Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (RIP) genius musicians. Artful, abstract and avant-garde their music stands the test of time. I was fortunate to see them twice. The sound, so crisp, the band, so tight. Recalling Fagen introducing the band he referred to Carolyn Leonart, Cynthia Calhoun, and Victoria Cave, the three ladies behind him as “The flat-out best background singers on the planet.” Indeed, human songbirds, voices kissed by angels filling the sold-out theater with their heavenly harmonies. The ladies reflect the exacting standards of this progressive band.
Fagen & Becker met at Bard College forming their first band The Bad Rock Group featuring Chevy Chase on drums and then changed the name to The Leather Canary. In 1972, after signing with ABC Records, they came up with the name Steely Dan. Millennials poke fun at Boomers for their fervent love of the Dan. It is an intimate love. Fitting, after all the name of the band was taken from the 1959 novel Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. Steely Dan is the name of a faux phallus. They were alternative then and remain so. That’s how clever the duo was, superimposing jazz tracks on three-minute pop songs was catchy and subversive. There is a perversity to their music which bucks all norms yet reels you in with head scratching lyrics, cool keys, radical riffs and hot horns. For those X, Y, Z’ers & Millennials it’s a shame their steady diet of Kanye, Britney, Bieber and Beyoncé has produced predictable pop music. Who wants K-Dash rap, booty slap and its Britney bitch smack? For all those Lollapaloozers, Bonnarooers and Woodstock wannabes the Dan remains current as they were 40 years ago. They were so hip they sampled themselves, they got the Steely Dan T-shirts. They sang about piña colada’s long before the piña colada song.
Steely Dan’s debut album Can’t Buy A Thrill released in 1972 contained the hits Do it Again and Reelin’ in the Years. In two decades, their jazz influenced rock, hints of soul, funk and Latin, obscure lyrics and impeccable production kept them in the top of the charts all the while creating the soundtrack for a generation. Fagen is a keyboard virtuoso, while Becker was a six-string technician and equally skilled on the bass. They are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. Own 21 hit singles, one gold, seven platinum, and more than 40 million albums sold worldwide.
With such a track record as that, they were definitely in the black. Their hit Black Friday released in 1975 off the Katy Lied album has nothing to do about Black Friday as we know it. But refers to the original Black Friday on September 24, 1869. Aka Panic of 1869. Jason (Jay) Gould, a railroad mogul and financial speculator partnered with James (Diamond Jim) Fisk to corner the market on gold. Both men were Robber Barons. Unscrupulous characters, ruthless in their pursuit of vast wealth. These two were crooked as a barrel of fishhooks. Fisk was known to hand out $100 bills to women who attracted his attention. Gould and Fisk were friends with Abel Corbin, a newspaper editor, financer, and husband to Virginia Grant, the sister of President Ulysses S Grant. They devised an elaborate scheme to drive up the price of gold. Once Grant learned of the corrupt plan, he ordered the Treasury to release substantial amounts of gold to thwart their fiendish plot. The price of gold sank 18% causing fortunes to be won and lost in a single day.
In more recent history, back to the early 50’s, Black Friday was the term factory management used when workers did not go to work on Friday following Thanksgiving to enjoy a 4-day weekend and fully utilize all the ways to rid themselves of leftover turkey. There is evidence that in the early 60’s Philly and Rochester police departments used the term to describe the tumult of shoppers and gnarled traffic. Philly tried to turn this negative into a positive by hiring a PR expert who suggested rebranding it to Big Friday. But it never gained the traction it needed to take hold in our lexicon. The term slowly crept into our lingo. It crept into prominence in the 80’s. It is here to stay as the busiest shopping day of the year. The day after Thanksgiving is the official kick off to holiday shopping. It’s no coincidence Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ends with Santa. Signaling to moms and dads to open their wallets. As a try everything once kind of guy, I never had the desire to brave Black Friday. I would rather be with friends and family, watching football, spreading holiday cheer, telling tales of turkey past than go out and greet campers on the asphalt of my neighborhood Walmart.
