Born Middle-Aged: Eight Books on Steely Dan
By Colin MarshallNovember 21, 2021
Jez Rowden includes that fact in Steely Dan: Every Album, Every Song, a volume of Sonicbond’s “On Track” series from 2019, whose charge is to provide brief descriptions and assessments of every album and song recorded by the act in question. Though at least by avocation a critic, Rowden approaches this endeavor in a spirit of near-pure enthusiasm. No fewer than five times does he deem a song a “winner”; another he introduces as a composition “regarded by many as their worst, although I like it a great deal.” Indeed, he seems never to have heard a Steely Dan–related recording he didn’t like. This is a common condition among Danfans, as is his tendency to venture occasionally into the wilds of interpretation. On that level, his book fulfills the same function as exegetic fan sites like Fever Dreams, once the go-to source for help with the band’s never-straightforward lyrics.
It was on Fever Dreams, 20 years ago, that I found an excerpt of an interview in which Steely Dan’s leader-masterminds, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, explain the nature of gaslighting. The word came, Fagen said, “from the classic film Gaslight, and to gaslight is what Charles Boyer did to, who was it? Ingrid Bergman or someone…” In any case, Boyer’s character “tried to convince her that she was insane by moving things around in the house” and (adds Becker) “constantly turning the lights lower and lower.” Steely Dan’s references, on which Becker and Fagen seldom deigned to elaborate so straightforwardly, constitute a rich cultural nexus. The online Steely Dan Dictionary, the fruit of another Danfan’s obsession, offers entries on gaslighting and much else besides: the Andria Doria, black cows, Cathy Berberian, the Haitian divorce, Jill St. John, kirschwasser, the Studebaker Lark, the College of William & Mary.
The site also includes an entry on Steely Dan itself, originally “a type of (fictional) Japanese dildo, mentioned in William Burroughs’ infamous 1959 book Naked Lunch.” Becker and Fagen “would often regret having chosen that moniker,” writes Brian Sweet in his 1994 biography, Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years, “because critics and journalists were forever trying to find parallels between Burroughs’ book and Steely Dan.” Yet Burroughs did play a role in the band’s formation, as did a host of other imaginative and blackly humorous literary minds of the 20th century. Nathanael West, Terry Southern, Kurt Vonnegut, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov: all were discovered by Becker and Fagen to be common interests when they first met as Bard College undergraduates in the late 1960s. In 1977, at the height of Steely Dan’s first wave of fame, Becker told Sounds magazine that was Nabokov his “favorite author in the English language.”
That interview appears in Barney Hoskyns’s Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion (Overlook, 2018). In another, from Melody Maker, Becker addresses Nabokov’s supposedly “having such a cold aspect as an artist, whereas it seems to me he can be the most touching, poignant and beautiful writer that I know of. Many people are put off because they think he’s cold, icy and vicious, but I’ve never felt that way, and I don’t feel that way about what we do either.” Famed session guitarist and Steely Dan founding member Jeff “Skunk” Baxter once recalled that their music demanded an “extremely emotional emotionlessness.” In Steely Dan FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About This Elusive Band (Backbeat, 2017), Anthony Robustelli quotes Baxter as calling Nabokov “the hero of Donald and Walter — they thought he was the finest writer in the West. Crazy things for little girls, though — a little twist in his personality there.”
While Steely Dan’s music hasn’t drawn accusations of displaying craziness about little girls — not quite “little,” at any rate — it has drawn and continues to draw such descriptors as “cold,” “icy,” and “vicious,” along with the likes of “dry,” “sterile,” even “soulless.” (Becker and Fagen have on occasion played up this aesthetic reputation: for their 1994 Japan tour, they printed up booklets bearing the acknowledgment that “the Japanese people have long admired the icy and sophisticated rhythmic stylings identified with the group Steely Dan.”) Danfans and their declared opposites have long regarded one another with mutual incomprehension, the former’s obsessive enthusiasm matched by the latter’s invincible dismissiveness. The Onion memorably satirized the unproductive arguments that predictably arise from this divide by casting Fagen himself in the role of the man at a bar “once again forced to defend his appreciation for the multiplatinum-selling American rock band Steely Dan.”
