Five Unusually Disconcerting Things About Steely Dan

I really like Steely Dan.[1] Over the past ten or fifteen years they have served a welcomed role as a recurring interest that unexpectedly returns every other year or so, always bringing new lyrics to unpack, unusually crafty musical phrases to discover, a previously buried yet thoroughly riveting guitar solo or even an entire song[2] that, for some reason, chose to remain hidden on previous listens.

Liking Steely Dan is not as divisive as it was a ten or fifteen years ago. Through the 80s and 90s, most everyone I knew dismissively grouped Steely Dan with the soft rock excess of the 70s (Fleetwood Mac, Seals and Crofts, etc.). Superficially, this is understandable. Steely Dan’s songs rely heavily on one or another of lilting sing-song choruses, ubiquitous 70s Rhodes piano (truly the paragon of offensive inoffensiveness), stiff white funk and, at times, even the slightly fey use of pseudo-exotic textures (bongos, light bossa nova rhythms, fake sitar, etc.). Somewhat surprisingly, however, time slowly rehabilitated Steely Dan and they are now regarded primarily in contrast to their inoffensive contemporaries and, as such, enjoy a general respect across the spectrum of outspoken music fans and critics.

But such rehabilitation inevitably resulted in a compromise that reduced Steely Dan to two fairly anemic signifiers: (1) an academic pursuit in the immaculate performance of complex song structures; and (2) a needling, biting sarcasm.[3] In other words, Steely Dan was welcomed back to the club of “serious” pop music so long as it assumed the role of the sardonic, pot-smoking prodigy in band camp who never lets you forget that he has a cooler record collection than you.

The musical aspect you have to appreciate (or not) for yourself. I am not sufficiently versed in music theory to do more than pretend to understand the true extent of their infamous unorthodox time signatures, what is really meant by “jazz chord progressions” or even how odd the elusive “mu chord”[4] really is. That said, a disproportionate number of my favorite guitar solos can be found in Steely Dan songs.[5]

Though easier to access, I posit that the true nature of their lyrics and, by extension, their twisted gestalt, is equally hard to put your finger on. Suffice to say that, dismissing Steely Dan as simple peddlers of “dark sarcasm” oversimplifies and soft sells what are, at heart, truly deranged songs.

Consider the following:

1. Their Name

Trivia time!  What do the bands Steely Dan, Soft Machine and Thin White Rope all have in common? That’s right!  They were all named in homage to beat writer William Burroughs.

“Steely Dan” was the name of a dildo that made a brief appearance in Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch.”[6] For a long time that was all I knew about Steely Dan the dildo and my hunch is that there a lot of people that know this piece of trivia that have never actually read “Naked Lunch.”  That is not intended as a slight — the book is simply hard to read.  It is a defiantly nonlinear shock piece with blatant button-pushing that can seem almost quaint in its dated and singular pursuit in alarming straight America.  Still, the book’s overall impact is impressively squalid, and it has a drug addict-as-nocturnal-amphibian motif that is uniquely unsettling.

But what of Steely Dan the dildo?

I don’t know if it is due to the slow normalization of pornography into the mainstream, but, to the extent that I thought about it, I think that I assumed that said dildo was relatively innocuous, perhaps repurposed as a non-sexual MacGuffin, neatly distanced from its lurid origin – perhaps filled with cash, state secrets or jewels.

It was only when I finally read Naked Lunch, that I realized both that this was my expectation, and just how wrong it was.  Steely Dan is a dildo.  Plain and simple.

As it turns out, we know a fair amount about “Steely Dan III from Yokohama.” For starters, we know the untimely fate of Steely Dan I (the victim of vaginal dentate) and Steely Dan II (chewed to bits by famished Candiru[7]). We also know that Steely Dan is rubber and, from context, we know that it is a strap on.

There is more.

It may give some readers comfort to know that Steely Dan III was used for heterosexual sex, somewhat of an anomaly in the cross-section of Burroughs’s writing that I am familiar with. “Whoosh!” I hear you exclaim. “I am certainly not homophobic, but I am glad that I can continue imaging Steely Dan as a traditional, innocuous suburban marital aid.”

Not so fast! In addition to squirting milk (huh?) in the brief time we know it, we see that Steely Dan III was used for….

…wait for it…

…wait for it…


Not that there is anything wrong with that.

2. No One Is Ever In Love in Steely Dan Songs

I once read that Steely Dan has never written a love song. This is true, but simple. In my estimation, no Steely Dan song from their classic period utilizes love or desire as the motivating engine to the song or the characters housed within. Instead, Steely Dan songs tend to frame moments or narrative long after love and/or desire have given way to diseased obsession.

