Way backward, in 79, when I was a dandy eighth grader, Steely Dan was the soundtrack to my ride home. Well, so was Blondie, but that’s a tale for another time. WMMS in Cleveland played “Hey, Nineteen” everyday between three and four every afternoon, which meant I heard it everyday on my bus ride home.
By the time I had noticed Steely Dan, they were in their waning days. “Hey, Nineteen” even sounded nostalgic, though I was too young to know what about. The only line that really stuck out on a noisy school bus was “Hey, Nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin. She don’t remember Queen of Soul.” I knew who Aretha Franklin was, but alas, she had been relegated with the Beatles and Elvis to my toddler years. (Yes, kids, I am barely old enough to remember “Something” as a new song. Barely.) Little did I know this was going to become a soundtrack for my early adult years.
Steely Dan was, for most of its history, a studio duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Becker did not sing until the band’s later years. But Fagen? He has a strange voice, one that he lacked confidence in on their first album. Back then, Steely Dan was a five-piece that included future Doobie Brother Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. The band had an odd road to successful rock band. Fagen and Becker went to Bard College in Upstate New York, where an early version of the band featured Chevy Chase on drums. They drifted into New York where they became house songwriters in the infamous Brill Building before striking a recording deal. Turned out I knew several of their songs already when I’d noticed “Hey, Nineteen.” There was, of course, “Do It Again” (sung by original lead vocalist David Palmer.) That one always made me think of Las Vegas, since they devote an entire verse to cheating a casino. But they also sang “Rikki, Don’t Lose My Number,” “Black Friday,” and “Reeling in the Years,” a song that would resonate with me in my aimless early twenties.
Steely Dan was not your typical American rock band. They had more in common with King Crimson than the Eagles, though their combinations of jazz and blues in a pop format was far more accessible than Mr. Fripp’s ever-changing prog band. Someone once called them the “antiheroes of the 1970s.” Their songs, every bit as intricate as anything found on Court of the Crimson King and Red, made the high life relatable to an audience who might not have had access to cocaine, expensive tequila, or some of the finer things that populated Fagen’s lyrics. These were two guys enjoying the good life, but that life had a dark side.
And unlike Messrs. Sinfield, Wetton, or, later on, Belew, Fagen was a storyteller. That probably let them be as experimental as Crimson without putting off a wider audience. Becker was, and Fagen still is, well-versed in jazz, rock, and the blues, but they bypassed the whole progressive rock movement. Actually, that wasn’t hard considering it was a largely psychedelic and British phenomenon. Steely Dan was American as hell.
Walter Becker died in 2017, but after some back and forth with Becker’s estate, Fagen has carried on touring. Beginning in the mid-1990s with former session player Michael McDonald, they’ve been largely a live act with only three albums released since Two Against Nature. And really, what were Fagen’s solo albums but Beckerless Steely Dan projects. One was even recorded in digital in 1980 which such an effort was considered foolhardy at best. (In Fagen’s defense, it sounds analog to my untrained ears, which means Fagen didn’t abuse the technology beyond a few extra synthesizers.)
I bring up Steely Dan as I begin revisions on my first paid writing project of 2019. I was invited late last year to step in for an anthology based on the works of Steely Dan called The Hangman Isn’t Hanging (a line from “Do It Again”). I’ll tell you more about that when that anthology’s debut draws closer, whether I make the cut or not. But suffice it to say, it’s a good fit for a crime fiction collection. Steely Dan’s lyrics could be noir as hell!