June 24, 2023


The Graceful Failures of Steely Dan: The true key to the band's greatness is not their famous perfectionism. (ALEX PAPPADEMAS AND JOAN LEMAY, MAY 28, 2023, Slate)

Once you've lived with Katy Lied it's hard to imagine it sounding any way except the way it sounds--the basement-apartment rumble of the bass, the hollow underwater quality of the drums on "Everyone's Gone to the Movies," the way the cymbals on "Dr. Wu" hiss like an inner tube's last breath. Like the photo on the album cover, the music is greenish-brown and out of focus, and it doesn't get that much sharper or more present even if you crank the volume; every copy of Katy Lied sounds like an old cassette tape baked in dashboard sun for three or more summers. You can't hear Katy Lied the way Donald and Walter intended; the only Katy Lied experience you can have is the compromised version.

Steely Dan are famous, or infamous, for their perfectionism, for redoing and redoing and redoing until the oxide flaked from their master tapes. But when you get down to it, so many of the stories about how their records came to be are really stories about human error and Steely Dan falling victim to circumstances even control freaks couldn't control. In the liner notes to the 1998 reissue of Countdown to Ecstasy, Donald and Walter describe trying again and again to add three notes to a particular section of Denny Dias' guitar part on "Show Biz Kids."

"No matter how many times we punched in," they write, "these three notes refused to stick to the tape."

Eventually a surgical splice was performed, and the notes were added manually. Afterward, they wrote, "we sent the little piece of defective tape back to 3M. Months later, they sent us their report. The piece of tape had a tiny blister where the oxide had bubbled up from the backing. Inside this little blister was a drop of mustard. Some clot up in Minnesota had taken his sandwich into the room in the plant where the huge sheets of mylar were coated with oxide, taken a bite and squirted a tiny drop of mustard onto the mylar on the exact spot where we were going to put Denny's guitar part. In effect, our efforts had been sabotaged in advance by a careless worker. This was to haunt us over and over in the years to come."

There's one conception of rock music where the recording process is less about capturing the Platonic ideal of a song and more about documenting people in a room grappling toward that ideal, even if they can't quite get there; recording is about catching unplanned moments of vehemence or trance or grace or badassery as they happen to happen. Steely Dan were after the actual ideal, and that's part of what their detractors don't like about them--they wanted the songs to sound a certain way, and pursued that fidelity at the expense of the spontaneity and friction essential to the part of rock that's derived from rock 'n' roll, producing spotless recordings conveying no sense of musicians tumbling down the same hill together or breathing each other's smoke and funk in enclosed spaces.

But the story of Steely Dan is only superficially about a band making the most impossibly smooth and flawless music the world had ever heard; it's really about a band setting out to do that, committing to the goal so completely they were willing to sacrifice fellowship and profit and even their own mental health to achieve it, and being thwarted over and over--by the limitations of their collaborators, by their ability to capture what those players did in the room, by the technology available to them in their time.

The hidden Torah of Steely Dan (Jeffrey Salkin, 5/24/23, RNS)

Imagine my utter joy when I opened the new book about Steely Dan -- "Quantum Criminals: Ramblers, Wild Gamblers, and Other Sole Survivors from the Songs of Steely Dan," by Alex Pappademas and Joan Lemay.

This is the finest piece of rock journalism that I have read in a long time. It is up there with the late Paul Williams of 1960s "Crawdaddy" magazine (I still have every single issue of that short-lived magazine, in mint condition); Greil Marcus; and the late Lester Bangs, who was portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Almost Famous."

Steely Dan populated their songs with people who live on the margins of society: drug dealers ("Kid Charlemagne"); strivers for incest ("Cousin Dupree"); a Charles Whitman-type sniper in the bell tower ("Don't Take Me Alive"), social outcasts and poseurs ("Gaucho"), and various, assorted losers.

The authors speculate about the people in the songs. Plus, Joan Lemay's wonderful art work depicts what they must have looked like.

As for me, I have long wondered about the following questions:

Why should Rikki not lose that number? What was it the number to? (There really is a Rikki, the authors tell us).
In "Any Major Dude Will Tell You," what is a squonk? What is up with a squonk's tears? (Don't worry; there is a wonderful artistic rendition of what one looks like)
Who is Doctor Wu? What kind of doctor is he?
What did Katy lie about?
Who is "The Razor Boy? "(Death?)
Why is Napoleon in "Pretzel Logic?"
What is really going on in the song "Kings?" Is it a song that takes place in medieval times, as in King Richard the Lionhearted dying, and King John succeeding him? Or (this is wild!), is it about Richard Nixon losing the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy?
In "Everyone's Gone to the Movies," Isn't Mr. LaPage showing pornographic movies to kids?

So, what we have here are back stories about the music.

Or, if you will, midrash: musical exegesis. If classic midrash is the filling in of the white spaces between the black letters in the scroll, then this book is a filling in of the silences between the notes in the songs.

There is something metaphorically Jewish in all that, and we should not be surprised.

Posted by at June 24, 2023 12:00 AM