[a few words on] Steely Dan

With the passing of Walter Becker, let’s resurrect a piece of mine on Steely Dan, for whom I had conflicting feelings but also heavy sentimental attachment, their inescapable songs stamped on many pivotal moments through my halcyon teenage daydream years. I didn’t choose to write about them – the piece was an assignment.

Back in 2013, I jumped into in a meme game, on a whim, against character and habit. That it was a Facebook meme made it even rarer for me, since I spend maybe 5 minutes a month in eff-space (another post for the future, perhaps). Courtesy of Scott Faulkner (http://www.vinylsaurus.com), the game was if you “liked” Scott’s Facebook post, he assigned you a band/act and you would write on them in the same format. The assignments would then cascade through every generation of likes. Marc Weidenbaum (https://disquiet.com) liked Scott’s post and was assigned The Residents. I, in turn, liked Marc’s post about The Residents, so he assigned me… drum roll… Steely Dan.

Cue: “Grrr…”

Memes are supposed to cascade, so I honored the chain-link.


Do you like or dislike Steely Dan?

Arms-length Like. And ape-arms-length. Not human arms. I’ve always admired Donald Fagan’s and Walter Becker’s distant presence and jump-rope word-play. The complexity of The Dan’s music (spacey dropped and suspended chords, modulations, tricky time-signatures) combined with keen twists-of-phrase remains a distinctive style, to say the least. They sound like no other that band that was or will be. From the first measure, Steely Dan songs are identifiable as Steely Dan.

Also, that they are named for a Naked Lunch sex toy conjured from the imagination of William S. Burroughs inured and wove them into the heart of my beat wild view. As with a lot of 20th Century art, Steely Dan offered a challenge to what constituted safe creativity, where the intention was to defy, not define, political convention. Their music was a collision of jazz, pop, and rock, but their whole act brought an expression of creative and academic movements like fluxus, deconstruction and semiotics. As with many performers who set out to make people somewhat uncomfortable (see: Lenny Bruce), if you weren’t in on the joke, you missed out – not on half the fun, but on half the gravity of the work. In that way, Steely Dan must be seen as one of the great post-Beatles “literary” acts. Fagan fashions himself as a Nabokov, anyway, so why not?

That said, and Becker’s often brilliant and cutting guitar lines notwithstanding, the band’s conscious over-complication, in a space between rock and jazz, results often in music that’s too soft to be rock, too structured to be jazz. An uptown-but-below-Harlem restaurant (88th Street vs. 128th Street) with amazing service yet inexplicable, underseasoned food.

When Hey Nineteen comes over pharmacy ceiling speakers, as people waiting for insulin meds and flu-jabs tap their feet and develop a light hip-sway, I want to gouge out my eyes and hot wax my ears. Cuervo Gold has never been my go-to tequila, but maybe in 1980 it was the best you could get. And I’ve never known a nineteen-year-old girl for whom Cuervo was an aspirational drink. Maybe I’ve circled down the wrong drains, though…

So don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker for enigmatic darkness. “Reelin’ In The Years,” “Barrytown” and “My Old School” evoke an innocence that belies their subjects, and those tracks soar on inventive guitar and keyboard lines and engaged storytelling.

My Line6 POD-XT amp/effect unit has a “ReelinInTheYears” factory preset that marries emulations of a Mesa Boogie Mark IIc+ with MXR Phase 90 and MXR Dynacomp pedals. Every once in a while I dial it up while playing and slip in and out of a few measures of 70s AOR sweetness.

I’m also a sucker for congenial memories. In the late 70s, when I was about 7 or 8, Steely Dan floated around all my social-musical circles. In the end, I can’t separate memories of camp counselors shout-singing “My Old School” and “Do It Again” out their sunroofs from the songs themselves. Such is the power of “classic” rock over me. Dislike cannot compute.

Favorite Album:
Countdown To Ecstasy” (1973)
Overlooked record contains my fav track, “My Old School.”

Least Favorite Album:
Everything Must Go” (2003).
Stripped of big-70s production values, the band loses all its charm, which sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes big and bombastic really is better for the soul.

Seen Them Live? Got Any Merch?
No. Yes. Circa 2000 A.D., the fine folks at the now-defunct Image Entertainment gifted me a live DVD called “Two Against Nature: Steely Dan’s Plush TV Jazz-Rock Party In Sensuous Surround Sound.” The track “Cousin Dupree” is even skeezier live, but the version of “Peg” towards the end of the show really showcases Becker’s phased-clean phrasing. My well-worn, dog-eared, marked to the margins copy of Naked Lunch can count as merch, too.


My old-friend Mark Penz, (from one of My Old Schools(!)), an audio engineer whose astute listening talent I always admired, offered a wonderful comment on the Facebook post:

MARK PENZ: Damn – great analysis of pros and cons of SD. Particularly appreciate the ‘Barrytown’ reference, though ‘East St. Louis Toodle-Ooo‘ reweaves the jazz classic beautifully. Solo career for Fagan produced a diamond (Nightfly – the classic A/V album test material around the planet) with ‘New Frontier‘ doing cowbell before cowbell was cowbell. ‘Tomorrow’s Girls‘ off of Kamakiriad was an excellent tune. Becker’s solo album ‘11 Tracks of Whack‘ is pretty disapponting, but yielded some good bassline in ‘Down in the Bottom.’

But I ain’t never going back to my old school.

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