Graded on a Curve: Steely Dan,
Pretzel Logic

Steely Dan was Thee Consummate anti-garage band of the seventies. Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen didn’t just polish their LPs; they buffed, burnished, lacquered, and airbrushed them until they were as perfect as Andy Gibbs’ coif. The Kings of Studio Sheen were perfect examples of what could be done if you were willing to spend 4,000 hours creating LPs as high gloss as a Lamborghini just off the assembly line. They produced the most waxed wax this side of insane perfectionist Tom Scholz of Boston, who has been known to spend a good decade spiffing up an LP before it meets his impossibly exacting standards.

Lots of people hate Steely Dan for this—I myself, a big Dan fan, want nothing to do with anything they released after 1976’s The Royal Scam, because they finally took the whole 50,000 coats of lacquer shtick a bit too far, while also moving towards a smooth jazz/pop fusion that left me cold—but I’ll stand by their earlier LPs to the end. Over the course of four years they released five albums that boasted great melodies, brilliant lyrics, and the best studio musicians money could buy, including guitarists Rick “All-American Boy” Derringer, Elliott “Total Fucking Genius” Randall, and Larry Carlton, which is why you’ll search in vain for a mediocre guitar solo on a Steely Dan record. They had impeccable tastes in ringers.

The Steely Dan story is familiar to most; Becker and Fagen met at ultra-liberal arts Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York (where I once spent a weekend so dissipated that when I left my pal Dan, a Bard student, was pissing blood), formed a band they named after a dildo from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and in 1972 put out debut Can’t Buy a Thrill, which turned them into overnight sensations thanks to its songs “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” (I remember my eighth grade English teacher, a young and pretty flower child type, playing them for the class as examples of the “groovy new poetry” being “dug” by young people).

Next came 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy, then 1974’s excellent Pretzel Logic, at which point Becker and Fagen—much to the dismay of their band mates—opted to quit touring, preferring to hole up in the studio to pursue perfection, like Ahab, the great white whale of the perfectly produced LP, often by making their fellow musicians do as many as 40 takes of each track. Then again, Boston’s Tom Scholz is said to have redone a single drum part 108 times, so compared to him Steely Dan is practically lo-fi. Finally, my history of Steely Dan ends with 1975’s Katy Lied and 1976’s The Royal Scam, both of which include scads of wonderful tunes.

As do all of Steely Dan’s pre-Aja LPs, which is what makes picking a fave LP to review so tough. It’s no easy task, choosing between LPs that contain such classics as “Dirty Work,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Show Biz Kids,” “My Old School,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” “Barrytown,” “Doctor Wu,” “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” “Kid Charlemagne,” and “Don’t Take Me Alive.” Frankly, I don’t know where I’d be without these tunes. Probably right where I am now. But I’d be a poorer man; I just wouldn’t know it.

I finally opted for Pretzel Logic for two reasons; one, it includes two of my very favorite Becker/Fagen songs, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”; and two, I’d never been wild about the LP’s jazz-heavy later cuts, and I wanted to find out if I’d changed my opinion about them since I’d last listened to the record. Pretzel Logic is unique in that Jeff “Skunk” Baxter plays all the guitar solos; Steely Dan employed no ringers on this baby. It’s also unique in that the band (Fagen on keyboards, saxophone, and lead vocals; Becker on bass, guitar, and background vocals; Baxter on lead guitar; Denny Dias on guitar; and Jim Hodder on backing vocals) doesn’t include a drummer; instead, sessions guys Jim Gordon (who went on to murder his mom) and Jeff Porcaro (who went on to join Toto, which is worse) handle all the drum parts. A small army of musicians contributed to Pretzel Logic, including six horn players, three keyboardists, four bass players—and you get the idea. That studio must have been as packed as tightly as a lifeboat from The Titanic.

Anyhoo, LP opener “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is a classic rock number, and I’ve thought so since the very first time I heard it, on American Top 40 while sitting in the family Plymouth Fury outside an antique shop on the road to Gettysburg, where my mom was looking for steals. It sounded great then and it sounds great now, a hard rocker with that lackadaisical opening guitar and fabulous melody, not to mention those slick guitars and the nice piano work. Then there’s Baxter’s guitar solo, which is among my World Favorites, and Fagen’s vocals, which are impassioned and don’t sound at all cynical or sarcastic—charges frequently leveled (often justly) at the band, as if cynicism, sarcasm, and irony are bad things.

