RIP Walter Becker.
Not many musicians were involved in a run as productive and consistently sublime as Steely Dan’s. My life, in short, would make much less sense without his work.
Here’s my tribute, from (yikes) 2006.
Steely Dan will not be denied. At this rate, within the next decade or so, the total of greatest hits collections will surpass the number of actual albums they made. This, shall we say, lack of restraint does not necessarily become the badass band that famously refused to tour and took its name from a dildo in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. And yet, the music makes most of their excesses excusable. Unfortunately, there is not much new or provocative in this latest set. Fortunately, it’s still fantastic.
Steely Dan, these days, is kind of like the kid you remember as an insufferable smarty-pants from high school who rolls up at the reunion suddenly the coolest dude in the class. Only more so. They could be accused of many things (and they are), but Steely Dan was never stupid: they knew enough to get out while the getting was bad, and managed to avoid ever making a substandard record. Indeed, their swan song, Gaucho, was not their finest hour, and if the sweetly sung invocation of the semi-obligatory addictions of its time (“The Cuervo gold / The fine Colombian”) is any indication, it’s not a stretch to speculate where most of the royalties from Aja went. After that, they stayed gone until deciding it was safe to come up for air, touring in the ’90s and making new music in the new millennium.
Steely Dan remains impossible to pigeonhole, and therein lies their difficult-to-define appeal. How many other bands could boast their jazz influences so brazenly as to build their biggest hit (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”) on a Horace Silver standard, and then sing wistfully about Owsley Stanley, the legendary chemist who supplied, among many others, the Merry Pranksters with the fodder for their acid tests (“Kid Charlemagne”)? Answer: exactly one. These guys were smart. They were also shrewd: the best player-coaches of their era, Walter Becker (bass and guitars) and Donald Fagen (keyboards, vocals) made albums with a sweet sheen that just barely subdued the strained malaise always lurking beneath. Take “Black Friday,” for instance, which chugs along pleasantly enough until the lyrics kick in: “When Black Friday comes I’ll stand down by the door / And catch the grey men when they dive from the fourteenth floor.”
A band has to know its limitations, so Steely Dan built their studio of dreams, and sure enough, the players came. Looking at the personnel listed on virtually every song is like reviewing a roster of (mostly) unsung heroes from the ’70s: Pete Chistlieb, Larry Carlton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Jeff Porcaro — to name but a handful. Notorious control freaks who spurned world tours, and wanting the best of all other worlds, Steely Dan made their unique blend of perfection seem, or at least sound, effortless, conjuring up the production chops of George Martin, the sonic skills of Phil Spector, and the sardonic acumen of Captain Beefheart. Somehow, it worked.
Not many white guys could ask the world to call them “Deacon Blues” and avoid coming off like William Shatner. Listening now, it seems safe to suggest that Steely Dan was rock music’s stealthy shadow, filling in some of the dark space between bloated early ’70s side-long suites and the stripped-down punk rock revolution. These studio nerds’ street cred only escalates in hindsight, especially when considered alongside the pantsuit pomposity of, say, 1975. (Emerson Lake & Palmer, anyone?) Mostly behind the scenes, Steely Dan blazed an eccentric trail no one could copy, with one foot in a past they knew better than to reproduce, the other foot in a future they ultimately became too uncomfortable describing.
And so, another Steely Dan collection? The question should not be who wants this album; the answer is who needs it, and that would include anyone not already in the know. For the uninitiated, it’s a safe bet and hopefully will serve as a gateway to more dangerous Dan. Those seeking familiar favorites will not be disappointed: “Reelin’ in the Years,” “My Old School,” and “Peg” are a few of the usual suspects making another curtain call here. Like most compilations of well-known bands, half the songs have been beaten into banality by unimaginative radio stations, or else — the ultimate sign of dubious immortality — born again as Muzak. None of this, naturally, is the artists’ fault. As such, it’s hard to quibble with a collection that includes, as it must, the hits. As an incremental bonus, The Definitive Collection features a couple of samples from the Y2K incarnation, which are just enough to render the glory days more immutable. Steely Dan has not died, and they are still the coolest dudes in the class.