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Chain Lightning -- Steely Dan

Guest poem submitted by Gerry Rowe:
(Poem #965) Chain Lightning
 Some turnout, a hundred grand
 Get with it we'll shake his hand
 Don't bother to understand
 Don't question the little man
 Be part of the brotherhood
 Yes it's chain lightning
 It feels so good

 Hush brother, we cross the square
 Act natural like you don't care
 Turn slowly and comb your hair
 Don't trouble the midnight air
 We're standing just where he stood
 It was chain lightning
 It feels so good
-- Steely Dan
A lot of Steely Dan (Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) songs are very
successful recastings of standard forms. Chain Lightning is one such. It has
a standard key note-dominant-seventh kind of chord sequence. However the
chords chosen are not the usual ones but a set of more recherche, and very
effective, other ones. This is why the tune sounds both familiar and unusual
at first listening (and ultimately very pleasing).

The same kind of care and skill goes into Steely Dan lyrics, which have been
called wry, ironic and super-clever - but never trivial. Chain Lightning
deals with territory probably never explored elsewhere in music - the
subjective feelings of participants in a political rally addressed by a
powerful orator (whether of left or right is not stated). These verses
convey the paradox that the words and ideas of demagogues (and this comment
may apply to any politician) may not stand up to close inspection but may
still make listeners feel very good.

For those that like it the music of Steely Dan creates a very agreeable, and
enduring, sensation of being expertly and assiduously entertained. It makes
you feel good (and is worth more than any amount of political oratory!). In
my case my attention only turns later to the lyrics which always turn out to
be full of added value, to say the least. So it is with Chain Lightning. If
you can, listen to it, on 'Katy Lied', to get the full experience.

It's an interesting question as to who exactly the narrator is. The
author/auteur directing his characters through a short film-scene? An
initiate mentally rehearsing advice to a neophyte?  A Travis Bickle talking
to himself in quiet ecstasy? This open vagueness goes well with the the
theme of a dubious political excitement that is the more chilling for being
savoured rather than outwardly acclaimed.


87 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Richard Hall said...

Originally, between the verses, was the line "Forty years later" which makes a bit more sense of the second verse.
Of course, I originally thought this tune was something to do with narcotics, like all their other songs...

Dan Loftus said...

There is no indication whatsoever that the singer hs been to a political gathering of any type. The subject of the song is the feeling of having been in the presence of anyone highly impressive or great in any way. In the moment of their departure from a public space and a crowd, the singer urges another person there to attempt to hold onto the moment of that "great person's" presence because they themselves are not celebrated or capable of providing a transcendent moment.
Now Rick Derringer's guitar soloing here - that strikes as quite such a moment in itself.

Tatu said...

Chain Lightning's 'Familiar form' you refer to is called 'The Blues', all the 'recherche chords notwithstanding.That's the reason for it sounding familiar. Some other Steely Dan tunes that are Blues forms 'disguised' by recherche chords:'Black Friday', Don't Take Me Alive (Blues form w/ an instrumental section), 'Peg' (Blues w/a chorus), 'Bodhisattva', 'Pretzel Logic.

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