Your Gold Teeth III
Your Gold Teeth III
A Q&A with Dale DeJoy of Hey Nineteen
By Geoff Gehman
Dale DeJoy was a high schooler when he turned a Steely Dan lyric into a Christmas-dinner blessing. It all began when his mother asked him to say grace before the holiday meal. Not knowing any graces, he decided to recite graceful lines from “Your Gold Teeth II,” which he had been working overtime to master on guitar. A jazzy little ditty, it opens with a kind of bohemian benediction: “Who are these children who scheme and run wild/Who speak with their wings and the way that they smile?”
Now, many parents would have been plenty pissed at their child quoting from a pop song with a chorus about rolling gold teeth like cosmic dice. Some parents would have been seriously worried about their child digging a band named after a dildo in a William S. Burroughs novel. DeJoy’s mom, then in her upper 30s and very cool, was delighted by Dale’s spontaneity. She blessed his blessing, which made her about as hip to her teen son as the Dan.
Nearly 40 years later, DeJoy still digs the Dan. He plays nothing but Dan numbers in Hey Nineteen. an 11-member group he co-founded, directs and for which he sings and plays guitar. On Feb. 17 the Rhode Island ensemble, which has three vocalists nicknamed the Babylon Sisters, will charge the Mauch Chunk Opera House with 29 tunes, nearly half the total on the Dan’s first seven albums. Expect such standards as “My Old School,” “Kid Charlemagne” and “Deacon Blues,” one of DeJoy’s calling cards.
DeJoy rapped about and mapped out the Dan’s alternative universe during a recent conversation from the Providence headquarters of his company, which fabricates optical equipment for the likes of the U.S. Navy. He explored the edgy, shady characters, the intentionally puzzling lyrics, the strikingly bizarre chord changes and the surgically sonic spaces supervised by the Dan’s main men, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, with whom he once shared an honorary dinner of lamb, mint jelly and a slice of Bob Dylan pie.
Q: I’m a “Charlie Freak” freak. So am I going to hear one of my favorite Steely Dan tracks about a tragic, magnetic druggie in Jim Thorpe on Feb. 17?
A: I’d love to play it but my bass player isn’t crazy about it. I especially love those Santa’s bells; it sounds like Santa standing on the corner, asking for money for the Salvation Army. In fact, I think Donald [Fagen] and Walter [Becker] designed the song around that visual of raising money for the poor. It’s such a sad song but I really like it.
Steely Dan lyrics are very ethereal; they don’t ever really get to the point. And that’s the beautiful thing about them. People will hear “Peg” or “Josie” in an elevator or the Stop & Shop but they don’t understand what they’re hearing. They don’t know that “Peg” is about a porn star and “Josie” is about the whore in the neighborhood, the slutty girl [laughs]. The lyrics are designed to be: The joke’s on you.
Q: On the other hand, if you get the joke, you’re a member of the Dan club and the coolest cat in the neighborhood.
A: Exactly. You’re with it.
Q: That’s part of the charm of singing Dan songs. The words are almost always tasty, whether you know what they mean or not at all.
A: Exactly, yes. And we love that, don’t we?
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that got under your skin in a hurry and stayed wedged?
A: “Spinning Wheel.” Blood, Sweat & Tears. I was probably eight or nine when my older brother played it for me. When I heard it for the first time, my eyes and ears blew out and I thought: What was that? When he left the house I’d put it on the hi-fi and play it again. The horn section just blew me away. David Clayton-Thomas’ voice was pretty amazing, too. And those rhythmic hits were really, really cool.
Q: It was in 1976, when you were 14 or so, that you first fell under the Steely Dan spell, thanks to the albums “Katy Lied” and “The Royal Scam.” What was the first Dan cut you really sank your teeth into?
A: The one that emoted the most to me was “Doctor Wu.” The one that musically blew me away was “Your Gold Teeth II.” I have a very funny story about that one. It’s 1978 and we’re sitting at the kitchen table for Christmas dinner and my mom turns to me and says: “Why don’t you say grace?” We weren’t churchgoers and I didn’t know any graces so I said the first thing that came into my head: “Who are these children who scheme and run wild/Who speak with their wings and the way that they smile?” And I continued right through to the chorus: “Throw out your gold teeth and see how they roll/The answer they reveal/Life is unreal.” “Your Gold Teeth II” was in my head because I had been playing it on the piano and the guitar quite a bit; I had been trying to bone up because it’s quite a tricky piece.
Now, my mom’s like a hippie. She’s funny and cool and tough. My dad died in 1963, leaving her at 23 with four sons aged three months to five years old—and we were a wild bunch. Well, she looked at me after I said my “grace” and she said: “Wow, that was incredible.” Which made me feel pretty special.
Q: That scene would go great in a play.
A: I hadn’t thought of that but, yeah, I think you’re right. Mom, by the way, is 74 and still healthy. She rides horses every day and practices yoga. And she can still do head stands.
