You hope that you give the proper signals, so that people will get a sense of what you’re talking about.” – Donald Fagen
“Every time someone’s in the next room when we’re writing a song they say, ‘Don’t tell me you’re fucking writing songs in there, you’re not working, ’cause you’re fucking screaming and laughing in there.’” – Walter Becker
“Steely Dan gargles my balls.” –Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) in Knocked Up
Late in the evening, after one too many gin and tonics, I have provoked many an argument by calling Steely Dan the best band of the ‘70s. This claim isn’t backed up by sales figures or airplay; though they remain a staple of classic rock radio, “the Dan” have never been a mainstream proposition. They only had three top ten hits (“Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Hey Nineteen”), and of all their records, only Aja was certified platinum on first release. Of all the big-name ‘70s acts (Zeppelin, Floyd, Bowie, Sabbath, the Clash), Steely Dan is probably the most publicly hated. Naysayers point out that Michael McDonald sang back-up on “Peg.” They criticize the icy perfectionism of Gaucho, or the oh-so-‘70s vocals on “Dirty Work.” “Elevator music,” my girlfriend says, “I can’t get past those synthesizers.”
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen met at Bard College in 1967. Bonding over a shared love of Dylan, jazz, and beat literature, they set out to become professional songwriters, showing up at the Brill Building to pitch early compositions like “Barrytown” and “I Mean to Shine” (the latter was eventually recorded by Barbra Streisand[!]). But the business had already changed; artists were now expected to write their own material, and besides, Becker and Fagen’s compositions were too unconventional for a pop audience. Rooted in jazz instead of blues, the songs were filled with impossible chord changes, unconventional tempos, and melodic left turns.
The opaque lyrics were filled with cryptic references, bizarre characters, inside jokes, black comedy and bitter cynicism. But the material was catchy, and on the strength of songs like “Brooklyn,” they finally managed to land a gig with ABC records. Deciding to release the songs on their own, they assembled a band, named themselves after a dildo in William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” and quickly recorded 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill, which went on to become a critical and commercial smash. It was followed by 1973’s jazz-rock masterpiece Countdown to Ecstasy, Becker and Fagen’s most consistent record, and surely the greatest album ever named after an orgasm (apologies to Prince’s Come).
By 1974’s superb Pretzel Logic, Becker and Fagen had dissolved the band, relying instead on crack studio musicians that could realize their increasingly complex compositions. As the disco-and-cocaine nightmare of the late ‘70s closed in on them, Becker and Fagen’s work began to darken, focusing on character studies of criminals, drug dealers, and cuckolded husbands. The classic rock of “Reelin’ in the Years” was replaced by the perfectionist jazz-pop of Aja and the brittle sonic obsessiveness of 1980’s Gaucho. FM listeners who could sing along to “My Old School,” even if they didn’t get the joke, were now faced with “singles” like “Deacon Blues,” the chorus of which reads as follows:
I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I’ll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues
This is one of the strangest lyrics ever put to wax—and it’s attached to a song that’s still played in elevators and department stores all across America. If you listen to “Deacon Blues” and only hear lite pop, the joke’s on you; with just a little close-listening, and the help of that English degree you never thought you’d use, it’s clear that “Deacon Blues” isn’t about a melancholy priest, but about a young hipster celebrating being a drunk, jazz-loving loser in an America that only cares about college football teams. And herein lies the greatness of Steely Dan: they wrote complex, mysterious songs disguised as catchy pop tunes. They’re both the most MOR and least MOR band ever. They’re accessible and subversive at the same time. If that isn’t the definition of great art, what is?
Becker and Fagen treat songwriting like a Nabokovian game, laughing as they scatter enigmatic clues throughout their lyrics, but leaving the meanings mysterious. Here is a collection of ten of their most impenetrable songs, along with grasping attempts to parse their strange situations and dig up definitions for their more arcane references.
1. Reelin’ in the Years
Are you reelin’ in the years
Stowin’ away the time
Are you gathering up the tears
Have you had enough of mine?
Perhaps the most played—and least understood—song in the history of classic rock radio, “Reelin’ in the Years” belongs to that rare category of breakup song, the kiss-off (see also “Like a Rolling Stone”). The narrator addresses a former lover, suggesting that she’s chosen her current lover as a stay against old age (“your everlasting summer…fading fast”). He denies that she’s a genius, despite her claims to the contrary, calls himself a “diamond” that she couldn’t recognize, and here in the chorus, references the number of broken hearts she’s left in her wake, himself among them. There are few more bitter moments in pop music than Fagen’s sneered delivery of the chorus’ last line: “Have you had enough of mine?”
2. The Boston Rag
Lonnie swept up the playroom
And he swallowed up all he found
It was forty-eight hours ‘til Lonnie came around
One the most opaque songs Becker and Fagen ever wrote, “The Boston Rag” refers not to a song or a newspaper, but to the old days, when the narrator’s gang of college buddies used to have fun (“back in 1965”), when his old flame was “Lady Bayside,” and their mutual friend Lonnie was “the kingpin,” before they were old and bitter. Somehow (“there was nothing I could do”), things went sour, and the song ends with the narrator pointing his “car down Seventh Avenue,” presumably leaving town, while Lonnie downs all the pharmaceuticals from their drug den, knocking himself unconscious. What’s fascinating about this song is how absolutely specific the lyrics are but how absolutely obtuse they remain. There is no Seventh Avenue in Boston – what city are they in? Does Seventh Avenue end in a highway? Or a cliff?
