I’ve heard one of my favorite songs, “My Old School” by Steely Dan, hundreds of times. However, it was not until this past Saturday, October 18, just hours before I went to a college football game in Newark, Delaware between the University of Delaware and The College of William and Mary, that I realized this part of the song lyrics specifies the commonly used moniker of the visiting school:
I was smoking with the boys upstairs
When I heard about the whole affair
I said oh no
William and Mary won’t do
Is this lyric a reference to the college? When I told Mrs. QC of my revelation, she insisted it has to be a reference to the college. Color me skeptical. I’ll revisit this controversy at the end of this post.
Now to the topic at hand — the football game. The University of Delaware is “my old school” for both myself and Mrs. QC. We went to grad school there. I previously wrote how I used to attend Delaware games when I was growing up.
It was a beautiful day for football — sunny, not too breezy, temperature pushing 60°. Mrs. QC and I bought subs on the way to Newark and then tailgated briefly before going into the stadium.
The game was a mismatch. Au contraire, Steely Dan — William and Mary did do — they rolled to a 27-3 victory. It was the first time Delaware failed to score a touchdown in a home game since 1990.
My thanks to Mrs. QC for taking these pictures. Click ’em to enlarge to 800 × 531 pixels.
Delaware, after having advanced last season to the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) championship game, is having one of its rare down seasons. The loss to W&M dropped the Hens’ record to 2-5. Their quarterback, Robby Schoenhoft, a highly touted transfer from Ohio State with an obvious abundance of raw talent, appears to have totally lost his confidence. The Delaware offense as a whole is playing ineptly. Schoenhoft, by the way, was sidelined late in the game by a concussion; Mrs. QC and I were on our way back to the parking lot by that time.
In reviewing the game in my mind, I noted a couple of political parallels.
- The arc of the game resembled the tally of phone calls I made earlier in the week on behalf of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. After a slow start from Obama’s point of view, the Obama support picked up and eventually overwhelmed the John McCain support. The final tally was 16 Obama supporters to only one McCain supporter — another mismatch. Delaware didn’t score until less than 11 minutes remained in the game; similarly, the lone McCain supporter I talked to was one of my last calls of the evening.
- The arc of the game also resembled the third and final presidential debate — with W&M playing the role of Obama and Delaware playing the role of McCain. Like Delaware, McCain was competitive early in the debate. Eventually, Obama’s superiority became evident, as did W&M’s — another mismatch.
The irony here is that Delaware’s three electoral votes will surely go to Obama — and not just because his running mate is Delaware senator Joe Biden.
Now, back to “My Old School”. You can listen to the song on YouTube:
- lip synced TV performance of the studio version single edit (4:07)
- studio version from the album Countdown to Ecstasy — slideshow (5:49)
- 1996 live performance (6:26)
- 2006 live performance (7:22)
I already knew the founders — and now the only members — of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, attended Bard College. The lyrics refer to Annandale, short for Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, the location of Bard. So from there it’s a baby step to deduce the lyrics refer to happenings at Bard. I found the details in an article in Entertainment Weekly magazine in which Fagen and Becker are interviewed:
Here, finally, lies the story behind ”My Old School.” It was around 5 a.m., a Thursday in May 1969, when a swarm of sheriff’s deputies descended on Bard, sweeping through dorms and off-campus residences, including this small house, where Fagen lived with a roommate. ”They went up and down the halls, knocking on doors,” says Boylan, who was in his room at Ward Manor at the time. ”Toilets were flushing everywhere to get rid of any pot that you had. I threw mine out the window. All you had to do was say to the cop, ‘What are you doing?’ They’d say, ‘That’s it, resisting arrest.’ Somebody would say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ‘Oh, profanity! Arrest him.”’ Fagen, Becker, and Fagen’s girlfriend, Dorothy White, were all dragged off to jail.
”These were the days when there was a ‘war on longhairs,’ as they used to call it,” says Fagen, ”and Bard’s in this kind of rural district. They picked up about 50 kids just at random. There were a few warrants, and one was for me, which was based totally on false testimony. They handcuffed our hands behind our backs and put us in a paddy wagon and took us off to the Dutchess County Jail. They took all of the boys, about 35 of us, most with really long hair, and shaved our heads. I remember some of them were crying. I don’t think any of them had seen their head for three or four years. It didn’t make that much difference to me. But it was scary, you know? To hear the cell-block door slam shut, the whole business with the handcuffs and the paddy wagon. I’d never been arrested or put in jail before.”
Bard hired a lawyer and bailed out the 50 or so students who’d been hauled in during the raid. Problem was, Becker and White weren’t technically students at the time. ”I asked them to bail my girlfriend out,” says Fagen. ”She had nothing to do with this and was just visiting me. And they refused to do it. So when graduation time came I protested by not going. My case had already been dismissed—they had withdrawn the charges, actually. So I was sitting on a bench in front of Stone Row with my father and lawyer, just watching the graduation. A lot of the students were also angry because apparently the school had let an undercover policeman be planted in the building and grounds department. Their cooperation with the investigation was despicable.”
Four years later, Fagen and Becker released ”My Old School.” While Fagen says the song is ”not literal” (and Becker insists he ”never thought of it as an angry-sounding song; I think of it as a funny song”), he acknowledges that there was real fury behind the ”never going back” chorus. ”I don’t know how serious we were [about never returning],” he says, ”but at the time both of us were very pissed off at the school, that’s for sure.” Fagen kept his promise for 16 years. Then, in 1985, he returned to campus for the first time, to accept an honorary doctorate. What finally made him relent and go back to Annandale? He thinks for a moment, as if pondering the question for the very first time. ”Well, you know. I’m not one to hold a grudge.”
All that is interesting — but it doesn’t tell whether the “William and Mary” lyric refers to the college. The only source addressing the issue I’ve found thus far is the Answers.com article on William and Mary. It’s not in the least definitive:
The Steely Dan song “My Old School” with its lyric about William & Mary was widely thought to be about the College, but apparently is about songwriter Donald Fagen’s student days at Bard College.
Uh … duh. Well whatever. It doesn’t matter.
Although the single of “My Old School” reached only #63 on the pop chart, I think it’s a great song — a real toe-tapper with tasty guitar work and great horns — and it has become a favorite of many. It’s also mucho fun to sing along to.