The relative merits of popular musicians provide reliably abundant fuel for barstool debate, but differences of opinion about Steely Dan stand out for their intractability. There exists Danophilia and there exists Danophobia, but both seem to be inspired by the same interrelated qualities of the band’s music: what it’s about, how it sounds, and how Becker and Fagen went about recording it. And indeed, what is Steely Dan’s music about? In “Gaslighting Abbie,” a “hubby and ‘ripe and ready’ new flame drive wife crazy by the sea,” as Robert Christgau summarizes the song in his contemporary review of Two Against Nature, the album from 2000 that it opens. Still new on that fateful day when I walked into Hawthorne Stereo more than 20 years ago, Two Against Nature was Steely Dan’s comeback after nearly two decades of studio silence. It’s also, as Christgau puts it, “an album about old men trying to get laid.”
In other songs, “a fortysomething clerk at the Strand doesn’t have the gumption to go home with the movie star he went out with in college” and “a painter rejuvenated by jailbait Janie angles for a three-way with her friend Melanie.” These are late works, but as Rowden tells it, Becker and Fagen from the first eschewed standard love songs in favor of “obsession, disturbing twists and irony, with subject matter taking in drugs, alcohol, prostitution, sexual desire, pornography,” along with “nefarious crime, murder and extra-marital relationships in a world that appears at odds with the sophistication of the music.” In Robustelli’s view, “Steely Dan made their records sound slick because of the subversive nature of the lyrics. By sugarcoating the songs production-wise, they were able to get away with topics that were not common in pop music.” For many Danophobes, however, that very sophistication constitutes much of the problem.
The simplest explanation for why Steely Dan’s music sounds different from that of other “rock” bands (especially others launched in the early 1970s) has less to do with its lyrics than its harmonics: that is, the chords on which Becker and Fagen built their songs. In their wide variety, unexpected juxtapositions, and more-than-occasional obscurity, Steely Dan’s chords of choice belong more to jazz than to rock. In his 2007 monograph on the band’s 1977 album Aja for Continuum’s (now Bloomsbury’s) 33⅓ series, songwriter Don Breithaupt invites us to
consider the climactic III-VIII-V of “Peg’s” chorus, the vamp-busting moment in “Black Cow” when an A7(b9b13) leads to a Dm11, and the Gb7(b5) in bar 7 of the chorus of “Deacon Blues.” All these colors enrich what might otherwise have been stock pop moments; that Gb7(b5) could just as easily have been omitted in order to land the IV chord (Fmaj7) on a downbeat.
Not for Becker and Fagen such pedestrian compositional techniques. “One of the most frequent observations of Becker and Fagen’s music was that they put jazz changes into pop song structures,” writes Sweet. But he also quotes Becker playing that down: “I think we were just trying to suggest on a much smaller scale that we would occasionally use a slightly different way of getting from key to key, and slightly different chord qualities than were heard in 90 percent of the music on rock-and-roll radio stations.” In an essay in his book Eminent Hipsters (Penguin, 2013), Fagen remembers his and Becker’s early songwriting efforts back at Bard: “For whatever reason, the combination of the funky grooves, the jazz chords and the sensibility of the lyrics, which seemed to fall somewhere between Tom Lehrer and Pale Fire, really cracked us up,” despite having been “pretty crude compared to some of our later efforts.”
“Crude” is a term nobody, whatever their feelings about Steely Dan, could apply to those later efforts. Becker and Fagen “turned in their rock-star credentials after retiring from the road in 1974,” writes Breithaupt, and like the Beatles after Revolver, “retreated to the studio and locked the insulated door behind them,” along with producer Gary Katz and inventive engineer Roger Nichols, whom they dubbed “the Immortal.” Three years later, the recording of the seven songs on their masterpiece Aja required, according to Robustelli, “six drummers, one bass player, five keyboard players, seven guitarists, three percussionists (two of whom doubled on other instruments), ten horn players, and seven background vocalists.” More tellingly, Becker and Fagen went through seven session guitarists to record a single solo on one song and, on another, painstakingly spliced together six different performances by saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
“Becker, Fagen, and Katz’s perfectionism became legendary,” writes Sweet. Yet “when Becker and Fagen decided to shelve a song, very seldom did the studio musicians feel that it was not ‘happening.’” Steely Dan knew what they wanted when they heard it, which could sometimes happen only after countless permutations of hired talent. “It wasn’t like they played musical chairs with the guys in the band,” drummer Rick Marotta memorably puts it the Classic Albums documentary on the making of Aja. “They played musical bands.” Becker and Fagen “thought nothing of flying a guitar player or a drummer — or indeed both — across the country to play little more than a few bars of one song that might not even make it onto disc,” writes Sweet. “[T]heir foremost consideration was to find the right stylistic match and to create as perfect a rendition of each composition as was humanly possible.”
