I’ve loved Steely Dan for about 20 years. When I heard they would be playing Coachella last year, I felt so perturbed, I just had to respond. That gave me the excuse to really explore my love for The Dan, to unpack my thoughts on their music (and on Coachella), and to consider what all of that means by meditating on the self and the passage of time. This resulted in a labor of love essay, titled “Reelin’ in the Years/Close Your Eyes, and You’ll be There,” which we have here broken into seven, discrete but also connected pieces, ones we will be publishing as installments over the coming weeks.
I had an early introduction to Steely Dan. My older sister and I went to school with Jake Gyllenhaal, but she was just one year below him. Recognizing good stage presence when he saw it, maybe, the cool, guitar-playing band teacher chose a pretty epic lineup for the middle school spring concert, one including “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the 9th grade Gyllenhaal to sing. Since my sister always made for the go-to artist of the school, the teacher gave her a mix tape (this was 1995) to inspire her. And the mixtape for the planned lineup included Bach’s “Wachet Auf,” The Toys’ Bachian “Lover’s Concerto,” Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years.” Imagine — or remember — listening to any or all of those songs for the first time ever.
That tape introduced me to those songs; I was in 5th grade.
My sister and I shared a room, so what she listened to on the boombox, I listened to on the boom box. If you wanted privacy, you had the walkman. (Sometimes I miss the slightly flat, out-of-tune cast to songs heard too many times on a tape, or the low, slowing down of songs on a walkman about to lose its battery charge.)
I won’t go into the effect the rest of the mix had on me or my relationship to those songs and their bands, but I will say that first foray into “Reelin’ in the Years” proved a doorway. In the melody and the song’s chords, I heard something sad and wistful, and while I didn’t quite know what “reeling” (as in stagger back) meant or how “reeling” (as in bring in) connected to “stowing away,” I understood, on a visceral level, the angry yet nostalgic sense of the song. It shocked me to hear someone sing, “you’ve been telling me you’re a genius since you were 17; in all the time I’ve known you, I still don’t know what you mean…” It just seemed so mean, and I hadn’t yet heard Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” so a hateful love song about missing the past didn’t make sense to me.
But I liked it, and I listened to it a lot. I knew there was something raw about it (not just the lyrics but the descending chord progression and that electric guitar — the whole tone of the thing) something I hoped never to feel that of course I since have.
Never mind how much we (my sister and I) listened to that tape or how worn out it got. We were in — for all of those songs and bands, and I knew that Steely Dan was one, awesome “dude” (much like other “men,” Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin, two favorites I met a couple of years later). It took me years to find out “he” was a band. We were also a product of our time. The ’90s sustained a deep and public nostalgia for all things ’40s, ’60s, and ’70s (the same way my students now wear docs and think they’re super retro. What’s stranger still is that they’re right).
We wanted so badly to be cool, and being cool, even if you weren’t a skater or a stoner, meant bell bottoms and vintage tee shirts (preferably baseball ones or ones with old band names on their front) and Melrose and Ventura and MTV (which I wasn’t really allowed to watch, to be honest) and sequined shades and saddle shoes and beaded sweaters David Lynch would love as much as Otto Preminger did and lunch boxes and the Delia’s catalogue and the Star Wars re-releases and classic rock. These weren’t just good. They made you feel cool to listen to them. I liked Radiohead, Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Nine Inch Nails, but I loved The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, and Steely Dan.
“Reelin’ in the Years” opened the door, but my parents ushered me through it when they handed me a yellow, plastic Tower Records bag as a gift after picking me up from a classmate’s Bat Mitzvah one Saturday night during 7th grade. It was 1996, and I looked in the bag. Among the bootie lay “A Decade of Steely Dan” most songs of which I later found out came from “Can’t Buy a Thrill.”
I’m not sure I have a method for getting to know an album, but I’ll admit it takes me literal years. In this case, it took 10–14 years for me to really get to know that album, as if I were slowly peeling away layers of filo dough. As it is, I’m still getting to know the songs, since you’re never quite done with them, until or unless, one day, you just are, but that day commenced my process. I could never listen to a whole, new album in one go. I had to start small, with a song I knew, maybe adding two more (max). I did a quick survey, but that year, and for many to come, I only listened to “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and “Do it Again.” Rikki didn’t particularly captivate me. It seemed cheesy and weird, but “Do it Again” caught my attention and held it.
It had a forbidden quality to it. It also had a catchy beat and chorus and talked about a seamy underworld of Vegas where sketchy things happened. It spoke of the compulsive failures in human nature. Even a 13-year-old could grasp that.
This was right around the time Claire Danes 1.0 was huge. Like so many, I loved (still love) My So-Called Life and then Little Women. She followed that with Romeo + Juliet, the rock anthem tragedy of the mid-to-late ‘90s, and her face, pure yet somehow full of pathos, was everywhere. I remember looking at a cover of Premiere magazine, which I still have, with a wan Danes on it, and opening it to read her article, one titled, “Hey, Nineteen.” I recognized it as one that corresponded to my “best of” CD and appreciated that. She reminded me a bit of something I felt in “Do it Again.” The whole time felt sad and beautiful.
Many years had to pass before I could listen to any more of Steely Dan besides those three songs. I explored different genres, and I just didn’t have the brain space or the resources to get too much further into that album or its band. (Of course I didn’t have the resources: this was crucially before the widespread use of the Internet, and even when I adopted AOL in 9th grade, I still didn’t have access to cheap music. We have online movies and music at the expense of the ’90s wonder of the video and CD stores like Blockbuster and The Warehouse, let alone the independent stuff. #clerks #highfidelity #empirerecords #damnthemansavetheempire.) But I still liked those songs.
Nostalgia’s like a Russian nesting doll; you’re in the moment missing a moment. I miss those times, and in high school, I was already missing middle school, missing elementary school, in a time that looked back to another era, which, of course, was far from perfect (as are all eras). It’s not that I missed middle- or elementary themselves, I just missed parts of them, which I guess is how it always is. The music just highlighted that.