I know you’re not going to believe me, but this sort of thing used to come right out of the radio.
Not XM radio. Not subscriber radio. Regular radio. You could listen to harmless rock, and mindless bubblegum pop, and gossamer bouncy Motown and Atlantic soul, and crossover country, and Broadway numbers barely disguised, and innumerable big budget buskers; but I’m telling you — Steely Dan used to come right out of the radio along with them.
The motorheads liked them because they rocked hard, or seemed to. Reelin’ in the Years comes right after Born to be Wild and no-one noticed the difference between them was a chasm. The chicks like them because they thought Rikki Don’t Lose That Number was about a future date and not a stoned Rick Derringer. If you were from the Rabelais/Baudelaire/Byron school of morose teenage angst, Steely Dan was just the ticket – like a vampire in the bloodbank. The Mahavishnu Orchestra types would make cassettes with the overtly jazzy stuff like Josie sandwiched between Wheels of Fire and a Sugarloaf cut. And if you were from New York or Jersey, well, faghettaboutit.
Funny that last bit. They always seemed L.A. to me. Cool dark studios in the valley and parties in the canyons at night. But they always gravitated back to New York, the only place big enough and strange enough to hold them. You listen to the words and wonder after each line: have those words ever been used in that order before?
It’s funny to see Donald Fagen doing his Ray Charles meets Jerry Lewis act at the keyboard. I’m not sure it’s an affectation. He might literally be trying to wrest the stuff out of his corpus, and it’s stuck in there a bit. He is the finest of that common commodity these last twenty or thirty years; the songwriter that knows exactly how to sing but has no voice to speak of. He sings his own compositions because he thinks his understanding of their meaning and merits trumps any other’s talent. Fifty years ago he’d be nothing but a name on the sheet music.
Walter Becker, the guitar player who looks like he left a soldering iron on a bench somewhere to come to the show, was always even more enigmatic to me. Fagen was the public face, more or less. But I watch Becker and wonder: will he ever run out of inventive things to play? Is there any permutation of notes he doesn’t consider? Does he ever repeat himself? Has he ever been outdoors?
Steely Dan is that rarest of things — stuff you liked thirty years ago that doesn’t make you slightly sheepish to enjoy now.
It’s sophisticated, I think. Like Jack The Ripper zonked on laudanum and champagne sitting at a table with Toulouse Lautrec at the Folies Bergere, waiting for the girls to get off work.