During times of chaos, it’s natural to seek some semblance of control. So it’s probably no surprise that, as the coronavirus quarantine took hold, I turned to a band I always find comforting. I can’t think of music more perfectly controlled than the roughly six hours and 10 minutes worth of songs that Steely Dan recorded. Just don’t call it easy-listening. Sure, as they evolved from an ace L.A. rock band to a precision jazz-pop unit, their tunes only grew more swinging and pretty. But beneath all that beauty were tales of killers and creeps, dudes who were into their cousins or dudes who were into women way too young for them. No amount of gorgeous saxophone solos could mask the spiritual wretchedness at the center of these songs. If this is how the world ends — with idiots ignoring warnings to practice social distancing and the rich hogging access to medical help — then I won’t be shocked. Steely Dan prepared me.
In the early 1970s, they started out as a proper band with guitarists, a bass player and a drummer. But eventually Steely Dan’s founders, keyboardist/singer Donald Fagen and guitarist/bassist Walter Becker, decided they didn’t need to keep anybody else around — they’d just hire musicians to record in the studio. That desire for complete control was there basically from the beginning, and it’s telling that the first song off their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill’s profoundly chilling “Do It Again,” set the tone for everything else they’d ever do.
“Do It Again” is pure pleasure for the ear, but it’s a gruesome story of violence, revenge, addiction and lust. Perversely, the song was a massive hit, establishing the group’s sarcastic, weary worldview, which was all about surveying the wreckage of wasted lives with a dispassionate eye. As consistent as Steely Dan’s flawless music was, so too was their pessimistic message — although, it’s worth pointing out that anyone who wrote about disillusionment and fuck-ups as obsessively as Fagen and Becker did must, to some degree, hope that their witty cynicism and brainy arrangements could somehow keep that feeling of futility at arms’ length.
The global apocalypses and intimate meltdowns Steely Dan chronicled in their albums — which bore such bleak and/or enigmatic titles as Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam and Everything Must Go — were so brilliantly rendered that they made annihilation seem ecstatically inviting. (One of the biggest cheers from the crowd at a Dan show in L.A. is during “My Old School” when Fagen sings, “California tumbles into the sea.”) The resigned, drunken failure of “Deacon Blues”; the frightening drug high in “Time Out of Mind”; the impending cataclysm in “Black Friday”: The guitars, keyboards, horns and background vocals are all so velvety-smooth, their darker meanings swimming like a shark underneath the shimmering surface, ready to strike.
It’s impossible to separate the band’s era from their ethos. If you view the 1970s as the brutal crash after the previous decade’s brief period of love and optimism — of social change and elevated consciousness — then Steely Dan is the soundtrack for how the whole thing went to hell. In their songs, drugs are nightmarish, love ends in betrayal and optimists are just idiots waiting to be bilked. The fact that Fagen and Becker were so successful early in their career only added to their legend — it gave them the perfect vantage point to survey the empty avarice that defined the music business and would become the marching orders for the country at large during the 1980s. Societal collapse runs rampant in Steely Dan’s music — we listen because we know the bitter truth, but we wouldn’t mind being able to hum along.
And yet, that flagrant bleakness is itself a mask, hiding the deep compassion that, when the Dan chose to reveal it, could be devastating. The melancholy affair going nowhere in “Dirty Work” breaks my heart every time — just like I feel for the despondent guy trying to laugh in the frozen rain in “Bad Sneakers.”
This might be why some of my closest connections are to fellow Steely Dan fans. None of them are the bastards or burnouts you hear Fagen sing about — they’re smart, sensitive folks who relish the band’s endless supply of intricately wonderful tunes and clever lyrics. As this pandemic has taken hold, I’ve thought about them a lot as I blast “Monkey in Your Soul,” “The Caves of Altamira” or other personal favorites that never sniffed the charts. I think about the buddy who lives far enough away that we really only get together for Steely Dan concerts — or the pal whose friendship was cemented when we ended up sitting next to each other on a plane and discovered how much we both worship the band. I thought about my dad, who only recently got into Steely Dan and was instantly subjected to me constantly suggesting songs to him. For music about such colossal pricks, Steely Dan’s music is filled with warm associations I have with others who love their songs. I hope they’re all doing okay.
And I think of one of the group’s most tender tracks, Pretzel Logic’s reassuring “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.” Never someone you’d describe as sappy, the acerbic Fagen lowers his guard to offer a little comfort to a troubled friend…
I never seen you looking so bad, my funky one
You tell me that your superfine mind has come undone
Any major dude with half a heart, surely will tell you my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more
Any major dude will tell you
Any major dude will tell you
Naturally, “Any Major Dude” is very easy to listen to. But it’s also a rare glimmer of hope in a body of work that often eschews such naked sentiment. I’ve been playing it a lot during this quarantine. You, me and Steely Dan will get through this together.