Soon after its release in 1977, Aja became one of first albums to go platinum. “The music business went into blockbuster mode in the late seventies,” writes Breithaupt. “A slew of multiplatinum records — Frampton Comes Alive!, Saturday Night Fever, Boston, Bat Out of Hell, Hotel California, Grease, Rumours — proved there was more money to be made hawking mainstream pop than anyone had previously imagined.” Though it lost the Grammy for Album of the Year to Rumours (and more tellingly, won the Grammy for Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical), Aja’s massive sales numbers provided economic validation of Becker and Fagen’s studio perfectionism. Not that they thought of themselves as perfectionists. “[I]t’s more like desperately trying to have it sound more or less OK,” Fagen once said. Whatever their motivations, their methods reached a logical extreme three years later in the form of Aja’s follow-up, Gaucho.
The nature of Gaucho’s production, which cost more than a million dollars, is best encapsulated by Robert Palmer’s report for Rolling Stone on the agonizing spectacle of Fagen, Katz, and Nichols working, as Sweet summarizes it, on “50 seconds of music for four hours. They were mixing the fade of ‘Babylon Sisters’ and after some 60-plus attempts, Fagen was not satisfied.” Having finally achieved what he considered to be an acceptable mix, Fagen declared, “This is the happiest night of my life.” That particular emotion hasn’t figured into his recollections of the making of Gaucho in the decades since. “That album is almost a document of despair,” he said in a 1993 interview. “We were running out of steam as far as our youthful energy was concerned and we hadn’t matured enough to deal with it. We were still adolescents.”
Yet aging constitutes one of Gaucho’s chief preoccupations. “Way back when, in sixty seven / I was the dandy of Gamma Chi,” sings a 32-year-old Fagen on the album’s biggest hit, “Hey Nineteen,” a lament about the difficulties of dating a woman of that age. Ignorant even of Aretha Franklin, this young lady presumably understands none of the narrator’s references: “She thinks I’m crazy / But I’m just growing old.” (Look up this wistful song on Wikipedia, writes music critic Ian Penman, “and you find: ‘See also: age disparity in sexual relationships.’ Which is nearly straight-face inapt enough to be a Becker/Fagen in-joke.”) Buffed to a high sonic sheen, “Hey Nineteen” managed to find its way into consistent rotation on “smooth jazz” radio stations in the 1990s and 2000s. But then, so did the same album’s “Time Out of Mind,” an ode to the reality-bending pleasures of smoking heroin.
A chill emanates from Gaucho, unbearable even to some listeners otherwise positively disposed toward Steely Dan. But for others of us, its clockwork detachment places it among the greater works of humankind — at least among the albums most thoroughly evocative of Los Angeles. “In fact, detachment, good and bad, is the album’s main theme,” writes Ian MacDonald in a 2002 Uncut retrospective review included in Major Dudes. “Gaucho shows the first world as a decadent drive-in peopled by stud-eyed users, preposterous losers and those for whom cocaine is God’s way of telling them their wallets are too plump.” Steely Dan’s funniest album, it’s “also their most urbane. A gem in the trashcan of Californian entropy, a ray of coherent light amid LA’s louche neon, a chuckling oxygen-nozzle dropped through the smog of modern nothingness, Gaucho sort of loves us — give or take a sin or ten.”
Ironically — irony being Steely Dan’s foundation stone — Gaucho was recorded in New York, to which Becker and Fagen had just returned after nearly six years in Los Angeles. Both were originally New Yorkers, albeit from the periphery, Becker having grown up in Queens and Fagen in suburban New Jersey. “We moved out to the west coast in ’71 or ’72, and we got a job there staff-writing for ABC-Dunhill Records,” Fagen recalls in the Aja documentary. Their Southern California sojourn allowed them to make their names in the record business, as well as giving them access to the ultra-professional session musicians essential to realizing their musical visions. But “we weren’t finished writing songs with New York characters in them yet, and by the time we were finished, we had moved back to New York, at which point we immediately started writing lyrics about California.”
