This week, I resume last week’s Musing on the music of Steely Dan, in anticipation of seeing the group this weekend.
Experiencing Dan live in concert 40 years ago, when the group was in its first-time-around prime, wouldn’t have been possible. By the time the band dissolved in the early 1980s, it had become a studio-only venture, a vehicle for the lyrics and music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the two remaining founding members.
After the 1981 breakup, Becker dropped out of the music business, but Fagen released a solo album, The Nightfly, a year later, and also wrote the score for a movie. In 1986, the two both performed on an album produced by their long-time studio wizard, Gary Katz.
Five years after that, the recreation of Steely Dan began when Becker showed up at a concert by Fagen’s then-current project, the New York Rock and Soul Revue, and performed with the group. Becker then produced Fagen’s second solo album, Kamakiriad, released in 1993, and toured with his former partner to support the LP.
The following year, Becker released his first solo effort, 11 Tracks of Whack, with Fagen co-producing. The duo’s fusion continued with the release of a greatest-hits package (which included four previously-unreleased tracks), a tour backing that boxed collection and Becker’s solo release, and a live album compiled from those concerts.
Becker and Fagen then began working on their first studio album in two decades, with Two Against Nature released in 2000. They followed that with Everything Must Go three years later.
As I noted last week, I never bought their last pre-breakup album, Gaucho, at the time. I continued to listen to the Dan albums I had after Becker and Fagen split, and did get The Nightfly later in the 1980s.
I liked Nightfly”; it has the feel of a Steely Dan album, with the jazz influences, and the lyrics show Fagen’s predominance in the songwriting collaboration with Becker. The flavor is nostalgic; Fagen admitted that it was inspired by listening to late-night radio as a youngster, as exemplified in the title song.
Anyone Fagen’s and my age will remember “I.G.Y.,” the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. It was the arrival of the Age of Science that would ring in the new era: per Fagen’s lyric, “A just machine to make big decisions/programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.” What could possibly go wrong with that?
Also in that vein was “New Frontier,” an ode to the put-your-head-between-your-knees, bomb-shelter culture of the Cold War era. But Fagen spins it into a paean to teenage-male sexual angst: “Introduce me to that big blonde/she’s got a touch of Tuesday Weld ... She loves to limbo, that much is clear/She's got the right dynamics for the new frontier.”
And later in the lyric, an homage to one of the greats of jazz: “I hear you're mad about Brubeck/I like your eyes, I like him too/He's an artist, a pioneer/We've got to have some music on the new frontier.” And also, in another track, “The Goodbye Look,” the fin de siècle feel of a destabilized Caribbean nation: “Wake up darling they're knocking/The Colonel's standing in the sun/With his stupid face the glasses and the gun.”
I didn’t get Kamakiriad when it came out in 1993 — an oversight I rectified this morning — or 11 Tracks, and didn’t get the memo that Dan had reunited and was touring. That was a time when there was no FM station accessible that did anything besides play the Adult Contemporary format or Classic Rock, when I was out of the habit of buying Rolling Stone, and I had other priorities (No. 1 being a dad), so I wasn’t keeping up with what was going on in rock.
That situation hadn’t changed much when SD released Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go. In 2008, we got our first vehicle with satellite radio, and I had started listening to Deep Tracks on Sirius. Eventually, I heard enough of the “new” SD albums to go out and buy them — and kick myself for not doing so sooner. (I also bought Gaucho, and found I liked it, although not as much as the earlier albums.)
Of the two, I like Two Against Nature the most. It’s unsurprising that the four Grammies it won included a Best-Engineered award; the sound is amazing, with touches like the triangle intensely twinkling in the background of “Almost Gothic,” and the opening bass run in “Gaslighting Abbie.” (The LP also won Album of the Year.)
Becker and Fagen hadn’t lost a step lyrically, either. When I first heard “Almost Gothic,” I thought there was a meaning or usage for the word “gothic” that I didn’t know; no, it was just Steely Dan being Steely Dan. The song is filled to overflowing with quirky Dan lines: “She’s pure science with a splash of black cat”; “It’s kind of like the opposite of an aerial view”; and “I’m so excited I can barely cope/I’m sizzling like an isotope.”
The rest of the tunes are rich with Becker and Fagen curveballs, too: “Skatin’ backwards at the speed of light,” from “Jack of Speed”; “That black mini looks just like the one she's been missin'/Feels good on you,” from “Gaslighting”; “Let's grab some takeout from Dean and Deluca/A hearty gulping wine/You be the showgirl and I'll be Sinatra/Way back in '59,” from “Janie Runaway.”
Then there’s the half-hearted regret for a failed life in “What a Shame about Me”: “I’m still working on a novel/But I’m just about to quit.” There’s hardly a weak cut on the album — and the one I like the least, “Cousin Dupree,” won a Grammy for Best Performance. So what do I know.
I know that Everything Must Go came close to being as good as its predecessor, even though it didn’t win the critical acclaim or enjoy the commercial success of Two (which went double platinum). The lyrical fun continued on, for example, “Things I Miss the Most” (“I’m learning how to meditate/So far so good/I’m building the Andrea Doria out of balsa wood”), and “The Green Book” (“The torso rocks and the eyes are keepers/Now where’d we sample those legs?/I’m thinking Marilyn 4.0 in the Green Book.”)
“Slang of Ages” sort of updates “Hey Nineteen” for the Millennial Generation. “Lunch with Gina” describes every major dude’s nightmare — I’m joking, okay! — the chick who can’t get enough, and won’t go away. The equally infectious “Pixeleen” is about a thoroughly-digital modern maiden. And “Godwhacker,” said by some to be about George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden, ends with truly prescient lines: “You better step back son/Give the man some whackin' space/You know this might get messy/GodWhacker's on the case.”
I don’t know what we’ll hear Saturday, and there’s so much good stuff Steely Dan could perform, that I’m not sure what I want to hear. But I’m looking forward to hearing what they bring to life on stage.