Mandatory Music: you must metaphorically sign in, stranger. Go on, press the button:
Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen had a birthday yesterday (the 10th); he turned 65. (Today he’s 65 years, 1 day.) A tweet from John Mulaney alerted me to this auspicious occasion (“Does Donald Fagen already have a Penguin Soda Maker? It’s his birthday and I’m at Williams Sonoma”).
When I say I love Steely Dan, I cannot express how much. Let’s just say I find their music indispensable. Jazz rock is not for everyone, however. Many people hate Steely Dan or consider them overly calculated like elevator music, or, mysteriously, yacht rock.* Characterizing Steely Dan as elevator music is incomprehensible to me. Perhaps their level of perfection, repeatedly re-recording every solo and part until exactly right, did reveal a tremendous amount of calculation. But just listen to end result: The funky, layered grooves! The delicious, complex rhythms! The extreme sarcasm! The precisely articulated cynicism! What is not to love? I mean, Frank Zappa described them as “downer surrealism” but who’s to say that’s not a compliment?
The AV Club’s Noel Murray wrote about such hate in a column on criticism. The Rolling Stone Record Guide assured him he should hate Steely Dan, but Murray saw the light.
The more I listened, the more I heard something a little deeper than merely catchy soft-rock. Steely Dan’s slick production supported arrangements of almost unfathomable depth, and the aloofness of Donald Fagen’s lyrics seemed as much a commentary on the self-absorbed and spiritually lost as a sop to them.
I was raised on Steely Dan and never needed to get it later. It made sense to me from day 1. I was also raised on every genre they drew from, however (pop, R&B, and all flavors of jazz), so Steely Dan was all of a piece with all the other sounds on the living room stereo.
If you aren’t a Dan Fan and want to enrich your existence, get your feet wet with the AV Club’s Gateways to Geekery: a guide to good jumping-in points. (However, the guide also makes the outrageous claim that Gaucho is “the most extreme example of the bloodless, calculated, ‘elevator music’ aesthetic that prevents listeners from engaging with Steely Dan in the first place.” This statement is patently incorrect. Gaucho is in fact brilliantly alive with understated grooves. The guide also dispenses with The Royal Scam in one sentence: “After flirting with darker influences for Katy Lied’s immediate follow-up, The Royal Scam, [they] issued the definitive Steely Dan recording in 1977: Aja.” The Royal Scam is not to be dismissed so lightly. It includes, after all, “The Fez” (get more information on fezzes) (although not the fez being referenced in the song—that’s a condom).
They broke up for a decade or two and then put out two albums this millennium, but they don’t have tremendous presence with the youth. My second-greatest accomplishment as a parent is introducing my daughter to Steely Dan, working steadily behind the scenes to make sure she heard them without trying to sell them too hard. Now, she is one of presumably very few 13-year-olds who are massive Dan fans. I’ll never forget the moment last summer when we got in the car for a 45-minute drive, and she asked if we could just listen to “Time Out of Mind” over and over the whole drive. And she’s looking forward to watching the documentary on Netflix Instant about the making of Aja. At 13, she’s never met Napoleon, but she plans to find the time**, so I must be doing something right.
*While I’d argue S. Dan’s jazz rock stylings land them far outside of the yacht rock category, the priceless Yacht Rock series has 3 episodes with the Dan. Yacht Rock is a fictional online series about the big names in soft rock: Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Hall and Oates, etc. Deliberately terrible in terms of acting, costuming, and film quality, it is nonetheless The Best. In their episodes, Donald Fagen speaks gibberish that can only Walter Becker and Michael McDonald can understand. They have only a bit part in Episode 8 but in Episode 3 Donald, Lassie-like, tries to save the day by warning that Kenny Loggins is leaving smooth music to recording a rock song. Episode 10 explores the mythical feud with the Eagles.
**The Gateways to Geekery guide failed to make a single mention of Pretzel Logic, which, WHAT? The title track alone, I mean, GAH (you can hear it here, but video does open with a slightly NSFW image of the inspiration for the band’s name).