Steely Dan, “My Old School”

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Depending on how you feel about your alma mater, you can interpret “My Old School” by Steely Dan in a number of ways. Some might hear it as a vengeful, nasty kiss-off from a bitter ex-student. Others might discover the heartbroken lament of a dude who doesn’t want to return to the scene where his former lover ditched him. And still others just might feel the whole thing is a tongue-in-cheek jab at nostalgic remembrances of college years.

Such malleability is the beauty of so many of the songs written by Steely Dan leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. The two did indeed draw on an incident from their college days for the song’s composition, but they included enough wise-guy humor and genuine feeling to make it resonate with anyone who has ever had their pride wounded. Plus, it didn’t hurt that the music was so funky and soulful, from Fagen’s drunken opening piano chords to the churning horns to Jeff Baxter’s stinging guitar solo.

The “old school” to which Fagen and Becker refer is Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. In 1969, the two were nabbed in a pot raid by local police along with Fagen’s then-girlfriend Dorothy White. Fagen remembered the incident to Entertainment Weekly in 2006. ”These were the days when there was a ‘war on longhairs,’ as they used to call it,” he said, ”and Bard’s in this kind of rural district. They picked up about 50 kids just at random. There were a few warrants, and one was for me, which was based totally on false testimony.”

After he and the other “longhairs” had their heads shaven in prison, Bard bailed Fagen out. The college didn’t do the same for Becker and White, however, because they weren’t technically students at the time, thus earning the ire of Fagen and sowing the seeds of “My Old School.”

Whatever the origin, “My Old School,” from Steely Dan’s 1973 sophomore album Countdown To Ecstasy, is the perfect showcase for the unique alchemy the band created throughout the decade. Fagen’s wry observations only partially mask the disappointment in his voice, for both the girl and the school, but the ebullience of the music keeps things light.

“California,” Fagen sings, “tumbles into the sea/That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale.” For the record, he and Becker did eventually go back, so some grudges aren’t permanent. What is permanent is the impact of “My Old School” on listeners, even if it will never be a part of any campus recruiting campaign.

“My Old School”

I remember the thirty-five sweet goodbyes
When you put me on the Wolverine
Up to Annandale
It was still September
When your daddy was quite surprised
To find you with the working girls
In the county jail
I was smoking with the boys upstairs
When I heard about the whole affair
I said, whoa no
William and Mary won’t do now

Well, I did not think the girl
Could be so cruel
And I’m never going back
To my old school

Oleanders growing outside her door
Soon they’re gonna be in bloom
Up in Annandale
I can’t stand her
Doing what she did before
Living like a gypsy queen
In a fairy tale
Well, I hear the whistle but I can’t go
I’m gonna take her down to Mexico
She said, whoa no
Guadalajara won’t do now

Well, I did not think the girl
Could be so cruel
And I’m never going back
To my old school

California tumbles into the sea
That’ll be the day I go
Back to Annandale
Tried to warn you
About Chino and Daddy Gee
But I can’t seem to get to you
Through the U.S. Mail
Well, I hear the whistle but I can’t go
I’m gonna take her down to Mexico
She said, whoa no
Guadalajara won’t do now

Well, I did not think the girl
Could be so cruel
And I’m never going back
To my old school