Predictably, the two Bard graduates couldn’t vibe with early-’70s L.A., though it did give them a few laughs. “For cynical wise-ass kids from New York like us, going to Los Angeles was an endless source of amusement,” Becker told MOJO magazine in 1995. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the characterisation: so sunny, air-headed optimism in glitzy LA and dense, rye-bread, cynical, intellectual New Yorkers.” In the Aja documentary, Fagen tells it as the story of “these two English-major-type guys, out in an L.A. that was a much more visual culture.” Indeed, even as Becker and Fagen were settling into their new Malibu homes, the young art director Mike Salisbury was crafting the SoCal pop-culture aesthetic with his conversion of West magazine, the Los Angeles Times’s bland Sunday supplement, into a delivery system for what he called “cinema-graphic information.”
Steely Dan, for their part, went on to record songs in Los Angeles like “Any Major Dude Can Tell You,” whose title was drawn directly from local parlance. As Robustelli notes, “Fagen explained in a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone that, ‘When we moved out to L.A., people called each other “dude,” which we found funny. We were trying to speak their language.’ The song also contains a reference to the mythical woodland creature the Squonk from a book by Jorge Luis Borges.” That track appeared on Pretzel Logic (1974), an album with a photograph of a Central Park vendor for a cover. The liner notes of its predecessor, Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), describe the song “Show Biz Kids,” with its solipsistic youngsters busy “making movies of themselves,” as being the result of a scenario in which “the Dan moves to L.A. and is forced to give an oral report.”
“Once the novelty of space, warm weather and laid-back insouciance had worn thin,” writes Sweet, “Los Angeles was a grave disappointment to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.” For 1975’s Katy Lied, they recorded “Bad Sneakers,” which Robustelli calls a song “told from a New Yorker’s perspective of living in Los Angeles and the simple things he misses about New York City.” The very next year came the much more anxious and intense The Royal Scam, the narrator of whose third track, “Don’t Take Me Alive,” is desperate, heavily armed, and locked into a showdown with the police. “In Los Angeles and throughout the world in general, terrorism is a way of life, actually, for a lot of people,” Sweet quotes Fagen as saying. “The song was inspired by a run of news items where people would barricade themselves inside an apartment house or a saloon with an arsenal of weapons.”
By the decade’s end, the Dan, too, had barricaded themselves inside the studio, surrounded with state-of-the-art recording gear rather than high-powered firearms. (Nichols, the technical brains of the operation, was a local boy who built his own garage studios while growing up in Torrance.) The appeal, as Fagen later put it to Hoskyns, was that of “a room where you have all this technology to help you and where you have some toys. And you need air conditioning and a book with menus in it. It’s about that space-age bachelor-pad vibe.” Such were the conditions required to create Aja, which Breithaupt calls an “album about flux and wanderlust” whose “hapless adventurers seek relief from romantic detachment (‘Black Cow,’ ‘I Got the News,’ ‘Peg’), tedium (‘Aja’), exile (‘Home at Last’) and inertia (‘Deacon Blues,’ ‘Josie’), relief from a peculiarly modern species of disquiet whose name just might be ‘Los Angeles.’”
Whatever their distance from Angeleno culture, Becker and Fagen by that point had less in common with conventional musicians or even record producers than they did with Hollywood filmmakers. “Steely Dan circa 1977 cast their albums like film directors, using outside talent according to the needs of their narratives,” writes Breithaupt. “[W]e were kind of the auteurs of the record,” Becker himself once said, “in the sense that a director is the author of his film.” The auteurs they most resembled were those of the “New Hollywood” like Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Michael Cimino, relatively young directors granted large budgets and unheard-of creative control by a disordered studio system. They and Steely Dan both arose from conditions “specific to the seventies,” in the latter’s case “the confluence of jazz and rock; unprecedented stylistic breadth in pop radio; and a record business temporarily open to new forms of expression.”
