The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Things That Pass for Knowledge

Posted on | April 26, 2020 | 1 Comment


This morning, I woke up and checked Instapundit and found an item about the wrongness of Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s COVID-19 prediction — “Missed it by that much,” as Maxwell Smart would say — that included this: “The weekends at the Covid didn’t turn out like you planned.”

This is an allusion to a Steely Dan song, “Reelin’ in the Years”:

You been tellin’ me you’re a genius
Since you were seventeen.
In all the time I’ve known you
I still don’t know what you mean.
The weekend at the college
Didn’t turn out like you planned.
The things that pass for knowledge
I can’t understand.

Professor Reynolds and I are about the same age, so obviously I caught the reference, but some of you kids might have missed it. For your education, I’ll explain that Steely Dan was a group formed by keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker. Their hit singles included “Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” Fagen and Becker met in 1967 as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, which is referenced in their 1973 hit, “My Old School”:

California tumbles into the sea —
That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale.

The clever, tightly rhymed lyrics pair that with:

Tried to warn you about Chino and Daddy Gee,
But I can’t seem to get to you through the U.S. Mail.

“Daddy Gee” is a reference to none other than G. Gordon Liddy, who was the Dutchess County prosecutor behind a drug raid on Fagen’s house his senior year at Bard. The charges against Fagen were dropped, but Liddy went on to notoriety as the mastermind of the Watergate burglary. And, subsequently, after his release from federal prison, Liddy became a conservative talk-radio host who frequently had me on as a guest.

Small world! How weird that I, a former teenage dopehead who spent a lot of his adolescence getting high and listening to Steely Dan, later became friends with the guy who busted them for dope back in the day.

Curiosity killed the cat, as they say, but in my case, habitual curiosity merely led to acquiring a vast hoard of trivia in my head. As a teenage dopehead, the allusions in Steely Dan’s lyrics were opaque and puzzling. “My Old School” was really an inside joke for Fagen and Becker, which only their friends at Bard College would understand. And it was not until decades later that curiosity led me to research the song’s background. I had mistakenly thought that the “Annandale” in the lyrics referred to a town in Fairfax County, Virginia. Why Virginia? Because the lyrics make reference to William and Mary, a Virginia college. Another obscure reference in the song is to the “Wolverine” train which, I discovered via Google, was a service of the New York Central line that ran through Annandale, making its last run in 1967, Fagen’s junior year at Bard.

I remember the 35 sweet goodbyes
When you put me on the Wolverine up to Annandale.
It was still September when your daddy was quite surprised
To find you with the working girls in the county jail.
I was smoking with the boys upstairs
When I heard about the whole affair.
I said, Oh, no, William and Mary won’t do.
Well, I did not think the girl could be so cruel.
And I’m never going back to my old school.

Students of poetry appreciate the cleverness of this, and there was always an aura of intellectualism around Steely Dan, as Fagen said in his memoir: “We were perceived as artists just by virtue of our wisenheimer personalities and transparent resentment of authority.”

Ah, so were we all, back in the day! If you were the type who aced your English exams with little to no studying — getting high all the time tends to reduce a teenager’s devotion to schoolwork — you probably were digging on Steely Dan circa 1974. And I suppose you don’t mind a 600-word digression inspired by a phrase on a blog.

Hey, did you know they named their band for a dildo?

“Far out, man.” Reelin’ in the years, indeed.

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers! Need I remind you that The Five Most Important Words in the English Language are:




One Response to “The Things That Pass for Knowledge”

  1. Your Low-Rent Friends Are Dead : The Other McCain
    May 3rd, 2020 @ 7:02 am

    […] Reynolds continues piling up the obscure Steely Dan references, and spotting them is becoming easy: If you see any phrase on Instapundit that doesn’t make […]