Style into Sarcasm
Why Steely Dan Doesn’t Suck, Radio Silence, April 2014
STEELY DAN TRACKS can seem not just overproduced but overplayed, overpraised, and catnip for the wrong kind of music nerd. Long before you dig into a five-decade career with countless buried pearls, the band inspires way too many harangues about everything rock supposedly squelched (instrumental pretension, phony intellectuals, and control-freak arrangers). Jazzers profess love for Dan tracks even if they hate rock; rock partisans get swept up in Dan fever even if they hate jazz. Steely Dan records didn’t just thread stylistic needles, they turned style into a sardonic target.
Steely Dan’s first Top 10 hit, “Do It Again,” on 1972’s debut, Can’t Buy a Thrill, combined improvisation, rebel snarl, and pop economy for a kinky, distracted energy. From the outset, the Dan trumped ambitious brass-heads like Blood Sweat & Tears (jazzers trying to rock) and Chicago (rockers aiming at jazz) to spring intricate relays of suspense and release, clench and relief. If jazz suffered the rock sin of too much respect, Steely Dan reframed the rock mainstream inside its own limitations, countering three-chord passion with street jargon and inverted sentimentality. Critics tweaked superlatives, radio gobbled it up, and the Dan’s sheer fecundity of melodic hooks inspired sales if not affection. Song narratives flummoxed, crackled, and burst. You could dislike a track while feeling pursued by its catchphrase (“Never gonna do it without the fez on,” “No static at all,” “And you could have a change of heart”).
By the time Steely Dan’s defining year of 1978 rolled around, they lobbed a title track onto that summer’s lame youth exploitation flick, FM, casually tossing another conundrum onto the pile. It came out just as Steely Dan rounded a crucial curve—a dog-biting-hand coda to Aja’s triumph that straddled the twin virtues of aesthetic nerve and popular embrace. You couldn’t make it through a single day without hearing one of those puzzling refrains (“It’s your favorite foreign movie,” “Drink Scotch whisky all night long, and die behind the wheel,” “She prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire”). With the Rolling Stones tilting toward irrelevance, Jagger curdling into self-parody, and this concert-monster Springsteen fella back-shifting into roots rock with Darkness on the Edge of Town, Steely Dan soared above rock’s impending niche markets to invent a netherworld all their own, some peculiar fourth dimension arising from rock, pop, and jazz but beholden to none. Many of this era’s tracks can still stop parties with partisan bickering. Does the magisterial sleaze of “Hey Nineteen” (on 1980’s Gaucho) inspire or provoke, or both? Hindsight bids us to note how, by that point, even as punk youth upstaged the patronizing senioritis of Led Zeppelin, Elton John, and the Eagles, the Dan had already dodged rock’s aging dilemma. With seven piquant albums between 1972−80, and all ears cued to rock’s future or who would be the “next Beatles,” Steely Dan adroitly changed the subject.
Founding songwriters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker played numerous gigs in the late 1960s before landing on the writing staff at ABC Publishing, even scoring a hit for Streisand’s 1971 album, Barbra Joan Streisand, with “I Mean to Shine.” Tailor-made for her ego, the song milked faux inspiration and belied everything they went on to do. ABC/Dunhill producer Gary Katz (The Mamas & the Papas, Steppenwolf, and Three Dog Night) signed them as a sturdy five-piece, with guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, but popularity brought leverage to compress the act into a vessel for Fagen−Becker material. Virtuoso players started rotating through with more fluidity than any band since the Byrds, and studio wizardry brought on the triumph of post-production. Invisible heroes ghosted on Dan records, studio giants with scant recognition outside lofty circles. Insiders gloated when they sussed out a soloist (session luminaries like drummer Steve Gadd and saxist Phil Wood). In a way that few other acts have managed, Steely Dan’s songs often upstaged even the crack performers who played on them, as they would throughout the coming five decades.
Steely Dan reframed the rock mainstream inside its own limitations, countering three-chord passion with street jargon and inverted sentimentality.
And so an argument opened up between the material’s heft and the frame’s cool precision. Here, style conquered all. If you want people to argue about your aesthetic worth, make taste the issue. That’s exactly where most worthwhile critical discussions take flight. Does anybody object to Jimi Hendrix productions? Or quibble about how his cornball sci-fi lyrics have dated? Of course not—the primacy of his playing presides. Steely Dan throws that discussion into high relief: most people who resist the band’s hooks and cynical charm do so on the basis of sound (or surface), not substance (or meaning). Gadd famously dubbed Fagen and Becker “fussy.” Zealots claim their sheen (or mask) as key to their aesthetic. Detractors cite the same quality as finicky, arrogant, and clinical.