“They’ve got a skill that makes images that aren’t puerile and don’t make you think that you’ve heard it before,” says English proto-punk icon and unlikely Danfan Ian Dury. “Very Hollywood filmic in a way.” In the Classic Albums documentary, Dury credits Aja with “a classic L.A. kind of sound. You wouldn’t think it was recorded anywhere else in the world. It’s got California through its blood, even though they are boys from New York. It’s a record that sends my spirits up, and really when I listen to music, really that’s what I want. I don’t really want to hear people moaning.” Nor did I, when first I encountered Steely Dan in high school. It was the early 2000s, and “people moaning” exhaustively described much of the rock on the charts, performed as it was by the strenuously resentful likes of 3 Doors Down, Nickelback, and Linkin Park.
The depression and rage expressed by those bands, however in vogue, struck me as embarrassingly histrionic; nor did I have much time for the simple boy-meets-girl stories and party anthems stamped out by the pop factory. For me, as for every young Danfan, the discovery of Steely Dan was the discovery of a music satisfying in a way I hadn’t known music could be. It also pleased me finally to have found a well-known “classic” band of which I could call myself a fan, though nobody else my age seemed to be familiar with them — especially not girls. During Steely Dan’s long hiatus after Gaucho, Becker turned to producing albums for other artists, including Rickie Lee Jones’s Flying Cowboys (1989). “Jones was initially worried about working with Becker due to the slick production of the Steely Dan albums and the fact that she considered Steely Dan ‘boy music,’” writes Robustelli.
Fagen put it another way in an interview after Gaucho: “We don’t make records to find girls. We already have girls.” A quarter-century later, he explained to Newsday that “Steely Dan is guys without girls. The collective persona we unintentionally developed is a guy who’s talking to the guys, except once in a while, he breaks down and you get to see that he’s unstable.” Good psychological health hardly characterizes most of the characters in Steely Dan’s songs, but their music’s divisiveness surely owes more to the fact that it involves characters at all. “We write the same way a writer of fiction would write,” Fagen said after the release of Aja, “and for that reason it may not sound personal.” This dispenses with the presumption of spontaneous emotional directness, even of confession, that has long characterized rock music — or, to the ears of many a Danfan, plagued it.
Of course, it isn’t only the “girls” who expect that sort of thing: critic Lester Bangs, the ostentatiously confrontational and slovenly patron saint of three-chorders, famously pronounced rock ’n’ roll “a raw wail from the bottom of the guts.” Though he seems to have had nothing to say about Steely Dan, were he alive today, he’d probably agree with British GQ editor Dylan Jones who calls Aja “as gentrified and as anal a record as you’ll ever hope to hear.” Yet that observation comes as part of an ultimately positive, almost worshipful consideration.
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s masterpiece is an homage to passive-aggressive studio cool, even though they were as disdainful of the palm tree and flared-denim world of Los Angeles as the whey-faced urchins from west London. The band’s nihilism is plain for all to hear, disguised as FM-friendly soft-rock. Their lyrics are dispassionate, the architecture of their songs often labyrinthine, the guitar solos ridiculously sarcastic.
The occasion for Jones’s piece was the publication of Fagen’s Eminent Hipsters. Apart from the aforementioned piece on meeting Becker at Bard, that book’s first half consists of a set of essays on cultural figures and movements that he looks back upon as formative influences during his 1960s youth. Many, naturally, are musical: Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone, Ray Charles, late-night jazz DJ Mort Fega. Others are cinematic, his local art house having regularly shown “masterpieces by Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut and a slew of British films by John Schlesinger, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Joseph Losey and others.” The radio monologues of Jean Shepherd taught him about everything from “how to parse modern rituals (like dating and sports)” to “nineteenth-century panoramic painting” to “the transience of desire.” Shepherd thus “established himself as one of a handful of adults you could trust. (Others were Mailer, Ginsberg, Vonnegut and Realist publisher Paul Krassner.)”
