"When I was twelve years old, my father, a jazz musician, tried to interest me in the music of Steely Dan," Prof. Michael Borshuk of Texas Tech University in Lubbock begins in his introduction to an entire special issue of the academic journal Rock Music Studies, “Steely Dan at 50” (Rock Music Studies, 2022, Vol. 9, No. 3).
"When he sat me down with Gaucho on the family turntable, he likely assumed I'd gel with its sophistication. Instead, I bristled . . . I found the music's sound unapproachingly cold, the songs' harmonic movement alienating."
"I think they mostly appeal to an older crowd," he told his dad.
Borshuk grew up quickly: At age 14, he "loved losing myself in Steely Dan's jazz inspired logic," learning "the prefect fourths and added ninths of their chords." He also made the quick transition from loathing Donald Fagen "outright weird" nasal voice to understanding "there could be no better delivery system for the Dan ethos, simultaneously vulnerable, disgusted, and world-weary."
In the interregnum between Steely Dan's golden era and their 2020s rediscovery, Gen X, Y, Z, and Millennial skeptics scorned the band's music as "dad rock," and maybe they were right, in that ironic way that is the coin and currency of Steely Dan true believers.
Lindsay Zoladz, a pop music critic for The New York Times, published her confession in the June 18, 2020, issue of the newspaper, titled: "I'm Not a Dad but I Rock Like One." When she was perhaps under 10, (in her "first decade," anyway), she wrote: "the blandest, dullest, most excruciatingly monotonous music I’d ever heard in my nearly decade-long life was Steely Dan." But she got religion, pagan though it may be, soon enough: "And then, all of a sudden, I was 32 and listening to Pretzel Logic intently in my best headphones, declaring myself an honorary resident of 'Barrytown.' What had happened to me?"
Others first experienced Steely Dan through hip-hop in the mid-1990s, the ah-ha moment for Jack Hamilton, professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia, and a music columnist for The Atlantic. His essay in the June 2023 issue is called "Surrender to Steely Dan: How the insufferably perfectionist duo captured the hearts of a new generation of listeners." Hamilton first had his mind blown, also in his early teens, listening to a cassette of De La Soul's brilliant 3 Feet High and Rising, particularly the song "Eye Know," built on a sample of "Peg," one of the most perfect songs from Steely Dan's 1977 best-seller Aja.
"Music obsessive that I was, this confounded me," Hamilton writes. "Steely Dan, the musical handle of the songwriting pair Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – was considered toxically uncool." He knew one song well, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" because the introductory piano line was lifted dexterously from Horace Silver's "Song for My Father," which Hamilton studied in his own jazz piano lessons. “'Rikki's strange combination of jazz, rock, and R&B, alchemized into a near frictionless sonic slickness, seemed antithetical to the grunge era ethos of anti-establishment, heart-on-your-sleeve authenticity," he wrote.
As an avid fan and Steely Dan originalist (there are at least half a dozen columns about my time at Bard, essays on the first three albums, and interviews with Fagen and Becker posted in the Critical Conditions archives), this new attention to Steely Dan both amused and irritated me. The irritation part is undoubtedly an echo of the first-listeners of indie rock bands who get annoyed when their cult band goes mainstream. Steely Dan sold tons of records, but until Aja were still kind of a cult band.
Now The Honest Broker, Ted Gioia, music historian, jazz critic and Substack's resident public intellectual on his The Honest Broker newswletter, has written about his conversion to Steely Dan standom, “How I Stopped Hating Steely Dan.”
There is a Steely Dan Substack by Jake Malooley called Expanding Dan. Expanding Dan has interviews with musicians who played with Fagen and Becker, and he unearths musical oddities through their late engineer Roger Nichols' archives. Most notable: "The Second Arrangement," which got left off Gaucho when the painstakingly recorded tape was accidentally erased. It’s very You Tube viral.
Pieced back together using modern technology, Steely Dan originalists shrugged, while the new SD stans posted comments on You Tube comparing this discovery to that of the Dead Sea scrolls, the Rosetta Stone, and a sign of the arrival of the moshiach. But at its core, "The Second Arrangement" is not a very good song, which makes it a unicorn among Steely Dan tracks. "Understandable why Becker and Fagen dumped this one," said one YouTube commenter. The Stans love it because it's new, but that's what stans are for: uncritical admiration.
There was also a Schlitz beer commercial made by Fagen and original guitarist Denny Dias that was quickly taken down from YouTube by the copyright owner. Malooley saves access to these (and the punch line to a joke by studio musician Jay Graydon that made Fagen and Becker laugh) for paid subscribers only. Since I have been with Fagen and Becker many times when they laughed, I have not bought in.
There is a valuable recent rediscovery from an unlikely source: An implausibly beautiful and entertaining album on Spotify called Fire in the Hole: Sara Isaksson & Rebecka Törnqvist Sing Steely Dan. Steely Dan spotters heard the title song at the end of the episode with that title ("Fire in the Hole") on HBO's True Blood. Isaksson plays piano, Törnqvist is well-known in Sweden as a jazz singer. The rest of the accompaniment is sparse and minimal. It's sort of like elegant recital room Steely Dan, and it is unerringly beautiful. Listen to Törnqvist nail the phrasing of "Gaucho," hard enough to say, much less sing and gently swing with:
Bodacious cowboys /Such as your friend will never be welcome here
High in the Custerdome
Bodacious Cowboys, by the way, is one of the more user-friendly Steely Dan sites, or groups, on The X
To go back to Borshuk's Rock Music Studies (where I am on the editorial board, an honorary role, no conflict of interest) introductory chapter, he lands on a vital aspect of writing about Steely Dan. "There is something about Steely Dan that invites us to collapse the distance between critical interpretation and personal recollection," he writes, which strikes me as profound because it explains my entire relationship with Steely Dan's music. In his footnotes, he credits Ross Cole, writing about "Popular Song and the Poetics of Experience" in the Journal of the Royal Music Association (2021), in which "the ways in which songwriting itself can be a process of self-interpretation, a public act of autobiographical making."
Cole cites the autobiographical response from an adept songwriter's "conscientious craft and communicative virtuosity," to which Barshuk adds the Steely Dan banger: They "provide us with an 'active reading' of their experience, but our engagement with that material in turn prompts our own autobiographical making."
This explains to me why I have been thinking about writing a book about Steely Dan for about 40 years, but have not been able to get to even an outline because of a few reasons: I don't have the musical background to explain why their songs work on that chord/melody level; because I am terrified of outlines; and because my deep experience with and early exposure to Fagen and Becker is so autobiographical that my listening to Steely Dan albums makes me feel like I am a product of their original Android Warehouse, brain-implanted with a microphone and camera, and that they had been composing my life story, during the 1970s and beyond. And who would want to read that? I did pitch it to an academic publisher where an old colleague and acquaintance was doing a music book series, and the response was, "too personal," even for a series of short, personal books about individual artists.
But I had not seen a good book about Steely Dan, anywhere, ever, until now. This was supposed to be an introduction to a post about that book. After 1,400 words, I have buried the lede once again, and perhaps your patience. In a day or two, we will dedicate this space to the only Steely Dan book we are likely to ever need: Quantum Criminals, written by Alex Pappademas, with illustrations by Joan LeMay. I'll tell you about it tomorrow or day after, I hope.
This article originally appeared in Wayne Robins’ Substack and is used here by permission. Wayne’s Words columnist Wayne Robins teaches at St. John’s University in Queens, and writes the Critical Conditions Substack, https://waynerobins.substack.com/.
Header image: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Kotivalo.