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 how all of that means, at least in part, 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.This is the second part of the series. You can read the first part here.
It took about six or seven years before I peeled away another layer. At Berkeley, you have to take an AC or “American Cultures” requirement, and because I was studying Music and English, I thought it would be logical and efficient to take an AC class in one of the majors. So the fall of my junior year I found myself in this sort of counter-culture English class with hundreds of people and with a disgruntled, former Beat poet lecturing it. In it, we read Junky and Naked Lunch, and I found out about the “steely dan from Yokohama” for the first time. The book graphically described sex between a bunch of people and creatures, every which way, and in one scene, a group watched a lurid film that ended with sex and hangings, and one of the female characters talked about a dildo she had, then another, then the last, the one she hoped wouldn’t break, the “steely dan number three from Yokohama.” I can’t deny my surprise. I should have known. This is totally common knowledge, but you don’t know something until you know it, and that has to happen at a certain moment, even if you can’t pinpoint it exactly. In this case, I could.
Suddenly, the presence of a cover of Duke Ellington’s old timey, jazz tune, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” on Steely Dan’s “A Decade of Steely Dan” album had some logic behind it; lovers of the zany and postmodern, the Bard philosophy grads, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, named their band after a dildo from Naked Lunch, and paid homage to one of the songs mentioned in another tawdry scene in a club, by later covering it on “Pretzel Logic.” At that time, I befriended the first person I had ever met who liked Steely Dan, another Music major, a drummer. For the first time, I could explore the band’s (to me) surprising appeal and their singular sound with a friend.
People always talk about how Becker and Fagen are jazz rock or pretty jazzy in sound. But with the exception of that song, that’s not really true. I had studied and played jazz for several years at that point, and the only thing jazzy about Steely Dan are some of their harmonies. Led Zeppelin’s members clearly loved the blues, but with the exception of something like “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” the band does not have a bluesy sound. They borrow some progressions and riffs and maybe even some lyrical style, but in general, they have their own brand of fantasy ’70s rock.
Similarly, Steely Dan can’t disguise their influences — nor should they — but they have their own style: some hybrid seedy sound enamored with 1970s San Fernando Valley postmodern irony, sin and tongue-in-cheek humor, Pynchon and Vonnegut and Wallace, and all the things Tarantino and the Coen Brothers and P.T. Anderson love. They smack of open Hawaiian shirts and long drives passing barren landscapes and lawn flamingos and kahlua and drinking before noon. They’re everything The Dude represented in The Big Lebowski, but bitter.