As a suburb-exiled teenager with a “nasty case of otherness,” Fagen found relief from his “long stretch at hard labor in Squaresville” in Manhattan jazz clubs, but also in books. Having “tried to get through a few Kerouac novels,” he found a more inviting countercultural portal in the science fiction of Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Frederik Pohl, and A. E. van Vogt, whose 1948 novel The World of Null-A introduced the adolescent Fagen to a “non-Aristotelian” discipline called General Semantics. Designed to let its masters “throw off all previous cultural programming and process new sense data from a serene perspective,” General Semantics provided him with certain precepts by which he would go on to live. Foremost was “the map is not the territory”: in other words, “don’t confuse the word with the object, the description with the thing itself. People who want to sell you something intentionally take advantage of this confusion.”
General Semantics was intellectually passé by the time Fagen got wind of it, but in its prime it counted among its adherents no less Steely Dan–linked a figure than William S. Burroughs. “Several of the core concepts that Burroughs would preach to his flock — the idea that language is a virus, the routine about the ‘IS of identity’ and the ‘EITHER/OR’ problem — certainly had their origins in General Semantics,” Fagen argues. “So if we are alert to the fact that Burroughs was an idol of both J. G. Ballard and William Gibson, we can trace Null-A’s influence back through three generations of sci-fi greats.” Having created settings like the Gentleman Loser bar in Neuromancer (1984), Barrytown in Count Zero (1986), and the Western World club in Idoru (1996), Gibson makes no secret of his own drinking from the well of Steely Dan, whose music he’s called “probably the most subversive material pop has ever thrown up.”
Fagen has acknowledged enjoying Gibson’s novels, whose conception of a cyberpunk near-future Hoskyns calls a “clear influence on Fagen’s 1993 solo album Kamakiriad.” But in 2012, Fagen writes that, “[o]nce an insatiable reader, I don’t read so much anymore. I’m now at the age — sixty-four — where so many sad things have happened that I’m too broken and anxious to read.” This isn’t even the most dispiriting passage in Eminent Hipsters’s second half, a diary Fagen kept while touring with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald. Together they perform what he calls “a program of moldy old R&B and soul tunes that we like, with some of our own hits thrown in to keep the TV Babies happy.” By “TV Babies” he means “people who were born after, say, 1960, when television truly became the robot caretaker of American children and therefore the principal architect of their souls.”
The members of this broad cohort, now predominantly middle-aged themselves, loom large among Fagen’s bêtes noires. It is they who know nothing of Wilson Pickett or Count Basie, who “can’t experience the performance unless they’re sending instant videos to their friends,” who freely “download all those songs my partner and I sacrificed our entire youth to write and record.” Yet it is Wes Anderson, a filmmaker born squarely into TV Baby generation, who commands Fagen and Becker’s interest. “One of the reasons we’re intrigued by Anderson is that he seems to be fixated on the sort of geekish, early-sixties adolescent experience that he’s too young to have had but that Walter and I actually lived through,” Fagen writes. “Yet he nails the mood precisely, using comic exaggeration and fantasy to do the job. Although it was no picnic, it’s too bad everyone’s coming-of-age can’t take place in the early sixties.”
I sometimes wish mine had, especially when I listen to Fagen’s backward-looking 1981 solo album The Nightfly, with its milieu of International Geophysical Year techno-optimism, fallout-shelter “wingdings,” and all-night freeform radio. “In 1964, long-playing vinyl records sounded great,” he rhapsodizes in Eminent Hipsters. “It was the age of high fidelity, and even your parents were likely to have a good-sounding console or tube components and a nice set of speakers, A&R, KLH, and so on.” This environment surely did much to influence Steely Dan’s uncompromising devotion to lush and pristine sound. Even today, writes Rowden, their “mid- and late-’70s albums are still hallowed by audiophiles for their pristine sound and attention to even the most minute detail. It’s clean and there’s space for all the instrumentation to be heard, Fagen likening the sound to the jazz albums released on the Prestige label in the late 1950s.”
Though the technological, economic, and cultural factors that made Steely Dan possible converged only in the 1970s, it is to the late 1950s — and specifically its subculture of the “early resigned,” as defined in Paul Goodman’s 1960 book Growing Up Absurd — that Becker and Fagen belong. This afforded them a degree of immunity to the Summer-of-Love utopianism of the late 1960s. “The hippie stuff was fun for about five minutes and then, by late ‘67, the barbarism had set in,” writes Fagen. “By 1968, the paranoia was thick.” Amid it all — the Vietnam War, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Manson murders — the counterculture “seemed to have a nervous breakdown and fragmented into claques devoted to one authority figure or another,” from the Maharishi to Sun Myung Moon to Werner Erhard. Everyone had a map, but “the map is not the territory. After a while, there wasn’t any territory, either.”
