Editors’ note: every so often, I will continue to justify my musical fixations by writing about them here. I understand this installment, like the last one, is kind of old-school — eventually, I’ll get to newer stuff.
In the song “Deacon Blues,” off 1977’s Aja, Donald Fagen sings about an average fellow looking to be a star on the jazz bandstand, romanticizing the life of a hip musician to great extent, wanting to learn to “work” the saxophone, playing just what he feels, drinking all night and dying behind the wheel, anything to escape the mundane life. This is possibly as autobiographical as Steely Dan would get, as Fagen and Walter Becker were both jazz and blues fetishists, college-educated, looking to make it as songwriters in a Brill Building era that was on its way out in the wake of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, never mind that their own songs were way too idiosyncratic for anyone else to sing. It’s that identification that probably gives Becker and Fagen their large cult of fans to this day: what amazes me is that I met a lot of 18 and 19-year old Dan fans in college (in 2000), and these were the same people listening to and playing the latest strain of indie rock, power pop, or what have you.
Credit either early brainwashing by their parents, the irony hangover from the mid-to-late 90s, an appreciation of literary background (the band’s name came from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch; a “steely dan” was a sex toy), or among the musos, bewilderment and awe on how someone could go multi-platinum writing jazz changes and structure into pop music. I’ll take all of them. Fagen and Becker wrote amazing songs that held up even when Fagen wasn’t singing them (they hired singer David Palmer at first, and when the songs Fagen sang turned out to be the hits, he left — but “Dirty Work” is the great Palmer-sung Dan song.) My mother was my introduction, but I didn’t appreciate the band and certainly didn’t buy the records until I got to college and started studying jazz, determining that Steely Dan was really the pop ideal of “fusion”, rather than the bloated genre of instrumental fusion that continues to polarize to this day. And for a guitar-head, recruiting guitarists from Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias (when it was still a band rather than a studio entity) to studio guys like Larry Carlton and Elliott Randall made for great stuff.
Plus, that appreciation of jazz extended to something I get kind of obsessive about: when reading the liner notes of jazz records, there’s always a very extended writing about the playing and performance behind it, usually written by a top-notch critic — most rock albums only give you writer credits and lyrics. I kind of miss that approach, as if current music doesn’t have its context, or the musicians aren’t good enough to merit the superlatives. Steely Dan usually took the piss out of this approach by emulating it with a twist of humor, but still, it’s nice to see.
Here’s some video to polish it off: