Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Steely Dan? Who the Hell Am I?
And yet, I've always respected Donald Fagen and Walter Becker from a distance. They are very good at what they do. They made the music they wanted to in an exacting, precise fashion. What I deemed as their awfulness was never a mistake. The fact that they made music that terrible on purpose made dislike them even more.
So it is with great personal confusion that I admit that I have recently reevaluated their music, and discovered with some shock and horror that I like Steely Dan. There have been weeks over the past nine months during which there have been periods where I have listened to little else. I am fine with being proven wrong, but such a dramatic shift in my own opinion has made me question the very fabric of my being. I like Steely Dan? Do I even know who I am anymore?
To be fair, this isn't something that happened overnight. I've grown an appreciation for them slowly over the past few years starting with their debut album. It had always been with some embarrassment that I would admit to myself how much I liked the verses of "Reelin' in the Years." I say the verses because this 70s FM nugget's cheesy guitar lead and chorus always gave me hives. However, the verse's piano riff and Fagen's sardonic (Steely Dan, in a single word) vocals are sublime. Song by song, their first album, Can't Buy A Thrill (1972), revealed itself to me to be distinct from the rest of their catalog. I could admit to liking one of their records. The fact that critics and album guides singled the album out from the rest of their work as being more rock 'n' roll made me more comfortable liking it. Here was a band that began with a promising anomaly, but quickly fell off the deep end of jazz rock pretension and smug hipster intellectualism.
Further investigation was halted by the first track on their second album, "Bodhisattva." This song ranks up there with "Sugar Magnolia" as one of my least favorite songs of all time. Bookending the rest of their career with the later sleazy, predatory "Hey Nineteen" from Gaucho (1982), I was able to dismiss everything else in between.
So what changed? Well, at first, I was exposed to their music little by little through external sources: the Minutemen's cover of "Doctor Wu," the hilarious albeit exaggerated characterization of them in the Yacht Rock series, and the VH1 Classic Albums documentary about Aja (1977). I was even secretly thrilled when Becker and Fagen won the Grammy Album of the Year in 2001 in a startling upset for their comeback, Two Against Nature. All these incidents opened my mind towards them, but it took something more personal to fully bring me around.
I came to embrace Steely Dan through periods of great stress. The first time was while I was editing my first issue of The Chord, the newsletter of the record store where I worked. I was under deadline working in my basement office hours after the store had closed, catching peripheral glimpses of mice scuttle by my door as I struggled to learn InDesign on the job. It was in this environment that the first album truly took hold. Something about the music helped me cope with the crushing fear of failure.
Steely Dan make music about pathetic losers, cowardly cheats, gangsters, perverts, junkies, and reprobates - desperate people who have nothing left to lose. Listening to the stories of the characters in their songs I am reminded by something Leonard Cohen once said about staying in hotels. Cohen said one always has the feeling in a hotel room of being on the lam, a safe moment in the escape, a refuge and sanctuary of a temporary kind, a place in the grass while the hounds pass by. This was the feeling I got listening to Can't Buy A Thrill in the late hours of the night (or early hours of morning) engaged in the exercise of amateur journalism.
This past spring saw me working late nights, taking work home during the week and on weekends. This time I fell in deeper than just the first album. When everything is bearing down on you there's something relaxing about the Dan's epic ambivalence. It's a shrug of the shoulders as your just about to go over the cliff.
Below is a playlist that prunes the catalog for my favorite touchstones. A lot of these are the hits, but you'll note that "Bodhisattva" is still conspicuously absent.