I F**king Love Steely Dan And You Should Too
by Libby Cudmore
If you don't fucking love the shit out of Steely Dan, we're probably not going to have a lot to talk about.
Okay, that's not entirely true. My husband, who I married of my own free will, isn't a fan. He also hates it when I wake him up in the middle of the night to quiz him on pop-music related trivia. "Bunny, bunny, who played the guitar solo on "Reelin' In the Years?"
"NO! That's 'Peg.' 'Reelin' In the Years' was Elliot Randall. Go back to sleep. We'll talk about this in the morning."
Love me, love my outsized obsession with two weirdo jazz-heads just slightly older than my dad.
Steely Dan is the greatest fucking band in the whole universe. Fucking fight me, I dare you.
All bands have bad songs. There are chunks of Tom Waits' catalogue that are unlistenable noise. Warren Zevon, the mad genius who wrote "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner," had a couple lite-radio dozers like "Tenderness on the Block." And Morrissey, well, Morrissey and The Smiths can write heavy-handed clunkers right alongside their sublime musings on the human emotional spectrum.
But not Papa Don and Uncle Walt.
There is no such thing as a bad Becker/Fagen tune. There are songs that are less amazing than others (I've never seen what's so great about "Aja," personally) but every song from "Do It Again" up through "West of Hollywood" drips with musical virtuosity, lyrical wit and studio precision unrivaled by any other band in the history of ever. No, not drips. Steely Dan gushes forth with music so deceptively smooth and simple, yet so bafflingly complex and dark that a listener is guaranteed to find something new to fall in love with every play. Who else could write "Everyone's Gone To the Movies," a catchy little ditty about a fucking child molester (who, conveniently enough, has the same name as the racist governor of Maine, Paul LePage. Just sayin'.). Or could make "Rose Darling," a sleezy little tune about trying to fuck your wife's best friend, sound like a genuine love song?
And they're fucking funny. "Cousin Dupree" has one of the funniest punchlines in pop music history (and one of Hollywood's greatest letter-writing campaigns, between them, Luke Wilson and Owen Wilson, star of "You Me & Dupree"). "Lunch With Gina" is a hysterical ode to that friend you hate.
But they're also heart-on-your sleeve romantics in the shyest, most endearing way possible. "Almost Gothic" is pure yearning, and the line "We could stay inside and play games, I don't know..." from "Rikki Don't Lost That Number" is such a shoe-shuffling invitation to Fuckville USA that I get all gooey just thinking about it.
Also, the next mansplaining motherfucker who tries to tell me that "Rikki...." about Rikki Ducornet--Fagen has insisted more than once that it isn't about anybody--is going to get punched in the dick.
If you've never seen Steely Dan in concert, your life is lacking and I pray for your soul. Once completely reluctant to step outside the studio, they now tour constantly, playing a tightly packed set of hits, b-sides and the occasional rarity (I was at the Beacon in 2011 when they played the long-lost Gaucho track "The Second Arrangement," the first and only time it has been performed since that fateful day in the studio when an idiot erased all but 19 seconds of it). Tickets aren't expensive (I paid $35 for lawn seats at SPAC, to incredible sound under a perfect night's sky) and Becker's rambling monologue in the middle of "Hey Nineteen" alone is worth the price of admission.
They're not as precise as the albums, but no one expects them to be. They're raw and they're raucous and they're wonderful; Fagen occasionally dropping a lyric or two or getting out of rhythm, but always able to swoop back in as though it was all written that way. Sometimes, he even gets out the melodica, jerking about on center stage like a deranged animatronic rat.
There are also a lot of dad-dancing, which is always fun to see. I once watched a mom hammered on what can only be described as a hearty gulping wine coo "Dirty Work" to her three grown-ass sons, one after the other, all down a line. Another time, a dude fucked to the gills on cocaine danced so hard I thought he was going to shake the risers apart. Yes, we paid $75 to sit on risers. Maybe it was Steely Dan's graduation, I dunno.
I swear to God I actually had an orgasm the last time they played "Josie."
Steely Dan are the builders of this fine sailing vessel we call Yacht Rock. There's no right way to listen to them, no proposed album order, the only commandment is that you listen intimately and often and then spread the gospel of The Dan to the uneducated masses who put them in the category of "Dad Rock" or "Elevator Music." And if those people don't listen, cut them out of your life forever. Don & Walt are the only friends you need.
Libby Cudmore's debut novel The Big Rewind received a starred Kirkus review and praise from Booklist, Publisher's Weekly, USA Today and her Dad. She has written about music for The Collapsar, the Classic Albums blog and the RS 500, and her short stories have been published in PANK, The Stoneslide Corrective, The Big Click and the Locus Award-nominated anthology Hanzai Japan, where her story "Rough Night In Little Toke" was singled out as a "polished gem" by the Japan Times. She is the host of the #RecordSaturday weekly vinyl live-tweet on her Twitter, @libbycudmore and writes about stuff at libbycudmore.com