The Steely Dan Attitude

SteelyDan-1Whether you love them or hate them, the undeniable fact is that Steely Dan is an absolutely prodigious band.

And to me, it’s more than that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the group’s founders, are perfectionists. It’s more than that their amalgam of pop/rock/jazz—reduced to derisive terms like “yacht rock” by naysayers—is, for many lesser musicians (like me!), the standard against which all other music is measured. And it’s more than the fact that they’re aged intellectuals with vast knowledge of both Beat poetry and Brooklyn slang, who write lyrics so enigmatic and obscure that they’ve both admitted in interviews that oftentimes they don’t even know what their lyrics mean.

No. To me, it’s the attitude. When I’m listening to a SD song, whether a hit like “Hey Nineteen”–a song (apparently) about an older man’s dismay over not being able to date a teenager—or a lesser-known but equally brilliant tune like “The Boston Rag,” I feel…more mature? Cooler? I can’t quite explain it. Alls I know is that I love it. And I think both the band and I share the belief that if you don’t like them, that’s fine. Enjoy your…Soul Asylum, or whatever.

That attitude would seem to start with the band’s very name. In case you didn’t know, “steely dan” is the name of a dildo in the William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. (Specifically: “Mary is strapping on a rubber penis. ‘Steely Dan III from Yokohama,’ she says, caressing the shaft.”) I bet, even forty-odd years after starting the band, Becker and Fagen still snicker when they imagine some yuppie dude—well, anybody, really—saying, “Oh, I love Steely Dan!”

I also mentioned their perfectionism. There are tons of examples I could use here, but I’ll stick to the most well-known ones: first, they stopped touring in ’74, after a tour to support their third album, Pretzel Logic. This was supposedly because Becker/Fagen (I tried to think of a cutesy “combo name” for them, a la “Brangelina,” like “Becken” or “Fager,” but I think Donald and Walter would be disappointed in me for doing so) just didn’t like performing in front of a screaming audience. And they didn’t tour again until ’93, to support Fagen’s solo album Kamakiriad (which Becker had produced).

(Not) coincidentally, from 1974-1980 the Dan produced their best studio work, releasing four albums that were both masterpieces (the critics) and wastes of vinyl (a majority of music fans). During this period they developed a reputation for basically being studio assholes: they’d hire some of the best session players, like, ever—Larry Carlton (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass), and Wayne Shorter (sax), to name a very few—and have them work for weeks on a single song. And if they still didn’t like what he was doing, they’d just fire the guy. (I can just hear them: “Aw, this guy sucks, get him outta here.” I love it.)

Now, lemme explain some things about the Dan’s song lyrics:

Shit. Forget that. Rather, lemme attempt to explain why they’re so appealing (to me, as a writer, at least). The lyrics are sophisticated, random, and poetic; at times, it seems, the words are joined together simply for the sake of hearing them bang against each other, like rowboats roped together while adrift on choppy water.

And the characters featured in songs are largely autobiographical, I bet. Mostly aging hipsters, these souls, with sneering, ain’t-karma-a-bitch mentalities. And there’s an almost “child-molester”-type vibe in a couple tunes, too. Examples: the aforementioned “Hey Nineteen,” and “Cousin Dupree” from Two Against Nature (2000), which might be my favorite SD album. The song’s narrative tells the story of some slacker who, while crashing on his aunt’s couch, develops a crush on his smoking-hot teenage cousin. (One of my Facebook friends, himself a Steely Dan fanatic, called it “rapey.” An absolute perfect description.)

“Two against nature” is perfect, not only for the name of a Steely Dan album, but perhaps for a description of the band: two guys, neurotic perfectionists, who go against every conceivable harmonic grain to make some phenomenal music. In fact, leave it to Rolling Stone to say in one sentence what’s taken me a whole blog post to express: Steely Dan “are the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies,” the RS bio reads. (Fuck you, Rolling Stone.)

I can only hope that while you’ve read this, you’ve imagined me listening to Two Against Nature…and sneering at you.