New York Series: Steely Dan ‘My Old School’

And I'm never going back To my old school

While most people typically have fond memories of their college years, there are always incidents you look back on that left a bad taste in your mouth. Maybe it was that horrible breakup with your first “true” love, the time you had to repeat a class because a professor wouldn’t give you that .05 bump in your GPA, or the night you got arrested for what you thought was legally swimming in the pool of your friend’s apartment complex at 5 a.m. For Steely Dan founding members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the black stain left on their memories of Bard College occurred on a night in May when a swarm of sheriff’s deputies swept through the campus and arrested the two, as well as 50 other students, for marijuana possession. The incident was immortalized in the 1973 single “My Old School.”

Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in the Hudson Valley hamlet of Annandale, NY in 1967, and bonded over their shared love of jazz, dark comedy, science fiction, and Kurt Vonnegut. Their songwriting collaborations began as somewhat of a gag; writing silly little tunes on an upright piano in a small room of the lobby of Ward Manor, an old mansion on the Hudson River that the college converted to a dorm. As they played together more, they became more serious about their craft and eventually evolved into the perfectionist jazz rock powerhouse they have since been known for.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Bard College was a very hip place to be with stars like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Bobby Neuwirth showing up at random. If you were lucky enough to be around the area during the late 1960’s you might have even caught Becker and Fagen playing with drummer and fellow Bard Student Chevy Chase at a local house party. Although the college was known for its free spirited student body, the police in the area did not see eye to eye on many of their habits. On a Thursday at 5 a.m. they devised a raid of one of the dorms in an attempt to catch the students off guard, and went on a drug bust spree.

“These were the days when there was a ‘war on longhairs,’ as they used to call it,” Fagen said, “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.”

Becker and Fagen express their point of view of the incident and their reflection years later in the song “My Old School,” where they lash out at the school for the way they were treated. They say they’ll only return to the school if “California tumbles into the sea,” and end the song with a very direct “I’m never going back to my old school.” While that lasted a prolonged sixteen years, Fagen returned 16 years later in 1985 to accept an honorary doctorate from the school. Becker also stated that the song shouldn’t be taken literally and insisted that he never viewed it as an angry-sounding song, but rather a funny song. 

Today Bard College is still an incredibly liberal college, and it’s campus overlooking the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains makes it an ideal place to go to school. The college also hosts two acclaimed annual arts festivals, Bard SummerScape, and the Bard Music Festival, and you would not be remiss to, somewhat ironically, hear “My Old School” while taking a leisurely stroll across the campus.

‘My Old School’ Lyrics:

I remember the thirty-five 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

Oleanders growing outside her door
Soon they’re gonna be in bloom up in Annandale
I can’t stand her
Doing what she did before
Living like a gypsy queen in a fairy tale
Well, I hear the whistle but I can’t go, I’m gonna
Take her down to Mexico, she said oh no
Guadalajara won’t do

Well, I did not think the girl
Could be so cruel
And I’m never going back
To my old school

California tumbles into the sea
That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale
Tried to warn you
About Chino and Daddy Gee
But I can’t seem to get to you through the U.S. Mail
Well I hear the whistle but I can’t go, I’m gonna
Take her down to Mexico, she said oh no
Guadalajara won’t do

Well, I did not think the girl
Could be so cruel
And I’m never going back
To my old school

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