Meanwhile, “Night by Night” is a funky, drum-driven tune that features lots of horns, to say nothing of a Baxter solo that is even better than the one on “Rikki.” Fagen opens the song with the lines, “It’s a beggars life, said the Queen of Spain/But don’t tell it to a poor man/’Cause he’s got to kill for every thrill/The best he can,” a line that could as well have come from Charles Manson. And he continues on to the chorus, “Well I don’t really care/If it’s wrong or if it’s right/But until my ship comes in/I’ll live night… by… night.” Then Becker storms back in on his guitar, and takes the tune to Fadeoutville.

“Any Major Dude Will Tell You” is one of the prettier songs I know, opening with acoustic guitar and a nifty organ after which Fagen offers solace—to a friend or possible romantic interest—by singing, “When the demon is at your door/In the morning it won’t be there no more.” The melody is delicate but lively and to die for, perhaps not literally, but that’s your call. And once again Fagen, chiefly a satirist, manages to infuse lots of pathos into his vocals, especially during the chorus: “Any major dude with half a heart/Surely will tell you my friend/Any minor world that breaks apart/Falls together again.” I love the very seventies lingo of the opening lines: “I never seen you looking so bad my funky one/You tell me that your superfine mind has come undone,” as well as the cryptic, “Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears?/Well, look at mine.” I submit to you: any song this lovely, and includes the word “squonk” to boot, is a great, great song. To hear ii is to love it, or you’re even more of a cynic than I am, which I’m not sure is humanly possible.

“Barrytown” is fast and boasts an infectious melody and one of the best power pop choruses (“I can see by what you carry/That you come from Barrytown”) ever written about Barrytown, NY, whose citizenry has no reason to be proud, what with Fagen insulting their clothing and hairstyles before concluding, “People from Barrytown got to be from another world.” I love the facetious lines, “Don’t believe I’m taken in by stories I have heard/I just read the Daily News and swear by every word.” But the reason you’ll love this one, unless you’re a cretin or happen to be from Barrytown, is (to borrow a word from Fagen) its superfine melody and fabulous chorus, both of which are as infectious as a horror movie virus.

The band’s adaptation of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” by Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley (??) sounds like it was fun to make, but not as much fun to hear. Unless you’re an Ellington fan, that is, which I’m not; “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” was first recorded in 1926, and I can’t say I like any jazz before Lester Young and the bebop, rebop, and free-form “jass” that followed. Anyway, I don’t have much to say about the song, except that I find it the LP’s weak link but can understand if you don’t, because the musicianship is impressive.

Follow-up “Parker’s Band” continues on the jazz note, not because it’s a jazz song (although it incorporates jazz elements) but because it’s about bebop great Charlie Parker. Fagen opens the song by singing, “Savoy sides presents a new saxophone sensation/It’s Parker’s band with a smooth style of syncopation” to the accompaniment of guitars that have a jazz fusion feel to them, which I dislike, but the song both moves (as in fast) and swings, both of which I do like. The bridge is a bit cheesy for my tastes, but I love Fagen’s lyrics, “You’ll by riding by, bareback on your armadillo/You’ll be grooving high or relaxing at Camarillo/Suddenly the music hits you/It’s a bird in flight that just can’t quit you.”

Following such seeming oblique lyrics is simpler if you know Savoy was Parker’s record label, Camarillo is the California state mental hospital where Parker spent six months detoxing from heroin and booze, and his nickname was “Yardbird” or just “Bird.” As for “Through With Buzz,” it may well be Steely Dan’s shortest song at 1:34, and is a bitter complaint about, well, Buzz, whoever he may be. All we know about him is he’s constantly borrowing money, stealing the singer’s girl, and in general being a, er, buzzkill. The song is heavily laden with strings or a keyboard imitating strings, and perks up at about the same time the singer wonders whether Buzz is a fairy, as in a tutu-wearing sprite waving a magic wand. This one’s no great shakes, but it’s as listenable as it is negligible, at least by Steely Dan standards.

“Pretzel Logic” is a bluesy, jazz-tinged number that sounds like the music of the band’s future. The song is awash in horns, and Baxter plays like a maniac throughout, especially towards the end. It opens with organ, and then the drums come in, and Fagen commences to sing the blues, but his blues might as well be Dylan’s Basement Tapes blues, they’re so surreal: “I have never met Napoleon/But I plan to find the time/I have never met Napoleon/But I plan to find the time.” Then Baxter plays a carefully constructed and brilliant solo, after which Fagen sings, “I stepped up on the platform/The man gave me the news/He said, You must be joking son/Where did you get those shoes?/Where did you get those shoes?” Is he about to be hanged? Who knows? All I know for certain is that this is one great song, from its vocal harmonies to the horn arrangement to the pessimistic lines, “Well, I’ve seen ’em on the TV, the movie show/They say the times are changing but I just don’t know.”

