From Burroughs to Berry, duo has had wide range of influences
By STEVE KNOPPER
Special to the Journal Sentinel
Trying to sum up Steely Dan’s 34 years of musical and literary influences is like trying to translate “Pretzel Logic.” It’s an overwhelming task.
Even as Bard College students in the late 1960s, musicians Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were already immersed in obscurity (at least, for college students) – George Gershwin, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, William S. Burroughs. Naturally, they formed a partnership.
They wrote catchy tunes, and played them well, but they could barely sing, and they wrote dense, wry lyrics that weren’t exactly what was playing on top 40 radio at the time. Becker recently told a newspaper that Steely Dan was “encoding higher cultural information in cheesy pop songs played by a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
To mark the duo’s Friday performance at Summerfest, here’s a breakdown of those coded influences:
William S. Burroughs
It’s unclear to what extent the late Beat poet’s drug-addled ramblings influenced Steely Dan’s lyrics, but the band infamously took its name from a, um, bedroom device in Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.”
Tons of rock stars reach back to the blues, but, generally, they think Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson – not trombonist Teagarden, who played in super-popular big bands led by Glenn Miller, Paul Whiteman and even Louis Armstrong, in a career that stretched from the 1920s through the late 1950s. Fagen, however, covered Teagarden’s “Misery and the Blues” on his recent solo tour, and made it sound almost as lonely and soothing as Johnson’s “When You Got a Good Friend.”
The brief musical quote from pioneering hard-bop pianist Horace Silver at the beginning of Steely Dan’s 1974 hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is perhaps the best-known jazz reference in top 40 history.
Becker and Fagen often hire ringers for the more complicated jazz solos they envision – saxophonist Wayne Shorter on “Aja” and guitarist Larry Carlton on “Kid Charlemagne.” Other times they handle their own jazz homages, such as the tribute to fusion pianist Jarrett in the introduction to “Gaucho.”
Attending Bard College in New York , misfits Fagen and Becker bonded over bebop jazz giants such as Parker, Monk, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. Although their partnership, Steely Dan, aimed for rock radio and the pop charts, its most complex songs employed the rich melodies and difficult chord progressions of bebop jazz. And there was one giveaway: “Parker’s Band,” a song on 1974’s “Pretzel Logic,” a fantasy about jamming with Bird in “a dizzy weekend smacked into a trance.”
Fagen grew up reading the wry, apocalyptic novels of this political science-fiction writer – as you can hear in lyrics like “Security Joan,” on his recent solo CD “Morph the Cat.” In addition to bonding over jazz, college students Fagen and Becker absorbed novels by Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller and Kingsley Amis. This partially explains why their lyrics are so bitter, satirical and often nonsensical.
“The idea of intelligent rock ‘n’ roll probably starts with Chuck Berry,” Fagen recently told The Wall Street Journal. Although Berry was famous as the exuberant, duck-walking hero of early rockers such as “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” he’s also a bluesman who broadcasts his grumpiness to the world in curmudgeonly classics like “Too Much Monkey Business.” Steely Dan, with its sniping, biting lyrics delivered in crystal-clear voices, borrows these qualities in part from Berry .
The great singer-songwriter was pretty much the first of the rock era to mix stream-of-consciousness lyrics with jazz ideas. (Beat poets had been doing it for a decade.) Steely Dan paid attention.
Pianist Bill Charlap, who played on “Pixeleen” in 2003, pinned down the Dan’s Ellington influence in a Down Beat interview: “One of the things that makes them so appealing is the clarity. Everything is in its place. The music has space to breathe. You can hear all of the things going on at once. Every part is like the movement of a Swiss watch. You’ll hear that, too, in Miles ( Davis ‘) great groups, and in the Ellington orchestra.” On “Pretzel Logic,” the band covered Ellington’s ” East St. Louis Toodle-oo.”
Some of Fagen’s first musical education involved pop standards from the big-band era – the Gershwins, Harold Arlen and Rodgers and Hart. (When she was a child, Fagen’s mother had been a singer with dance bands in the Catskills.) George and Ira Gershwin’s lyrical precision is evident in Steely Dan classics such as “Black Friday,” but the duo behind “Summertime” and “Embraceable You” probably wouldn’t have written this: “The Archbishop’s gonna sanctify me/And if he don’t come across/I’m gonna let it roll.”
From Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 5, 2006