The way the music we hear when we’re children infiltrates our psyche as we age is an infinitely intriguing thing. The relationships we build around those songs and records — the memories they cohabit with in the depths of our minds, the emotional factors that impact how we feel about those pieces of music as time goes on — is an unbelievably unique part of human conditioning.
I’m lucky to have parents with great taste in music, and while it might not have always been the edgiest nuggets providing the soundtrack to my youth, I was fortunate enough to be provided with an inadvertent primer on some of the good shit through my parents’ musical selections. One particular standout band that has jutted in and out of my life since I was a child is Steely Dan — perhaps the ultimate poster band for dad/mom-rock as a concept, undoubtedly the poster band for the laid-back, oft-maligned side of ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll, and in reality, one of the best bands the world has ever known.
Steely Dan’s music entered my life during a car ride with my parents. For me, the best part of riding around was listening to my parents music choices, and it was during these hours that I learned about music — usually guitar-based stuff as my father himself is a badass player that I learned about music.
One year while on vacation as we passed through D.C. as night fell, Steely Dan’s Alive in America found its way into the car’s stereo. A live joint from the ‘90s, the album opens with what I still believe to be the smoothest version of “Babylon Sisters” the band ever cut — languid and sparsely adorned, it was the chillest song we could possibly crack into the night drive with. At the time, the record merely provided pleasant sounds in the background while my dad and I made fart jokes, but the music would eventually seep into my blood. There was something about the character of Donald Fagen’s voice, even then, that had me hooked. While I now recognize Fagen as one of the most brilliant lyricists of all time, to my young ears, he was just an interesting-sounding guy. More important, for a budding saxophone nerd such as my young self, that album’s hooks were sunk in deep via the veritable buffet of badass guitar solos it’s laced with.
After that trip, Alive in America was one of the first of my parents’ CDs that I adopted into my own collection (read: stole). I slept to it. I read the liner notes over and over again. It was one of the albums that helped me on my way to becoming a true music fan. I didn’t get most of the shit they sung about, and I didn’t even much like anything else that sounded like Steely Dan, but there was a magic in that band’s sound that I couldn’t sort out or get past. Time went on, I got into punk-rock, I was indoctrinated into the world of metal, and I traveled the path of musical divergence from my parents. However, at some point, nostalgia for those road trips brought me back to Steely Dan, and it was then that I truly figured it out: Under the pretty daytime radio sonics, the sheen of jazz-infused guitar solos, and hidden within the story songs well out of the intellectual depth of the Everyone, Steely Dan is one of the most subversive bands on the planet, and represents everything that’s missing from popular music in 2018. Steely Dan is a band that filled its music with subversive lyrical content (pick any song off Aja and Google the lyrics), named itself after a dildo mentioned in a Burroughs novel, and wrung massive hits out of hyper-literate, truly thought-provoking content. And they play their asses off!
We’re missing intrigue, intellect, and subversion in our popular music these days more than ever, and while Steely Dan sets a high standard on all counts (and admittedly might not be everyone’s bag sonically), artists of their caliber simply don’t come around so often, and especially not in the music industry’s current climate.