I was eleven when I heard my first Steely Dan song. My pal John pulled a record out of a stack of albums and flashed the cover at me.
“You have to hear this” he said as he cradled the cardboard album jacket. “It’s Steely Dan”
“Steely who?” I said. He dropped the needle on the vinyl record and a drum and conga groove began that led into a wider ensemble. When the lyrics kicked in, sung by a guy with a melodic, but slightly mocking voice that was unlike anything I had ever heard, I was in awe. The guitar solo was jazzy, but it was rock, played on what sounded like a sitar (even though I don’t know what a sitar was then), then the organ moaned bluesy chords capped off with twinkling bells. The chorus, “back, Jack, do it again…” was captivating. My amazement continued through the rest of the songs: the mournful Dirty Work; the unbridled pop of Midnight Cruiser; the exuberance of Reelin’ In the Years.
“Who the heck are these guys?” I asked.
They didn’t sound like the Allman Brothers, our usual fare at that point. How did they make this music that kept us in near rapture? As the years passed, they released album after album, and we kept listening, each set better than the last, with amazing songs: Your Gold Teeth, Pretzel Logic, RIcki Don’t Loose That Number; Any Major Dude, Dr. Wu, Bad Sneakers, the list goes on and on. And even more remarkable lyrics:
“I would love to tour the Southland in a travlin’ minstrel show”; “If I had my way, I would move to another lifetime”; “I’m a bookkeeper’s son, I don’t want to shoot no one”; “turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening.”; and “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, they call me Deacon Blues.”
“Becker and Fagen, they’re crazy, cynical, genius musicians from Bard who hate pop music, but compose and produce the best pop music.” explained another friend, who would send his daughter to the same school thirty years later. Damn right.
And it continued. In the summer of seventy-six, I was working at summer camp. As I walked into the staff lounge, the program director was setting up a stereo–turntable, amplifier, big speakers. He pulled a record album out of a paper bag. A purple album cover, a bum with bad shoes asleep on a park bench surrounded by monster skyscrapers.
“New Steely Dan,” he said “The Royal Scam, best one yet.”
The record became the soundtrack for the summer, played start to finish, over and over and over. Why not, with the brilliant guitar work by Larry Carlton on Kid Charlemagne; the perfect confluence of jazz, rock, and lyrics on Don’t Take Me Alive; the funky Everything You Did; and the progressive and brooding title song. Every track perfect. Forty years later, It’s playing right now as I write this, the songs as fresh as they sounded at camp in ‘76.
So yeah, I like Steely Dan and their amazing Songbook. Since those discovery years, I’ve learned a lot about Walter Becker and Donald Fagen and how they composed and produced the albums. They were meticulous, obsessive, compulsive, genius. They thrived in the studio, using studio musicians like fine tools to mold masterpieces of sound, that resulted in some of the most remarkable moments of high fidelity in popular music.
With the exception of a brief tour in 1974, the band neglected the road until the nineties, when they started to tour on a regular basis. I have a bunch of their live shows, usually obtained thanks to a member of the crew getting a patch off the sound console and the recording slowly being shared amongst fans. There are some good commercial live releases as well.
If you have not seen the band live, we in Middleburg have a chance this summer, one of their favorite venues on the East coast is Jiffy Lube Pavilion (the band doesn’t worry about the horrible parking and traffic), and they are slated to play there on July 12th with the great Steve Winwood. I recommend getting lawn tickets, and make sure you use the voice memo feature on your phone for the best songs. Maybe they’ll play the whole Royal Scam set. I have a great Spotify playlist of Steely Dan covers for you at http://tinyurl.com/hhlk7ju .
Steve Chase lives in Unison and tries not to play the music too loud.