April 18, 2011
I have always maintained that Steely Dan’s music was, has been and remains among the most genuinely subversive ouevres in late-20th-Century pop.” – William Gibson, “Any ‘Mount of World”
So you’re standing around at the supermarket, getting your organic arugula and fair trade coffee when you hear music — unbelievably smooth music. The track, a light, jazzy soul number, features a piano and a trio of backup singers cooing every 45 seconds or so. As you approach the counter, the girl at the checkout catches you grooving. You abruptly stop and load your groceries, shifting your attention to the vocals. As the clerk rings up your responsible, locally grown produce you realize the tune you’ve been enjoying is about smoking heroin.
Depending on your temperament, you’re either horrified and confused or the latest convert to the cult of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, collectively known as Steely Dan. In the early 1970s, this duo took over a previously existing band after responding to an ad reading “Looking for keyboardist and bassist. Must have jazz chops! Assholes need not apply.” Thankfully they ignored the last part. After two records the interlopers fired their band mates, relying exclusively on the cream of Los Angeles-based studio musicians to craft an obsessively perfect brand of rock. Seven records with nary a bad track among them later, the pair fractured, before reforming 20 years later to record lesser material on self-aware and self-absorbed albums.
Steely Dan have an artistic voice that is more akin to Nabokov and Delillo than Jagger and Richards. While other bands have attempted to be literary, few have succeeded. The Dan, however, don’t waste time or insult your intelligence by name checking allegedly “obscure” works from the realm of the written word. They just give you a soundtrack for blowing a rail of coke off the cover of The 42nd Parallel before staying up all night to finish your dissertation. Classy arrangements form the backdrop of tales worthy of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, with lyrics clearly influenced by the towering achievements of American literature. Their songs have everything — compelling protagonists, lovably repellent anti-heroes, femme fatales, vibrant settings and evocative language.
Lit Rock for Jazz Cats
Becker and Fagen are known primarily for two things: Bitter, sarcastic lyrics that glorify the bebop hipster of yore and a maniacal attention to studio perfectionism. The world of a Steely Dan song is one of sleeping off a Scotch bender in the trunk of a Cadillac car, still dressed in a cheap suit with one last bump of C tucked in your coat pocket to chase the hangover away come morning. It’s a world of washed-up jazz musicians getting by on their name and style in a world that has passed them over. Danland is a place where LSD manufacturers are folk heroes and old men raid college campuses with a bag of snow and a bottle of tequila looking for a mate. It is a world of pure, unrelenting sleaze, worthy of the Burroughs novel from which the band takes its name. Love may not exist in Danland, but infidelity (“Haitian Divorce”), child molestation (“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”) and lust resulting in self-loathing (“Dirty Work”) do.
The band’s influences come primarily from soul and jazz, but there are also flirtations with funk, reggae and just about every style of African-American since R&B. The obsession with black music is not a one-way admiration. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Steely Dan have a bigger following among black folk than any other white rock group. Nor are the pair without their more famous and talented admirers in the black music community, including De La Soul, Ice Cube and MF Doom. For whatever it’s worth, and I think it’s worth something, the present writer has known two black women whose parents loved Steely Dan so much they named them “Aja.”
Rendezvous With Studio Perfection
The studio perfectionism is what makes The Dan who they are. When you listen to a record like Aja or Gaucho it’s easy to picture the pair breaking down and rebuilding a preamp from scratch in a fit of cocaine-induced manic productivity. Listen to the demos some time. Fagen isn’t much of a singer, and while the backup band smokes, the fact that 20 or so takes have been spliced together probably doesn’t hurt matters much.
If you’ve never been a Danfan but have wondered what the appeal is, I recommend the following mix to get you started. Soon you’ll be chewing off the ear of anyone who will listen about the merits of The Dan and confusing your friends with your bizarre new obsession. Numbers refer not to my personal preferences, but to track order for your entree into the world of Danfandom.
- “My Old School” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
- “Kid Charlemagne” (The Royal Scam)
- “Pearl of the Quarter” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
- “Reelin’ in the Years” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
- “Deacon Blues” (Aja)
- “King of the World” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
- “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” (Katy Lied)
- “Monkey in Your Soul” (Pretzel Logic)
- “Haitian Divorce” (The Royal Scam)
- “Your Gold Teeth II” (Katy Lied)
- “Time Out of Mind” (Gaucho)