Search for ‘Paul Grimstad’ (2 articles found)
A few years later I found out “Steely Dan” was actually Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, and that their name was lifted from a William S. Burroughs novel (it’s a dildo), a discovery made while ditching seventh-grade social studies to read back issues of Rolling Stone in the public library. (I also learned that that the insect on the cover of Katy Lied was a katydid, not a praying mantis.) As an only child growing up in an unincorporated townlet in Wisconsin, there were many nights when it was just me in the chair and the Dan on the turntable and a few owls hooting in the woods. The sound of Dan music became as natural and enveloping to me to as the countryside itself. It led me to champion the songs of Becker and Fagen among the self-styled punks I later started hanging out with, provoking j’accuse-like denunciations: I was the enemy within, the guy who liked easy listening. I found disses among learned rock pedants in the magazines, too, which I began to catalog: Steely Dan was “hippie Muzak” and “Valium jazz”; their music “sounded like it was recorded in a hospital ward” and was “exemplarily well-crafted schlock”; they were a “brain without a body.” How could these people say such things about songs that were so deviant and bizarre and yet so warm and often staggeringly musical? The fact that the Dan had hits—really huge hits, actually, like “Do It Again,” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and “Peg”—only made the whiff of some lurid, freaky luxury in the music seem more pronounced. You could be lyrically weird and musically oblique and still have lots of people like it. A mystery lurked at the center of it all. And the uncut essence of that mystery—the distillation of Dan music, the point beyond which the aesthetic cannot be pushed any further—is their airless, lacquered Masterwerk, Gaucho.
Born in 1877 on the boulevard Malesherbes, a few doors down from the Prousts, Roussel grew up in obscene luxury (the family home contained both the era’s most significant collection of Dresden figurines and a set of tiny bathtubs Madame Roussel had specially made for her chihuahuas). A promising Conservatory student, he started out writing songs, but found that the words came easier than the melody and so abandoned music for poetry. At 19 he completed La Doublure (The Understudy), a verse novel of 5600 alexandrines, 4500 of which describe floats in a Mardi Gras parade. He was convinced he had accomplished something comparable to Dante or Shakespeare, and kept his curtains closed while writing, believing the rays of brilliance flying from the pages would disturb the neighbours and might even reach as far as China. Devastated by the lack of attention La Doublure received on publication (he broke out in a rash when he found the book hadn’t made him famous), he nevertheless managed over the course of his life to complete five huge poems, two novels, four plays (two of which are adapted from the novels) and a handful of stories, all published at his own expense. The plays were flops, the performances ending in chaos and ridicule. But some of the audience – including Apollinaire, Picabia, Desnos and Duchamp – were awed by the work and shot back insults at Roussel’s abusers. André Breton called Roussel a ‘great magnetiser’, and Duchamp said his Large Glass was directly inspired by Impressions d’Afrique. Just weeks after he’d written resignedly that he still hoped for a ‘little posthumous fame for my books’, Roussel was found dead on the floor of a Palermo hotel room from an overdose of the barbiturate Soneryl. Jean Cocteau, who got to know him a few years earlier in a rehab clinic at Saint-Cloud (and who remembered Roussel asking him wearily: ‘Why aren’t I as famous as Pierre Loti?’), wrote Roussel’s obituary for La Nouvelle Revue Française, saying that in his work could be found ‘le génie à l’état pur’.