Take, for example, “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” in which middle-aged man in a suburban neighborhood invites the children to his den to watch 8mm pornographic film loops.[8] Or consider “Everything You Did,” which recounts (in the first person) a howling boyfriend’s rage towards a woman he suspects of cheating, uttered as he animalistically prowls about the apartment hunting down the scent of her potential lover. Consider “Dirty Work,” which chronicles an affair (or series of affairs?) in which the narrator appears so disinterested in the whole ordeal, that, despite the fact that he “foresees terrible trouble,” he simply “stays there just the same.”  No effort is exerted to end or preserve the illicit affair.

Even “Hey Nineteen,” which appears on its surface to be a quaint May-September romance between a man in his mid-30s and the titular subject, upon closer inspection reveals a creepy guy in a bar propositioning a parade of uninterested, unnamed younger women, trying in vain to ply them with promises of cocaine and tequila.[9]

Somewhat paradoxically, something resembling love can cruelly stir in the ashes once it is too late to be of any use.  Take “Charlie Freak” in which a homeless junkie is starving to death.  The narrator, a friend, buys Charlie’s gold ring – his sole prized possession – for “chicken feed.”  This leaves Charlie with sufficient money to score drugs.  Greedily, Charlie overdoses. Guilt-ridden, the remorseful narrator rushes to the scene in a belated attempt to right his wrong:

When I heard I grabbed a cab to where he lay
‘Round his arm the plastic tag read D.O.A.
Yes Jack, I gave it back
The ring I could not own
Now come my friend I’ll take your hand
And lead you home[10]

In the Steely Dan universe, there is no romantic love or even friendship – at best, just affection that belatedly manifests itself through remorse.

3. Their Lyrics Are Oddly Specific

Part and parcel of listening to Steely Dan is sorting through the incredible litany of proper references running the gamut from the mundane to the arcane. Far from being exhaustive, following is a modest first pass at a collection of Steely Dan oddities:

  • Locations. Camarillo (“Parker’s Band”); Barrytown (“Barrytown”); Guadalajara (“My Old School”); Hackensack and Lhasa (“Time out of Mind”); Muswellbrook (“Black Friday”); Scarsdale (“Hey 19”); Barbados (“Glamour Profession”)
  • Drinks. Black Cow (“Black Cow”); Cuervo Gold (“Hey 19”); kirschwasser (“Babylon Sisters”); retsina (“Home at Last”); scotch whisky (“Deacon Blues”); zombie (“Haitian Divorce”); grapefruit and cherry wine (“FM” and “Time Out of Mind,” respectively).
  • People.  Cathy Berberian (“Your Gold Teeth”); Jungle Jim (“Glamour Profession”); Mr. Parker (“Parker’s Band”); The Eagles (“Tell Me Everything”); Dr. Wu (“Dr Wu”).
  • Arcane slang.  Cheaters (glasses) (“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”); chasing the dragon (smoking heroin) (“Time out of Mind”)
  • Cars.  Lark (“I Got the news”); El Dorado (“Daddy Don’t Live in that City No More”) Crystler (“Glamour Profession”);
  • Miscellaneous.  Luger (type of gun) (“With a Gun”); Fez; (“The Fez”); and Banyan Trees (“Aja”).[11]

And so on.

The listeners’ natural inclination to substitute themselves in the narrator’s dominating role is obviated by this stream of specificities, ultimately forcing the listener to into a role as pure spectator. In this way the documentary realism that is conjured by such specificities dissolves the escapism that forms a large part of the promise of popular music.[12]

In fact, out of the murk of the blatantly fictional tales of lowlifes and double crossers come some actual documentaries. Dr. Wu is an ode to Doctor Jing Nuan Wu, the doctor that eased Fagen and Becker from years of drug addiction.  “Kid Charlemagne” is a not-so-thinly disguised tale of 1960s Bay Area drug chemist Owsley Stanley who brewed and supplied the LSD that backdropped the Bay Area Summer of Love. Naturally, Stanly supplied to, among others, the Merry Pranksters in their “Technicolor mobile home,” the Grateful Dead[13] and the Jefferson Airplane.[14]

More documentary realism? Consider the following lyrics:

Clean this mess up else we’ll all end up in jail
Those test tubes and the scale
Just get them all out of here
Is there gas in the car
Yes, there’s gas in the car[15]
I think the people down the hall
Know who you are

In 1967, Stanley’s Orinda lab was raided and he was arrested after his car ran out of gas during a high-speed pursuit. Seriously.