This is eloquent, albeit less so than Steely Dan’s 1976 song “Kid Charlemagne,” a summation of the unraveling of the cultural moment we now call “the Sixties” on a level with the “wave speech” in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). With characteristic musical precision and lyrical obliqueness, that song traces the rise and fall of Augustus Owsley Stanley, a figure famous for both pioneering the manufacture of LSD and engineering amplification systems for the Grateful Dead. Of all the counterculture-associated American bands active in the 1970s, one could hardly find a more pronounced thesis and antithesis than the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan. Years ago, a “Deadhead to Danfan conversion chart” circulated on the internet contrasting the respective accoutrements of the two listener types: the former has his rectangular granny glasses, VW bus, and cosmic visions; the latter, his L.A. Eyeworks clip-ons, BMW 535 (late model), and erotic emails.
If Danfans have more disposable income than Deadheads, it may owe to their tendencies toward professionalism. “Jazz, rock, R&B, and hip-hop musicians make up the great coterie of Steely Dan fans. The group’s blend of complex chord changes, innovative melodies, and tight grooves are no doubt uniting factors,” writes Robustelli. “Intense, provocative, and often subversive lyrics also play a huge role in the legend of Steely Dan, so it’s no surprise that writers, intellectuals, politicians, and countless others are admirers as well.” The ranks of crime novelists also turn out to harbor more than a few Danfans, as evidenced by the recent publication of not one but two anthologies of “crime fiction inspired by the music of Steely Dan.” Both edited by Brian Thornton, himself a prolific author of crime fiction and much else besides, and published in 2019 by Down & Out Books, these twin volumes bear the titles A Beast Without a Name and Die Behind the Wheel.
Every Danfan knows from which Steely Dan songs these collections take their names, just as they know from which songs their stories’ procession of seedy personalities — Clean Willie, Berberian, Slinky Redfoot, a runaway named Janie — take theirs. “Over the course of thirty years, Walter Becker and Donald Fagan created their own universe, chock full of gamblers, junkies, and the occasional pedophile,” writes Bill Fitzhugh, comic crime novelist and onetime FM-radio employee, in the foreword to A Beast Without a Name.
What might happen if you co-mingle the occupants of this world? Do the Whiz Kids know the Show Biz Kids? Are you disturbed by Cousin Dupree’s skeevy look or the dreary architecture of his soul? Perhaps one of the writers in this collection will get him together with Mr. LaPage and an 8-millimeter camera. You say Katy lied? Then what happened? Did it involve the Third World Man?
Most of the stories in these anthologies are titled after Steely Dan songs, and more than a few read as if written in a workshop exercise with the requirement of incorporating as many terms from the Steely Dan Dictionary as possible. Some writers seem to have chosen to adhere to a song’s reality, as when David Corbett elaborates on life in Mizar 5, the interstellar outlaw hideaway of “Sign in Stranger.” The result is more science fiction than crime fiction, but so is Naomi Hirahara’s “Here at the Western World,” which takes the brothel setting of the song and hybridizes it with a form of high-tech grief counseling. Other writers go the apparently standard crime-fiction route of staging their scheming and violence against maximally realistic backdrops, though Steely Dan’s aurally cinematic dream world of sleaze does rather jar against the mundane commercial realm of Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Big Lots.
Fitzhugh’s “Green Earrings” borrows straight from Burroughs, taking place in a reality where there exists “a strap-on dildo known as the SD III by Yokahama [sic].” Other tales include Steely Dan the band, or at least their music. The killer in Reed Farrel Coleman’s “Halfway Crucified” is a Danfan, as is the narrator, though he’s escaped the fate of “humans whose obsession with Steely Dan lyrics had driven them to being institutionalized.” A story by W. H. Cameron deals with the death of a forgotten session guitarist from the 1970s who “performed with just about everyone at one time or another. Clapton, Beck, Steely Dan, Buffalo Springfield. He could play anything.” An investigation into the circumstances turns up the young lady with whom the unfortunate musician spent his final hours. She relays his last words, after an evening of Cuervo Gold shooters: “Thank you for making tonight a wonderful thing.”