I’ve actually written a play called “Hey Nineteen.” It’s a combination of play and concert—a ploncert [laughs]. The male lead is a trumpet player named Dan who meets a girl named Louise during a parade in New Orleans; she’s his “Pearl of the Quarter.”
Q: What research did you do when you were launching Hey Nineteen, other than listening to Dan recordings and reading the music sheets? What goals did you have straight out of the gate?
A: Well, it’s funny you should ask this because prior to Hey Nineteen I had a six-piece band that played a lot of Dan stuff, so I was fairly confident as to what needed to be done to amass the personnel for a bigger band that played only Dan stuff. I knew I needed to get a keyboard player willing to learn all the material and a lead guitarist who would learn all the solos note for note: that was a real killer. I found the keyboard player on Craig’s List and replaced him with my present keyboard player two years into the band. I found my guitarist on a LinkedIn site for Berklee [College of Music, DeJoy’s alma mater]: Doug Siqueira. He’s Brazilian and he’s amazing; he can do anything.
I was pretty confident that a Steely Dan tribute band would be successful because I was pretty well known as a musician and a business man in Rhode Island. I had played with a lot of people around the state and I had owned a mortgage company for 15 years and I had gotten into the homes of a lot of people who had become friends and fans.
Q: What didn’t you want to do when you launched Hey Nineteen? I notice that your singing doesn’t have Fagen’s trademark smirks and sneers.
A: I do try and get his inflections. Of all the people we have tried vocally, nobody seems to have his kind of timbre; it’s quite unique. What we did find is that if I blend my voice, which has the edge that Fagen’s voice has, with the voice of someone who has a little more depth, then you come up with a really close facsimile of his voice. You also have to remember that on their records Steely Dan doubles the lead vocal probably 95 percent of the time, so we do it live that way.
Q: Why is “Deacon Blues’ your favorite Dan tune? Do you really get off on playing those 38 chords?
A: Becker and Fagen have this amazing thing for a bizarre chord change carrying a beautiful melody or at least an interesting melody. I mean, who else uses a sharp 11th chord or a flat 9th chord in popular music? It’s definitely a special sauce. In their newer songs they’ve added some bitters to the special sauce; there’s more of a jazz base than a rock base to the melodies and especially the horn charts. Some of the stuff is just out there, which I love, but it’s definitely not Top 10 Dan material—it’s not “Reelin’ in the Years” or “My Old School.” We play a few of the more recent songs—“Cousin Dupree,” “Jack of Speed.” When we play that stuff probably 10 people are happy [laughs].
Q: I’m a big fan of “Deacon Blues,” too. It’s a beautifully melancholy confession, mission statement and farewell. You must really enjoy singing those slinky lines: “I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets/Make love to these women, languid and bittersweet.”
A: Yeah, no kidding. Those words are amazing, absolutely amazing: they send you into another dimension. In fact, “Deacon Blues” was my high school song. In 1977, the year “Deacon Blues” came out on “Aja,” we moved from Shelton, Conn., to Blue Hill, Me. I went from a high school of 3,500 students to a high school of 350, and the 350 came from nine towns. That whole new kind of geography and culture for me was otherworldly and that album [“Aja”] took me to another place and that place was called Blue Hill, Me.
In Blue Hill I got to play guitar and sing with [Peter, Paul & Mary member] Noel Paul Stookey in his recording studio; that was a blast. In high school I did a lot of music and theater and I was president of my senior class. In the yearbook, under my photograph, there’s a lyric from “Deacon Blues”: “I cried when I wrote this song/Sue me if I play too long/This brother is free/I’ll be what I want to be.”
Q: I’m guessing that was your mantra as a young man. Do you have another Steely Dan creed now that you’re older and hopefully wiser?
A: [Quotes a line from “Time Out of Mind”] “Tonight when I chase the dragon/The water will change to cherry wine.” [Laughs] Just kidding. I guess it would probably be “And we’ll walk between the raindrops back to your door.” That’s from a song off a Fagen record, “The Nightfly.” I always feel covered in the middle of a storm, I always feel sheltered, and that’s partly because I’m deeply in love with my wife Elaine. I met her when we were in the seventh grade and I told my three best buddies: “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” Of course I couldn’t get a date with her the next two years [laughs]. My three best buddies were ushers at our wedding and they asked me: Do you remember when you were in seventh grade and you told us that she was the girl you were going to marry? I said: Of course I did. We’ll celebrate our 29th anniversary on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.
Q: In 2014 you produced a concert that raised money for Fort Adams, a former Army coastal station and a National Historic Landmark in Newport, R.I. That day Hey Nineteen shared a bill with Rick Derringer, the well-known rock guitarist who played the solo on the original recording of the Steely Dan tune “Chain Lightning.” How did you convince him to play “Chain Lightning” with you?
