Disguised Drug Lyrics

‘Aja’ is a jazz rock song by the American rock band Steely Dan from their eponymous album, which was released in 1977.  It was composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the band’s two members, who respectively play guitar and synthesizer on the track, with various studio musicians playing the other parts.  Aja was Steely Dan’s sixth album and it was their biggest critical success, as its complex music fused the sophisticated arrangements of cool jazz, blues, and pop together in a seamless, seductive fashion.  During the making of Aja, Steely Dan fans had gotten used to the band’s new, faceless image.  Over the months they spent fashioning the album, a suite of 7 songs about lust, wanderlust, delusions, and the destructive effects of American Dream, Fagen and Becker created a new image with their studio-assembled ensemble.  The song is pronounced “Asia”, and it was inspired by the continent, but Donald Fagen said the title came from a high school friend whose brother was in the army and came back with a Korean wife named Aja, although he wasn’t sure how she spelled it. Fagen also said that it’s about the “tranquility that can come of a quiet relationship with a beautiful woman.”

On this song, Fagen sang lead and played synthesizer, while Becker, Denny Dias and Larry Carlton handled guitars.  On backing vocals is Timothy B. Schmit, who joined the Eagles that same year.  Other musicians on the track are Chuck Rainey playing bass, Steve Gadd on drums, Joe Sample playing electric piano, Victor Feldman doing percussion, Michael Omartian on piano and Wayne Shorter playing tenor saxophone.  In 1967, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York.  In 1969, the Fagen and Becker worked at New York’s Brill Building and in 1970 they became the bass and keyboard players in the touring band of Jay and the Americans.  Before forming Steely Dan, founding members Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had a group named The Bad Rock Group featuring comedian Chevy Chase on drums and they also used the band name The Leather Canary.  In 1971 they moved to Los Angeles, and the next year they signed with ABC Records they came up with the name Steely Dan.  Besides Fagen and Becker the other original members of Steely Dan were Denny Dias (Guitar), Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals).

The band is named after a strap on dildo in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.  In the book, Mary is strapping on a rubber penis.  “Steely Dan III from Yokohama”, she says, caressing the shaft.  “What happen to Steely Dan I?”  “He was torn in two by a bull dyke.  Most terrific vaginal grip I ever experienced.  She could cave in a lead pipe.”  “And Steely Dan II?”  “Chewed to bits by a famished candiru in the Upper Baboonsasshole.  And don’t say ‘wheeeeeeee!’ this time.”  Then Mary works Steely Dan III into Johnny’s ass with a series of corkscrew movements of her fluid hips.  Most of the sex in Naked Lunch is pegging between men, though it’s often surreal, violent, and mucky.  A candiru is an Amazon fish that is also called the vampire fish and it has a habit of entering the human penis, lodging itself in place with sharp barbs, and feasting on it from the inside. Naked Lunch is a non-linear narrative without a clear plot.

The song ‘Aja’ could be about many things, but I am going with it being about drugs. This song was the longest song that Steely Dan ever recorded, and the most intricate.  ‘Aja’ was created it by combining several of their unfinished songs.  The song starts out mentioning “the hill”, which is a reference to San Francisco’s Hippy Hill, a notorious drug sales hotspot.  Every year on April 20th the 4/20 festival happens on Hippie Hill and Sharon Meadow, located at the eastern end of Golden Gate Park between the tunnel near Haight Street and the children’s playground and the tennis courts.  The line, “People never stare, they just don’t care”, could be a reference to the tolerance that existed in Eastern philosophy, which was championed by hippies as they embraced ethnic and cultural diversity and looser drug laws.

Next, “Chinese music under banyan trees” is a bit more difficult to decipher, but those people who criticized jazz often dubbed it as being Chinese music, mostly because they failed to understand it and thus considered it gibberish.  The banyan tree is sacred and it symbolizes enlightenment.  Buddhists believe that Siddhartha (the young Buddha) sat under a banyan tree known as the Bodhi tree for seven days after he received enlightenment attained nirvana.  Aja is the quest for spiritual enlightenment through the use of LSD, described by Fagen & Becker as “Kind of a trip really, to listen to it.  It’s a journey through space and time.”  The term dime-dancing refers to use of drugs that can be bought in dime bags, a package that would cost you ten dollars whether this is cocaine, heroin, or marijuana.

The line “Double helix in the sky tonight” probably refers to the visions someone had while on an acid trip.  In 1953 Francis Crick and his and research partner James Watson discovered two spirals twisting in opposite directions from one another and they became the first scientists to formulate an accurate description of the DNA molecule’s complex structure.  Deoxyribonucleic acid is a molecule composed of two chains that coil around each other to form a double helix carrying the genetic instructions that encode information unique to each individual used in the growth, development, functioning and reproduction of all known living organisms and many viruses.  Crick told many of his colleagues that he was experimenting with LSD when he figured out the double helix structure.  The significance of this structure being “in the sky” is to superimpose a uniquely personal stamp on heavenly pursuits, to separate a person who is on a journey to enlightenment from reality, leaving behind the real or physical world and moving toward Aja.

“Throw out the hardware Let’s do it right” is a reference to swallowing LSD, as it is a simple drug that makes no use of pipes, rolling papers, matches, or syringes, but this could also be a reference to spiritual and metaphysical enlightenment.  “Angular banjoes Sound good to me”, seems like it contains a misspelling of the word banjos, but I guess it is acceptable.  Angular is an apt description for music of be-bop legends like the American jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. Using angular to describe the banjo, a round-bodied instrument known for more traditional and simple music forms, is a way of indicating how be-bop turned music on its head and created a new sound.

Steely Dan spent years meticulously crafting this unique aesthetic sound and they sought out the best musicians available to bring their music to life.  In 1974, Steely Dan retired from live performances to become a studio-only band and a year later Becker and Fagen began to record entirely with various session players.  Steely Dan was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.  Becker died on September 3, 2017 of undisclosed causes at age 67, shortly after having an operation whose exact nature was also undisclosed.  Fagan has said that he will continue the band on his own.

Up on the hill
People never stare
They just don’t care
Chinese music under banyan trees
Here at the dude ranch above the sea
Aja
When all my dime dancin’ is through
I run to you

Up on the hill
They’ve got time to burn
There’s no return
Double helix in the sky tonight
Throw out the hardware
Let’s do it right
Aja
When all my dime dancin’ is through
I run to you

Up on the hill
They think I’m okay
Or so they say
Chinese music always sets me free
Angular banjoes
Sound good to me
Aja
When all my dime dancin’ is through
I run to you

10 thoughts on “Disguised Drug Lyrics

      1. Not offensive, but (pun absolutely NOT intended) it puts a different view on previously long-held lack of consideration about where names (and that one, in particular) come from, are created, etc.
        it was interesting, to say the least – and I forwarded a link to my (grown-up) nephew, Dan … I wonder if it will curb his jokes?

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Great write-up, aside from the Naked Lunch paragraph, although appropriate for your post’s theories about being under the influence of drugs. Burroughs was a heroin addict and under the influence of it as he wrote Naked Lunch (at least that’s what I read.)

    Liked by 1 person

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