IX. All Hail The Dan Of Steel

When there's nowhere to go but back to the cabin and fall into a restless sleep because you're too far away from everything you crave, this might be the greatest music in the world. Shining with a sense of perfection to be envied and admired, it has the tonal beauty and swing of jazz without ever getting precious or pompous. It has the lyrical barb and wit of Dylan-meets-Howi Vinni and the New York Jew stranded / lost / ultimately returned to his own soul somewhere in LA syndrome that for whatever reason is appealingly dramatic. It has the one of a kind vocal stylings of resident genius Donald Fagen and the expert ensemble playing of the very best LA had to offer at the time. It boasts some of the best guitar solos ever. And it is a body of recorded music that sounds better than everything else. It is Steely Dan. Their story is funny and ridiculous, strange and sad, drugged out and razor sharp. Fagen meets Walter Becker at Bard college of all places and the two become immediate best friends out of their common love of jazz, R&B and Bob Dylan. They tool around, back up Jay and the Americans, try to sell their idiosyncratic songs to The Tin Pan Alley regime, fail miserably, migrate west, meet up with old friend Gary Katz in LA, sign a publishing deal with ABC/Dunhill, can’t get their songs recorded there either, and finally decide with the generous help of an open-minded A&R guy at ABC to record themselves. The rest is jewish jazz / rock / pop hybrid history.


Steely Dan was originally a real band that even toured extensively through 1974. They consisted of Walter Becker on bass, Donald Fagen on keyboards, old Long Island pal Denny Diaz on guitar, Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter on guitar, Jim Hodder on drums, and David Palmer on vocals. The first two records were recorded by this ensemble, and it was a good band. Thrilling double lead guitars, fabulous rhythm section, tremendous vocal harmonies, and an exciting hint of the jazzy musicianship that would come to mark the band’s identity. The first album features the dazzling "Reelin’ In The Years" and a boatload of sarcasm and heartbreak tucked in beneath the bristling guitar work of Diaz and Baxter. A fine debut, boasting such terrific songs as "Only A Fool Would Say That," "Kings," and "Fire In The Hole," Can’t Buy A Thrill gave them the necessary success they needed to mount a tour, which they did. They actually kept on the road for the better part of two years and as they played, two things happened. Their star rose and their patience fell. Fagen and Becker deplored playing live given the shortcomings of the monitoring equipment of the day. By ’74 and the Pretzel Logic tour, they had had enough and that was it. Jeff Baxter and Jim Hodder were against this turn of events, and little did they know they would both soon be replaced for good by the leading session players of the LA studio scene. Baxter went on to join The Doobie Brothers with fellow Steely Dan alumni Michael McDonald (who first appears on the fourth album Katy Lied) and I’ve never known what happened to Hodder or Dave Palmer, who was actually ousted after the first album and tour. But with the massive radio success of "Do It Again" and "Reelin’ In The Years," Fagen and Becker were in the driver’s seat and never intended to allow anyone else to call the shots in their little jazzbo kingdom.


The jazz begins to creep in more here, setting the stage for a tiny cultural revolution. If you were smart, smoking pot and in college in 1973, you were doing it to this album. Smooth Pop Jazz with blistering electric rock guitar leads makes The Dan of Steel go round and round. Dig the longing in the narrator’s voice on the delicious paean to New Orleans, "Pearl Of The Quarter" and the creepy calm inside the apocalyptic mechanical workout of "King Of The World." Throw in "Bodhisattva," "Your Gold Teeth," and "My Old School," and it's nothing short of a classic.


Here is where it all gels into what they're known and loved for. The hybrid is born, and is a beautiful and prescient child with red, ruby lips and a taste for the absurd. Baxter and Diaz remain, but Hodder is out, replaced by prime session dudes Jim Gordon and Jeff Porcaro. The tone is even darker, the piano even prettier. "Any Major Dude" may be the best thing they ever did. The monumental "Rikki Don’t Lose That Number" scored them their third top ten and guaranteed a future of artistic freedom. They would never make a more fiendishly subversive pop single again. From sipping your drink of choice in the late afternoon of a New York City scene to the sadness and longing of the underbelly of LA nightlife, this is Jewish Jazz Beatles. Want "Eleanor Rigby" circa 1974? Try "Charlie Freak." Want the theme song to the imagined, perverse Bonanza on Donald and Walter’s fazed out TV screen? Cue "With A Gun." Want a new kind of Jazz that’s actually Pop? It’s "Parker’s Band." Want to laugh? "Through With Buzz" and the brilliant "Barrytown" will do just fine. Another giant and three in a row, if you're keeping count.