“With a Gun” is the least likely Steely Dan song I’ve ever heard. In fact if Fagen weren’t singing I’d never guess it was the work of Becker/Fagen, chiefly because it’s practically a country song, albeit a fast one. It opens with acoustic guitars, after which a wiry Dylanesque guitar comes in, and the song doesn’t have even the slightest tinge of jazz to it. There’s a great tambourine, Baxter’s licks are great, and I suspect it’s not about the Wild West but about modern times and dope dealing or some such, because Fagen sings, “You hide in the bushes/Murder the man/With Luger in hand,” and as everybody knows cowboys didn’t carry Lugers because they hadn’t been invented yet, and besides were a German pistol of the sort carried by Colonel Klink.

As for “Charlie Freak,” it’s a decent song, heavy on the syncopation and piano, with a great title and a sad but touching story line. Charlie Freak is a fellow down on his luck, with one possession, a golden ring, which the singer buys for “chicken feed.” Alas, Mr. Freak uses the proceeds to buy heroin, and promptly ODs: “Poor kid, he overdid/Embraced the spreading haze/And while he sighed his body died/In fifteen ways.” Steely Dan has always been known for its sarcasm and irony, but in “Charlie Freak” they demonstrate some rare and irony-free compassion with the touching lines: “When I heard I grabbed a cab to where he lay/’Round his arm the plastic tag read D.O.A./Yes Jack, I gave it back/The ring I could not own/Now come my friend I’ll take your hand/And lead you home.” Amazing.

Like “With a Gun” and “Charlie Freak,” LP closer “Monkey in Your Soul” isn’t your standard Steely Dan fare. Instead it’s one very funky and syncopated tune that opens with a distorted guitar and one super-fuzzed-out bass, and boasts a great keyboard riff and some really cool horns, to say nothing of a jazzy guitar solo by Baxter. Meanwhile, Fagen sings, “Don’t you think it was wrong/To interrupt my song/I’ll pack my things and run so far from here/Goodbye dear/I fear the monkey in your soul.” And I love the lines, “Won’t you turn that bebop down?/I can’t hear my heart beat” almost as much as I love the line, “Turn up the Eagles the neighbors are listening” from Steely Dan’s very Randy Newman-like “Everything You Did” off The Royal Scam.

As I said at the beginning, for four years and five albums Steely Dan put out some of the best music coming out of America, or anywhere for that matter. I will never understand their detractors, but then again hardly anybody understands my conviction that The Beatles weren’t all that, so there. Steely Dan released witty, super-sophisticated, and intelligent music that was polished to a fault, and it’s the heavy-handed varnishing people resent, that and the jazz touches (so many people despise jazz!) and in some cases, the band’s perceived coldness, which stems from their heavy use of irony, satire, and sarcasm, and which many interpret as smug and snotty. The trick is to forget the studio sheen and the ironic lyrics and just enjoy the amazing songs, unless you’re one of those who can’t stomach Donald Fagen’s voice, in which case I recommend you forget about it and stick with Journey, you low-rent philistine.

Me, I’ll always love the Dan for songs like Katy Lied’s “Dr. Wu” and The Royal Scam’s “Kid Charlemagne,” a thinly fictionalized account of sixties Acid King Augustus Owsley Stanley III, in which Fagen sums up the end of the sixties with a breathtaking brevity: “Now your patrons have all left you in the red/Your low rent friends are dead/This life can be very strange/All those dayglo freaks who used to paint their face/They’ve joined the human race.”

If this world were my world, which it isn’t, I would replace “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” with one of the aforementioned tunes, or with “Any World (That I’m Welcome To”) because it includes the great lines, “Any world that I’m welcome to/Is better than the one I come from.” And have truer words ever been spoken? This world sucks, and has so little to offer the sufferers trapped on it. Fortunately, one of the things it does have to offer is Steely Dan, whom you either love or hate. Although how a person could hate a band that came up with the chorus that goes, “Throw out your gold teeth/And see how they roll/The answer they reveal/Life is unreal” is beyond me. They either have no sense of humor or find this existence completely satisfactory, and I’m not sure which is more horrifying.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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