4.  Their Songs Switch Time and Perspective Without Warning.

True to their beat-inspired name (see above), many Steely Dan songs appear inspired by a Burroughs-esq “cut-up and fold in” technique whereby essential portions of the narrative are dropped, narrative perspective is switched and time is unexpectedly collapsed. In an attempt to assimilate this narrative discordance, the listener fabricates a false narrative that attempts to string together these disparate parts in a logical fashion. It is for this reason that close listens to Steely Dan songs often reveal a much darker narrative, if not one counter to first impressions.

For example, the verses to “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” are issued by a barker that is encouraging neighborhood kids into Mr. LaPage’s den to view pornographic movies. After the kids arrive, he swears them to silence:

Kids if you want some fun
Mr. LaPage is your man
He’s always laughing, having fun
Showing his films in the den
Come on, come on
Soon you will be eighteen
I think you know what I mean
Don’t tell your mama
Your daddy or mama
They’ll never know where you been

Once sworn to silence, the narrative abruptly switches to the point of view of the parents of the missing children, who perversely celebrate being temporarily relieved of their children:

Everyone’s gone to the movies
Now we’re alone at last

Conversely, “Kid Charlemange” starts with an all-knowing narrator addressing Oswald Stanley’s and recapping his rise and fall. After the stellar guitar solo, it switches to what is either an urgent first person discourse with an unnamed cohort up through, or a deranged and slightly psychotic internal dialogue.[16] Either way, the effect is unsettling.

At times the dropped lyrics add an awful sense of urgency, as with the domestic abuse saga of “Everything You Did.” The first time we hear the pseudo-chorus (“I never knew you/You were a roller skater/You gonna show me later”) it is followed by the infamous “Turn up the Eagles the neighbors are listening.” Why turn up the radio?  Likely because of some thing that is about to happen, likely a rape or a beating. It is unclear, but, through context, we know that whatever happens while the Eagles were blaring actually happens. How do we know this? Because that line is dropped in the next chorus. The negative space where that lyric was tells us that event is over.

The song is not a meditation on an idea, but rather an event in progress.

5. They Throw Themselves Into The Mix

Many Steely Dan songs are written with the immediacy of the first person, which can be disconcerting when the narrator is the gun-waiving domestic abuser in “Everything You Did,” or the sexually desperate thirty-something in “Hey Nineteen” or the probable child-abuser in “Everyone’s Gone to the Movie.” But hey, this is Art.  No one really thinks that Nabokov was an monomaniacal pedophile, or that Nick Cave aspired to be the merciless killers strung throughout “Muder Ballads.” Similarly, we give artistic license to Donald Fagen to sing in the first person and generally do him the courtesy of not assuming that his tales are autobiographical or, for that matter, wish-fulfillment.

Except for sometimes they are.

Fact: Donald Fagen and Walter Becker attended school at Bard College at Annandale on the Hudson, New York.  They played together in several rock combos on campus, including some early shows with Chevy Chase playing drums.  In 1969 there was a drug raid at Bard, in which some fifty-odd students were arrested for possession of marijuana, including Walter Becker, Donald Fagen’s visiting girlfriend, and, depending on the report you read, Donald Fagen himself. The arrestees were booked, had their heads traumatically shaved and, for the most part, were released shortly thereafter when bail was met by Bard college.

That is, except for Fagen’s then-girlfriend, who was not a Bard student and was thus not bailed by the college. It was also rumored on campus that Bard administration was complicit in the raid, even going so far as to assist in the police with the discrete placement of undercover police officers amongst its students.

This made the youthful Donald Fagen very angry. He refused to graduate[17] with his class and publicly stated that he never return to the campus

He also wrote a song called “My Old School.”

California tumbles into the sea
That’ll be the day I go
Back to Annandale


Oleanders growing outside her door
Soon they’re gonna be in bloom
Up in Annandale
I can’t stand her
Doing what she did before
Living like a gypsy queen
In a fairy tale

Harsh words.

Of course he didn’t hate everyone at Bard. In fact, the young wife of one of his instructors was apparently the subject of an unrequited offering. He awkwardly asked her to call him and gave her his phone number. She, pregnant and decidedly non-foolish, declined to do so.

Shortly thereafter, Donald Fagen left Bard to become a star while Rikki Ducornet stayed at Bard unwittingly passing the moments until she would be forever enshrined in song.

* * *

Mr. Fagen, let me get this straight. You named your band after a dildo. You focus on squalor, singing about lowlifes one second then yourself the next. Then you sing about people you actually know, rendering them all but indistinguishable from the losers in your songs. Then, in the end, you actually identify them by name.

Look. I am not going to petition for revocation your artistic license yet. But I am keeping an eye on you.

Keep it clean, okay?