3. Show Biz Kids
After closing time at the Guernsey Fair
I detect the El Supremo from the room at the top of the stairs
Absolutely baffling. A pitch-black rock vamp about self-centered L.A. movie star types with too much money and not enough sense, “Show Biz Kids” opens with these bizarre but evocative lines. According to a Google search, the Guernsey Fair is a county fair in Old Washington, Ohio held annually since 1847, but your guess is as good as mine as to why Becker and Fagen would reference this particular event. I always picture El Supremo as an obese carnival administrator, crouched behind a card table, counting the money he’s made off all the circus freaks at the fair below, but it could also be a reference to a El Supremo Dominico, a small-time Texas cigar manufacturer. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
4. My Old School
I remember the thirty-five sweet goodbyes
When you put me on the Wolverine up to Annandale…
The Annandale referred to herein is Annandale-On-Hudson, the upstate New York town that is home to Bard College. The Wolverine was apparently a student nickname for the passenger train that stopped near Annandale-On-Hudson on its way to Boston. The “thirty five sweet goodbyes” were given by the narrator’s unnamed girlfriend, who, by verse’s end, finds herself “with the working girls [hookers] in the county jail,” having been busted by the Annandale police for smoking dope. Rock snob lore has it that the pot bust was a real event that left Becker and Fagen hating Bard—here they even go so far as to say that they wouldn’t go back there until “California tumbles into the sea,” a cataclysmic event that the songwriters—along with anyone else who has ever spent a week in L.A.—would probably be okay with.
I can tell by what you carry that you come from Barrytown
A small town near Annandale-On-Hudson, Barrytown is home to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s controversial Unification Church, famous for homophobia, arranged marriages, and the execrable journalism standards of The Washington Times, possibly the worst daily newspaper published in the lower forty-eight states. “Moonies,” as
cult memberschurchgoers are known, sell (and presumably “carry”) bouquets of flowers, likely a familiar, unwelcome sight for the budding songwriters as they struggled through their bitter final days in upstate New York.
6. Everyone’s Gone to the Movies
Kids if you want some fun
Mr. LaPage is your man…
A sordid tale. Mr. LaPage comes on to underage girls by showing them porno movies projected on eight millimeter when their parents are away. There is no sleazier come-on in the canon of western popular music than his hissed, “Soon you will be eighteen/I think you know what I mean.” This bizarre portrait of a pedophile is all the creepier—and funnier—because it is delivered alongside a pleasant mid-tempo steel drum beat. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a summer barbecue (wife and kids at picnic table, charcoal on the grill). “Come on,” Mr. LaPage says, “come on.”
7. Kid Charlemagne
On the hill the stuff was laced with Kerosene
But yours was kitchen clean
Everyone stopped to stare at your Technicolor motorhome
Detailing as it does the downfall of a sixties designer drug maker, the opening cut from 1976’s underrated The Royal Scam stands as a not-so-solemn epitaph for the flower-power optimism of the sixties (see also “Bodhisattva”). Becker and Fagen were east coast beatniks with nothing but contempt for west coast hippies; they must have reveled in telling the story of an acid dealer who compares himself to an 8th century French king, and ends up getting busted when his Merry Prankster-like painted bus runs out of gas. This derisive attitude toward the longhairs actually aligns Steely Dan with punk rock—but instead of stripping rock back to its down-and-dirty basics, Becker and Fagen empower rock by refining it, bringing in jazz influences, and emphasizing wit and wordplay. They’re baroque artists—the Rubens of the seventies!
8. Black Cow
On the counter by your keys
Was a book of numbers and your remedies
One of these
Surely will screen out the sorrow
But where are you tomorrow?
By the time of 1977’s Aja Steely Dan had moved past intimate tales of pornographers, and were painting expansive, irony-laced portraits of drunks and losers, like the unnamed narrator of “Black Cow,” who in the opening verses contemplates raiding his estranged lover’s drug stash, or calling her friends to find a date, but decides against it, realizing that though “one of these” may “screen out the sorrow,” she’ll still be gone tomorrow. Simple enough—but then you wonder, what’s he doing in her house?
Jo would you love to scrapple?
She’ll never say no
Shine up the battle apple
Celebrating the homecoming, possibly from a prison stay, of the beloved ringleader of a group of hard partiers, “Josie” lays out in detail all of the various revels that will accompany her return. None of these, its worth noting, are good clean fun, involving as the do a motorcycle race, sex on the beach, a street fight, and a gang-bang. Needless to say, the “battle apple” is not meant to be a piece of fruit, nor does “scrapple” refer to a breakfast dish. That’s all you’ll get from me. Use your imagination.
10. Time Out of Mind
Tonight when I chase the dragon
The water will change to cherry wine
And the silver will turn to gold
A bleak source of black comedy, “Time Out of Mind” is the best song on Gaucho, an uneven record that is nevertheless a favorite of many a writer here at Stylus. Apparently, “chasing the dragon” is forties slang for smoking heroin, and the narrator of this song lives his life “smacked into a trance,” to borrow a line from Pretzel Logic’s “Parker’s Band.” This somehow makes the song both funnier and more poignant, as Becker and Fagen leave the subject to enjoy his high, repeating to himself “It’s perfection and grace / It’s the smile on my face.” Let’s see Sears play that in an elevator!
Special thanks to the Steely Dan Dictionary and to steelydan.com for the lyrics.