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Alex V. Cook is an author, journalist and music critic living Baton Rouge, LA. His work has appeared in The Believer, The Oxford American, DownBeat, Paste Magazine, Hails and Horns and The Wire, and his first collection of essays Darkness, Racket and Twang: Essential Listening from the Fringes of Popular and Unpopular Culture was published by Side Cartel in 2006.

He is the music editor for outsideleft.com, editor for Sweet Tooth, and a frequent contributor to 225 Magazine, OffBeat and Country Roads.

He is a founding contributor to the Badasses of Contemporary Composition blog.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Monkey in my Soul, part 3

part 3 of my ongoing exporation of the nagging persistence of Steely Dan

As I’ve been working through the Steely Dan catalog, I’ve been collecting the experiences of those who have either struggled against this sworn enemy or who defy the ravages of lactose intolerance with a diet enriched in milquetoast and cheese, but none match my boy Jimmy, who consistently has the best reasons for hating something:

Yikes, I hate Steely Dan.

I have a weird reason why though. I had to do a bunch of computer work for a guy who only listened to Steely Dan an always brought his dog with himand he only wore Tommy Hilfiger windsuits, at least after 5:00, likeat 5:00, he changed into a windsuit, and was ultra proud of them...and would say, "Did you know that this is 'Tommy'?"

Anyway...he would play this one Steely Dan album over and overand every once in a while, I would look up from my work (installing RAM or whatever) and see the poodle kinda half-heartedly humping the arm of the couch and Steve would be just enjoying the Steely Dan in his Tommy windsuit.



That album would be 1972’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill” the opening salvo in Becker and Fagen’s decade spanning assault on us all. The thing that struck me first about this album is how divergent the styles are here, and how I previously though a number of the big hits were by other artists for whom I had an equal distaste. I had always thought Steve Miller the culprit for “Do It Again” and held some late permutation of Crosby, Stills and Nash responsible for “Dirty Work,” threatening me with the possibility that I might actually like The Steve Miller Band and CSN were I to give them a chance. And I am not ready for that.

Now looking at it with fresh eyes, I like the lava flow opening of “Do I Again” the sub bossa-nova bobbing in a deluge of molten electric piano with wafts of Spanish guitar blowing around. It captures the drug-hazy carpet-bombing that was post-hippy pre-Reagan America. The album comes three years after Altamont where mellow was forever harshed, and I see it fitting in with a couple of stellar apocalyptic numbers of the era: Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” all finding a way to make some sort of cultural statement from the detritus that surrounded.

And come to find that despite the cornola SNL band sax lines (which were also being invented at the time, partly due to “walk on the Wild Side”) “Dirty Work” is a nice dagger in a bouquet, upsetting the Hallmark sentimentality of concurrent groups like America and Bread with disdain. “I’m a fool to do your dirty work” strikes me somewhere between apology and irony, much like on Kings where its stated “We’ve seen the last of Good King Richard” (I’m guessing this is Nixon) when they knew well and good that we would only see more Good King Richards to come in perpetuity.

The song that would set Jimmy into a tailspin, though was the only Steely Dan song I’d ever fess up to liking “Reelin in the Years,” another that for the longest time I assumed was also by a cooler band. It is impossible to shun the allure of the overdriven solo that opens that song, and the vitriol with which Fagen dresses down his partner. This song rocks too to be Steely Dan, and it makes me wonder what would have become of the group had they held on to the more raw sound in this song than further delving into abject pasteurization. I think its inclusion on this record, and island of jaggedness jutting from calm waters, shows that the band might also have at one time borne the same sentiment, that despite the mission statement they go through, holding up finely crafted funhouse mirror to distort the weakened masses even further, there are times when you have to rock.

The rest of the album seem to struggle with the need to rock and the propensity to roll downhill like the rest of the shit miring 1972. The line opening “Midnite Cruiser”

Felonius my old friend
Step on in and let me shake your hand
So glad that you're here again
For one more time
Let your madness run with mine
Streets still unseen we'll find somehow
No time is better than now

The brio of implying that two corny white guys, in a mission from God to ruin both rock and roll and jazz simultaneously, comparing themselves to the maddest of hipsters Thelonius Monk, is telling of the irony people always talk about with them. Thelonius was a destroyer as well, he was a Don Quixote jousting the windmills of jazz uprooting each spinning grist mill from its foundation with each blow to the piano, but he was a dismantler from within. Felonius is right.

To me it seems Steely Dan was really investigating the flipside of Miles Davis’ destruction of society that started in 1969 with “Bitches Brew” and culminated with the gauntlet that was “On The Corner” in 1972. How dare the greatest jazz musician stop making jazz altogether, as Miles did on this testament to dissent? Maybe when society has failed you, you are free to fail society – you give us Vietnam, we’ll give you fusion. And unlike your success on selling us on the War, we can make you like this.

Now, I still like “On the Corner” now that the badge-of-honour for knowing the album sits on in my nightstand instead of on my uniform. It’s a rude, disarming, careening record. You will test positive for heroin residue just by having it blare through your headphones. Punk’s dismantling of the status quo four years later has nothing on the spit-in-the-mirror that is “On the Corner” but I think it was all part of the intellectual dissent of the time. And despite their later participation in the Great Erosion of Rock and Roll, Steely Dan was also an agent of subversion. Like a mangy poodle humping the arm of the couch shamelessly in front of you, it’s a reminder that all is not well in the great order.

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