Steely Dan rode into my adolescent record collection under surreal circumstances. I was 12 when I joined the Columbia House Record Club, taping my penny to the postcard, checking my selections and waiting what seemed a sadistically long purgatorial term for the fulfillment. Processing and shipment and delivery of everything were glacial back then, and I think it was that way for reasons more punitive and moralistic than practical. Consumerism then had a scolding and dissuasive side that it has utterly lost. Credit card companies did everything in their power to deny applicants and make them feel bad about themselves, and interest rates were 25 percent, with stiff penalties on top. Shit was rare. You had to listen to the records that you bought because there weren’t any others, and you really had to take care of your appliances. There were lines at the gas station and the tanks were empty anyway. Flying was simply not for most of us. I listened to Steely Dan, closely and repeatedly.
The Record Club choices themselves had been agonizing and protracted, based on my very limited musical familiarity and on the effusive blurbs in the Columbia House catalogue, where everything was touted as incendiary and incisive. So if you think that recorded music itself is the only thing devalued by our current on-demand and virtually free model of music distribution, think again. Music writers – even those hacks like me hired to blurb the record club catalogues (actually they were probably moonlighting Rolling Stone and Circus writers) – were steering rivers of money that simply no longer exist. Now we steer rivers of hits, likes, plays, views, tags and all the other promissory tokens of networking with no redemption.
I was sick with a high fever when the cardboard box of 12 records arrived, and my feelings about certain records will be forever colored by that association. What else was in there besides the Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill and Pretzel Logic? Well, a lot of crap that I never bonded with, as I recall: something by Shawn Phillips, and maybe a Les Dudek record. But I dumb-lucked-in a couple that would stick with me for life, foremost among them Stevie Wonder’s trio of masterworks Talking Book, Innervisions (best album ever?) and the underrated Fulfillingness’ First Finale. How I was so sensible as to order three Stevie records I’ll never understand.
Also in there was Jethro Tull’s War Child – a fairly low light in their catalogue, according to the standard line – but I found it incendiary and incisive, my favorite by Ian and the boys and certainly a big commercial success, as the first two tracks were two of their greatest hits: the lovely and strange “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day” and the stupid-but-cool “Bungle in the Jungle.” The one that I fixed on was “Only Solitaire,” of which YouTube user SuperCartiel writes, “This song can make an alicorn have a wingboner.” It’s true.
To this day, I can’t hear “Any Major Dude,” or “Turn that Heartbeat over Again,” or “Dirty Work” or “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” or “Jesus Children of America” without feeling a little woozy, nauseous and hallucinatory. I am thrown back into the exhausted body and temporarily softened mind of that fever-enfeebled, sleepless and undernourished 12-year-old languishing in the living room for a week, doing nothing but spinning the first favorites to emerge from “the 12” – the Duzine of his taste – literally stewing himself in the slick jazzified harmony of Stevie and the Dan. It got in. It changed me. It smarted me up.
What a tricky thing it is to understand Steely Dan, their place in cultural and music history and the powerfully divided opinions and emotions attached to their work. Their most divisive records are the later ones, beginning with The Royal Scam (their fifth) and peaking with the two megahits that followed, Aja and Gaucho, the two albums that in the opinion of “players” of a certain age represent the pinnacle of rock sophistication and achievement.
To those who loathe them, they embody all that is tepid, crassly sophisticated, smug and complacent about academic “studio cat” rock. Those who revere Becker and Fagen regard them as misunderstood subversives, progressives and revolutionaries, one of the few (or maybe the only) bands in rock history successfully to incorporate the elegant tensions and dissonant colors of modern jazz into ironic and deceptively dark rock songwriting.
Wrote a music critic whom I respect: “antiseptic test-tube elevator Muzak.” Wrote the visionary Canadian novelist William Gibson, “among the most genuinely subversive oeuvres in late-20th-century pop.” I don’t know, man. What else would you expect from a couple of Bardies?
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, also known as Steely Dan, won’t be headed back to Annandale, but will be hitting up the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on Saturday, July 9 at 7 p.m. Fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Steve Winwood joins them on the bill. Tickets cost $60, $90, $120 and $192 for reserved tickets, and $35.50 for general admission to the lawn. For tickets and more information, visit www.bethelwoodscenter.org. The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is located at 200 Hurd Road in Bethel.
Steely Dan/Steve Winwood, Saturday, July 9, 7 p.m., $35.50-$192, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, 200 Hurd Road, Bethel; www.bethelwoodscenter.org.