While living in Texas I attended Heavens Door church. A mega church with 5 campuses and nearly 30,000 congregants. Nondenominational with the tag line, where everybody is somebody. I was a member of the welcoming team, the group who reached out to new members. I thoroughly enjoyed the role. It was a natural extension of my gregarious chef soul to nurture newcomers. I met a man named Pavlo. He was Ukrainian and recently arrived in Texas. Twenty-something, a computer whiz, he was in the US on a work visa. I took a liking to him. His father was a chef in Ukraine. There was a fraternal obligation to foster him given his dad and I were in the same profession.
Pavlo loved everything American absorbing the made in the USA culture in his Motherland through MTV. He fancied 501’s, Converse, his black leather jacket and had numerous baseball caps with the Lakers logo emblazoned on the front. He loved basketball, the Lakers were his favorite, and he adored Kobe, (RIP). I did my best to expose him to as much culture as possible while he was in the Lone Star State. He begged me to take him to Southfork Ranch. Home of JR Ewing and the hit show Dallas. One of the longest running series in TV history. I never watched one episode. Not one, now I have some crazed Eastern Euro who shot JR fan from Kiev wanting to see Southfork. Southfork is located in Parker, just about an hour from DFW. On an early November day I drove Pavlo there. He was happier than a cowboy in the Stetson factory. Of course, he wanted to take the tour to get the full Dallas experience.
On the way back to DFW he looked and me stone faced and deliberate. He asked, “Otto, you very big chef in America, you have connection to Kobe?” “I would much like to meet him.” That accent, the jet black mane, his seriousness, I swear I was on the set of Borat. I laughed loudly, “I am a chef in America, but not a big chef, I don’t have any connection to Kobe.” I sensed disappointment, and perhaps a smidge of indignation. He continued, “Maybe you don’t have connection to Kobe, but you know someone who does.” I think visiting Southfork filled his head with Hollywood. In his world perhaps he thought it was so easy to visit Southfork, it must be easy to meet Kobe.
“No, I don’t know anyone.”
“Perhaps your chef friends know someone.”
“No, they don’t.”
“Otto, my father is big chef in Ukraine. He knows everyone, he cooked for Viktor Yanukovych.” (then President of Ukraine, now exiled in Russia since 2014).
“Great, maybe he can get you an introduction to Kobe.” Visions of stuffed cabbage, borscht, and pierogi dribbled in my mind.
The topic switched to Thanksgiving and Pavlo expressed interest in experiencing our sacred holiday. The seed was planted, and I would ask my friends Donna and CJ, where I would go for Thanksgiving dinner, if I could bring Pavlo. Pavlo asked if I would take him shopping on Black Friday. I simply said, “Maybe.” My polite way of saying no. Pavlo wanted to buy electronics and was convinced the lowest price was on Black Friday. I tried to steer him away. “It’s dangerous, crazy, it’s a human stampede, people crawling over each other fighting for merchandise.” “This is a slice of American Pie I am not proud of.
“What means American Pie you are not proud of?” He asked.
“Well, imagine America as a pie, and there are slices.” “I am proud of our accomplishments.” “The invention of the light bulb, moving pictures, the assembly line, the airplane, space flight, the man on the moon, the iPhone, etc.” “How someone like Levi Strauss a German Jew came to America and created blue jeans is a slice of American Pie enjoyed around the world.” “Wolfgang Puck, an Austrian immigrant comes to America starts putting caviar, smoke salmon and lobster on pizza, thirty years later he is bigger than ever.” Pavlo, this is America, if you can dream it, you can be it.” You can invent and reinvent yourself as often as you like.
“I’m not proud of Black Friday, our consumerism and commercialism of holidays.” The wealth in this nation is staggering, we have people starving.” “Stores have sales in the early morning after Thanksgiving that brings out the worst in people, that is a slice of American pie that I am not proud of.”
“That is interesting description.” “The comparison to life with food, I like very much.” “I will tell my father this.”
“Just my personal belief, ask 100 other Americans and you will get 100 different opinions.”
“I would like to go to Black Friday, will you take me?”
“Maybe.” I said again.
