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Weekend Songs: Steely Dan, ‘Time Out of Mind’

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Classic rock is about heavy hooks, power chords and tight harmonies. But it’s also about letting loose and enjoying the good times. And there’s no better time for that than Friday evening, when we pick up our paycheck, punch out of work and enjoy a couple days of much-needed rest and relaxation.

We all have our own favorite ways of reaching that relaxed state, and for some of us, the route occasionally calls for a little chemical indulgence — a method favored by some of the more memorable protagonists in classic Steely Dan tracks such as ‘Time Out of Mind,’ from 1980’s ‘Gaucho.’ A thinly disguised ode to recreational drug use, told from the vantage point of a naive enthusiast who’s more than happy to tolerate the faux-mystical ramblings of his companion in order to “chase the dragon” into disconnected bliss, it’s one of those vintage Dan tracks that wraps smooth vocals and a seemingly benign musical arrangement around surprisingly dark (albeit occasionally obtuse) lyrics.

Somewhat ironically for a song about wanting to get out of one’s skull for awhile, ‘Time Out of Mind’ was recorded during some of the most legendarily painstaking sessions of Steely Dan’s career. Assembled by frontmen Walter Becker and Donald Fagen over a seemingly interminable three-year period, the tracks that ended up forming ‘Gaucho’ were shadowed by the increasingly dark vibe surrounding the band; between 1977 and 1980, they found themselves tied up in court (where they tried unsuccessfully to get out of their record contract, and Becker defended himself against a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from his girlfriend’s overdose) and in the hospital (where Becker spent portions of the six months he needed to recover after being hit by a taxi) almost as often as they were in the studio.

Which isn’t to say they weren’t in the studio a lot, exerting ever-finer degrees of control over the contributions of an expanding coterie of sidemen and session players, many of whom labored for hours over parts that were either accidentally erased (as was the case with ‘The Second Arrangement,’ a song Becker and Fagen reluctantly gave up on after an engineer wiped out most of the tracks) or simply discarded (such as the bulk of the guitar parts laid down by Mark Knopfler, who was called in to play lead on ‘Time Out of Mind’ after the duo heard Dire Straits‘ debut single ‘Sultans of Swing’). All in all, it’s a small miracle that ‘Gaucho’ ended up sounding like the cohesive work of a real, live band, rather than the last breath of a creative partnership that would soon enter a long hiatus.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the song, ‘Time Out of Mind’ has endured as a Steely Dan favorite, popping up in the band’s live set list over the years and becoming a minor FM mainstay, thanks in large part to the sunny horn charts, the minimalistic, toe-tapping beat played by drummer Rick Marotta, and that deceptively dark singalong chorus (featuring some distinctive backing vocals from five-time Grammy winner and frequent Dan cohort Michael McDonald). However you decide to chase the dragon this weekend, here’s hoping you get a little time out of mind — and in the meantime, you can tide yourself over ’til closing time by scrolling up to the video embedded above, hitting ‘play,’ turning up the volume, and letting your weekend start…now.

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