[1] This article focuses on Steely Dan’s seven albums between 1972’s “Can’t Buy A thrill” and 1980’s “Gaucho.”  While I do like what I have heard of the few studio albums they have thus far recorded in their second wave (2000 to the present), it is the work of a band with different obsessions.  As such, analysis of these later albums demands a different interpretive lens.

[2] For example, how had I heard “Pretzel Logic” dozens of times but never before appreciated the near-perfect gem “Charlie Freak”?

[3] For example, All Music Guide introduces Steely Dan as purveyors of “ironic humor and cryptic lyrics” with “a sophisticated, distinctive sound with accessible melodic hooks, complex harmonies and time signatures.”  Wikipedia’s introductory paragraph pairs their “complex jazz-influenced structures and harmonies” and their “cerebral, wry and eccentric” lyrics.  In the Yacht Rock episode “FM” Steve Huey describes Steely Dan as equally famous for their “studio perfectionism” and “dark sarcastic” lyrics.  (For those not in the know, “Yacht Rock” is a series of five-minute internet film clips mythologizing the rise and popularity of Los Angeles soft rock in the mid to late seventies.  The episodes are uniformly hilarious and, while the details and interactions are fictionalized, the core facts are not.  “FM,” the final episode of the first run, lovingly details a mock-feud between Steely Dan and The Eagles.

[4] Could I make that up?

[5] Yes, I really do keep such a list.  And on that list is “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Kid Charlemange,” “Kings,” and just about anything off of “Countdown to Ecstasy” (maybe the best guitar album ever), most notably the solo that accompanies the piano-based instrumental mid-section of “The Boston Rag.” Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, wherever you are, you are awesome.

[6] “The Soft Machine” is the name of one of Burroughs’ books, a name for the human body, and “thin white rope” is a clever name for ejaculate taken from “Naked Lunch.”

[7] Candiru are terrible, terrible Amazonian fish that are infamous for seeking warmth in streams of urine and, on occasion, irretrievably lodging themselves in the urethra of hapless men. I am pleased to report that this is largely rumor, though there is a single documented case of exactly this terrible, terrible thing happening. (Click through for pictures!)

[8] Mercifully, the song eliminates any real indication as to whether or not Mr. LaPage is molesting these children. Though the fact that the narrator sounds like a barker recruited to bringing in the kids combined though the line “to teach you a new game to play” isn’t very promising.

[9] My father disputes my interpretation of this song, sticking to the notion that it is a wry recount of wholly pleasant relationship that is simply doomed by an insurmountable age gap. While there is no true answer, I challenge anyone to find a concrete indication in the song that there is an actual relationship between a specific woman and the narrator, rather than what is most likely a series of increasingly desperate and unsuccessful propositions. On the other hand, such a relationship could be the subject of “Almost Gothic,” from the later, more mature, Steely Dan. (Comparing “Hey Nineteen” and “Almost Gothic” reveals the differences between Steely Dan pre and post break up – where the former completely substitutes desperation for desire, the latter practically crackles.  And shamelessly contains the following line: “This house of desire is built foursquare (The city – the cleanest kitten in the city).”)

[10] In what might be Steely Dan’s most cynical gesture, this verse is underscored by sleigh bells.  Sigh.

[11] Thanks to “The Steely Dan Dictionary.” Great site!

[12] I have heard it suggested that Donald Fagen was a bookish miscreant who was conspicuously writing his way into a premature and unearned worldliness. On the other hand, perhaps each reference its own kind of slight against a spiritually bereft materialism (as the reference to the Eagles in “Tell me Everything” almost certainly was). In any event, their relative silence outside the studio served them well for years.  Unfortunately, in 2006 they penned an open letter to Owen Wilson claiming that his movie “You, Me and Dupree” ripped off their song “Cousin Dupree.”  In my opinion, the letter is absurd – full of juvenile sarcasm and pointless insults. (Here is my open letter to pop stars: Unless you are Keith Richards, don’t write open letters.”)

[13] Far from just a drug chef, Stanley was innovative in creating the booming and full sound that played an integral part in creating the live Greatful Dead empire in the late 60s.  Purportedly, it was also Stanley that brainstormed the invention of a mic-splitter that fed directly into both the PA and record inputs with no loss of quality.  Ron Wickersham went on to invent such a mic-splitter which is credited, in part, with providing the sparkling clear sound of “Live/Dead,” one of the best sounding live albums of the psychedelic era.

[14] The Airplane’s “Bear Melt” was purportedly named in tribute to Stanley, commemorating his imposing stance (attributable in part to his pure carnivore diet). Frank Zappa’s “Who Needs the Peace Corps” also name-checks Stanley, though, unsurprisingly, with a bit more derision (“I’ll go to Frisco, buy a wig and sleep on Owsley’s floor”).

