In 1985 I was a young Airman stationed at McChord Air Force Base, just south of Tacoma, WA. The dormitory I lived in was a run down relic on the southwest corner of the base. It was a two story affair with a long interior hallway that all of the room doors opened into.
It was pretty common for people to leave their room doors open while just hanging out, listening to music or whatever. Other people would wander by, hear something interesting and pop in for a listen.
This was a real education in “new” music. The people I lived with and worked with were from every corner of the country, and many had traveled and lived abroad. This made for a veritable melting pot of music; rock, rap, pop, country, world… you name it.
A friend came into my room one day with an armful of vinyl. He handed them to me and said “I want you to have my Steely Dan records.” It turns out he had gotten into some trouble (weed) and was being shipped off to the equivalent of and Air Force chain gang.
“You are the only one who will appreciate these.” he said as he left and I didn’t argue.
Aja was one of the first records I had bought with my own money. My older sister and I had a deal, I’d buy a record, she’d record it to 8-track for me and keep the vinyl. Well, that 8-track was long gone, but here was a vinyl copy of Aja that just dropped in my lap.
Aja is why I love albums. Here are seven individual songs that, when listened to back to back and in the proper order, become somehow more than the sum of the parts. As a kid with a homemade 8-track, this album lived in my crummy portable player for the better part of a year. I must have listened to it 1000 times.
I listened to my friend’s record a lot over the next few months, and became entranced with the pre-Aja Steely Dan as well. I saw him a time or two during that time, being marched around from job site to job site, picking up trash or cigarette buts.
I got close enough to him one time to make eye contact. He was standing at attention outside the base bank, waiting in line. He gave me a slight nod but the look on his face told me that it would be a bad idea if I tried to talk to him. I walked out to my car, rolled down the window, put my Aja cassette in and cranked up whatever song happened to be cued up. I gave the group a slow drive by, hoping my friend would catch enough of the music for a bit of cheer.
A few weeks later I heard he had been kicked out of the Air Force, dishonorably discharged. I never saw my friend again, but I remember him every time I hear a Steely Dan song.