Start with the vocals. Beginning with “Do It Again,” Fagen soared up atop early 1970s pop with a delivery stranger than any since Dylan—a nihilist wag pondering post-utopian ideals. Fagen’s astringent attack fell on the tuneful side of Lou Reed’s monotone, shy of Captain Beefheart’s lusty growl. Like Dylan, his wry conviction persuaded you that his outré lyrics masked hidden depths, so that even when they didn’t, the suggestiveness became half the fun of listening, and its own subject. On Dan albums, elegantly crafted tracks served jittery stories about outsiders and “luckless pedestrians,” meticulous fables about degenerates. Fagen’s twang came off more “direct,” but his attitude made that very idea outdated—along with the band’s name, his adenoidal phrasing sliced both universal and remote. (Once you discovered that the band copped its name from a toy dildo in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, everything they did took on delightfully sordid overtones. Note how Steely Dan did far more for Burroughs’ readership than that author did for the band’s ultra-cool aura.) Terse where Dylan prized the prolix, Fagen sang of brainy neurotics and wanton females, yet his attitude toward his characters was all chilled detachment and feigned sympathy; he doubled down on Dylan’s pose as pop music’s Nabokov: The Unreliable Narrator. His untrustworthy vantage became Fagen’s authorial credit; his bemusement at his own deceits became the band’s key article of faith.
Then came the polish, which sat in alienated counterpoint to its material. Paradox and contradiction defined the Dan’s great legacy as musician’s musicians: braiding jazz changes inside a rock ensemble; unleashing be-bop abstractions and twisted clichés through altered blues forms; cleansing everything with production gloss without sacrificing excitement or wit. Part of their charm lay in the Dan’s ambivalence toward success: Few careerists boast as many Top 10 albums (five) astride so few Top 10 singles (only three). Those are old-school metrics, to be sure, but they signal the conceptual vitality looming inside even their B-sides. In hindsight, their story takes on epic shape: They vanished from the live stage in 1974 amid a swirl of rumors, while stoking a mass- cult radio bond with listeners throughout that decade, then returned for Two Against Nature’s Grammy comeback at the millennium after a twenty-year studio hiatus, and struck out touring for the past two decades on the AARP plan. This larger career played an expectations game no less riveting than the better Fagen−Becker songs captured in miniature.
When he first stepped outside the “band” in 1982, Donald Fagen detailed his 1950s sci-fi obsessions via his suburban New Jersey roots on his solo debut, Nightf ly. His deadpan drive punctured the surfaces of American life. In 2013 he released a slender memoir, Eminent Hipsters, to coincide with the Dan’s Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day tour.
His untrustworthy vantage became Fagen’s authorial credit; his bemusement at his own deceits became the band’s key article of faith.
A student at Bard College in 1967, Fagen strayed towards the margins, dabbled in psychedelics, and met his future songwriting partner, Walter Becker. These early years, as Fagen explores his alternative identity, form the best part of the memoir, pickled with droll one-liners: “There was a lot of trouble back then with tripping musicians.” After LSD, he moved on to DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which Timothy Leary called the “businessman’s trip” because of its intensity and brief duration. Here, Fagen describes himself in the third person:
“The intrepid Bard sophomore would load a pipe with a couple of parsley leaves that had been soaked with the stuff, take a toke and, just as it hit, run out into the stormy night. You’d go from zero to a peak acid-strength high in a nanosecond. The snow that was billowing across the campus was revealed as an army of tiny angels, and you wondered why you hadn’t noticed that the college buildings huffed and puffed as if they were in a Betty Boop cartoon from the thirties. Fifteen minutes later, everything looked normal except for a warm, lingering glow. Back to the dorm for another hit…” [page 78]
One fabled gig took place at Bard’s 1967 Ward Manor Halloween party. Future SNL Gerald Ford−impersonator and Community sitcom geezer Chevy Chase “kept excellent time” on drums, Fagan reports, “and at least that night, didn’t embarrass us by taking off his clothes or doing any of his Jerry Lewis bits.” The trippy shenanigans of that era climaxed when Fagen got busted for marijuana possession by Gordon Liddy, who was campaigning for DA of New York’s Dutchess County. Fagen made bail using the same lawyer Liddy himself would call six years later when he got into a jam called Watergate.
But just as the memoir reaches its surreal brush with this Nixonian authority figure, Fagen drops everything and jumps forward four-and-a-half decades to 2012, on a non −Steely Dan tour (with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald). The tone shifts from discovery to tedium, lamenting road food, panic attacks, and middle-aged post-celebrity malaise. “I started seeing a shrink and gobbling anti-depressants,” he writes. He gulps down Jim Thompson novels, listens to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and whines to his super-agent, Irving Azoff, about accommodations. Nothing in this section explains how Fagen the person translated this richly textured, sci-fi-tinted imagination into musical terms, or how he crafted such a bizarre persona from such commonplace cultural references.
