Monday, August 13, 2018

Steely Dan 101

Central Park
In January 1974, Joni Mitchell released the exquisite, deceptively sunny Court and Spark; two months later, the Ramones played their first gig. It was a year of glam and a year of celestial jamming (Bowie, Grateful Dead, Sparks and Yes, to provide a short list of diversity). Donald Fagen and Walter Becker sat uneasily in this world of earnest sentiment and antediluvian riffing. An impassively odd couple with encyclopedic jazz smarts and a glowering, gnomic mien, Steely Dan in many ways sat midway between Joni and the Ramones: pinup idols of the urbane Los Angeles studio scene but with bags of spiky, shades-after-midnight New York attitude.

Dorm buddies who met at Bard College in New York, Becker and Fagen started out in a band called the Bad Rock Group, with Chevy Chase, no less, on drums. They were over-literate beatniks with midnight-cafeteria tans and their own hinky, Beat-derived argot. Their second band found its name courtesy of William Burroughs: Steely Dan 111 is a garrulous sex aid, a minor player in the fizzing mind/body loop of Naked Lunch. Musically, the Dan were more jazz-inflected than rock-driven, filled out by a movable feast of session musician pals. For their debut single, they picked "Do It Again," a baleful lament about finding nothing new under the sun. At a time when sitars played as prettily exotic signifiers of limpid bliss, they amped one up for a biting, nerve-jangled solo. At a time when Rolling Stone ran long, fawning Q & As with addled vocalists and the counterculture was sold on faux revolutionary emblems, Becker and Fagen essayed a light samba to declare that it was all bunk: "A world become one, of salads and sun? Only a fool would say that."

Japanese Model Sayoko Yamaguchi
The divisiveness between music (Cali Vs. London) was as in your face in 1973 as the distrust of a disgraced president. Becker and Fagen definitively fit the L.A. laid back jazz riff that prevailed, but the Dan established a point of negotiation between what was happening in L.A. at the time and a new New York scene, one that vaguely resembled what was left of the Velvet's New York. It wasn't the music though that sparked the new New York sensibilities, but the attitude. 

Way back when, in 77, I was playing Aja on my high school radio station as a personal statement. In an era when disco ruled the airwaves, Aja was (and remains) the height and breadth of brilliant songcraft and drop dead gorgeous musicianship - way, way ahead of its time. No matter your muscial tastes, you'll recognize the brilliance and transcendence of this masterpiece. A friend lived in a house at the top of the San Fernando Valley, a glass and steel mid-century modern deal with a pool. ("You could see the Valley barbecues from the windowsill.") It was a house that screamed Steely Dan (and Joni). A house that was L.A. in the 70s. Aja was that soundtrack, and we'd sit in the living room and groove on Wayne Shorter's sax and Ritenour and Khan. One of the most beautiful albums ever recorded. Not much to say beyond that. 

At random: Part and parcel of listening to Steely Dan is sorting through the litany of proper references running the gamut from the mundane to the arcane. Far from being exhaustive, following is a modest collection of Steely Dan oddities:

Locations: Camarillo ("Parker’s Band;" refers to Camarillo State Hospital); Barrytown ("Barrytown"); Guadalajara ("My Old School"); Hackensack and Lhasa ("Time out of Mind"); Muswellbrook ("Black Friday;" Wales?); Scarsdale ("Hey 19"); Barbados ("Glamour Profession"); Altamira ("The Caves of Altamira;" refers to the cave paintings in Northern Spain); City of St. John ("The Royal Scam").
Drinks: Black Cow ("Black Cow"); Cuervo Gold ("Hey 19"); Kirschwasser ("Babylon Sisters"); retsina ("Home at Last;" Greek wine); Scotch Whisky ("Deacon Blues"); Zombie ("Haitian Divorce"); grapefruit and cherry wine ("FM" and "Time Out of Mind,").
People: Cathy Berberian ("Your Gold Teeth"); Jungle Jim ("Glamour Profession"); Mr. Parker ("Parker’s Band"); The Eagles ("Tell Me Everything"); Dr. Wu ("Dr Wu").
Arcane Slang:  Cheaters ("Everyone’s Gone to the Movies;" glasses); chasing the dragon ("Time out of Mind;" smoking heroin).
Cars: Lark ("I Got the news"); El Dorado ("Daddy Don’t Live in that City No More"); Chrysler ("Glamour Profession").
Miscellaneous: Luger ("With a Gun"); Fez; ("The Fez"); and Banyan Trees ("Aja").