Thanksgiving Day arrived, I took Pavlo to Donna and CJ’s house. They have a nice home; CJ is an investment banker who has done well for himself. As usual the house was impeccable, decorated tastefully and the aroma of fresh baked goods tickled my nose, teasing my taste buds for the goodness to come. Pavlo became the center of attention given he was from Ukraine and it was his first Thanksgiving. Always interesting to host international guests and offer a slice of that American pie. I gorged myself, triple helpings along with serval glasses of ice-cold potato water, vodka, my cocktail of choice. I love it glacier cold, in a vessel with ice and shaken like a bad nanny. To the point when the vodka is poured in the glass it creates a thin layer of a thousand mini ice chips. Its a whole new level of ice ice baby. After pumpkin pie was served and the table was cleared, Pavlo brought up the K word. Kobe. “Otto, your friends have nice home, they are rich, maybe they know Kobe.”
“Pavlo, stop about Kobe.” If you want to meet him, write a letter and send it to the Lakers.” Maybe he will send you an autographed photo.”
Feeling no pain and stuffed like Santa’s bag I settled in the abundant leather recliner to watch football. Like a two-minute warning, it was game over. I induced myself into an alcohol-food coma. Knocked out like a Dick Butkus blindside. I was awakened, a hand on my thigh, shaking back and forth. A distinctive voice was calling my name. “Otto, Otto, wake up.” Somewhere between drunk and hungover squinting to focus upon Pavlo. In a dehydrated fog, “What are you doing waking me up?” It was sometime after midnight but before sunrise.
“Lets go, take shopping me to Black Friday.” That thick Eastern Euro accent transposing words.
“We’re not going to Black Friday.”
“You said you would take me.”
I said, “Maybe.”
Pavlo countered, “Maybe means yes.”
Great, in a fuddle I must give English lessons to a rambunctious foreigner who wants to buy electronics at zero dark thirty. “Maybe means yes or no.”
“What is meaning yes or no?”
“It means it’s possible, or not possible, that it may or may not happen.”
“You said maybe, so that means yes.” I don’t know if he did not understand the true definition of the word or was playing ignorant to get his way, which I think the latter was the case.
“Let’s go, we go to Black Friday now.” He became demanding, nudged my shoulder, his accent transported me to a gulag being ordered to forced labor.
I went from foggy to fired up. “We are not going to Black Friday!” I said in a low roar as not to disturb those who were sleeping.
“But why, you said maybe.” He continued, further discombobulating my haze.
“You woke me from a dead sleep, and I am in no condition to drive anywhere.”
“I will drive.” He quipped.
Instinctively, instantly, I tapped my right hand on my right pocket, my keys were there.
“Let’s go.” With another nudge.
“Pavlo, stop pushing me, we are not going anywhere.” I turned on my side, back intentionally facing him to get through his thick Ukrainian skull I was done with his Black Friday fantasy.
The smell of bacon awoke me. My head throbbing torqued in a vodka vise. Donna and CJ always gracious hosts prepared fresh squeezed OJ and offered scores of breakfast options turning their kitchen into an IHOP.
“Where is Pavlo?” Donna asked. Puzzled, I replied, “I don’t know.”
“Apparently, he’s gone, and you were gone last night Otto. You hit that recliner and it was lights out.” As if I needed an audio replay from Donna. I told Donna and CJ about Pavlo and his Black Friday wakeup call. Donna and CJ live in a remote area. I can’t imagine a taxi or Uber going to their house in the wee hours post-Thanksgiving Day. I called Pavlo no answer, texted him, no reply. I texted and called him throughout the coming days. I looked for him at church. Never saw him. I don’t know what happened to the computer whiz from Kiev. I am not thinking the worst. I believe he was angry I didn’t take him to experience Black Friday, and perhaps the Kobe connection didn’t work out as he thought. He went radio silent. His last known whereabouts was in the Tri-State Area. Driving like a fool out to Hackensack, drinking his dinner from a paper sack.
People enter our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Be you a fan of Black Friday, or not, stay safe out there. As for me, I’m gonna dig myself a hole, gonna lay down in it til’ I satisfy my soul.
Taste the Freedom!