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Friday, July 24, 2015

Repost from 2006: Jazz Today: The Strange, Mixed Fate of Steely Dan

Back in 2006 (wow, I am older than old), I wrote this JAZZ TODAY column for PopMatters that has since passed out of 'net availability. (Doesn't everyone claim that once it's on the internet it can never go away?)

Because the topic remains highly relevant, here it is again:

Jazz Today: The Strange, Mixed Fate of Steely Dan

By Will Layman

If you're a jazz fan of my vintage -- born in the early '60s and raised in the soft-rock '70s suburbs -- then your favorite rock band is very likely Steely Dan.  Arguably the most jazz-informed rock band of all time, The Dan combined harmonic sophistication with guitars and sardonic lyrics.  And, amazingly: hit songs -- "Reelin' in the Years", "Deacon Blues", "Hey Nineteen".

But in 2006, being a Dan Fan is no picnic.  Most of your hippest friends think you suffer from a streak of bad taste run wildly amok.

 This fact -- and it is a stone cold truth-and-a-half -- sends me into musical lament.  O, why-oh-why is Steely Dan so reviled by today's rock aficionados and indie-pop hipsters?  Must I really live in a world where my recent attendance at a Donald Fagen solo concert (supporting his new album Morph the Cat) is a shameful secret to be hidden from all those under the age of 40?  Can it be true -- can it?! -- that Steely Dan truly is nothing more than a mush of smoove jazz topped with indecipherable lyrics -- an abomination that simply hypnotized us in the '70s because we didn't know any better?

These questions haunt me.  And so I've set out to stare them down, speak to the critics, face my own fears, and evaluate the jazz-rock legacy of Steely Dan.

Herein, I issue my findings:

Part One:  Steely Dan Sucks

A haiku posted on the Internet:

I hate Steely Dan

With a bright purple passion

But some songs are good

Despite my DanFandom, I have consulted with the critics and found that they have a case.  A pretty good one.  The case against Steely Dan can be summarized thusly: cheese. Specifically, Velveeta.

Washington Post concert reviewer Dave McKenna, reviewing that Donald Fagen concert I attended, gets right to the point, calling Fagen's music "processed to such a degree that one could believe it was intended to be played while sitcom credits roll, or between floors. But a whole lot of folks, including the mostly middle-aged fans who cheered every note at the Warner, never regarded Fagen's stuff as Muzak to their ears."

There it is in a nutshell.  Steely Dan's "processed" sound is modern elevator music.  It's a mushy, soft thing -- devoid of rough edges and perfect for pacifying middle-aged music fans.

But what makes it so?  The clean funk beats layered with Fender Rhodes and organ.  The slinky and perfect female background vocalists.  The wedding-band-ish small horn section that adds orchestration to nearly all the songs. Guitarists who play clean, fleet solos with limited distortion.

McKenna incisively calls the Steely Dan records "almost anti-rock records".  He then immediately damns the band as precursor to the Devil he-self: "After all these years, it seems obvious that were it not for the fantastic commercial success of [Steely Dan], programmers at mainstream FM stations might never have foisted subsequent smooth-jazz purveyors from Chuck Mangione to Kenny G on the masses.

Ouch.  But there's truth there.  The Dan not only sound kind of smoove, but those stations put tunes like "Time Out of Mind" in their rotation.  And listen to this, a comment I found posted on the Ben Folds web site in response to a reference to Becker and Fagen: "Steely Dan? YESSS!  Dude!  I totally bought the new Spyro Gyra!  It rox my sox hardcore!"  This alone is reason to suspect Steely Dan of something deeply evil.

McKenna calls it a "quiet-storm ambiance", and a mysterious anonymous source I consulted expresses it in his spelling -- Steely Dan are "lyte-n'-smooth-70's-jazz-rockers".  Mystery Man adds:  "I can enjoy them in measured doses.  Compositionally is where they lose me -- they get too Berklee [College of Music], too often.  There are few things that I dislike more in songwriting than tonally meaningless bridges and interlude sections.  Becker and Fagen seem to be master craftsmen at that."

