Monday, January 16, 2023

This Year: 1972

Note: 1971 does not appear in this list. See my series introduction for something like a reason. Another reason is that I turned two that year, and wasn't listening to the radio all that much.

I like depressing songs a lot more than I think I should. My life has been relatively peaceful and unruffled by major problems (I had heart failure but I got better; I had a big flood but it only destroyed stuff that could be replaced).

In particular, I have a deep and abiding love for songs about bad love - about relationships unlike any I've ever had, about pain and mutual self-destruction and anger and sadness and regret and all those negative emotions, tangled up or one by one.

My song for 1972 is Dirty Work by Steely Dan, one of the purest and most stark songs of bad love in the American songbook. It's the first major song of regret and sexual obsession in this series, but it won't be the last.

It's a monologue, by a man who knows he shouldn't keep meeting the woman he's singing to, but can't stop. Does "I don't want to do your dirty work no more" mean that this is the end, the final confrontation? No, not at all: listen to the song, listen to his tone, listen to the music. He's hooked. He wants nothing more than to get out, and he can't get out. This is a song by and about an addicted man, one powerless to stop what he knows he shouldn't do.

And, as he says, "I stay here just the same."

Dirty Work hangs in that moment, the mixed longing and hatred. In my head, the singer is complaining at the woman he's singing to, who isn't there. These are all the things he can't say when she's there: she overwhelms him, she drags him into her dirty work, she turns him into the person she wants him to be and then discards him once again when she's done. And he keeps coming back. He can't stop it.

All he can do, when she isn't there, is insist to himself that he doesn't want this, and that it must stop. Will it stop? Well, everything in the world ends, eventually. But I don't think this ends when or because he wants it to. That's the hook of the song: that's what makes it dirty work. It won't stop until she decides it will.

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