On Monday, the Alabama Crimson Tide will square off against conference rivals the Georgia Bulldogs for the College Football Playoff National Championship. This is the sixth time the Tide has played for the title in the last seven years — if they win, it’ll be their fourth championship in that span. (It’ll also be Alabama’s seventh since Nick Saban took over as head coach in 2007.) That’s a staggering amount of sustained excellence, inspiring the expected mix of awe and resentment from the rest of the sports world. Not that Alabama fans care: They’re happy to ignore the haters, and sometimes enjoy a particular song that name-checks their favorite team.
Perhaps Steely Dan’s most beloved song, “Deacon Blues” was a single off 1977’s Aja, probably their most beloved album. With Aja, singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker reached their jazz-rock pinnacle, crafting a series of impossibly polished, perfect tunes full of elegant horns and sharp, melancholy lyrics. “Deacon Blues” is about an unhappy failure who’s speaking directly to the listener. “It’s the fantasy life of a suburban guy from a certain subculture,” Fahen told The Wall Street Journal in 2015. “Many of our songs are journalistic. But this one was more autobiographical, about our own dreams when we were growing up in different suburban communities — me in New Jersey and Walter in Westchester County.”
The sound is so smooth and lovely, you may not realize how despondent the chorus actually is:
Learn to work the saxophone
I’ll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whisky all night long
And die behind the wheel
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” is a feast of woozy self-pity, a song about drinking yourself into oblivion, resigned to your fate as a sophisticated gentleman that the world never understood. Self-destructive behavior has rarely come across as noble as it did here. But the shout-out to the Tide has made “Deacon Blues” one of the most famous college references in all of popular music. And if you’re just listening along, you might think Fagen’s narrator is paying the university a compliment. The Crimson Tide are clearly “the winners in the world,” right?
The thing is, Steely Dan, a band famous for hiding dark sentiments in the prettiest songs imaginable, always intended the line as a putdown. And Fagen and Becker have never been that coy about it. In a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, Fagen was asked how they came up with the lyric. “Walter and I had been working on that song at a house in Malibu,” he recalled. “I played him that line, and he said, ‘You mean it’s like, “They call these cracker assholes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I’m this loser, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues?”’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ He said, ‘Cool! Let’s finish it!’”
The bicoastal duo, raised in the Tri-State area and moving out to Los Angeles to make their fortunes in the early 1970s, were hardly the only rock stars who took a shot at Alabama around the time. Earlier in the decade, Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama” criticized the state’s racism, prompting Lynyrd Skynyrd’s answer record “Sweet Home Alabama,” which, depending on who you talk to, is either a nuanced exploration of the state’s politics or a flag-waving tribute. (Personally, I side with the former perspective, although lots of people have tried to turn the song into the latter.) But nobody has ever complained too loudly in the South about “Deacon Blues.” In fact, in Fagen’s 2013 memoir Eminent Hipsters, he pointed out that audiences in Alabama seemed to love it:
“Decades later, when we were back on the road, it had become a thing that when we played in Alabama, especially in Tuscaloosa, where the University of Alabama is, we’d have to play the song. Chances are that none of the people drunkenly screaming for us to play ‘Deacon Blues’ knew or cared what it was about. They just wanted to hear the words Crimson Tide in a popular song.”
Not that everyone from Alabama, or Crimson Tide fans, is unaware of the sarcasm in “Deacon Blues.” Some of them even find it kinda funny. Back in 2009, Mobile journalist Lawrence Specker wrote about “feeling a moment of treasonous amusement” when he heard that Steely Dan would be coming to town. “I was born into a family that pulled for the Alabama Crimson Tide,” he recalled. “And later I went to school in Tuscaloosa. And while I was there, it seemed that Steely Dan’s ‘Deacon Blues’ got played more or less hourly, either on the college station or local classic-rock radio.” Referencing Fagen’s true motive for mentioning the Tide, Specker wrote, “I’m a graduate and a Tide fan who can laugh about a backhanded complement [sic].”
In fact, if you go on Tide message boards, “Deacon Blues” will come up, with posters acknowledging the diss intended in the song. But if anything, the snarky song only emboldens the faithful. As poster Tidaltown puts it, “Regardless of [Fagen’s] personal opinion of Alabama, there’s no avoiding the fact that the song’s author selected the Alabama Crimson Tide to epitomize ‘winners in the world.’ He did not pick the Yankees, the Steelers, the Celtics or Notre Dame; rather, he chose Alabama. From the numerous television appearances and television specials of Coach Bryant, recurring references to Alabama in several television programs (Miami Vice, Coach, CSI:NY, among others), motion pictures (Forrest Gump, Crimson Tide, The Junction Boys) to the current ‘We Want Bama’ phenomena, it is apparent Alabama has supplanted Notre Dame as the epitome of college football success.”
This kind of “Those who hate us ain’t us” attitude is, of course, exactly why so many other people cannot stand the Tide and are pulling for the Dawgs on Monday. Face it: Most of us don’t like the winners of the world. That’s what Steely Dan were singing about. Losers may be losers, but we know there’s strength in numbers.