Let’s cut right to the chase, OK?
This is a column about Steely Dan.
There, with just that sentence, I’ve already separated the wheat from the chaff. If you’re still reading this, it means that you’re not inherently disgusted by the mere mention of the ’70s jazz-rock stalwarts. Over the years I’ve grown a steady love for the band, and I’ve found that they can probably be considered the musical equivalent to cilantro — some people taste soap, some people taste delicately written, “mu major” chord-laden richness.
And like a taste palate, sometimes you have to grow into it. A friend lent me his CD copy of “Pretzel Logic” when I was 17, and it simply did not take. Sure, it has “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” but to a teenage brain, it was dreck. Before I could even be aware of the reference, I had become a version of the character from the band’s song “Hey Nineteen,” young and unaware of the power that certain older music can contain.
It took hearing the twin grandeur of the bands’ later albums, “Aja” and “Gaucho” — no, not “later” like “Two Against Nature” and “Everything Must Go,” those are for another story — where it finally clicked for me. It wasn’t just that the music sounded incredible, both in construction and production. It wasn’t even the incredible array of session players spread across these albums, from jazz legend Wayne Shorter to “The World’s Most Recorded Drummer” Bernard Purdie.
Nope, it was the humor. No one thought to tell me that, behind the occasionally dense musicality, lay a pretty great sense of humor. Donald Fagen, singer and co-mastermind of The Dan, along with the dearly departed Walter Becker, sells each and every ridiculous lyric with the nasally confidence of a classroom bully.
It’s perhaps because of, not in spite of, Fagen’s untrained singing voice that makes it all make sense to me. Put a trained singer and slightly more serious lyrics with the same music, and it would probably be insufferable for extended periods of time. Similarly, take Fagen’s voice and lyrics behind simpler music and the band probably wouldn’t have been heard in the first place.
The problem is, I think I’ve got an obsession with Steely Dan on my hands now, and that’s not good for anyone in my orbit. You start meekly enough, learning the breezy chords to “Barrytown” on guitar to maybe play at an open mic one day. Then, seemingly the next day, you’re in mixed company espousing the superiority of “Gaucho”-era bootleg “The Second Arrangement” to other songs on the album, YouTube-downloaded track ready to play from a Bluetooth speaker.
It’s gotten to the point where my sweet, innocent fiancée has been so brainwashed from repeated “Aja” needle drops that she suggested we add “Peg” to the wedding reception playlist. This infectious disease would probably have Dr. Anthony Fauci himself lying awake at night.
But as with all impossibly nerdy ventures, an appreciation of The Dan does occasionally feel like being part of a secret club. You know, a secret club where everyone mildly resembles the sad sack protagonist from “Deacon Blues.”
Just the other week, I found myself at the monthly Phantom Power flea market digging through knickknacks when I heard the unmistakable groove of “The Nightfly,” the Donald Fagen solo cut from the album of the same name, released right after the initial demise of the band in 1981. I stopped what I was doing to run to the DJ stand, where we discussed some Dan finer points well into the next song.
Though Fagen still tours with a crack group of players, the band’s days as a creative force ended around the time of the aforementioned “Everything Must Go” in 2003. And even for most fans, “Gaucho” was the closing bell to both the band and the ’70s. With older groups, there is usually a finite amount of time you can spend with them, especially if there’s no intrinsic nostalgia to call back to.
That’s why most kids my age spent the ages of approximately 13 through 15 listening to Led Zeppelin. We were not there to see Robert Plant wail or listen to John Bonham play drums for 30 minutes at a clip, so we’re left with a sort of audio archeological dig to dust off the things that are still relevant today.
It’s maybe for that same reason that The Dan remain so lovably confounding to me. The music and lyrics represent a time so far in the rearview mirror that it almost feels futuristic listening to songs like “Kid Charlemagne” and “Black Cow” now. They didn’t start any musical revolutions, nor did they have any No. 1 singles.
No one really tried to do what they did after they were done, so the discography remains this weird object hurtling through space and time, ready to land in someone’s ears when those ears are ready for them.
So, let’s throw out the hardware and do it right this time, shall we? If you haven’t before, give Steely Dan a chance. It’s a surefire way to make tonight a wonderful thing.
Kevin Stairiker is an LNP staff writer. “Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.