Although this is travel blog, it’s still a personal blog and there are some stuff I’ve shared now and then that pertain to my non-travel interests and have much personal value to me. This time, it’s Steely Dan’s turn to occupy some space here. And so, I’d like to present to you, for your listening pleasure, The Second Arrangement:
Actually, that’s not Steely Dan. It’s a band called Twelve Against Nature – one of the many Steely Dan tribute bands out there. This rendition is notable because the actual recording of Steely Dan itself had been lost in the late 70s due to being accidentally deleted by an assistant sound engineer during a recording of their album Gaucho. There being no viable copies around, they just gave up on any attempt to re-record it and released the album without the song (which nevertheless became a big hit.)
Before bootleg copies and clips of “The Second Arrangement” came out in the Internet age, only a handful of people have ever heard the song in full and it has been described as one of the best Steely Dan songs that unfortunately was never released. Thanks to some resourceful music geek and the power of the Internet, a more or less full version of the original recording is now available to everyone, but the sound quality leaves much to be desired. (And as many fans would attest, there’s almost no point in listening to Steely Dan if the sound quality is poor and you can’t distinguish the different instruments blending seamlessly together.)
Steely Dan has actually sung the song a few times in recent years during their concerts. But if this clip is of any indication, the advanced age of Donald Fagen has severely affected his distinctive voice and so, any notion that they would still be able to recreate the song as they originally intended it back in 1978 has entered the realm of wishful thinking. That’s why I like this version by Twelve Against Nature. The sound quality is good and the horns and bakcup vocals are close to what I imagine the final version would sound like. But of course, Fagen’s voice in his prime is such a vital element of Steely Dan songs that it’s definitely missed in this version.
The casual listener would think, “If the song was so good, then why not just record it again?” The answer is that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (the core of Steely Dan) are known perfectionists and often spend weeks or even months recording a single song again and again, with alternating sets of session musicians, just to get to the version closest to what they have in mind. Every Dan song is compsed of multiple layers of crisp and finely played music engineered to fit seamlessly together to make as perfect a recording as possible.
It would be akin to Milton just finishing “Paradise Lost” and then having the manuscript lost by some errand boy on the way to the publishers. True artists give a part or all of themselves in their work. It’s not something that can just be recreated in any condition. And in some cases, if the work is large enough, it can never really be re-created. This is probably what Steely Dan felt after the recording was deleted.
(And perhaps they would have also felt like killing that assistant sound engineer at that moment. It’s a good thing that person’s name was never released. There would be a lot of Steely Dan fans who would give him/her hell for depriving the world of a potentially great song.)