. Baxter was the bassist in an early Jimi Hendrix band called Jimmy James my old schoo singlelAnd The Blue Flames, and later played on many of the Doobie Brothers most famous albums. In fact, upon listening to “My Old School,” one can hear the roots of the Doobies’ signature sound.

Fagan’s piano playing is a suitably enthusiastic beer-barrel performance in what amounts to a very strange song.

Sherlie Matthews, a legendary back-up session singer, was one of a trio of vocalists who add the oddly exuberant chorus sound to “My Old School.” Sherlie’s recording credits list is as long as a football field and include back-up work on, among other songs, “Stayin’ Alive”; Joe Cocker’s version of “A Little Help From My Friends”; “Sweet Home Alabama”; and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed Sealed And Delivered.”

By the time Steely Dan recorded “My Old School,” the Bard College years were well in back of Fagan, and Becker, who also attended the college. (Another song, about Fagan’s infatuation with a young, pregnant faculty wife, resulted in “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number.”) “My Old School” was produced in Colorado and Los Angeles, so it is no surprise that the singer pledges in the last verse:

California tumbles into the sea
That’ll be the day I go
Back to Annandale.

But Fagan did go back, exploring Bard and his creative roots extensively, and perhaps needlessly, mourned a lost time.

Bard is still very much his “old school,” spawning many creative artists in many fields of endeavor. Generally unheralded, “My Old School” needs to be counted in the top classic Rock songs of all time.

  • It seems apocryphal, but Donald Fagan, co-founder and core member of Steely Dan, tells the story of how, when Bob Dylan came to Bard the pair hung out there. There was an old water pump on campus with a missing handle. Allegedly, that small image migrated into a line from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “the pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handle.”
  • Just before forming Dan, Becker and Fagan were back-up musicians for Jay & The Americans of “Come A Little Bit Closer” and “Cara Mia” fame.