Robin Renée On… Steely Dan
Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favourite things. Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years. Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too. Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love.
Some time ago I took on the “just because” task of cataloging my hundred favorite songs. This was not an easy task. I found that no matter what I did, I was never entirely comfortable with calling the list definitive. One of the things I learned in the process is that favorite songs and favorite bands don’t necessarily go hand-in hand. I’d gotten pretty far into the list before I realized I had some glaring omissions. It was incredibly difficult to choose songs by one of my absolute favorite bands – Steely Dan. I found myself struggling to pick a few to include since their absence would make no sense at all.
Having to wonder why it was so hard to pick favorites brought me to a realization about this enigmatic Walter Becker and Donald Fagen duo that has become part of the fiber of my being over decades: It is the overarching concept-sound-imprint of Steely Dan that draws me in. Like their magnum opus, Aja (1977), Steely Dan is a unified experience. You can lift out individual songs, but a discussion of each one in turn is a very partial sum of the parts. I love this band from having absorbed their music whole cloth through time. This love has taken me on lots of adventures – an amusing and geeky one in 2008 when a friend and I took on our own “Steely Dan Drink Quest” to imbibe all drinks mentioned in SD songs and Becker and Fagen solo recordings (Drinking “kirschwasser from a shell” was not the soothing tropical experience I had expected.).
Here, I will share some tunes with which I resonate and bits of my personal experience. To explore the band with more depth, pick an album, relax, grab a beverage of choice, and listen start to finish. Try it old school style, lyrics in hand (or on screen).
I have an affinity for non-standard vocal talents (think Mark Knopfler), and Steely Dan’s usual lead vocalist Donald Fagen possesses an at once soothing and questioning tone that amounts to, for me, an irresistible draw like catnip or a fabled aphrodisiac. Ironically, one of the songs I finally added to my favorites list comes from back when Steely Dan was a full-on band, and this ode to covert romantic operations is sung by David Palmer:
Steely Dan songs, so much of the time, are stories you will likely never decipher – uneasy tales of oddball, often unsavory characters, trouble, and intrigue served up with a spoonful of smooth. “The Boston Rag” (Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973) leaves the listener with a vague sense of storyline and a feeling that knowing the specifics is not necessary or perhaps not even desired:
You were Lady Bayside
There was nothing that I could do
So I pointed my car down Seventh Avenue
Lonnie swept the playroom and he swallowed up all he found
It was forty-eight hours ‘til Lonnie came around
“Any Major Dude Will Tell You” (Pretzel Logic, 1974) is the other SD song that showed up on my list of favorites. There are memorable lyrics, and something in the melody is compelling every time:
In 1992, I was completely floored to hear about The New York Rock and Soul Revue. Steely Dan hadn’t performed live since 1974 and there would now be an opportunity to see Donald Fagen sing, in actual, real time. I caught one of the shows at The Beacon Theater in NYC. There were great performances by an ensemble including Boz Scaggs and Phoebe Snow (https://dreambetween.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/a-life-in-the-triumph-column-an-interview-with-phoebe-snow/), but for me, the first time hearing this Steely Dan song live was most magical:
The Royal Scam (1976) is alive with compelling tales of cryptic personal discovery, affairs and jealousy, criminal characters and major drug dealings (“Is there gas in the car? Yes, there’s gas in the car. I think the people down the hall know who you are…”). A most disturbed character is fused with brilliant rock guitar and a big, everybody-sing chorus in “Don’t Take Me Alive:”
While progressive and jazz fusion virtuosity for its own sake can be as annoying as it attempts to be impressive, Steely Dan musicianship is impeccable while melodic and at the service of the song. Aja is their best example of this; featuring extended passages that never wander. It is the epitome of art meets craft.
Some fans and critics dismiss the post-Gaucho (1980), post-hiatus releases as less than their best. The two 21st century studio recording have many moments worth hearing. I call out “Jack of Speed” as a high point that ranks with the canon:
For all my love of the Dan, I do get why some can’t go there. They walk a line that for some registers like bland, lite jazz, or simply not enough on the rock side of the equation to matter. For artists with plenty of humor and snark, they have been known to inspire it in return; sometimes it is just plain snark , and sometimes snark laced with a backhanded compliment or two. I am happy to be among those who continue to be passionate about what remains challenging, relevant, and strangely comforting in these words and sounds.
When I saw the Rock and Soul Revue, little did I know that the following year Steely Dan would go back on the road. Little did I know, while at my first SD show in 1993, that they’d continue touring over the next 20+ years, and that I’d have tickets to see them this summer with another of my musical heroes, Elvis Costello. There are those who consider the endless tours of older acts to be simply nostalgic, or worse, cynical cashing in. I consider each Steely Dan show an opportunity to see and hear literate, complex artists turn wit, observation, weird scenarios, and cynicism into things of beauty.
A freelance writer and performing songwriter, Robin Renee‘s work has appeared in many publications including PanGaia, Blessed Bi Spirit, Big Hammer #12, The New York Quarterly, Songwriter’s Market, and That Takes Ovaries – Bold Females and their Brazen Acts (Random House). Her recordings include In Progress, All Six Senses, Live Devotion, spirit.rocks.sexy, and This. She is one of the co-hosts of the Audacious Eleven podcast.