What Kind of a Best Rock and Roll Band in the World Is This?
In a fever of indirectness I once referred to Steely Dan as the Grateful Dead of bad vibes. The perfect tag, really--not only was it impossible to know exactly what it meant, it was even impossible to tell whether it was complimentary. Because Steely Dan resists hype in favor of less comfortable versions of the truth, it deserves such ambiguity. What the band is up to is so elusive that a year later, having absorbed (or is it penetrated?) their disenchanted boogie over hundreds of hours of listening pleasure, I still can't think of a better hook. And however much Steely Dan deserves ambiguity, it also deserves a hook.
Of course, there are hypes available. I could call Steely Dan the best rock band in the world and believe it to be true. But superlatives convert nobody, and even the band's fans might be put off by that one. Steely Dan's audience, which is pretty big--three of the four albums have gone gold--is fascinated by the way the band sounds, not by whatever it says, or is. A Steely Dan enthusiast may fancy the melodies or perhaps admire the facile musicianship, but ordinarily that is all. The band's albums are tight and polished; they are entertaining, sometimes exciting: you play them a lot, somehow. But it's hard to be sure about their substance. They seem too slick to glorify.
For me, though, that slickness--which turns out to be pretty murky, actually--gives extra depth to the band's total statement; it is a crucial part of all that the band says, or is, and in artists as tough-minded as Steely Dan's principals (songwriter-musicians Donald Fagen and Walter Becker plus producer Gary Katz) it betokens a perverse kind of guts. In a time when most very good rock and roll does only what the getcha-off manufacturers want it to do, Steely Dan achieves much more, and one way it gets away with it is by seeming to do much less.
So what kind of a best rock band in the world is that? A hummable one, at least.
Let me put it another way. In a very short time, less than two-and-a-half years, Steely Dan has recorded four albums of extraordinary rock music, more than anybody but the Rolling Stones (who took twice as long) in this decade. Steely Dan's direct competitors--oncoming cult bands like Roxy Music, Little Feat, maybe the Wailers--haven't hit a single between them, but Steely Dan adds to quality and fecundity a kind of mass appeal: three top-five singles so far. The weird thing is, only the band's solid gold cult remembers that these singles were performed by Steely Dan.
First there was "Do It Again," an inescapably catchy modified mambo with homogenized vocals that seemed to divert radio programmers (and everyone else) from the lyric, the tale of a loser so compulsive he can't even get himself hanged. Followed by "Reelin' in the Years," a hate song that hooked in with an unforgettable quatrain: "You been tellin' me you were a genius/Since you were 17/In all the time I've known you/I still don't know what you mean." And then, about a year ago, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," a love song (of sorts) that went number one. Its intro was strangely similar to that of Horace Silver's "Song for My Father."
Like all good Steely Dan, the three hits sound unconventional, yet somehow familiar. Bass lines and guitar bits echo half-identified through the forebrain, defining a rock impulse that is unaccountably tinged with jazz; the singularly poetic and acerbic lyrics go unnoticed at first, then take shape as riddles which turn out to have obvious answers, or no answers at all. The whole gestalt is unmistakable, yet something about it is deliberately anonymous and M-O-R. Even at its rockingest the beat rarely blasts or blisters, leaning instead toward a suave suggestion of cocktail swing. The solos are invariably distinctive, but their originality is not so much personal, expressive, as it is functional, locked into the odd workings of the band. And the vocals make it easy to believe that Fagen and Becker have worked for Jay and the Americans and the Grass Roots--the band uses overdubs and harmonies so frequently that even when Fagen's lead dominates the band as it comes from the speakers, it tends to sink into the mix in the mind's ear. Recollected in tranquility, the vocals seem like the golden mean of pop ensemble singing, only stripped of histrionics and displays of technique, almost . . . sincere, modest. In the physical fact it's not that simple, but that will have to do.
