My Life With Steely Dan

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In the years of my early adolescence, the early-to-mid 70’s, I wasn’t nearly sophisticated enough to know many of the categories and sub-categories of popular music. I didn’t know from prog-rock or art-rock or glam-rock or jazz fusion. I did know what I liked and what I didn’t like, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you why.  It took one of those TV ads for the LP anthologies of popular music (your Mellow Gold and AM Hits collections) featuring a snippet from “Reelin’ In The Years” for me to register the name Steely Dan.

The music of Steely Dan had been on the peripheries of my musical awareness for several years at that time, I just didn’t know it. Once I connected the dots of their early hits, I realized that I had an affinity for the work of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. It didn’t matter that my mother loathed them–for reasons I’ll never understand, since she was usually pretty receptive to the popular music of the time. It didn’t matter that I was way too unsophisticated to appreciate their deliberate and studied literary and jazz references. I had yet too understand their obsessively meticulous and intellectual approach to their craft. But none of that really mattered.

They didn’t sound like, or feel like, anybody else–that was something I liked. I also liked that among my friends I was the first to discover them, which made me feel like a miniature cultural vangard in my nascient social circle. When I later learned about their determination to exist as only a studio band, to never take it on the road, well, I liked that too. They were cool and nobody told them what to do.

I was 11 when Pretzel Logic was released in 1974. There had been other albums I embraced as a kid–mostly the Beatles and all appropriated from my dad’s old record collection. But Pretzel Logic was the first piece of vinyl I went out and spent my own money on. From the opening xylophone fanfare leading into the iconic bass-line of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” to the cool romp of “Monkey In Your Soul,” I ate this album whole. You know that old cliche about wearing out the grooves on a record? I literally wore out the grooves on this record. As unplayable as it is, I still have it. The gritty black and white cover of the Central Park pretzel vendor with the flip-out cover revealing the twisty, wide-angle photo of the band on the inside. It’s autobiogragraphical value has made it immune over the years from any of my periodic vinyl culls.

Years later I began to more fully understand how steeped in jazz history Pretzel Logic was. In 1974 I had no idea who Charlie Parker was, or why “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” had made it onto the album. As an adult I took a history of jazz class that set most of that straight. The class was mostly undergrads, but there was one other fellow close to my age, with whom I talked music. One day, our instructor put on Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” and this other guy and I exchanged excited glances, thrust up our thumbs and mouthed “Steely Dan!” to each other.

Aja was released in September of 1977–almost exactly between the release dates of Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. A period that rewired me for life. Aja‘s jazzy, sonic lushness, counterpuncuated by its diamond-sharp production felt like a perfect complement to the aesthetics of the late 70s. This album carried me through much of high school. In the singles “Peg” and “Josie,” I was enthralled by female characters that helped shape my tastes in women. “Home At Last” gave me my first exposure to Homer’s Odyssey. And “Deacon Blues” –the anthem of existential fatalism that’s still so good it hurts.

By the time Gaucho came out in 1980, I was out of high school and fully immersed in post-punk new wave. Listening to “Hey Nineteen” when I was nineteen, I missed many of the song’s ironies, and “Babylon Sisters” pushed the jazz-funk thing a little past my evolving sensitivities. By this time I was beginning to think of Steely Dan in the same way I thought of other mature, MOR artists like Jackson Browne, the Eagles, or the Doobie Brothers. I was hearing stories stories of friction between Becker and Fagen. (No idea if they were valid or not.) They went into apparent retirement and when Fagen’s The Nightfly was released, I assumed that the obsessive, hyper-intellectual studio band from LA would be packed permanently in moth balls.

Steely Dan’s rebirth as a touring band a few years later was a surprise. I didn’t believe Becker and Fagen would work together again, let alone take their “studio-only” entity on the road. But they did, and the band got a whole new lease on life. By then I had moved on musically, and Steely Dan had shifted into the “nostalgia” category of my music collection. But there were, and still are, times when only the jazz-infused strains of “Do It Again” or “Black Cow” will satisfy my need for music of substance.

A summer or two back, I read that Elvis Costello and Steely Dan were touring together. I thought my head was going to explode, just thinking about what kind of controlled creative intensity would be loosed on that stage. I didn’t go. And that is one damned shame.

Hearing today about the passing of Walter Becker made me think about how much Steely Dan permeated–and influenced–the soundtrack of my life. Today, that soundtrack is missing a track or two.

And I’m left with the echo of that haunting refrain… Learn to work the saxophone…

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