“They stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast.” Don Henley claims that “Hotel California” was written as a direct tribute to the band Steely Dan because, to paraphrase, “they could write about anything – they had no limits.” This is true. If you’re going to name your jazz-rock band after a dildo, you better be ready to bring out the subversion. The term, “steely dan” comes from William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and one can only assume Henley knew this going into his most famous outing with the Eagles.
In reality, it’s not all that important. There were so many asides, inside jokes and double entendre in the songs of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker that, if AM radio actually knew what was being slipped under their noses, they might not have played it. Case in point, “The Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian, make tonight a wonderful thing.” The song’s title, “Hey Nineteen”, puts the cant on the camera. What exactly was Rikki’s number? Who was the old man and why shouldn’t you have crossed him back in Oregon? Not important. What is important is the impeccable craft that went into every Steely Dan release. Each album was considered audiophile quality long before they charged the consumer three times as much for audiophile quality. Every part played was exacting. Every sound was intended.
And with all that fussiness, they still had huge charting hits in the 1970s and up to 1980’s Gaucho. But that’s not why we’re here…
“Midnite Cruiser” from Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972) – There are things we’ve come to expect from Steely Dan – the precision of arrangements, the jazz-rock feel and, most especially, Donald Fagen’s singing voice. On the debut album Can’t Buy A Thrill, Steely Dan was for the first and last time a full band with Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Denny Dias, Jim Hodder and David Palmer alongside Becker and Fagen. After it, the duo would assume full control, bringing in the best session men available to realize their vision. That would likely throw off new listeners picking this debut up for “Reeling In The Years” and “Do It Again”, to suddenly hear Palmer’s voice taking “Dirty Work” and drummer Hodder taking on “Midnite Cruiser”.
It’s not a big problem as both songs bear the indelible stamp of the duo that wrote them, both songs are of a piece, but Hodder couldn’t have been more perfect in the role. Where Donald Fagen’s tone has a cynical detachment to it, Hodder brings sincerity to lines like “Where are you driving, midnight cruiser? Where is your bounty of fortune and fame? I am another gentleman loser; drive me to Harlem or somewhere the same…” Fagen would have come across as more an observer than a participant, while Hodder sympathizes. What dreams were denied you, putting you here in this car this night? The same here, my brother. Let’s see what these New York streets offer us tonight. – Dw. Dunphy
“Any Major Dude Would Tell You” from Pretzel Logic (1974) With a songbook packed end-to-end with betrayal, deception, and folly, Becker and Fagen put forth a pretty bleak worldview. Treachery and snobbery rule the day. The wheel keeps turning ‘round and ‘round, and characters are locked into patterns of self-destructive behavior; when someone does try to break out of their rut, the results are either pathetic (the shallow “spiritual” seeker of “Bodhisattva,” the clueless would-be hipster of “Deacon Blues”) or outright disastrous (that poor doomed bookkeeper’s son).
A lot of smart people had great affection for Steely Dan because the band confirmed their own worst suspicions about the human condition. It’s the cold comfort of a shared misanthropy. But the Dan — how shall I put this? — never had much of a line in uplift, as such. Which is why “Any Major Dude” stones me so damned hard. Tucked into the middle of Pretzel Logic’s heartbreak and urban paranoia comes this little compassion-bomb.
This time the desperate character in the song is you, dear listener, and that famous major dude Mr. Dan is casting his appraising eye upon you — but then he’s got his hand on your shoulder, and he’s telling you to suck it up and hold on a little longer; things are rough, yeah, but sleep on it before you do anything stupid. He’s still wearing his trademark smirk and he may have only half a heart, but his voice is gentle and his eyes are clear and he says you’re going to be all right.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” it ain’t. There’s no sentiment, no phony promises, no soaring strings, just a light, jazzy groove and a soft, half-spoken vocal. But it works — because, hey, consider the source. This grizzled old cat has seen everything, and he knows the crooked workings of this world in ways you can’t begin to imagine. And if he’s telling you that everything’s gonna be okay — man, you’d best believe it. – Jack Feerick
“Any World (That I’m Welcome To)” from Katy Lied (1975) It had to happen eventually, the ‘angry’ album being a staple of almost any recording career. It was hard to make that distinction with Steely Dan though. Sometimes the group would pass off a song that sounded pointed and negative, but that was a choice of language versus emotion. On Katy Lied, it came through very clear, from the hard-times escape fantasy of “Black Friday” to the cheating kind of “Rose Darling” (“Rose darling, come to me, snake Mary’s gone to bed…”) On “Any World (That I’m Welcome To)” the voice is trapped in unfortunate circumstances. “Any world that I’m welcome to is better than the one I come from.”
Of all the tracks on the set, this is the one most recognizable to the listener in terms of emotion. Who hasn’t woken up, looked at their situation and surroundings and though, “Oh my God, I’ve got to get out of here.” The instrumentation is perfect, driven mostly by the piano, sounding only slightly triumphal in the chorus, but not by much. As it seems to be with all of us, after the mighty pronouncements of shouting I’ll show you all, we fall into our day, our rut, and trudge along. The ‘voice’ of the song seems determined to break the cycle yet destined to run it anyhow. In other words, this song is a study in denial.
For the close listeners out there, yes, that is longtime Steely Dan cohort and Grammy-winner Michael McDonald on the backing vocals, as if it could be anyone else. – Dw. Dunphy
“Don’t Take Me Alive” from The Royal Scam (1976) Amidst the burnouts, charlatans, and cynical voices that populate The Royal Scam‘s nine songs, we find a “bookkeeper’s son” holed up in a vague somewhere, facing down raging-eyed authorities of unknown jurisdiction, having done something unspecified to anger his bookkeeper father that led to this standoff, which, we suspect, is occurring only in his head. “A man of my mind can do anything,” our unreliable protagonist warns, including summoning the guitar of a young and prime Larry Carlton to punctuate every admonition, and to solo his own wordless commentary. The whole creepy endeavor is made even creepier by Donald Fagen’s über-cool vocal and the fuzzy, distorted comping that plays behind him. Tall tale? Fever dream? Synopsis for an unmade Cagney movie? Any way you consider it, “Don’t Take Me Alive” is minimalist storytelling of a very high order, polished to a bright sheen, cuz that’s how Hollywood likes it. – Rob Smith
“Slang Of Ages” from Everything Must Go (2003) For the entirety of Steely Dan’s first life in the 1970s, Walter Becker functioned primarily as Donald Fagen’s silent partner. He only opened his mouth for some lead vocals after the band reactivated in the ‘90s, first on their ’93 tour and then with his first solo album, 1994’s *11 Tracks of Whack*. Finally, Walter got his turn to sing lead on an actual Steely Dan studio recording when he laid down the vocal for “Slang of Ages” on the band’s second (and to date, final) “reunion” album, *Everything Must Go*. And damn, is this one unforgettably awkward tune. No, Walter sings it just fine. It’s the song’s character who’s clueless, inept and out of touch, trying so hard to impress that he’s literally mixing eras of slang without any real sense of, well, sense. “Let’s roll with the homeys,” he says, and “knock on wood.” Is it any wonder that she “skipped dimensions”? “Was it something that I said?” You think? Or it might have been… well, I don’t think I want to know what happened after he took those “iffy” looking tabs. But I will laugh nonetheless. – Michael Fortes