And that's the other primary element in the Steely Dan Cheese Factor: the band's reputation for being "master craftsmen" rather than rockers -- studio perfectionists who are uninterested in the rock aesthetic of "rawness" or spontaneous edge. A 1998 article from Pulse lumped Steely Dan in with the Eagles as "studio obsessed" -- a reputation Becker and Fagen have certainly earned.  Their records are engineered within an inch of their lives, and the band is famously, not a band at all -- just a couple of songwriters in love with bebop harmony and their own dystopian imaginations.

Analysis aside, there seems to be something innately off-putting about Steely Dan's music.  Particularly if you are under 40, this dislike can be visceral and overwhelming. For example, a comment posted on the website for a band called "Moonshine Still", which apparently did a cover of The Dan's "Night By Night" at a show in July of 2003, states:  "Steely Dan is my least favorite band in the entire history of music. They gross me out. I can't really explain it, but I've always felt this way about them." One of my most incisive and talented musician friends puts it more graphically: "My loathing of Steely Dan is near 100%, though I can't pin specifics on it at all.  I suppose it's a subconscious thing, like thinking milk is always going to have gone bad, or the way dogs can sniff out cancer.  I'm connately put off by them."

This guy, a guitarist, can find no use for The Dan, not even their carefully crafted and obsessed-over guitar solos.  "It feels like posturing.  Awesome guitar inside a shit song makes the awesome guitar seem clownish or something."

And so it is: cheesy, clownish, processed, and laying the groundwork for smoove jazz.  How can you even think of defending this band?

Part Two:  Steely Dan, Triumphantly Uncool

In the mid-70s, the case for Steely Dan was plain: they write great, uniquely weird songs.  This was back before Reagan, when weird was still kind of cool and when having a jazz attack in your pop music was kind of hip.  The electric pianos and saxophone solos were edgy, not Mangione.

Indeed, back then, it was precisely Steely Dan's geeky "anti-rock" posture that made them a cool kid's obsession: a couple of great musicians who -- quite oddly -- fit gorgeous jazz-laced melodies to lyrics about madmen and child molestors.

My Mystery Source puts it nicely -- Steely Dan were never superficial poseurs but, rather, nerd heroes:  "I don't get posturing out of Steely Dan.  They seem like a bunch of geeky musicians, sitting around, basically trying to make something pretty that, in the end, is still pretty geeky.  Whether I actually like it or not is another story, but it all comes across as genuine to me."

And that was the Steely Dan mystique -- they were cats who could and would cover a Duke Ellington song ("East St. Louis Toodle-oo", from Pretzel Logic) and write an original about the brilliance of Charlie Parker ("Parker's Band") yet would also turn out genuinely strange songs that told the weirdest possible stories. If the textures of the songs were somewhat soft rock, then, well -- that was part of the irony and weirdness of music!  As Mystery Man puts it, "As far as the-slickness-to-the-point-of-sterility thing, I guess I find something intriguing about that too, as in, they are the only band that sounds like that."

How weirdly nerdy can you get? -- "Steely Dan" is the name of a dildo in William Burroughs' cut-and-paste classic novel, Naked Lunch.

As befit a couple of jazz-influenced nerd-rockers, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen knew enough to hire some seriously sick players for their recordings.  In the original version of the band, they had two crazy guitarists -- Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter -- who gave the tricked up songs some Stratocaster edge.  Songs like "Reelin' in the Years" and "My Old School" may have had "lyte" textures, but they also featured mad solos. And when the Dan ventured further into the studio and jazz musicians of New York and LA, they found monster players on every instrument: Steve Gadd or Dennis Chambers on drums, Chuck Rainey or Tom Barney on bass, guitarists as diverse as Eliot Randall, Larry Carlton, Rick Derringer and Wayne Krantz, and a list of all-star jazz saxophonists that is almost embarrassing to recite: Phil Woods, Jerome Richardson, Wayne Shorter, Tom Scott, Pete Christlieb, John Klemmer, Chris Potter, and Walt Weiskopf. The occasional guest on acoustic bass (Ray Brown) or vibes (Victor Feldman) went further toward making Steely Dan the ultimately hip studio band.

