Donald Fagen: Through With Buzz

Written by Jamie Bernstein

Writer, Narrator and Broadcaster

In category: Song of the Day

Published August 18, 2020

I couldn’t resist including this truly odd song from Pretzel Logic. It’s very short. One of the reasons it’s so short is that each of the three verses is one line long. Why did Fagen do that?! It makes me laugh every time – as if he were really so very irritated with his friend Buzz that he doesn’t even have the patience to explain; he has to hurl himself back into that catchy chorus: he’s just so through with Buzz, goddammit!

There are yet more odd aspects to this song. It features, of all things, a string quartet. There they are, with their funny violin runs, and their heavy bowings a la “Eleanor Rigby.”

I’m wondering whether in our current age, Fagen regrets his third verse, which runs, in its entirety: “Maybe he’s a fairy…”  But once again, the throughness-with-Buzz overtakes the singer, and he can’t dwell on the details, he just has to aver how through he is: oh yeah, uh huh. The song leaves you with an earful of melody and a head full of questions.

Originally posted on April 18, 2017.

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Jamie Bernstein is a narrator, writer and broadcaster who has transformed a lifetime of loving music into a career of sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm with others. Jamie has written and narrated concerts about Leonard Bernstein, Mozart and Copland, among others. In addition to her own scripted narrations, Jamie also performs standard concert narrations. She is a frequent speaker on musical topics, including in-depth discussions of her father’s works. Jamie has also produced and hosted numerous shows for radio stations including several seasons of the New York Philharmonic’s live national radio broadcasts, and various series for New York’s classical station, 96.3 WQXR FM, including annual live broadcasts from Tanglewood. In addition to writing her own scripts and narrations, Jamie writes articles and poetry, which have appeared in such publications as Symphony, DoubleTake, Town & Country and Gourmet.

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    Through with Buzz: a Metatextual Interpretation of a Source Text in the Performativity of Steely Dan”

    With their enigmatic lyrics, and improvisational fusions of musical genres, the recording ensemble Steely Dan achieved both popular and critical acclaim during its performative career. In critiquing their discography, a consensus has emerged that their texts articulated both the aspirations as well as the frustrations of a generation of young adults who contended with the rapidly advancing technological and cultural changes that transpired in the American socio-economic system of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In the exposition which follows, I shall attempt to demonstrate that, contrary to the predominating critical discourse which has often dismissed “Through with Buzz” to be nothing more than a negligible specimen of album filler, I contend instead that this short but indelible track represents a singular artistic achievement in the collaborative oeuvre of musicians and lyricists Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.

    First, let us examine the perspective of the first-person narration of the lyrics. Second, in the interest of convenience, let us give him a name: Lester. Given lyrical clues from songs which both preceded and followed the recording of “Through with Buzz”, one may apply a credible degree of conjecture to the identity and background of this plaintive everyman, the “Lester ” of our narrative. He is, one infers, a young, unmarried male dwelling in an urban environment. One surmises that Lester is a recent graduate of a liberal arts education which he received on a campus located in Annandale, a small town in the Northeastern United States. Eschewing his parents’ aspirations that he continue his education in the pursuit of a profession, after graduation Lester followed his passion for jazz and conversation and obtained employment at an independent (radio) station, WJAZ.

    Though Lester enjoys his employment as the radio announcer during the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. broadcasting shift (a period of time during which, due to atmospheric conditions, his program can be accessed by radios throughout much of eastern North America), his renumerative compensation is meagre relative to the cost of living in the urban environment in which he lives and works. Unbeknownst to him, unseen forces privy to Lester’s hiring as an on-air personality at WJAZ drew the attention of an unscrupulous financier named Buzz. No sooner had Lester accepted employment with the independent station (WJAZ) than he received a telephone call which described an offer of below-market-rate housing at a residential dwelling owned, as well as resided in, by Buzz.

    How can we describe Buzz? The first line of the song offers a clue: “He takes all my money”. In addition to paying rent, the listener can easily infer that the events of this song occur during a time, circa 1963, before banking institutions provided Automatic Transaction Machines (or, as they are commonly known to the layman, A.T.M.s) and direct deposits of paychecks. From here, we can easily surmise that Buzz holds some manner of fiduciary authority in regard to Lester’s financial assets. Further burnishing the reputation of Buzz as an unlikeable and deceitful fellow, Lester expresses annoyance at his landlord and banker’s attempts at joke-telling and mirth-making; to wit, “He’s not very funny.”