[15] The singing of this couplet is my favorite single moment in all of popular music.

[16] On second thought, are these verses in the second person? I am still guessing not – there is evidence that Owsley himself had a passenger when he was arrested, presumably the person the “gas in the car” conversation is with.  Still, I like the thought that it is an internal narrative rather than an external.

[17] Though apparently he attended graduation, and sat out in the audience with his father. I assume that was just to be sure that everyone knew it was a boycott, and not that he was unable to graduate for some reason.


Author | Joel

Mr. Muchmore is a father, lawyer, musician and much, much more!

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  1. Great article. I side with you on ‘Hey 19′, definitely a creepy little bit; and thanks for (finally) clearing up the reference to Naked Lunch. I am a big Burrough-ite (I actually have pieces of Naked Lunch memorized) and have had more than one person look at me when I was a loon when I dropped the Steely Dan III from Yokahama reference.

    Makes me want to go pick up a copy of ‘Gaucho’.

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    • Great work on this article. I’ve been listening to Steely Dan without pause since I heard “Reelin’ In the Years” for the first time on the radio and rushed to Tower Records in North Beach to buy “Can’t Buy A Thrill.” (Yes, I’m old.)

      Must disagree, though, on who’s encouraging the kids to go see Mr. LaPage. I’ve always imagined it as an older brother who has to watch the younger ones in the parents’ absence, but sends them down the hall so he can have some “alone time” with his girlfriend. (Having possibly even experienced LaPage in his younger days himself.)

      Never got the frustration with Hey 19 the same way, but like the interpretation. To me it was always the final acceptance of the fact that, while there might be some fun to be had, what are you supposed to do with her the other 23 hours of the day?

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  2. I wasn’t a fan of the radio hits but where I work one of the albums got played and the stuff I hadn’t heard before bent my ear.

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  3. Thanks for the multitude of ideas, Joel. I have always been on the fence about Steely Dan, the negative being both the smoothness of their sound and the cool arch stance of their lyrics. On the positive note, they took care to hire outstanding sidemen, including guitarists, including an obscure guitar hero of mine, Elliot Randall. (As a matter of fact, just like the Eagles. But whereas the Eagles’ contribution to lead guitar lexicon is the justly famous coda to Hotel California, the Dan’s Reeling in the Years, with Randall’s repeated assaults between verses, runs circles around the California coda, which fizzles out at the end).
    On another note, I would contend that most of the best songwriters have learned the lesson about specificity in lyrics. In fact, that trait might be seen as a marker that separates artist from hack. The generalist tries to connect with the greatest number of listeners by avoiding the specific, but as a result never quite connects with any real strength. The specifist doesn’t hit as many listeners, but hits the ones that do connect in an indelible way. For instance, my birthday is on November 5th. In my youth, I had never heard of Guy Fawkes, and when, on the final line of “Remember,” John Lennon sang “Remember the fifth of November,” I nearly fell off my chair. Was he singing to me? No, but will I EVER forget that moment or that song? No.

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    • Hey Elliott Randall alive and well and living in Willesden N.W London and giving me guitar lessons from time to time…i’m v.lucky

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    • oh and btw Jeff skunk baxter was Elliotts child hood mate and now models war-games for the pentagon…it’s a techhy,computer geek thing that grew out of his interest in music production

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      • You ARE lucky Sam! I have to content myself with being Randall’s FB friend. Brilliant musician, no doubt!

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  4. P.S. In my initial reading of your piece, I seem to remember a tribute to Skunk Baxter, which has now disappeared. Was I hallucinating, or was there a rewrite?

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  5. Yes! Go listen to Gaucho and then crank up the speakers during the ode to heroin (Time Out of Mind) and wonder why on earth they buried Mark Knopfler’s solo. And why it’s a solo far beneath his capabilities. A paranoia that marked the end of their relentless good taste and use in sidemen? Who knows!

    I cited Baxter in a footnote as (I believe) playing the majority of the stellar solos on Count Down to Ecstasy. But isn’t the difficulty in pinning down the players part of the strangeness of Steely Dan? I mean, I think I read that Baxter was one of the main soloists on that album, but then you go song by song and he is NOT there a lot of the time (i.e., the slide on “Show Biz Kids,” is Rick Derringer, Denny Dias is again listed as a sideman (as with “Can’t Buy a Thrill”), though everyone always plays a little counter to style with Steely Dan, and so on.) A man with more time than myself could map it out, but this tinge of slipperiness continues to elude me.

    The name “Elliot Randall” is a complete mystery to me. Will look him up and connect some dots.