The machine out of control and out of this world. Finely tuning the monster, writing pop songs of twist and temptation, rhyme and resignation, Becker and Fagen achieve a most impressive thing: their OWN thing. It’s all to themselves now. No one has ever come close to matching it, emulating it, capturing it. For the sax solo on "Doctor Wu," done in one take, mind you, alto player Phil Woods should be knighted and saluted daily. Note the emergence of the inimitable Michael McDonald as one of the key instruments in the Dan arsenal. He hits full pay dirt two years later on AJA. It was the radio play and exposure he got with the Dan that catapulted The Doobies’ Minute By Minute and Christopher Cross into the stratosphere and made radio at the end of the ‘70’s actually a lot sweeter than anyone is willing to admit today. There is no music like "Chain Lightning" or "Black Friday." There is no smarter pop song than "Rose Darling." If pop music is an ocean, these guys are the killer whales.


Jazz Pop perfection achieved. Cocaine, perversion, sodomy, lust, adultery, jealousy, malaise, ennui…you name it. It’s all here. The scintillating Larry Carlton on lead guitar and the remarkable Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie on drums. (Supposedly. Or that’s what he told me when I met him. The liners say it’s Rick Marotta too, but Purdie said it was all him. He also said he played on 21 Beatle tracks, although he would not say which ones. He was awesome, I can tell you that. Grooves as fat as the world.) "Kid Charlemagne," "Don’t Take Me Alive," "Sign In Stranger," "Haitian Divorce," "Green Earrings," "Everything You Did," it’s mind-boggling. Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening.

AJA 1977 A+

The masterwork. A++. Steve Gadd’s tour de force on the title track, the restrained yet bristling ensemble playing, the lyrics pared to the bone and into the marrow, the production and gorgeousness of sound, the Michael McDonald trademarks and Hawaiian fantasy electric lead on "Peg," the wet dream swagger of the Purdie Shuffle on "Home At Last," the nasty funk of "Josie," the ‘so outrageous’ slink of "Black Cow," the hope and hopelessness of "Deacon Blues"… On and on and on, like all great masterpieces. This is right up there with anything you care to mention. And one of the last times such truly HIGH art was a huge commercial hit. Ah, the ‘70’s…They look better and better every day.

GAUCHO 1980 A-

After the triumph of Aja, the boys ran out of steam and took some time off. Searching for the One Past Perfection, they proceeded to disappear up their own arses during the painfully detailed and tiresome sessions for Gaucho. Not that the album is without some great stuff: "Babylon Sisters" and "Hey Nineteen" are as good as anything in the catalog, as is the shiny neo-soul of "Time Out Of Mind." But there’s something lacking in the overall picture. It’s a little too cold for comfort. So exhausted was Walter Becker from the experience, he retired and moved to Hawaii, where he learned yoga, kicked drugs, got married, began and raised a family, and sat in the sun for nearly a decade, only to briefly appear at a session or two depending on how he felt that particular year. The turning point for Walter was producing Rickie Lee Jones’s Flying Cowboys album in 1989, an experience he described as ‘great fun.' Donald Fagen kept working and in 1982, released the brilliant and hopeful The Nightfly (A) featuring the excellent single "IGY (What A Wonderful World)" and the nerd-pop tribute to Dave Brubeck, the fabulous "New Frontier." His second solo outing, Kamakiriad (B+), about a futuristic space-age car called a Kamakiri, was co-produced by Walter Becker. The two remained in contact, but Steely Dan would not resurface until the early ‘90’s, when they decided to take it out of the closet and back on to the road, where they proceeded to play the best live gigs of their fabled and notoriously perfectionist careers. Finally, they ushered in the millennium with Two Against Nature (B+) a fine return featuring the same arching for perfection that somehow soured Gaucho but seemed to play better in a new decade. The followup, Everything Must Go (B+) was more of the same, which is pretty damn good. At their peak, Steely Dan made music of both extreme intellect and extreme groove, subversive humor, brilliant melody and harmony, and heartbreaking pathos, all of which sounds even fresher today than it did then. They are one of the great monuments of American popular music. The Cuervo Gold? The fine Colombian? Yes, fine, fine. It's Steely Dan that makes tonight a wonderful thing.

Sept. '05

The answer they reveal: Life is unreal.