There is a word for the misinterpretation of a pop lyric caused by the mishearing of the lyric (the term is Mondegreen), but there isn’t, as far as I now, a word for a plausible, logically-consistent  (mis)interpretation of a lyric that runs tragicomically afoul of the lyric-author’s (sometimes disappointing) explanation of the lyric. Whether or not there’s a word for it, authors should resist the temptation to foreclose the possibilities of interpretation opened by the artful ambiguity of song. I didn’t need to know, for example, that “Terry and Julie”, from Ray Davies’ deathless “Waterloo Sunset,” are the names of Ray’s actual sisters… the song conjures a different (less romantic, slightly more banal) picture now that I’ve read that information. Milan Kundera complains about something similar in Testaments Betrayed: Proust’s Albertine, a  semi-autobiographical fiction (from À la recherche du temps perdu) over whom Kundera enjoyed many youthful hours swooning, turned out to have been based on an “Albert”, halving the narrative’s charm for Kundera, though, to be fair, Kundera’s loss was many an Albert-lover’s gain and, in any case, it wasn’t Proust himself who violated the golden rule of not nailing the “real meaning” down; for that we can blame the usual literary nuisance of biographical snooping.

Below are the lyrics of the Steely Dan masterpiece Deacon Blues and my (mis-)interpretation (of 30 years’ standing) in bold type… and Donald Fagen’s dream-deflating explanation at the end of this post. I suspect Fagen feared he didn’t have a license to write an “authentic” version of the character (ie: a Black character) so he chickened out an gave us the safer, distanced, ironical version instead: a pity! I used to find this song deeply moving whenever I heard it…




This is the day

Of the expanding man

That shape is my shade

There where I used to stand

[reflections of a man well into his in middle age as he contemplates his growing gut and the lost beauties of youth]

It seems like only yesterday

I gazed through the glass

[recording studio control room glass, back when he was an in-demand session player]

At ramblers

Wild gamblers

That’s all in the past

[the colorful old days of the record biz] 

You call me a fool

You say it’s a crazy scheme

[the scheme to cash in on a life-insurance policy by committing suicide and making it look like an accident, providing his loved ones with the wealth he could never generate in life]

This one’s for real

I already bought the dream

[reference to the life insurance policy]

So useless to ask me why

Throw a kiss and say goodbye

I’ll make it this time

I’m ready to cross that fine line

[ie, he’s going to drum up the courage to cross the dividing line on the highway and drive into oncoming traffic] 


I’ll  learn to work the saxophone

I’ll play just what I feel

Drink Scotch whisky all night long

And die behind the wheel

[in the foolproof insurance-scam scheme]

They got a name for the winners in the world

I want a name when I lose

They call Alabama the Crimson Tide

Call me Deacon Blues

[Deacon Blues: a gifted but obscure sax man toiling in the gritty nether world of jazz clubs]

 My back to the wall

A victim of laughing chance

[born poor and black]

This is for me

The essence of true romance


Sharing the things we know and love

With those of my kind



That stagger the mind

[getting high with other black jazz men] 

I crawl like a viper

Through these suburban streets

Make love to these women

Languid and bittersweet

[the open secret of the mid-20th century love affairs between white heiresses/ middle class white housewives and black jazz men]

I’ll rise when the sun goes down

Cover every game in town

A world of my own

I’ll make it my home sweet home

[I always heard “I” instead of “I’ll” in that passage… the “I’ll” would have problematized my interpretation but it’s not as though grammatical inconsistencies are uncommon in the annals of song lyrics, great or otherwise] 


This is the night

Of the expanding the man

I take one last drag

As I approach the stand

[he’s going to carry out his scheme after finishing this final performance]

I cried when I wrote this song

Sue me if I play too long

[his lingering last moments of a long chorus-solo before he kills himself]

This brother is free

I’ll be what I want to be

[things will be better in the great hereafter]


“Many people have assumed the song is about a guy in the suburbs who ditches his life to become a musician. In truth, I’m not sure the guy actually achieves his dream. He might not even play the horn. It’s the fantasy life of a suburban guy from a certain subculture.”-FAGEN’S EXPLANATION OF THE LYRICS

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR [letters are vetted for cogency and style]

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