By the time Aja came out in 1977, Steely Dan was doing the inconceivable: making highly complex, long-form, jazz-inflected music into hit radio.  Three different tunes reached into the Top Forty ("Peg" hits #11, "Deacon Blues" hits #19 and "Josie" hits #26), and the album went platinum.  Could it be true?  The third most popular album of the year (behind Billy Joel and Fleetwood Mac) was ambitious and strange.

Though The Dan would release one more hit record in 1980 (Gaucho), Becker and Fagen then had the cool to take a 20-year break from making Steely Dan albums.  And here's the thing: if anything, their stuff was had been getting weirder rather than older.  "Hey Nineteen" was about a middle-aged man's disappointment with young lover ("Hey Nineteen, that's 'Retha Franklin / She don't remember The Queen of Soul / It's hard times befallen the sole survivors / She thinks I'm crazy but I'm just growing old").  The single from their 2000 comeback album, Two Against Nature, was sung in the voice of a disgusting guy who is hitting on his own cousin (When the narrator asks his cousin why she isn't going for him, the lyric is: "She said, 'Maybe it's the skeevy look in your eyes or that your mind has turned to applesauce / The dreary architecture of your soul.'  I said, 'But what is it exactly turns you off?'")

The argument for Steely Dan, then, is not merely that they write great songs and perform them with jazz-influenced excellence, but that they take huge lyrical risks and have the post-modern savvy to combine twisted lyrics with lush music that -- sure -- sounds more suited to soul romance than twisted humor.  And it's in that dissonance that Steely Dan is at its nerdy/weird best.

If you don't get it, fine.  More for me.

Part Three: Steely Diagnosis 

So, where did hipster appreciation of Steely Dan get lost?  What sent the rocknescenti running rather than applauding at the sound of Donald Fagen's voice and Fender Rhodes?

The answer is twofold.  First, the emergence of punk in the late '70s -- the very height of The Dan's commercial success -- cut the rock world in two.  Though some of the punkish New Wavers (Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson) would turn out to be Steely Dan-influenced songsmiths, punk mostly took the wind out of carefully arranged, harmonically complex rock. After the punk aesthetic was absorbed into mainstream rock, true "rock" bands would have to subscribe of an edgy authenticity that Steely Dan was never about.  Other pop music could inhabit the sugary sweet (Celine Dion pop singing or fluffernutter-centered smoove jazz), but "rock" would now have to have bite, not ironic detachment.  Becker and Fagen were never feeling rockers, they were brainy rock analysts -- sending out oddly passionless quips from the back of the room.  It didn't have bite as much as snark, and maybe too big a vocabulary.  Since punk?  Sorry, Mr. Dan -- you're out of step.

Second, there was the Grammy.  In 2000, Becker and Fagen's comeback album Two Against Nature emerged to mostly baffled reviews.  It sounded for all the world like Aja and Gaucho -- all witty Dan irony with studio-perfect polish.  And while the disc could not have been more divorced from the hip-hop and indie-rock trends that were raging in 2000, it debuted at #6 on the album chart and went on to win four Grammys including Album of the Year.  This was inexcusable and nail-in-the-hipness coffin for a variety of reasons.

To any younger music fan, The Dan's Grammy triumph was simply the latest in a long history of Grammy gaffs caused by older academy members (in this case the aging Baby Boomers) voting for hopelessly dated music.  This was particularly bad in 2000, as Two Against Nature defeated two critics' darlings for Album-of-the-Year:  Radiohead's Kid A and Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP.  Who were these old guys with their smoove jazz tracks to steal this recognition? In the same year, The Dan would enter the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame and receive honorary Doctor of Music degrees from -- where else? -- the Berklee College of Music, where technique is king.

At this point, even Becker and Fagen understood that their triumphs were oddly wrong.  "I thought that was weird," Becker said of the Grammy victory. "Maybe we're in the wrong category or something. Think they'll take these things away from us, or make us give them back? I'm getting attached to mine."  Fagen, clearly joking, said, "I think we're in real risk of losing our outsider status."

