Sign In Stranger

Have you heard about the boom on Mizar Five 
People got to shout to stay alive 
They don’t even have policeman one 
Doesn’t matter where you been or what you’ve done 

Do you have a dark spot on your past 
Leave it to my man he’ll fix it fast 
Pepe has a scar from ear to ear 
He will make your mug shots disappear 

You zombie 
Be born again my friend 
Won’t you sign in stranger

Do you like to take a yo-yo for a ride 
Zombie I can see you’re qualified 
Walk around collecting Turkish union dues 
They will call you sir and shine your shoes 

Or maybe you would like to see the show 
You’ll enjoy the Cafe D’Escargot 
Folks are in a line around the block 
Just to see her do the can-can-Jacques 


Love or leave her, yellow fever 
Sure, it’s all in the game 
And who are you 
Just another scurvy brother 


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.