Reading, or hearing about an American sci-fi novel called 'Star Kings' by Jack Vance, Donald Fagen (singer, Steely Dan) is inspired. Growing up, surrounded with the history of a post-colonial land-mass, a narrative of prohibition and gang warfare, 1960s-70s America was still very much the Wild West. Maybe in some ways it still is.
In an imagined future, Mizar Five is a new gangland paradise – Boardwalk Empire in space. No policemen, not even one, in a city where you can always start again, avoiding potential arrest on another planet. It’s almost Star Wars – Mizar 5 could be that “hive of villainy” that Ben Kenobi describes on Tatooine. In fact, Steely Dan’s ‘Royal Scam’ album was released a year before the first Star Wars film in 1976. Is this a case of art inspiring art inspiring art? Or did Jack Vance manage to influence two of my favourite American pop culture exports with just one novel?
I am totally obsessed with the song; its sumptuous piano playing has me laughing every time, especially in the live version from 1995’s ‘Alive in America’, and of course, as it’s Steely Dan, every part is crafted and harmonious with the rest of the track.
The imagery that the lyrics conjure up takes a little time to dissect and process (a glossary of American culture references is often useful when listening to Steely Dan, who often mention downtown delis in New York and 1950s cinema in their lyrics. I actually found one once when trying to work out the references in 'Josie') but when you get there, you have another reason to keep going back. Maybe that’s why I have listened to ‘Sign In Stranger’ over ten times in the last two days. Or maybe it’s just because I am obsessive…
Of course, there are many ways to interpret lyrics – “Pepe has a scar from ear to ear” made me think of a hardened gangster, but online Steely Dan appreciators suggest that Pepe has had his throat cut, and won’t be of use to anybody except as an identity that the “zombie” protagonist can use to reinvent him/herself. However you interpret them, Steely Dan’s are some of the best lyrics to come out of USA, covering all the important bases, from teenage love, the in-crowd, and corruption in the future on distant planets.