    Furthering Lester’s discontent with Buzz, the third stanza of the lyric alludes to a young lady with whom Lester has, perhaps, sought to attain — or has obtained — a romantic relationship. For the sake of convenience, let us refer to her as “Maxine”. Maxine is, one speculates, a Manhattan career girl of the type portrayed in “Mad Men”, prone to wearing Ambush perfume and wearing her hair in a French twist. Given Lester’s third shift work schedule (and Buzz’s knowledge of same), it would appear that Buzz has taken advantage of this situation (“I remember when he stole my girl”) by arranging to have her accompany him to the groundbreaking ceremony at the construction site of the 1964 New York World’s Fair where, Lester laments, Buzz “drug her all around the world”. Though Lester assumes a reaction of tacit tolerance of this betrayal, he confesses his annoyance about Buzz (and, presumably, his distaff companion) “when I’m in my room (presumably the broadcast booth at WJAZ) and it’s late at night” during his overnight broadcast.

    This resentment is later articulated in Fagen’s 1982 solo recording, “The Nightfly”, where, in a variation of the vocal track, a radio announcer at WJAZ sings, “You’d never believe it, but once there was a time, when love was in my life,” from which he proceeds to muse about the contemporary whereabouts of “that old flame of mine.” Thus does the subject of this exposition serve as the source text for “The Nightfly” as well as, perhaps, other lyrics from Fagen and Becker. Finally, the concluding lyric implies a further manifestation of Buzz’s endeavors to benefit from his deception of others. Given the conspicuous presence of Buzz and Maxine at the groundbreaking ceremonies for the World’s Fair (and, here, one must assume the “World” alluded to in the penultimate stanza is intended as shorthand to refer to the World’s Fair as, otherwise, the rhyme-scheme would be distorted by further specifying the time and place of the event in question), one can apply the hermeneutic of suspicion: Specifically, Buzz endeavored to have Maxine accompany him to this event as a means to establish the appearance of having a female companion and, in doing so, burnish the perception of him as a heterosexual male who is, thus, eligible for a promotion within the financial institution of his employ. Lester, however, considers that this is but an attempt by Buzz at subterfuge.

    To the contrary, Lester speculates that Buzz is, maybe, shall we say, an invert, a uranian, “light in his loafers”, effete, a pansy, a daisy-sniffer, a neurasthenic, an exquisite, or as a case study of an effeminate subject is described in the text of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, “he fancies himself an aesthete, and expends his fortune and time on the purchase of expensive toiletries and, thinking himself a poet, pens odes on the subject of intimacies between youths in Greek antiquity.” The promiscuous escapades of Buzz are, perhaps, further alluded to in later Steely Dan songs. In “Black Cow”, the narrator (again, one speculates that this is a reappearance of the Lester persona) discovers the presence “on the counter, by your keys, is your book of numbers and your remedies.” In “The Fez”, it is perhaps this same narrator who overhears a negotiation between Buzz (or a twilight man similar to him in his proclivities) and another fellow about the application of — or eschewing of — the use of prophylactics as a pretext to a libidinal encounter.

    In conclusion, the listener can be assured that the narrator, the afore-mentioned Lester, is thoroughly disillusioned with Buzz and, as such, he is taking the initiative to cease financial, social and personal engagement with him. “Through with Buzz” can and should therefore be classified within the canon of the bildungsroman, an iteration of the classic coming-of-age saga in which a disillusioned youth resolves to reexamine the cultural values of the society in which he lives and, in doing, casts aside those ideals and the personifications thereof which he deems irrelevant. In combining into song the themes of Innocence and Experience, “Through with Buzz” is more than ninety-two seconds of musical and lyrical brevity within which is contained an exuberance last heard in the Chorale movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, nor is it merely a miniature vignette or (in laymen’s vernacular) a so-called “Slice of Life”. In the final analysis, “Through with Buzz” is not merely a way of life. It is life itself.


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