As legend proscribes, Steely Dan became the best at what they did by honoring both rock and jazz styles, finding ingenious overlaps and hidden subtexts shared by both, without betraying either. When you catch “Josie” or “Show Biz Kids” or “Deacon Blues” on the airwaves even now, they still cast an oracular spell, like stray jellyfish exerting a mystical glow, beguilingly tuneful, thrillingly seductive, with bottomless intricacies and gaping, supernatural moods.
As legend proscribes, Steely Dan became the best at what they did by honoring both rock and jazz styles, finding ingenious overlaps and hidden subtexts shared by both, without betraying either.
Defying musical logic freed Fagen and Becker to pursue topical themes as rockers retreated into self-involved mythology. With their superb debut single, “Do It Again,” gambling became a blanket metaphor for all manner of addictions, and other tracks turned explicitly political (the debut’s “Kings” references “good King Richard” Nixon, and “Change of the Guard” harbored election-year expectations). The Royal Scam‘s “Kid Charlemagne” spun a thinly veiled portrait of Owsley Stanley, the Walter White of San Francisco’s early LSD scene. This homage gets counter-veiled by “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again,” praying for an overdose victim on the way to the emergency room. Unlike so many deserving writers the industry chews up and spits out, Steely Dan has enjoyed one of the nobler comebacks in the classic-rock era. Since 2000’s crisp and enthralling Two Against Nature, they’ve produced a truck of dense new material and transformed themselves from a post-modern studio unit into a prodigious live outfit that enchants audiences with both old and new, often in bold re-arrangements. Even Fagen’s awkward reverse glamour translates as the geeked-out version of a Jewish Ray Charles, sitting at his Rhodes or honking his Melodica from behind sunglasses, swaying his head to some distant muse, pretending he has swing. Sexuality—and authenticity—still eludes him in the most adorable fashion.
Their position remains unique: Very few catalogs hold up better or have more rewarding buried tracks. In aesthetic terms, the band’s comeback rivals their original run. If 2003’sEverything Must Go began to sound shop-worn, perhaps it’s kinder to say they idle at a nicer hum than most. A believer would argue that the proportion of great to weak smothers most other catalogs, notably Dylan, the Stones, and Springsteen. And that work is surrounded by solo efforts that confound the Fagen−Becker partnership: Becker has the dark-horse mystique of a bassist who took up the guitar (the tempting solo on “Black Friday”) and kept his mouth decisively shut. But on 1994’s 11 Tracks of Whack, he croons with sinuous banality. He sings the way some people yawn—with complete unselfconsciousness and with a vague sense that even the most commonplace detail harbors intrigue if presented obviously enough. The 2008 record, Circus Money, deploys a similar deadpan aplomb atop mystic, slo-mo reggae. (On many of these solo efforts, Fagen and Becker co-produce each other.)
For its final trick, Steely Dan holds court as one of today’s great live acts. A recent sold- out string of seven nights at the Beacon Theatre on New York’s Upper West Side often passed the three-hour mark, much of it in be-bop mode—ideas whirring faster than most can hear at any tempo. At sixty-six, Fagen leads a band moored by the matchless drummer Keith Carlock, born in 1971. The crowd erupted for “Bodhisattva,” an abstract, bluesy guitar boogie, right alongside the slow-chugging “Black Friday,” and a completely reimagined “Show Biz Kids.” Question marks pushed up against lucidity, wheels turned inside interior wheels, and the cheers combined fond reminiscence with ongoing suspense. Sexual ambivalence held firm astride geeky stage presence.
The conundrum lies not in how contemporary a lot of early Dan remains, but in how much corny nostalgia they avoid after nearly five decades. The surface of American life has changed ineluctably since thought-bombs like “Show Biz Kids” and “Pretzel Logic” first appeared, but somehow the essence of Steely Dan’s cultural critique holds. Geeks still swoon to the soloists and precision-drill arrangements, an embarrassment of pop hooks still buoys casual fans, and the masses still yawn at how such doctored-up hooch can beguile the best and brightest. As young men they seemed wise beyond their years; as balding vets they’ve forgotten everything worth forgetting.
TEN OBSCURE DAN TRACKS FOR NON-BELIEVERS
1. “Pearl of the Quarter,” recently covered by Boz Scaggs
2. “My Old School,” horns chase California into the sea, prompting guitar duel 3. “Aja,” Steve Gadd’s classic early-take solo
3. “Aja,” Steve Gadd’s classic early-take solo
4. “Bad Sneakers,” a soundtrack to Catcher in the Rye 5. “Pretzel Logic,” the blues as rat’s maze
5. “Pretzel Logic,” the blues as rat’s maze
6. “Cousin Dupree,” time mocks dirty old men, philosophy mocks beauty
7. “Barrytown,” a cheery rebuke of cults
8. “FM (No Static at All),” grapefruit wine, hungry reggae
9. “Home at Last,” epiphany at sea
10. “Any World (That I’m Welcome To),” comforting, elegiac, post-ironic