That line, or one like it, is given to the backup singers in “Hey Nineteen.” At some point, Steely Dan’s live version of the song began to feature an instrumental vamp underneath patter from Becker. Screenwriter Howard A. Rodman, who grew up with Becker in Queens (“he gave me my first Borges, my first Nabokov, my first Burroughs”), once wrote in LARB of one such perfomance at Los Angeles’s Greek Theatre in 2001. Becker “delivered up a droll and lengthy monologue about getting calamitously stoned with my mother back in the day, name-checking her in front of six thousand people.” (I was at that same concert with my dad, and incidentally may be the only millennial to have got into Steely Dan before his own baby-boomer father, who was unimpressed by inescapable radio hits like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” back in the actual 1970s.)
Never will there be another Steely Dan show like that one: Rodman brought out his memory of it in tribute to Becker, who died in 2017. Though Fagen has since performed with their impeccably (and necessarily) skilled band under the Steely Dan name, Becker’s passing meant the definitive end of the most culturally important Steely Dan, the one that made records. Sweet, who ranks Becker and Fagen alongside Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, and Bacharach and David, writes that “[r]ightly or wrongly, Fagen usually gets most of the credit for the songs and the Steely Dan sound, but he has often admitted that he needed a Walter Becker to add suitably acerbic lines, to lend his hypersensitive ear in the studio, and to actually finish the songs.” (Becker, who moved to Hawaii after Gaucho to kick his heroin addiction, also brought more than a touch of friends-in-low-places savoir-faire.)
“[F]or a band whose fans are on the literate side,” Breithaupt writes, “Steely Dan have received comparatively little coverage in the book world.” When his brief study of Aja came out, in 2007, the only other substantive work on Steely Dan was Sweet’s Reelin’ in the Years, first published in 1994. Robustelli’s Steely Dan FAQ came out just before Becker’s death, which perhaps occasioned the rest of this relative bumper crop of reading material, including the welcome second edition of Sweet’s book in 2018. But the comprehensive guides, though suitably completist-cum-obscurantist, can be repetitive and sloppily written. Major Dudes amounts to a collection of press clippings (albeit well-curated ones), but if the great Steely Dan book has yet to be written, perhaps Hoskyns will do the job yet: his earlier Waiting for the Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes and the Sound of Los Angeles (1996) evidences his possession of the requisite background knowledge.
These books do make a start at articulating the values of craft and sensibility for which Steely Dan stood. “Steely Dan is an aesthetic, a way of doing things, a standard of excellence, a world view,” writes Rowden. Nowadays, as Breithaupt sees it, “[w]hen the cultural bar has been lowered to the point of absurdity, the only revenge worthy of the name comes from reestablishing standards lost to laziness and expediency”; an album like Aja “puts into sharp relief the dreck that surrounds it.” Speaking to Rolling Stone in 1974, Fagen described Steely Dan’s signature irony — “a cheerful lyric and a sad or menacing melody, or vice versa” — as frightening. “I am attracted to music that frightens me. Not music about doom and melodrama — that kind of stuff isn’t really frightening. What’s really frightening is mediocrity. The mediocrity of everyday life, the mediocrity we see around us.”
The 21st-century critical reappraisal of the smooth, meticulously produced, mostly un-frightening “yacht rock” of the 1970s and ’80s has also made Steely Dan acceptably cool again (along with bedfellows as strange as Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins, and the Doobie Brothers). But as a Danfan under 40, I can’t help but notice that nearly everyone writing seriously about the band is at least a generation older than me. This seems true even of the crime-fiction authors: despite its dramatic promise, not a single one of them makes use of the concept of gaslighting, perhaps because it was reintroduced to the zeitgeist by millennials — the same millennials who find it difficult to countenance art with, as Fagen described the work-in-progress that became Aja, “no social significance,” and who would surely also judge Steely Dan’s degenerate yet highly aestheticized subject matter to be “problematic.” But then, aren’t they saying the same about Nabokov?
Colin Marshall is at work on a book called The Stateless City: A Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his website, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.
Featured image: "Becker & Fagen of Steely Dan at Pori Jazz 2007" by Kotivalo is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped and desaturated.
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