Riding the Weird Wavelength of Steely Dan

By Dan Moffett
Palm Beach Post

Many Steely Dan fans confess to a moment of epiphany during which they ascend through an unexplored portal to a higher level of quirky enlightenment.

It is an experience like that of the monk on the mountain who chants his prayer each day, every day, when suddenly, one day, the words take hold as never before. And he becomes the prayer.

There are as many epiphanies as there are fans of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen — allowing for psychological disorders, there are probably a whole lot more. Mine occurred at a tavern in a place called Mifflin, Ohio, during the waning months of the waning Carter administration.

The woman who would become my ex-wife had just commandeered the family Pinto and was speeding to her mother’s house in Cleveland. I was staring at a Sunday breakfast of Fritos and Slim Jims, in the company of bikers nursing hangovers and softball players waiting out a rain delay in a 24-hour tournament.

I put a dollar in a jukebox infested with the work of Ronnie Milsap and Merle Haggard. I found a Steely Dan tune and punched it hard.

This is the day of the expanding man, Fagen sang, and the music played as never before.

They got a name for the winners in the world. I want a name when I lose. They call Alabama the Crimson Tide. Call me Deacon Blues.

In a flash of electric insight I understood it all. It was as if Bodhisattva had taken me by the hand. I felt Razor Boy’s pain. I knew that the bookkeeper’s son really didn’t want to shoot no one. Show Biz Kids repulsed me. I understood why Katy lied, where Kid Charlemagne went wrong and that Doctor Wu was just an ordinary guy.

How could I have ever done it without the fez on?

Music of the mind

I had been a Steely Dan fan for close to a decade. But this was the first time I needed to be one. The more absurd life gets, the more sense Steely Dan makes. Everyone knows the world isn’t fair — if it were, Muhammad Ali would have gotten the grill deal — but at least with Becker and Fagen there is always a standing invitation to question the relevance of reality to anything particularly important.

I have always wondered what the air felt like when the two locked eyeballs 35 years ago at Bard College in Annandale, N.Y., and immediately knew they were riding the same weird wavelength. It must have been like Shirley MacLaine meeting Shirley MacLaine.

Becker and Fagen are the Lennon and McCartney of what Frank Zappa calls “downer surrealism.” Their best work always has been based on escape fiction. A catchy musical phrase quickly grabs the listener’s ear, and then a story line pops up that makes your mind wonder what it’s hearing.

If neurologists scanned the brains of someone watching a Coen Brothers movie and someone listening to a Steely Dan song, the images would look the same.

I think Jeff “Skunk” Baxter explained it better than anyone. The legendary guitarist was one of the original members of the band, and he also went on to play with the Doobie Brothers, before embarking on a consummately improbable career in aerospace engineering. Someone asked Baxter once to compare the music of the two groups.

“I think Steely Dan went straight to the brain,” he said, “and the Doobie Brothers went straight to the heart.”

Steely Dan was the only rock group that made me do research on lyrics. I actually looked up stuff about Cathy Berberian’s career as a radical mezzo-soprano after hearing the oblique reference to her in “Your Gold Teeth.” I amazed friends with stories about the behavior of squonks in Pennsylvania after hearing “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.” In the days before Internet chat rooms, I surveyed strangers about the true identities of Chino and Daddy Gee, often at my personal peril.

Lyrics crept into my speech. “Well, I’ll just sing that Ghana rondo” became my “yadda-yadda-yadda” response to any unanswerable question in the 1980s.

Part of Steely Dan’s allure is simply complexity. The lyrics are an artistic backlash from the mainstream drivel of the ’70s (Hold me tight, it’ll be all right, I can see the light… ), and the music itself is a technically complicated mix of jazz and rock. You might not like a Steely Dan song, but it won’t be because it’s too derivative.

I’ve always found it amusing that the more Becker and Fagen do to break the industry rules and ignore commercialism, the more successful they have become. They make songs that are too long and too abstract for radio play; for years they refused to tour; they have gone through dozens of studio musicians, turning them over every couple of years as if they were leased cars. Then they disappear for 20 years, return to win big at the Grammys and get voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This is like the NFL team that has no playbook, won’t show up for road games, cuts all its players every season and yet still wins the Super Bowl.

A Steely way of life

Steely Dan attitudes have gradually worked their way into my life. I make it a point not to read stories I write once they are printed in the newspaper. The words you are reading I will never read. This is a personal homage to Becker and Fagen’s reaction to the release of their “Katy Lied” album. Though it was a critical and commercial success, they refused to listen to it, because they were unhappy with the fidelity of the master tape. I believe the world needs more eccentric perfectionism.

I started thinking of Steely Dan music the way my parents thought of the St. Christopher medal and plastic Jesus they had on their car’s dashboard. As long as Becker and Fagen were on the stereo, I was protected.

I was driving on Interstate 95 one day, listening to “Gaucho” on a headset. A highway patrolman pulled me over and told me it was against the law to drive wearing a headset — something about not being able to hear emergency vehicles’ sirens or other motorists cursing you.

“What were you listening to?” he asked.

“A little Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, some Steely Dan,” I said.

“I’m just going to write you a warning this time,” he said, smiling. “I like Motown, too.”

Who can figure? There was something eerily Steely Dan about the moment. I considered the incident evidence of protection and drove off as quickly as I could.

Not only highway patrolmen have a hard time getting a fix on this music. The jazz and literary roots stretch back to the ’50s. Becker and Fagen grew up listening to jazz virtuosos — Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck — when the rest of their peer group was fixed on Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Beatles and British invaders. In college, the two read the literature of Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon. The writers’ subversive surrealism and despairing awareness of the comic state of the human condition found their way into the music of Becker and Fagen.

