Rock ,4 round the World • September. 1976 /9
GAS,PI ; CAN’T RIGHT THE BIRD IN TIME—THE ROTOR’S ABOUT TO SMASH INTO THAT SUPER–
Can you believe these bohos? Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, doing business as Steely Dan, sit back on the ultimate Nietzschean long-distance lam and want to know how come everybody doesn’t write songs like theirs (from a recent Rolling Stone interview). As if it were as simple as taking the express elevator from the corner disco to the desert island of your choice. . . .
No, it was a lucky accident that produced them. Two youngsters cutting their melodic teeth on the concise brass ring of bebop, having their destinies commingled and consciousnesses expanded by the legendary hedonist community at Bard College, and then being tempered by the loathsome disciplines of Jay and the Americans and the ABC song mill is a once-in-a-cosmos chance. Their music carries the trace of every weird, unrepeatable step of this development: melody lines liberated by jazz logic, but structured and consecrated in pop.
Hatred was the parallel component of Steely Dan. Stomping prepubescent America with a one-shot teenybopper band, or working in a plastic office as contract songwriters, they bottled up a lot of anger and contempt. By the time they founded the Dan, they’d cultivated their misanthropy almost as long as their music. The songs on the first album run the gamut from the bright mockery of “Only a Fool would Say That” to the ingrained paranoia of “Dirty Work” to the threats of “Change of the Guard.” They even chose their name from Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, one of the all time bitterness classics.
Every step they’ve taken since then has been a self-imposed task of artificial mastery. First they made a religion of professionalism, setting themselves standards some symphony orchestras never reach. On tour they became electron pushers and sound freaks, chasing perfect sound like a holy grail. They were constantly fiddling with the lineup, adding extra musicians and singers and dismissing them erratically, now you see him, now you don’t. Now that they don’t even have a steady band, they tackle the worst curse of production: feckless sidemen. It’s much less challenge getting the right ideas out of a player that lives and travels with you than out of some robot who’ll back up Joni Mitchell yesterday and Tabby Treats tomorrow, who’s continually told not to express himself—hut
Becker and Fagen, with producer Gary Katz (who may be their only mortal friend), know what they want to hear, and get it.
They work at these pursuits not as a means to an end, to improve their musical facilities, as much as to bask in a mania of superiority. like mad scientists. Furthermore, they could sit back and talk about the mechanical stuff for hours and fool journalists into thinking they were getting good interviews, while actually revealing nothing.
What Steely Dan is actually about is, if you haven’t already figured it out long since, the antithesis of Summer of Love optimism in Winter of your Discontent nihilism. All of the icons we put our rock faith in are revealed here as baselsss and futile. The young love that pop prized becomes vampirism (“Dirty Work”) or lure kicks (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”). Nostalgia is unrelieved hysteria (“My Old School,” “Doctor Wu”), but the future is worse (“Chain Lightning,” “Sign In Stranger”). Occasionally it becomes possible to fight back (“Black Friday”). with results either futile or disasterous—the only way out is fantasy escape (“Any World That I’m Welcome To”). All of this gruesomeness is scrupulously reported by a persona whose emotion circuits seem to have been burned out long since. The only time compassion is evidenced is when the subject has gambled everything and lost (“Do It Again,” “Charlie Freak”) or is the victim of a collossal, impersonal catastrophe (“King of the World”).
As they get better at pure venom, their critics refer more to their crypticism; as Dan’s vision grows more aciotic, fewer observers can face it. Now they can write songs that shouldn’t even permit themselves to be heard, like “The Royal Scam.” Beneath a queasy redundancy in the music, the lyrics begin to take on the form of an immense, inescapable paranois parable, based on the systematic quashing of Puerto Rican immigrants but applying equally to us all. Eventually the circular plot dissolves in a horrifying impression of watchful unidentifiables who are so far ahead of you they control by proxy and toy with free will.
But even that’s not enough for Steely Dan. They won’t quit until they’ve found the perfect formula for unromantic,
unresponsive. uninvolved You.