I first posted this 8 years ago but in honor of Walter Becker I'll run it again. The term "alloy" used in the Mojo article is so perfect for Steely Dan.
I love Steely Dan - have for years. Great music, subversive, literary, non-standard lyrics. And I also love the impact they have on music critics. There is something about writing about SD that makes music critics wax eloquent.
I first noticed this in an article in the British rock magazine Mojo in 1995, which you can conveniently read on Steely Dan's own web site:
Once upon a time, they were the odd couple in rock. They wrote songs that featured knuckle-knotting chords and brain-twisting lyrics. They welded jazz and rock into an alloy so smooth and shiny it was impossible to tell where the one ended and the other began. They gave up on live performance a decade before it became commonplace. They sneered at the world from a position of bohemian priority so rarefied it was hard to tell exactly where it was situated. They routinely ran rings around interviews. They haven't changed.I was reminded of the Dan-critic synergy because this week, Mike Powell, the Village Voice's music critic has full-blown Dan Syndrome:
The band metes out some free breadsticks and doggy paddles through a couple of songs. Some are so ferociously anticipated by the crowd that it doesn't really matter when the band plays them like clinicians. But most of Friday and Saturday's sets reveal muscles in the music that I never heard on record. "Black Friday" and "Kid Charlemagne" drive the fans to fits, and rightfully, and how. But the real revelation, to me at least, were the slowest, darkest ones: "Haitian Divorce," "The Royal Scam," the unhurried nightmare of "Third World Man" - songs that crawl through apocalyptic visions, each downbeat a crush followed by jets of fume. Live, they pulled weight more reminiscent of heavy metal than cocktail rocks.
On Wednesday, the band cancelled and rescheduled a show in which they'd been scheduled to play the entirety of 1980's Gaucho. In lieu of the concert, I visited my dad, the man partially responsible for my obsession with pop music. Waiting for the rain to calm down, he tossed his umbrella back and forth between hands. "Steely Dan, yeah." He looked out at traffic with the screwed-up face of someone who just saw mouse innards smeared on the sidewalk. "I never 'got' Steely Dan. 'You've been telling me you were a genius since you were 17,' " he continued, quoting "Reelin' in the Years." "It's what I like to call 'feel-bad' music. I only ever really liked 'Don't Take Me Alive.' The image of this guy locked in a room with a bunch of dynamite - that always seemed very Steely Dan to me."
After the performance of Aja on Saturday night, a young man in the row ahead of me shouts for "Don't Take Me Alive." He shouts for it after every song, louder each time. (Fagen finally responds to the hail of requests by saying, " 'Ribbity-bibbity-boppity-boo.' That's what it sounds like to me up here.") Finally, Becker plays a fractured, detached guitar figure. The young man rises, victorious, his fists in the air. An older man next to him, presumably his father, points to him, smiling, proud. Then Fagen sings the song, about a guy locked in a room with a bunch of dynamite. I know what you mean about feel-bad music, but Dad, the crowd likes it.
Unfortunately I couldn't find a good live version of Third World Man on youtube, although Powell had me jonesing seriously to hear it live, but I did find a good "Don't Take Me Alive"
Agents of the law
I know you're out there
With rage in your eyes and your megaphones
Saying all is forgiven
Mad dog surrender
How can I answer
A man of my mind can do anything
I'm a bookkeeper's son
I don't want to shoot no one
Well I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don't take me alive
Got a case of dynamite
I could hold out here all night
Yes I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don't take me alive
Can you hear the evil crowd
The lies and the laughter
I hear my inside
The mechanized hum of another world
Where no sun is shining
No red light flashing
Here in this darkness
I know what I've done
I know all at once who I am