The ironies in all this are sufficiently complex that they deserve to appear in . . . a Steely Dan song.  On the one hand, the kids were right that Steely Dan's Grammy victory was a sham of sorts.  First, the group should have gotten a Grammy for Aja, and this one was a charity Grammy of sorts.  Second, the conservative Grammy voters likely heard the smoove textures of Two Against Nature and voted for it as a safe alternative to all other, scary stuff, never listening to the duo's twisted lyrics.  As Kevin Devine cynically put it in a 2001 PopMatters column:

"[Eminem] is doubly screwed as a rapper operating on the fringes of the pop world. He is bound by genre constraints that don't apply to similarly themed works by such 'peers' as... well, Steely Dan. It should be noted that Two Against Nature sports one song in which a first-person narrator has an affair with an underage woman and another in which some dude sexually propositions his cousin. But these men are in their mid-40s [sic], and they play guitars and such, so they must be storytellers! Eminem, on the other hand, raps."

So, in the eyes of cynics, the Grammy was falsely awarded, and who can really disagree?

But on the other hand, few of the disappointed hip-hop fans and Radioheads (Mr. Devine excepted) had bothered to dig the essence of The Dan either -- that the twisted lyrics over the "beautiful" music are an antic gag.  And young fans similarly never could have realized the degree to which Steely Dan had been a generational precursor and inspiration to both Eminem and Radiohead.  Slim Shady is, of course, a character -- just like The Dan's "Cousin Dupree" or the madman-on-a-killing-spree of "Don't Take Me Alive".  Becker and Fagen have been playing that game consistently since 1972.  And Radiohead's Kid A was nothing if not a studio-obsessed album of precise sonic arrangement and songcraft -- very much an "anti-rock" record of a sort.

But Steely Dan took that Grammy, and it looked for all the world like an act of theft, the bloated belly of the Baby Boom triumphant again.

What damns Steely Dan most in the end, I think, is success itself.  When I first loved them in the mid-70s, nothing could have been less cool than The Beach Boys.  The Beach Boys were seen as the ultimate white-bread band -- a group of overfed and over-the-hill surfers who were still singing about Daddy's T-Bird. Steely Dan, in contrast, were wise-asses with hip chords and burning guitar solos.  But in 2006, the rocknescenti see Pet Sounds as the hippest thing going -- essential groundwork to today's indie-pop scene. What does Brian Wilson -- also laden with fancy chords and lush instrumentation -- have that Becker and Fagen don't?  Trouble, mainly.

Lyte-and-smooth rock doesn't get much cheesier than Rumors-era Fleetwood Mac, yet today that album is #41 on the indie-than-thou Pitchfork's list of the Top 100 Albums of the '70s whereas Steely Dan is nowhere to be found.  The Pitchfork list -- the spinal center of a generation's dismissal of Steely Dan -- is awash with softness (Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell), studio perfectionism (Brian Eno), glossy pop textures (Michael Jackson's Off the Wall), and plenteous jazz noodling (several electric Miles Davis albums).  And it's further notable that, in the short essay that introduces the list, the editors apologize for the many deserving discs they left off the list and list an additional 50 artists they might have chosen: still no Dan.

I suspect that Steely Dan would be more fondly remembered today if were being . . . remembered.  It's the hanging around into middle age, perhaps, that folks don’t like -- making the same "anti-rock" they've always made, winning that Grammy and reminding everyone that their music is a weird jazz-rock hybrid that, ultimately, is a kind of musical cul-de-sac.

In the end, that's why I'm still listening. Who has followed Steely Dan down the road it paved with Katy Lied and Aja?  Hardly anyone. While I love the cranky experiments of Tom Waits and the defiant minimalism of the Flat-Duo Jets, Steely Dan still scratches an itch that no one else seems to know exists.  As a jazz nut, I love the dramatic "slash chords" that litter the Steely Dan sound -- I love the otherworldly harmonies, keening saxophone solos, and snap-sharp drumming.  I want to believe that the music I love so much -- Bird and Clifford Brown and Bill Evans and so on -- has rubbed off somehow on popular music.  I want some rocker along the way to write a song about a great saxophone solo.

And even if they're not really rockers, even if they're just a couple of nerdy jazz fans from New Jersey like me, those guys are Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

Weirdly passionless, analytical rather than deeply feeling, it doesn't matter to me: Long live Mr. Steely Dan.

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