05 Sep Five Unusually Disconcerting Things About Steely Dan
I really like Steely Dan. 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 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. 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” really is. That said, a disproportionate number of my favorite guitar solos can be found in Steely Dan songs.
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.” 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). 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. 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.
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
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”).
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.
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 and the Jefferson Airplane.
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
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. 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 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
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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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!)
 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.
 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).”)
 In what might be Steely Dan’s most cynical gesture, this verse is underscored by sleigh bells. Sigh.
 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.”)
 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 Grateful 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.
 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”).
 The singing of this couplet is my favorite single moment in all of popular music.
 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.
 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.