The Infinite Jukebox: Steely Dan’s ‘Midnight Cruiser’

Go back in time and the further you get, the more likely it is that I didn’t hear the songs I recall on The Infinite Jukebox when they first appeared. Of course I heard a lot of Steely Dan when they first appeared: both ‘Do It Again’ and ‘Reeling in the Years’ were released as singles in the UK, both got an immense amount of airplay and both were completely ignored by the Great British Record Buying Public. In fact, everything single-wise was ignored except for 1977’s ‘Haitian Divorce’ (I tell a lie: ‘Do It Again’ on reissue in 1975 got to no 35, big whoop).
But despite my familiarity with, and love for these songs from the first time I heard them, I did not buy a Steely Dan album until 1978. At least it was Can’t Buy a Thrill.
And so I finally heard the remainder of that first album, that the New Musical Express had raved over, but which it had described as an album of songs in the way that it’s follow-up, Countdown to Ecstacy was a band album. I knew at last what they meant: smooth, pop-oriented songs, strict structures, verses and choruses and middle-eights and instrumental breaks. This was the business, and ‘Do It Again’s long shuffle and western revenge set-up and ‘Reeling in the Years” collegiate times and ripping guitars were the highlights, one heading up each side in those years when music was in shiny black and turned over on itself.
But there was this other song, buried away as track 4 on side 1, that had all the same qualities as the Dan’s other early songs, of tight playing and a chorus that invited you to lend your own throat, whose lyrics offered the same kind of proto-nostalgic milieu as ‘Reeling in the Years’ but which offered something deeper, something in which the smartarsery of the album found resistance. It was a song that had sentiment at its heart, joyous reflection, a memory of times that were better, or at least fresher. A time that was fun and yet in its way serious, about which there was to be no cynicism.
Oh, it was obvious that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were clever, cleverer than us and knowing of it, and clever enough to be cooler, in on a joke that no-one without their intelligence would ever see, let alone understand. But ‘Midnight Cruiser’ was where it got to them. Where the cleverness remained but it had stopped protecting them.
Polonius, my old friend, Fagen exclaims, step on in and let me shake your hand. The kid, as he’s described in the liner notes (remember them?) is glad to see his old buddy and invites him out: for one more time, let your madness run with mine. They’re not just going out, they’re going back, one last cruise: streets still unseen we’ll find somehow, no time is better than now.
And the song swings into one of those glorious Steely Dan choruses, full of melody and yearning, asking where are you driving midnight cruiser? Where is your bounty of fortune and fame? I am another gentleman loser, drive me to Harlem, or somewhere the same.
But the clue’s already in there, in that reference to Harlem, the long ago hip place of the Jazz Age, where the white folks went for fun and risk, but that Harlem was long since dead in 1972, and it was a vastly different place by then, and only the risk remained.
And with it the regret. The world that we used to know, the Kid muses, people tell me it don’t turn no more (he’s not been to see for himself, unable to bear so direct a disappointment). The places they used to go, familiar faces that ain’t smiling like before, and then comes the climactic conclusion, the dagger to the heart, the sadness that cannot be overcome, for things are not now as they were, and never will they be again, and there’s not a damned thing you can do to alter that, nor to escape from the pain and the loss. The time of our time is come and gone, I fear we’ve been waiting too long.
Oh yes, time, and the illusion that if you’d done this before now, if you hadn’t waited so long, it may all have been there, still alive as you once knew it, waiting for you and Polonius to make it be alive again by being there, by being part of it.
It never was, and no amount of cool can bridge that gap between was and is, nor take away the sense of loss. Where are you driving, Midnight Cruiser? Where have you been and where will you be now, and can you be if this doesn’t exist any more?
And behind the music is the knowledge that without that past, Polonius and the Kid aren’t Polonius and the Kid any more: after this, they will never see, hear or speak to each other again, because the point has been lost.
Steely Dan conjured up the music to tell us what the words alone can’t tell us, that there are things this world will do that no-one can stand up against. I heard that from them in 1978, long after they recorded this poignant song, and I am reminded of it every time I hear it again.
The time of our time is come and gone. I fear we’ve been waiting too long. Is there a sadder lesson to learn?

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