THERE, I SAID IT: Steely Dan is just math set to music (or vice versa)


Editor's Note: from time to time I'm going to post an excerpt of the new anthology book I'm editing called THERE, I SAID IT: Bob Dylan Is Overrated (And A Few Other Carefully Considered Objections To The Greatest Musicians Of All Time).

One of the ticklier joys about this project has been seeing some of my friends who have chosen careers outside the arts express themselves with genuinely kickass - I daresay, professional - panache. One of these friends is Greg Raskin, a deeply funny human who works at Memorial Sloane Kettering Center. As I've said before, I do not always endorse the opinions of the essays excerpted on this blog. But in this case, the curious case of the quant-rockers Steely Dan, Greg speaks deeply for me.

This assignment reminds of nothing so much as Woody Allen’s short story “A Little Louder, Please,” in which the narrator first boasts of his brilliance (“Understand you are dealing with a man who knocked off Finnegan’s Wake on the roller coaster at Coney Island …”) and then spends the rest of the story explaining how he cannot, for the life of him, understand mimes.

And so, let me set the scene.

In the late 1980’s, I was a melancholy teen with a Walkman, and then a Discman. I had a penchant for making sensitive mixtapes, which never impressed the girls as much as I thought they should. Those tapes marked the beginning and end of my musical career. Music critics, much like the girls I tried to impress, greeted my creative oeuvre with muted indifference.

Steely Dan, on the other hand, has some serious critical bona fides. They have been a darling from the moment they released their first album in 1972, Can’t Buy a Thrill. They have three albums in Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 500. They have won numerous Grammys, including the Album of the Year in 2001. They are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But back to my career, if I may. The mixtapes of my yesteryear have become Spotify playlists, to which I subject the other members of my family of four, especially on long road trips. My wife appreciates them, she says. My kids put up with them. When we tire of these playlists, we listen to satellite radio.

When I hear Steely Dan, those critical-darling Hall of Famers, I change the channel immediately.

Their story is well known. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker met in 1968, as classmates at Bard College. They began writing and playing music together. Drafting others to play around them, they released seven successful albums from 1972 to 1981. They broke up for a decade or so. Then they scored a major comeback in 2001, with a Grammy-Award-winning Album of the Year, Two Against Nature.

Let us examine their most egregiously terrible song: “Deacon Blues” (1977). Inane lyrics about some depressed suburban guy are set to a tune that truly uninspires, with an arrangement that exquisitely showcases just how boring the melody is. About four minutes into the song, there is a saxophone solo that I really don’t care about, but at least it spared me, for 45 seconds or so, from another self-indulgent verse. If you keep listening, which I forced myself to in order to write this paragraph, more singing occurs. The song’s deep insight into the human condition includes the revelatory observation that the University of Alabama’s football team is known as the Crimson Tide.

In an interview in New Music Express in the 1970s, Donald Fagen was quoted as saying, “We don’t necessarily try to communicate any specific thing to the listener.” Mission accomplished! (Did I mention that “Deacon Blues” is seven and a half minutes long?)

Perhaps I am not mature enough to appreciate their fine jazz stylings. Critics fawn all over the Dan’s session musicians - drafted from Miles Davis’s own band - ooohhh. Maybe I’m too much of a Philistine to comprehend the virtuosity of Walter Becker’s guitar playing, or the duo’s Grammy-winning sound engineering. And I am clearly not intellectual enough to grasp the sotto voce cleverness of their lyrics (“wry, nuanced and hyper-literate,” says the Hall of Fame website); nor their band name (which is famously named after a sex toy -- so cheeky!).

Or perhaps they are just super-boring, ladies and gentlemen: the rock and roll equivalent of two mimes against nature.

THERE, I SAID IT will be published October 17th, as promised! Unless October 17th was two days ago. In which case THERE, I SAID IT will be published very damn soon. Really. I swear.

And as always, if you're not a subscriber to this blog, and are instead merely relaying on the chance winds of social media to alert you to these posts, then dear God remedy your life by entering your email address below. Thank you. - Josh

PREVIOUS POSTS: TOPICS