Take some Ellington and Vonnegut and killer rock guitars and keyboards, add complex chord progressions and arrangements, then some tight vocal harmonies — and you have the makings of the Steely Dan formula for breaking the formula. No one has tried to cram more into a recording track.

Steely Dan’s music is built on this technical paradox: Brilliant musicians and backup singers are fronted by Fagen’s raspy, lisping whine — a tenor that often makes noises that belong in an emphysema ward. If Glenn Frey had strep throat and didn’t care about being a rock star, he might sound like Fagen. On any given night, Fagen’s voice is the weakest instrument onstage. Yet its interpretive power becomes the group’s strength.

It turns out to be the perfect world-weary instrument to explore the darkness and absurdity that Steely Dan is compelled to explore. Who but Fagen could capture the theatrical desperation of “Don’t Take Me Alive” or the social satire of “Third World Man” or the subversive undercurrents of “The Royal Scam”? Fagen has the perfect instrument to parody the self-pity of 1990s yuppies in “Shame About Me” or to express resignation in the recently released “Everything Must Go””

It’s high time for a walk on the real side/Let’s admit the bastards beat us/I move to dissolve the corporation/In a pool of margaritas.

Quirkiness, the ’90s version

The new album is a moody ode to the finite or, as Fagen puts it, “eschatological themes” — which I liked having to look up. It means dealing with irreversible destinies. The corporate collapses of the ’90s provided the right metaphors.

“The Last Mall” tracks a final shopping spree at a declining American institution. “Godwhacker” expresses the crazed ramblings of a celestial hit man leading a search party to track down the Almighty. “Pixeleen” tells of an unhealthy romance between a video-game fanatic and his cyberqueen. “Lunch with Gina” starts off harmlessly enough, until we learn Gina is a stalker (Editor’s Note: Or worse.). “Things I Miss the Most” is a wonderfully sardonic look at a jilted husband who laments the loss of his Audi TT, the good copper pans, the house on Martha’s Vineyard — and, OK, yes, the sex, too.

(I caught myself rewriting the song in the more modest terms of my own surreal misery a quarter-century ago: the Pinto, the Fritos and Slim Jims, the house in Cleveland, but, no, not the sex. Probably proves that, over time, life does imitate quirk.)

I suppose all great collaborations become more difficult to untangle as they mature. The partnership between Becker and Fagen, after more than three decades, appears so seamless that it’s difficult to isolate individual lines of contribution. And they have fended off repeated attempts to unravel their writing methods. But their solo albums offer titillating clues.

Fagen’s critically acclaimed “The Nightfly” in 1982 was a breezy wonder of tight jazzy keyboards and harmonic riffs. His is the more accessible side of Steely Dan’s split personality. He supplies the lotion and his partner the sandpaper.

In 1994, Becker released his only solo offering, “11 Tracks of Whack,” and fans immediately understood who has given Steely Dan its abrasive, sometimes angry, edge. I love how the songs simmer with a snide disdain for the inadequacies — real or perceived — of just about everybody.

In “This Moody Bastard,” memories of a college girlfriend torment a borderline suicidal loner; in “Junkie Girl,” a hooker dies of an overdose before the eyes of an admirer; “Cringemaker” charts the unhappy evolution of a “college belle” into a “wife from hell.”

Becker’s “Book of Liars” is deliciously acerbic: “Santa Claus came in late last night, drunk on Christmas wine. Fell down hard in the driveway, hung his bag out on the laundry line…. They hung a star in the book of liars by your name.” This is the Christmas carol you need to get rid of in-laws, a song that’s a parallel universe and a million Prozacs removed from the pop innocence of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”

Partners in time

Without Becker, Fagen’s music would be too breezy and nice; without Fagen, Becker’s music might touch off an epidemic of manic depression. It’s easy to see why the partnership works. That first meeting in Annandale must have felt like a Tom Cruise-Renee Zellweger “You complete me” moment, come to think of it.

Becker and Fagen rely on humor to keep their angst and fatalism from slipping into gloom and self-pity. Because Steely Dan (the name comes from the steam-powered sex toy in William Burroughs’ novel “Naked Lunch”) doesn’t take itself seriously, it is free to treat the world the same way.

Becker and Fagen pulled off one of the great comebacks in pop music history in 2000 with the release of “Two Against Nature,” their first new recording in 20 years. Besides its commercial success, it won four Grammy Awards, including beating Eminem and Paul Simon for Album of the Year. The CD offered another character study in offbeat perversions: “Cousin Dupree,” a tale of rural lechery, tested the boundaries of political incorrectness.

When Becker took the stage to accept the Grammy, he threw the floor open to questions instead of making the usual sappy thank-you speech. The audience was dumbfounded. Industry shills went into pretentiousness withdrawal. It was wonderful.

When Steely Dan was snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and 1999, the two used their Web site to begin a campaign that promised crates of honey mustard for hall officials willing to lend their support. On learning that voters had inducted them as part of the class of 2001, Fagen immediately demanded a recount. Many within the industry worried that he was serious.

Like other idiosyncratic geniuses — a class that includes Thelonious Monk, Roy Orbison, Warren Zevon and, OK, perhaps even Cathy Berberian — Steely Dan is largely an acquired taste that tends to be memorable in the acquisition. It is difficult to categorize outside of itself. Many musicians borrow from Steely Dan, but no one even thinks about cloning.

I look at Becker and Fagen as the Lewis and Clark of rock’s darker side. They have explored some strange human wilderness and come back alive, triumphant even, with their senses of humor as warped as when the journey began. I consider myself part of the expedition and am always ready to strike out again. Hey, sue me if I stray too long.

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