The risk of such musical anomie is obscurity. It goes against those standards of sound engineering in which cleanness and specificity, every nuance in outline, signal the survival of the individual in our over-mechanized world today. But the reward of Steely Dan's sound has proven to be the hit singles themselves. Other bands may explore the notion of pop (Roxy Music) or even the hit (New York Dolls), but despite the aesthetic rewards of these stances, they sentimentalize mass culture--as if Bryan Ferry's romanticism or David Johansen's knack for the hook are enough, in themselves, to make their arty music commercially acceptable. Only Steely Dan is willing to blend into a top-40 radio that has become about as idiosyncratic as an Interstate. The facelessness of this music--which is only partial, remember, an aspect of the band's identity, maybe even a conscious camouflage--annoys observers who equate art with "self-expression." But it works as a tremendous affirmation. It is the less that permits Steely Dan's more.
For not only does Steely Dan slip the usages of bebop and symbolist poetry beneath the hummable amenities of the hit single on almost every album track, but it does so while embracing masscult at its dreariest. On the most superficial, heard-in-the-background level, the band sets up expectations of banality. Then it violates them joyfully, again and again. Never merely suave and functional, the music is full of clever, sometimes disquieting harmonic and rhythmic surprises; the dour intelligence of the lyrics belies the bland cheerfulness implied by the sound of the vocals. As a result, the music becomes a source of intelligent, sometimes disquieting elation.
And so first it offers a kind of hope (more symbolic than real, but I'll settle) for a music system that has become steadily more predictable and depressing. To tune in a song about a compulsive loser on WABC, or to hear a group reminiscent of the Grass Roots pay apt, ebullient, yet not uncritical tribute to Charlie Parker (opening side two of Pretzel Logic), is to experience an unanticipated change in the rules of the game. But for those of us who, like Steely Dan, feel a personal stake in painful subjects, it is also to perceive our own game in a new way.
A simple example is "Black Friday," which leads off the new album, Katy Lied. The song sounds like another one of the band's hard up-tempo numbers, nothing more, until we become aware of the lyric, which comprises a series of scenarios set in the aftermath of an economic crash. But then we also notice that, in the context of the homogenized but spirited overdubbing, all these contingency plans (which range from not wearing socks and shoes to crawling into a hole and include catching brokers as they dive from the 14th floor and collecting all debts before your friends find out) sound like fun--in a slightly mad, gleefully ironic kind of way. Leave it to rock and rollers to make survival seem chic again.
For a Steely Dan lyric, "Black Friday" sets off with exemplary straightforwardness by making the crash situation more or less explicit. But it suggests more questions than it answers. Why are there red words, rather than numbers, in the singer's black book? Just exactly what is he doing in that hole? Questions like that. This is nothing unusual. Many of Fagen and Becker's lyrics seem so obscure that it is tempting to pass them off as insoluble conundrums, offering tantalizing flashes of meaning within an arbitrary whole; to say that the composers create songs after their image of the world. This meshes with the band's William Burroughs connection. (In "Naked Lunch," John and Mary name their dildo Steely Dan, and later hear Duke Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," the tune that closes side one of Pretzel Logic.) But although the songs are oblique, they are not that hard to suss out, and many of them are clear down to the last word. I can imagine Fagen and Becker writing cut-ups now and then, and they obviously throw in proper names (especially places) as ruses, but I tend to regard those few Steely Dan songs I don't understand as failures.
More often, however, a nagging obscurity will transform itself into a nuance. Let me allude once again to two lines from "Black Friday": "Gonna strike all the big red words/From my little black book." Until I wrote the previous paragraph, I didn't understand that the purport of the image involved profit and loss in a ledger, and the word "words" was still a confusion. Now I reflect that the words in many little black books are names, and that friends seem to qualify as debts in Steely Dan's vision of collapse. Of course, there's also a suggestion of slogans in a little red book that is probably less purposeful, although the band's elusiveness makes it hard to know for sure.
