Much to my surprise, have been listening to a lot of Steely Dan lately. Of course, those guys are hardly strangers to me, because I basically grew up on classic rock, and every one of their (many) hits were played (and overplayed) on the radio. In truth, I never hated them, always thought “Dirty Work” and “My Old School” and “Reelin'” were pretty fun, and had great hooks. But I also thought a lot of their stuff was kinda boring, and tended to fade into the backdrop of hundreds of other tunes with guitar solos and harmonized refrains.
And yet now, in blazing middle age, they’re sounding pretty good. Not just that, but distinct, and emphasizing the same stuff I try to in my own music: interesting chords & production, good grooves, ambitious playing. To be fair, Steely Dan is a lot more naturally “pop” than I am — but I wonder if that’s changing. I made an EP of tunes earlier this year with the explicit aim of communicating something of myself to people. It wasn’t enough to forge new trails into prog pop. I wanted to resonate.
Weirdly, Steely Dan resonate in a pretty obscure way, with lyrics that are sometimes easy to decipher, but often almost self-consciously distant and “hip”. They talk like New York hipsters, even though they made their biggest records in L.A. Nothing surprises them — not falling for hookers, not creepy old men showing porn to kids, not realizing that you don’t learn anything useful in college. The jazzy chords and funky beats are their crutches, not friends or fond memories.
I think what turned me away from diving into their records in the past was that very thing: emotional distance as a shield against earnestness. Steely Dan are not a vulnerable band, in same way as, say, the Beach Boys (to reference another studio-centric group of oddballs). It’s a common criticism of their work, that they’re almost too smart for their own good, and substitute “tasty licks” for anything that might hit you in the gut. But then, maybe that’s been their appeal: musical inside jokes for the masses.
For me though, it’s just about the songs. I’m a dad now, so I listen to dad-rock — Fagen and Becker wrote arguably the finest in the genre. The grooves on ’76’s Royal Scam were sampled by 90s hip-hop bands for a reason: because they’re amazing. The harmonies on “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” are interesting, almost impressionistic in places, and if anything, understate just how sophisticated these guys actually were/are. The thing is, among all super-skilled 70s acts, Steely Dan very rarely succumbed to the kind of indulgence that bit so many prog bands (and wannabes like Kansas or Styx). Make no mistake, they were indulgent, but as the inverse of prog: they were *tasteful*, deceptively smooth, in awe of Parker & Ellington instead of Wagner & Beethoven.
The stories in the songs themselves were often tales of regret, bitterness, and a celebration of failure. “Black Friday” (from ’75’s Katy Lied) finds Fagen standing on the sidewalk to watch the bankers jump out of the window, delighting in collecting all the just-desserts he’s owed before any of his friends find out about the deal. It’s a both a damnation and reveling in unabashed selfishness. And it’s one of their best jams. “Night By Night” (’74’s Pretzel Logic) is more ambiguous, but makes no bones about an ambivalence to conventional morality, in service of just getting by (“Well I ain’t got the heart to lose another fight, so until my ship comes in, I’ll live night by night”).
Thankfully, they’re not all like this. “The Caves of Altamira” from Royal Scam is about nothing more than being wowed by prehistoric cave paintings, made “before there was even any Hollywood”. “Charlie Freak” from Pretzel Logic shows real empathy for a homeless guy to whom Fagen’s character had paid petty cash for a ring as an act of charity. Fagen revisits the place where Charlie eventually died (after an overdose, of course), simply to put the ring back on his hand to help “lead you home”. Steely Dan often came off as jaded, but could occasionally bare real heart.
This stuff is already influencing my own music, but I’m not sure I’m quite as offhandedly “obscure”. Yet. That’s the thing: we only get older, slower, more beat down, usually with more debt and a lot less time. Hopefully wiser, but it’s hardly a guarantee. Am I destined to fetishize failure in view of my own inevitable demise? Will I one day carry on imaginary dialogues with my exes, trying to teach them a thing or two? On the other hand, any major dude will tell you that when your world falls apart, it has a way of coming back together again. Chaos and creation, shuffles and straight-8th note grooves. Reeling in a long line of lost years and unclaimed, bitter-stained wisdom.
Thanks for reading. Working on new tunes, hopefully have a record out late this year or early 2019 🙂