    Funny you would mention John Lennon regarding the joy of universal obscurity v. specificity. For that EXACT reason, isn’t “Sometime in NYC” his least impressive solo album, to modern ears at least?

    I had “Plastic Ono band” on cassette and listened to it in my car in the pre-internet days constantly. I always thought he was saying “Remember the fits of your neighbor.” Ha! The humor of mishearing lyrics that the internet has killed.

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  6. Roxy Music has a line in “Mother of Pearl” that reads “Serpentine lover in a shrinking world.” For years I thought it was “Submarine lover in a sinking world.” My line is better.
    Skunk Baxter started out in a very good Bosstown Sound band called Beacon Street Union. Randall had some very good LPs pre Steely DAn but is primarily a session player.
    No mention of Becker and Fagen’s time as Americans (as in Jay and the…)???

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    • i assume that the reason not too much is available re: the dynamic duo’s time as Americans is two-fold: 1) they weren’t in the band for very long–and– 2) both went by pseudonyms while with Jay & the Americans; Donald went by Tristan Fabriani(the same name used for the ‘author’ of ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill”‘s sleevenotes) and Walter used Gustav Mahler

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  7. Dude! Your line IS better.

    Never heard of their time in the Americans (sans Jay and the…)!

    Baxter is just an all around great character and player. Will see if I can hunt down any Randall stuff.

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  8. That is one of the best reviews of the Dan’s music I’ve read. Normally people don’t get them at all.

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  9. With Steely Dan, it’s all about the stacked fourths, and the Plagal cadence.
    Look, I heard the man say it hisself.

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  10. Great write-up, have a resurgent interest in SD now in my mid thirties and wanted to see if the chase the dragon lyrics pointed to them really being bold. I got much more here in your article. Overall, it seems like they’re just being “hip and trendy”, nodding to contemporaries and being “non-conformist and artistic”. Don’t really think it could be very confessional, more sensational. Why not, the music is sensational all by itself. Maybe that’s part of their formula, be as sensational as possible. Great writing anyway, well done!

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  11. Fagen seems to be a sexual obsessive and quite possibly has an urge to pedophilia…He certainly has the means to cover this up, and the means to indulge…Kind of like Woody Allen, a ‘kindred spirit’…He may prefer females to males.

    I enjoy some of the music, but, yes, there is no love in their music at all…Certainly a creepy pair.

    Just my opinion.

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  12. You realize that Fagen and Becker’s letter to Owen Wilson was tongue-in-cheek, right? O_o

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  13. GREAT insights. I do ADORE the band and their music but hadn’t made quite as many “dark connections” as you. I always felt that Hey 19 was about an older guys attempts to date the “young and lovely”. Only to find out they had NOTHING in common ie “We can’t dance together” (don’t like the same music), We can’t talk at all (we know a completely different time frame), “She don’t even know the Queen of Soul” (who she even is!). And although the 19ish are LOVELY and TIGHT; in the end all we have in common is to get looped and “party”. The Cuervo Gold, the FINE Colombian (speaking of Colombian “Red Bud” Marijuana here; NOT coke LOL). So in fact the song is more about an older man realizing is growing old and THOSE times are passed…

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  14. Also wanted to add. I don’t believe they are “degenerates” at all. I *do* believe they were young, and idealistic and (quite) liberal/progressive for their time. I suspect a LOT of their shock value was akin to what Joseph Haydn was doing with his Surprise Symphony. They were merely testing to see if their audience was awake and listening. Music IS art and with it comes the expectation of artistic expression. If that expression isn’t “original” and unique then the Art is little more than boring monotony. ;-)

    I too frequently go through the un-listened cuts in their older albums and am constantly gleaning amazing new insight/findings. The music is amazingly complex and deep (not to mention the incredible musicianship from ALL players involved). And with this comes genuine LASTING entertainment value. I suspect their recent popularity may be much from the fact it has taken their audience 40 years to begin to comprehend what’s there.

    Frankly, I’d give a LOT just to be able to spend a few evenings with them, smoking and drinking, jamming, and laughing…

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  15. This is great writing. I love Steely Dan and am going through a bit of a resurgence myself. Glad I stumbled on this.

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  16. Our little group in high school in the late 70s was known as ‘The Steely Dan Appreciation Society’ because we always seemed to have Steely Dan LPs on the turntable at my house. Looking back it seems a bit inappropriate for 16 year olds to be so into such a technically precise, smooth band, but we thought their sophistication rubbed off on us. They’ve aged well, and it’s really good to see they’re appreciated still. I’ve heard a couple of recent references to them – on on ‘Breaking Bad’, perhaps not surprisingly, though ‘Kid Charlemagne’ wasn’t mentioned. Walter White simply thought them the best band ever, but I’ve no doubt the cook theme from that track was the clincher there. And (I admit) on the movie version of ‘The A-Team’ would you believe, ‘Face’ mentioned them, perhaps they thought a little sophistication would rub off on him too. This is a brilliant article on the band. Definitely bookmarked.

