By Chuck Klosterman
Akron Beacon Journal
There is a logic to humor. Of course, how that logic is applied makes all the difference in the world.
First, there is the logic of being silly, which is essentially the art of being obvious (if a clown gets hit in the head with an anvil, a 5-year-old child will giggle). There’s also the logic of being funny, which is really just the art of execution (there’s a set-up, there’s a punch line, and the audience responds with the appropriate chuckle).
But then there is the art of being clever, which is a more complicated art to quantify and a harder craft to master. There’s no skill as impressive as writing something so hilarious that no one laughs; it requires the kind of logic that begins and ends in the same place.
In short, it takes pretzel logic.
Pretzel Logic was the name of a 1974 Steely Dan album, and that has remained the best (and perhaps the only) description of what Donald Fagen and Walter Becker do for a living.
Steely Dan is arguably the only popular group of the last 30 years to exist within a musical genre that includes no other bands whatsoever. Musically and lyrically, Steely Dan is the answer to a question that almost seems rhetorical: What does it mean to be clever?
“That’s actually an interesting question,” says Fagen. “It’s interesting because we’re rarely asked about that, even though it’s something Walter and I think about all the time. We’ll be working on a song, and we’ll wonder if maybe it sounds too silly or if it’s clever without being substantive. Sometimes Walter will come up with a line that’s really funny, but it will actually be too funny and break the mood of the song. We both admired Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention when we were younger, but there were some things they did that really crossed into comedy. And we were never interested in doing comedy.”
Fagen does not talk like most rock musicians. In fact, he doesn’t even talk like most people who listen to rock music. His sentences are long and involved and mildly contradictory. He mostly sounds like a college professor. That intellect has mostly been directed toward snarkiness, the hallmark of the band’s music. Over the last half of the ’90s, modern pop artists have become obsessed with seeming “ironic,” which is something the members of Steely Dan were doing in 1972 for their own amusement.
“I don’t think Walter or I have grown any more ironic as of late, but I think the world at large has,” Fagen explains. “Irony has become part of the culture in a way it wasn’t during the 1970s, except for maybe a small fraction of the populace who were ironic to begin with. I think there was always a Bohemian minority who thought life was inherently funny and had a satirical take on living, and that goes all the way back to Mark Twain. It’s a very American concept. But as is always the case in America, it’s the things that develop on the fringes that eventually filter into the mainstream.”
Nonetheless, Steely Dan’s filtration into the American soundscape doesn’t make much sense, especially when you look at the content of the band’s music.
Fagen and Becker met in the mid-1960s as students at Bard College in Annandale, N.Y. (a familiar geographic reference to anyone who’s heard the song My Old School). Though they played in countless incarnations of college bands (including one that featured Chevy Chase on drums), they ultimately moved to Los Angeles to serve as a songwriting team for artists on ABC/Dunhill records.
The only problem was that their songs were too sophisticated for the talent on ABC’s roster (which included groups like Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night). The only option for Fagen and Becker was to form their own band, taking the name “Steely Dan” from a reference to a sex toy in the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch.
Steely Dan’s debut Can’t Buy a Thrill was an immediate favorite among critics and became a staple of FM radio, a status they would hold for the rest of the decade. In theory, this should have been impossible. For one thing, Steely Dan never really played rock or pop; it basically played modern jazz. Moreover, the lyrics were subversive and dark; much of the Dan canon dwells on the drug subculture and a general sense of misanthropy.
However, what radio stations found irresistible about Steely Dan singles was their unavoidable perfection. Years after their release, the records are still sonically flawless, and that’s obviously no accident. Instead of forming a conventional band, Fagen and Becker used a revolving door of studio musicians to build songs to their exact specifications. This drove contributing artists crazy (the pair became known as relentless taskmasters in the studio) and prompted some aestheticians to criticize the band for sounding “too perfect.” An album like Aja is closer to architecture than it is to the New York Dolls.
“I think there’s a point to that criticism, actually,” says Fagen. “In rock ‘n’ roll, there’s a folk element and a rhythm and blues element, and there’s sort of this belief that the folk element has to be rough and emotive. At a certain point, technical ability almost becomes a detriment.”
The reputation for being clinical is probably why Steely Dan still hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A cynic might even suggest that the reason Fagen and Becker released Two Against Nature — their first new album since 1980 — was an attempt to raise their public identity and get the votes they need.
Not surprisingly, Fagen scoffs at that accusation.
“When we were first nominated, it sort of seemed like we would get in either that year or the next year,” he explains. “But as the years went on and we kept not getting in, it sort of just became something funny for us to comment about.
“One of the reason (the rock hall) is a good target is because — when it was founded — the whole idea seemed really silly. But it was actually fun. I went to a few of the early hall of fame meetings at the Waldorf Hotel, and it was hilarious. It was like a convention of sociopaths. But now that (VH1) started televising the ceremony, it’s become just another boring awards show. If Walter and I end up getting in . . . well, that will be fine. But the whole thing has sort of degenerated. Once you get into the 1970s, the talent goes way down. You don’t have any more majestic talents like Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan. To be honest, I guess I really don’t care.”