A: We were booked to play before Rick and I got to be pretty friendly with Kenny [Kenn Moutenot], the drummer in his group. I told Kenny that “Chain Lightning” was on our set list, right after “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number. “ Some people think that the song is about Rickie Lee Jones because Fagen had been dating her. Derringer still says that Don and Walter wrote the song about him. I wasn’t so sure he would do “Chain Lightning” with us but, according to Kenny, we were a few songs into our set when Rick said: “These fucking guys are great; I don’t know if I want to get up and play with them.” [laughs]
So Rick came up and we played “Chain Lightning.” We played it, certainly not flawlessly for an impromptu meeting, but we made it through. Luckily for us, it’s all preserved on videotape.
Q: Did you get any special nuggets from reading “Eminent Hipsters,” Fagen’s crazy-assed memoir/tour diary?
A: His battle with anxiety and depression was not a revelation to me. It’s somewhat obvious; that’s just the way he is. Walter [Becker] is very gregarious and generous with his time while Don is all withdrawn and freaked out.
I met Don and Walter in 2003 when they were getting honorary degrees from Berklee and I was setting up a Berklee endowment in my father’s memory. I have a very funny story about the dinner where Don and Walter were honored. I brought a friend of mine, the guitar player from the earlier Steely Dan band. He was dressed in sandals and a polo shirt and I was dressed no better. When we got to the dinner we realized it was a black-tie affair; at the door we were greeted by two guys in tuxedos with trays of champagne, which we gladly accepted. We went in and shook hands and rubbed shoulders. Eventually we wandered over to the one table where people were dressed casually and we asked them: “Can we join the low-rent table?” And that was the table with Becker and Fagen.
I’m very outgoing and my nervous energy was roaring. I had recently been given this bootleg of demos that Don and Walter did in 1969 or ’70, some of which ended up as Steely Dan songs. Well, I just had to tell them: “Wow, your earlier version of ‘Barrytown’ is so Dylanesque, it’s unbelievable.” [Sings a line from the song in a Dylan nasal wheeze] And Don is just shaking his head and Walter is pretty much rolling his eyes. And they’re probably thinking: What the fuck is this guy saying?
The story gets better. I was supposed to fly down to Florida with my friend Larry to go fishing. Well, the alarm clock rings at 5 a.m. that morning and I wake up realizing that I’ve been dreaming about being in Studio A at Berklee with Becker and Fagen, mixing a record of all new Steely Dan songs, which I couldn’t for the life of me remember. When I picked Larry up I told him about this dream and I kept reliving it on this flight down to Florida.
Three days later we fly back into Providence. We get in at 10:30 and I get home at 11:30 and, lo and behold, there’s a card from Berklee inviting me to go to this thing with Becker and Fagen. And then it got even better when, shortly after, Larry handed me this bootleg with Fagen and Becker’s early demos. It was—what do you call it?—kismet or ESP. It was seeing my future by a few days; it was kind of wild.
Q: So, Dale, what tops your Bucket List?
A: Probably a home on Antigua. My grandfather used to have a home there; I owned a recording studio there when I was 24 years old. That’s where my wife and I got married, in Harmony Hall in Freetown.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
Q: Which you’ll get to say “fuck it” to if you get your house on Antigua.
A: Makes sense to me. I’m a very practical guy.
Dale DeJoy: The Scoop
His father George played bass and sang lead in the Classmen, a doo-wop trio from Shelton, Conn., that scored a 1963 hit with “True Love/Silver Medal.” He died that year at age 23 from a brain aneurysm, leaving his 23-year-old wife with four young sons, including 18-month-old Dale, who as an adult discovered that the Classmen have fans in Germany and Macedonia.
He studied music production, engineering and guitar at the Berklee College of Music. As a sophomore he opened and operated a recording studio that served members of the J. Geils Band and the Cars.
A Berklee endowment he established in honor of his father pays partial tuition for a New Englander who does what his dad did: sing, play bass and/or keyboards and write songs.
On “3D Joy Container,” his 2001 solo album, he plays a 1960 Stratocaster owned by producer/engineer Phil Greene (New Kids on the Block, Roomful of Blues) that guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter borrowed to play on early Steely Dan recordings.
He started Hey Nineteen with drummer Ajay Coletta, a fellow member of the Yewts, and JoAnna Cassino, owner of a hair salon/reflexology center.
His Hey Nineteen nickname is “Steely Dale.”
Here’s his run-on rundown of what really happens in the Steely Dan song “Haitian Divorce”: “So it’s about this guy and this gal from the islands who got pregnant so they have to get married and the baby died so they didn’t really have to get married. And I guess she went crazy and she went off to another club and she–how would you say it?–slept with a black dude–‘Who’s this kinky so-and-so?’: that’s the black dude–and at the end of the song there’s this ‘tearful reunion’ and the baby is ‘semi-mojo’—in other words, half black, half white. That about sums it up right, right?”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His favorite Steely Dan songs include “Brooklyn,” “Barrytown” and, yes, “Haitian Divorce.” He can be reached at email@example.com.