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  17. Joel,
    I always knew the lyrics in steely dan were dark. that is what i like about them. who wants to hear a bunch of fucking love songs? You want to hear love songs then go get a love song type album. . I think your article is stupid. There is music for the masses (pop cheese crap beiber, madonna, leif garrett spears) Then there is real music for music lovers. (Steely dan, king crimson, van halen, led zep, QOTSA, foo fighters, allan holdsworth and the jazz side like brubeck, davis, coltrane, boswell sisters, nat king cole’s early years and on and on) There are plenty of dark things in lyrics of songs since the dawn of time. exactly what is the point of this article? hank williams was a drunk. politicians are liars, drug addicts will steal for a fix, pedohiles will do their thing. ( i do not believe for a second that fagen has pedohile tendencies ) but then you never really know who your neighbor is anyway. anyway your article was stupid. c ya.

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    • Broon, I think you missed the gist of Mr. Muchmore’s article. Pointing something out, making an observation about an aspect of something is not the same as criticizing it or condemning it. I really don’t think Joel was complaining about a lack of love songs from Steely Dan. Seems like your comment was slightly on the stupid side of the fence. Cya!

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    • there is one flaw in your argument. when I was growing up, steely dan was played on the radio ALL THE TIME. every time they released a single, the stations would put it on their playlists AND PLAY IT TO DEATH. steely dan’s tunes may not have been “music for the masses,” yet the group was massively popular. SO popular, in fact, that they spawned a backlash. “hip” music critics (who considered themselves “music lovers”) started to put steely dan down, or damn them with faint praise. at the time, I considered steely dan’s stuff to be a bit too slick, a bit too smooth for my tastes……..
      in retrospect, I can appreciate the “musicianly” quality of steely dans’s work, as well as their jazz influence. not to mention their at times delightfully snarky lyrics. so it appears that steely dan’s work stands as BOTH (a) real music for music lovers, and (b) music that the “masses” can enjoy.

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    • @Broon, you’re a dope.

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  18. why ? it’s all fair trivia, but why do this if you weren’t positively in love with the music they provide you and your soul to play over and over and write an entire page in HTML devoted to it….?

    seems your page needs a different title, maybe ?

    links, footnotes, this has just about enough to qualify as a research paper.

    Now, the dildo has your unflagging attention. You keep your eyes locked in on the dildo ?

    But that’s not a comment about the music they make, Author.

    BTW, I truly love their music, so thanks for thinking of me, but you’re wrong on #2.

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  19. Coming to this a bit late, I’m afraid…

    Just wanted to point out that you mention “The Fez” in the “Oddly Specific”/Miscellaneous section, but fail to point out that the fez in question is actually a condom (Becker and Fagen have apparently confirmed this.)

    “No, I’m never gonna do it without The Fez on…”

    The song pre-dates the AIDS epidemic by about five years, so I’ve always assumed that it was a matter of avoiding paternity suits.

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  20. I am coming to this even later than the “Feb. 12, 2014″ comment, but…

    (1) Great and well-written piece

    (2) I’m one of those who only found out in the past 10 years or so (with the advent of every song lyric ever written being google-able) … that what he THOUGHT those songs back in the 1970s said … were actually saying something COMPLETELY different

    (3) ahh, well; no matter … lyrics are, in essence and in actuality … poetry. And didn’t the high-school English teachers (speaking of the 1970s) … always say that meaning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder?

    (4) I know that most of the time I prefer the (incorrect) meaning I attribute to songs more than the actual meaning I find out about, after the fact … and this is especially true with the oblique lyrics coming from Steely Dan.

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  21. On a random side note: I have a strong hunch they were/are Freemasons and many of their songs actually contain highly veiled, cryptic masonic references and inferences. In the eye of the beholder indeed ;)
    See FM, Aja, Rikki don’t lose that number, Kid Charlemagne, The Fez, Black Cow, Midnight Cruiser, Do it again, King of the world et al.

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  22. Or as my friend’s older musician brother put it. Their music is great, but their lyrics are bad! Not exactly true, but maybe half true? :)

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  23. Nice read, but about number 2 – “Pearl of the Quarter” has the narrator in love:

    “And if you hear from my Louise,
    Won’t you tell her I love her so”

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  24. You neglected the songfacts prognostication that “ALMOST GOTHIC” relates a first person narrative of a crossdressing sub to his dom. Know a guy like that. Presumably he’s a republican and christian, then his actually backstory is his history of crack smoking, replaced in the 2010s with Tina, crossdressing at the doms while under the influence, a woman with whom he pays for the time to not have sex–and this whole archetype is well in steps with the lyrics of AG.

