One day, someone explained the idea of happiness to me and I thought, Sure, I know what that feels like. The same can be said for sadness, anger, and, if I’m being honest, schadenfreude. But there are some emotions that entered my life as definitions first and experiences later and that feels so weird because, now that I’ve gained access to them, I can’t imagine a past life without the full slate of emotions I’ve come to experience.
I was an overly (obnoxiously?) precocious child and I knew that “nostalgia” meant “a longing for the past” well before I had any kind of material past to long for. I was also obsessed with Can’t Buy a Thrill, Steely Dan’s 1972 debut, and one day I finally read the lyrics to an album that I had heard hundreds of times. That day, reading along and listening to “Midnite Cruiser,” I learned what nostalgia felt like.
“Thelonious, my old friend,” the song begins. “Step on in and let me shake your hand / so glad that you’re here again / for one more time / let your madness run with mine.” It would be a long time before I had old friends of my own but those lines put the feeling of reunion in my heart. Jim Hodder’s lead vocals carry the perfect mix of comfort and familiarity; draped over Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s aching melody, they practically manufacture nostalgia. The second verse is even more acute:
The world that we used to know / people tell me it don’t turn no more / the places we used to go / familiar faces that ain’t smiling like before / the time of our time has come and gone / I fear we’ve been waiting too long
It takes an amazing bit of songwriting to so perfectly match lyrical content with performance and songwriting; “Midnite Cruiser” has that kind of synchronization. I’m 34 now and I know what nostalgia feels like—you could make a pretty compelling argument that I’m running an entire newsletter to explore that feeling—but I’ve yet to find anything that captures that feeling as well as “Midnite Cruiser.”
My old friend, I think, remembering the days that burned with such fury, the time spent forging my growth into a man and those who made the same journey alongside mine, a time that seemed so urgent and endless and yet has been lost to the irredeemable past. The time of our time has come and gone.
But that line reads more darkly than I think it really is; the song’s narrator is enjoying his hit of nostalgia through the lens of the present. And that’s important because the truth about nostalgia is that it’s a drug. A few boozy shots can bring back warm memories and enliven the evening, but drinking too much from that bottle can blind you to today and ruin tomorrow. Of course, Fagen and Becker understand this and make sure not to overserve. “Streets still unseen / we’ll find somehow,” the song says. “No time is better than now.” And, really, that’s the only time we ever had.