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 third installment of the series. To start from the beginning, click here.
Sense of Humor: “Cousin Dupree” and the Wilson Brothers
After I graduated, I experienced my first genuine introduction to Steely Dan’s self-awareness and sense of humor. Owen Wilson had just made the movie, You, Me and Dupree, about a freeloader, “Dupree,” who couch-surfs at a couple’s house to the point of comedy.
Steely Dan responded with an open letter to Luke Wilson, bemoaning the film’s theft of the idea and name behind their song, “Cousin Dupree.” The letter’s super random and pretty hilarious. You can find it here. In it, Donald and Walter adopt this passive-aggressive, “hey, everything’s cool, man” attitude while faux lambasting Owen to his brother, Luke but offering him a chance to play bongos with them should he be so inclined.
Owen responded with a comic missive of his own, saying he’d never heard of this guy, Mr. Steely Dan and that he was too busy working on his new film, “Hey 19” to respond more properly. Fake shots fired and returned. The whole thing, pointless in the best way as this “just for fun” war of words was, just proved that the guys of Steely Dan are funny, and, more importantly, that they can laugh at themselves.
San Francisco, “Dirty Work,” “Brooklyn (Owes) the Charmer Under Me,” and “Change of the Guard”
A couple of years later found me living in San Francisco, returning to the “distant lights from across the bay,” and trying to live my own vision of this classic rock paradise. I discovered “Dirty Work,” “Brooklyn (Owes) the Charmer Under Me,” and “Change of the Guard.” In the same way that a band’s link to a place means you could listen to songs about another place by the same band and still feel you’re musically communing with the first place — e.g. listening to “The Only Living Boy in New York” in San Francisco and feeling that’s appropriate, simply because of The Graduate — I listened to “Brooklyn (Owes) the Charmer Under Me” waiting on Bart platforms and felt very much that I was in San Francisco. Maybe this is because of “Kid Charlemagne,” which I’ll mention in a bit, but either way, these songs grounded me, and while I didn’t feel I was in the Summer of Love (thankfully), I did channel a bit of SF’s creepy magic and depressing bullshit wonder.
American Hustle was kind of a plotless, plodding, overrated mess that happened to have a good cast and good director, but aside from Amy Adams’ glorious hair, cleavage, and accent, the best part about it was David O. Russell’s daring use of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” and Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work.”
These songs evoked the same sense of loss and sullied nostalgia I’d heard in “Do it Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” and the unfolded layers kept revealing more layers of quality, wallow-worthy music that shuttled me back to a time I’d never lived personally but that I also knew would one day shuttle me back to that time in my life in which I was listening to them on these adventures.