But Steely Dan's elusiveness is not just a rationalization for errant tropes or a self-conscious musical stance. It is integral to the history of the group. Put together by Gary Katz, an ABC staff producer, around contract composers Fagen and Becker, this is a songwriters' band that is most comfortable in the studio. Most bands sell themselves by projecting a nice, simple image on tour after tour, but Steely Dan hasn't been on the road in a year, and it's hard to figure exactly who might turn on to its diffident stage style, which is friendly, even cheerful, but detached. Native New Yorkers who live in Los Angeles, a built-in metaphor for the way they mix innocence and experience. Fagen and Becker also show no signs of trying to ingratiate themselves with the resident pop power elite: "Show biz kids making movies of themselves/You know they don't give a fuck about anybody else." The secret of their public selves remains in their songs which turn out to be no more difficult than the world itself.
Songs are music, and music is what Steely Dan cares about; Donald Fagen once told me that nothing excited him more than a new chord change. But it is the words that pin the music down. These are lyrics in the great tradition of rock and roll image-mongering, reminiscent of Van Morrison or (the Grateful Dead's) Robert Hunter at their best, a best which is good no longer because their sentimentality--their romanticism out of control--has been rendered asinine by this era of bad feeling. Fagen and Becker know sentiment; they are tender at times, but almost always with a twist, a twist that makes the tenderness believable. Their coldness and distance is bracing, reminiscent at times of the sharpness of Bob Dylan, only more controlled. If their version of the world seems too cynical at times, well, these are cynical times, and maybe what the music does for the lyrics is to deliver them from themselves. Their cynicism is no more a celebration of cynicism than their Burroughs-ish smack references are a celebration of smack. Cynicism is their subject; implicitly, in a hundred ways, they let us know we can break the habit.
Which brings us back to the Grateful Dead of bad vibes. The Dead weren't what the cynical believe. At their peak--around 1970 and 1971, when the youth tribes were still worth gathering, they generated a collective euphoria the intelligence of which can only be understood by someone who has witnessed Kenny Loggins importuning a crowd to boogie. They were a great rock and roll band, too, even though music was improvisatory, rather jazzy, and gentle. Steely Dan is a similar kind of great rock and roll band, and in this era of bad feeling they generate a collective skepticism the intelligence of which can only be understood by someone who has caught David Bowie enacting the end of the world at 12 bucks a seat. That their natural environment is a studio rather than a stage, and that they prefer control to freedom, reflects their perception of the dangers that inspire their skepticism. Nobody else in popular music, or any other art I know about, confronts these dangers with anything like Steely Dan's brains and grace.
Not to mention hummability.
Steely Dan: Consumer Guide
The best Steely Dan starter is Can't Buy a Thrill, the first. Produced in more familiar California rock-band style than the next two; it also includes lyrics, which are useful. Pretzel Logic epitomizes their aesthetic as I've described it, but because it includes no lyric sheet (and almost no unoverdubbed vocals) it's harder to get into. Number two, Countdown to Ecstasy is the album that turned me on to Steely Dan, and is counted the band's best by Steely Dan scholars Bud Scoppa and Richard Mortifoglio, but I play it less than the others--although more, probably, than any non-Steely Dan album I own. The new one, Katy Lied, may well be their biggest, but I find it slightly disappointing. On a technical level, the loss of lead guitarist Skunk Baxter, a studio legend who can play original rock and country licks in any chord, is recompensed by guitar solos that remind me of those white jazz wizards (Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall) who never interested me enough to get their names, or styles, straight. The title cut, now called "Doctor Wu," may be their finest song--but there's something in its spirit that reminds me of what used to be called progressive jazz. It's cool, cerebral, one-dimensional. And while Donald Fagen may finally have shown all the Maria Muldaur fans he can sing, who cares about them? And one more thing--I've played the new album at least 30 times in three weeks, and I don't intend to stop now.
Village Voice, April 21, 1975