    Then there’s “LUNCH WITH GINA”, totally a favorite of mine, and some sort of homage to the use of G (some rohypnol analogue) taken with Tina (methamphetaphine), which is to say, feeding one’s head is still quite the preoccupation with these two (“I guess she’s a knockout, where have I been”). But then again, this is a pair who made up a whole song to the 60′s tv commercial about seeing oneself in the china (“BODHISATTVA”-sparkle in your china), which is, the slightest entendre or pun is totally something that works for them.

    I like them a lot, but reflecting on a song like “THINGS I MISS THE MOST” the narrative nearly immeidately lapses into material references after two references to something about relating to people, so like, my take is that they’ve never written about anything substantial, perhaps ever. Completely overshadowed by their peers JONI MITCHELL or STEVIE WONDER, sort of lame third-rate songwriters if you ask me, in comparision.

    Though, well, most of their songs qualify as some kind of blues (songs about sex or relationship) though if they ever become adults, that will be notable. So it’s like 60 yo guys still relating to the world like 12 yos totally taken with scatological humor or something.

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  25. I had searched and never found the meaning behind the song Dr. Wu. So, a “thanks” and a “damn you!” for revealing it – I much preferred my interpretation to the supposed actual one. Rather than look into it too deeply, I think I’ll go on happily thinking about it the way I always had. Otherwise, a fun read from a lifelong Dan fan.

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  26. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This hardcore Dan Fan completely enjoyed this article. Appreciate your time, effort, and research on this one! Could you now turn your well-trained ear and eye toward Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go? And Fagen’s solo work is a case study all on its own just waiting to be written! Thanks, again, Joel!

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  27. ” ..such rehabilitation inevitably resulted in a compromise. that reduced …….In other words, Steely Dan was welcomed back to the club of “serious” pop music so long as it assumed ……”

    You seem to be mistaking your own subjective categories for some sort of objective , consensus response that just plain does not exist. I/m amazed you would even write such , much less suggest this maginary collective is in a position to make some kind of demands on mulit- million selling artists on threat of their reputation, much less assume that Becker, and Fagan of all people give a shit about such petty puffery?

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  28. I have been an avid fan for about 15 years now. One problem I see with many commenters is they are just not up to the job of appreciating all the nuances of Fagens lyrics. You should all also listen to his solo albums, which are commentary on aspects of American life across different eras. It was no mistake that Fagen got an honorary Doctor of Arts from Bard College. This was for the literary quality of his lyrics. You have to think, novels, stories, film scripts. Lots of different short stories, except they are put to music. I always think that Don De Lillo’s novel, ” White noise” is a perfect literary equivalent to Fagens lyrics. Fagens lyrics are classic Americana (like de Lillo’s novels). No other songwriter has come close to matching his evocation of so many of the darker facets of American life. Match this to his musical genius and I think you have the best American songwriter of the last 40 years.

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  29. Joel: Your article, while enjoyable, well written and a great look back, was undermined due a specific lack of foundation on your part. Your lack of time doing copious amounts of quality drugs, washed down with mood enhancing tequila, while observing the dregs on the right and left coasts has left you ill-equipped to truly embrace the acerbic and intellectual observation Walter and Donald shared during their brilliant artistic stretch that waned after Gaucho. This is no fault of your own as it takes a special breed to embrace and more importantly survive, the heavy drug usage many of us flirted with during the 70′s and 80′s. When listening to music always remember that the beauty is in the eye of the beholder and art, regardless of the medium, is always open for interpretation that may never be confirmed. More importantly, the artist may never divulge their true intent and sometimes may choose to lead the fan on an interpretive wild goose chase…which leaves the elusive art more appealing!

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  30. I always thought that “Hey Nineteen” was about a young man being infatuated with (having a huge crush on) a younger man. (I myself was 19 when the song came out as a single. And had similar experiences at the time; so, maybe I read many things into it, maybe not.)

    But the main thing I’ve always loved about the song (correct me if I’m wrong, guys), is that the very brief “instrumental” at the beginning (meshing of guitar etc.), has exactly the rhythm/speed of a young man’s “knowing he’s about to shoot” and then the beginning of the release itself.

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  31. Great site great band with lots trivia quirks etc which continues to make em interesting… just a little addition “Parkers Band” finishes with Bongo Bop riff from the man himself.

    I think most people know the Horace Silver lift on “Rikki…”

    Thanks man great read

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