The Greek Theatre, Saturday, July 9 — that made the second time I’ve seen Steely Dan play live. The first came nearly eight years ago at the Universal Ampitheatre (hey, I’m just going with the spelling the venues themselves use) right after I’d plopped myself down in Santa Barbara from Seattle. I figured that, in the process of preparing myself for the next plop, this one to Los Angeles from Santa Barbara, I should see Steely Dan again. They’d scheduled their show the night before my dad’s birthday, too, so I’d have been a fool not to take advantage of the confluence.
Other Steely Dan fans I meet routinely assume my dad got me into the band. I don’t fault them, since he’s the same age as Donald Fagen, and I’m the same age as... I don’t know, Avril Lavigne? But he’s told me stories of hearing the likes of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Reelin’ in the Years” so many times so very involuntarily in the mid-seventies that he didn’t want to drill down any further. I can sympathize; who knows how many artists I can’t properly hear due to abuse by overexposure at the hands of the zeitgeist? (Outkast comes to mind.) When I first heard Steely Dan, by contrast, I heard them with the receptive ears of someone trapped in the web of nü-metal the year 2001 wrapped around every teenager.
“The Dan” quickly became the only “rock” band to which I could pledge allegiance, not just because they took/take more care with their music’s composition and recording than any of their colleagues did in the seventies — or do even now — but because they eschewed rock’s simple (and, as I always thought, fakey) emotions just as they eschewed its simple arrangements and instrumentation. I realize that simple emotions and simple instrumentation — the simpler, more straightfoward, more “raw” the better — do a very appropriate artistic job indeed for teenagers roiling with Holden Caulfieldesque rage at the world, but I lacked that rage. I suffered instead from... jeez, my own weirdly complicated suite of desires, maybe? And I don’t mean “complicated” in a good way.
But nor do I mean it in a bad way! Steely Dan’s music operates on its very own morality, its very own aesthetics, its very own rubric of judgment, and I suspect Becker and Fagen rank ambiguity very highly in all three categories. My first and least deniable impulse to buy all their albums flared up in response to sheer craftsmanship; I recall a story about how they spent four solid hours in the studio mixing the fadeout on ”Babylon Sisters”, and the Classic Albums: Aja documentary remains my testament to studio obsessiveness of choice. But as the years pass, I keep them in high rotation (if only in my mind, sometimes) because of that distinctive S.D. sensibility. The worship of loserdom; the point in the circle where high life meets lowlife; the makeshift cultural pantheon grown at once from midcentury U.S. optimism, its repudiation, and ideas of exoticism rooted in both; humor that isn’t jokes; the unquestioned if not unquestionable taste of an upmarket-downmarket aesthete (or “sensualist”) in people, places, and products (“We love beautiful women, fine wine, suede moccasins” - W.B.); the maximization of possible interpretations; one’s raised eyebrow at both one’s own skeevy glances and one’s lack of real desire to do more than glance skeevily — these resonate ever more strongly with me over time.
This combines with a kind of wonky work ethic. From Sound on Sound:
The stories of Fagen and Becker's "obsession" are legion. For instance, when working on their second album, Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), they ran an eight-bar loop of two-inch tape to an idler wheel outside the control room in an attempt to achieve drum machine-like precision in the rhythm section. When working on Gaucho (1980), they pioneered the use of engineer Roger Nichols' freshly developed Wendel sampling drum machine and audio sampler (12.5kHz/12-bit) for drums and percussion. An indication of the amount of overdubbing, splicing, and re-recording that went into their quest for perfection was that Nichols and Scheiner used up 360 rolls of tape recording Gaucho.
For Fagen and Becker only the very best session musicians (meaning, in the '70s, the likes of Jeff Porcaro, David Sanborn, Randy Becker, Larry Carlton and Joe Sample) and engineers (Scheiner, Nichols, Bill Schnee) would do, and even these top guys were pressed hard to perform beyond their best.
Maybe I’ve just built up some sort of internal deficiency from logging so many empty day-job hours, but I feel a fast-growing thirst — a thirst, I tell you — to work unreasonably hard on something, to spend my days (and nights) on my own equivalent of Becker and Fagen’s four-hour fadeout or Hunter Thompson’s complete Gatsby retype or Kubrick’s 148 takes of Shelley Duvall walking through a door or what have you. I must sublimate myself entirely into the creation of things, though these things — and here, all the articles assure me, comes the sticking point — must keep me in collar stays, Asahi, and shelter.
In any case, my five most beloved Steely Dan songs are as follows:
“Bad Sneakers” (Katy Lied, 1975) Alongside Aja’s “Deacon Blues, this song may best encapsulate the classic Steely Dan protagonist, rumpled even before he was beaten down by the world, stripped of everything but the dignity of the louche obscurantist. “Bad sneakers and a piña colada, my friend. Stomping on the avenue by Radio City with a transistor and a large sum of money to spend.”
“The Caves of Altamira” (The Royal Scam, 1976) The story of a boy who regularly escapes into a “hole of rock and sand” full of prehistoric paintings has only gained relevance, especially after Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. (Different country, but still.) An ideal example of how Becker and Fagen took a set of truly late-seventies sounds — behold that John Klemmer sax solo — and made them timeless by skewing them just enough.
“Black Cow” (Aja, 1977) I often refer to this as my favorite song of all time, and I sometimes even believe it. As in “Caves of Altamira”, the repurposed late-seventies horns do a lot to make that happen, but only while listening to this song did my lyrical epiphany come: you don’t want words that mean one thing and one thing only; you don’t want words that mean everything, and thus mean nothing; you want words that mean an interesting range of things. Steely Dan write such words better than anyone, and “Black Cow” has more such words than any other in their oeuvre. Also, I moved to Santa Barbara in part because a local coffee shop offered black cows.
“Babylon Sisters” (Gaucho, 1980) The other reason I moved to Santa Barbara was UCSB’s mascot: the gaucho. Even some Steely Dan fans dismiss Gaucho as a suffocating, sinister album, but I consider it the great piece of Los Angeles noir of the eighties. Ironically, Becker and Fagen recorded it with New York session players, who balked at all the workhorseism that Aja’s L.A. guys took in relative stride. This song, Gaucho’s opening track, sets the highly distinctive dark-but-glossy tone for the rest of the record as the narrator casually high-tails it out of the city with a couple of girls while the Santa Ana winds blow...
“Gaslighting Abbie” (Two Against Nature, 2000) … which would do all the necessary thematic setup for the project that would follow a couple decades later. Total coincidence made this song, also an album-opener, the first from Steely Dan I ever “really listened” to. Back in high school, I liked to drop by Hawthorne Stereo on Roosevelt to ogle receivers, amps, and turntables I could never in a thousand years afford — definitely not in ten, anyway. The man on duty one fateful day was using Two Against Nature as a system-testing disc and “Gaslighting Abbie” as a system-testing song. Anybody would fall for a song under those conditions, you might argue, but this sneaky paean to a sketchy younger woman, the first on a record full of them (“If the price of making a good record is looking like dirty old men, Fagen and Becker have no qualms about paying.” - Robert Christgau) , still held up when I got home as a 128kbps MP3 piped through PC speakers with Winamp. Remember Winamp? (See also: chiptune edition!)