Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years
By Brian Sweet
Overlook Press, 384 pp. $18.95
Fans of Steely Dan — we see you lurking in either the “literature” or “true crime” section of the bookstore — have great reason to thank Brian Sweet’s mother for having him.
After all, he is the author of the two of the three still in-print books about the group, the short but compact The Complete Guide to the Music of Steely Dan and this one, a major biography now updated and revised from its 1994 edition. Donald Fagen’s own “memoir,” Eminent Hipsters, sadly, doesn’t even qualify as a book on Steely Dan.
Sweet has lots of detail on the activities of Becker and Fagen before they became “Steely Dan,” and it’s a story of persistence and rejection. Most record-biz folks didn’t know what to make of their bizarre lyrics and jazz time signatures. And their morose, deadpan personalities led singer Jay Black of Jay and the Americans — the ‘60s vocal group the duo briefly toured with early in their careers — as “The Manson and Starkweather of rock.” And that was not an ironic compliment.
Sweet does an admirable job of telling the story of a band that is actually, really, a “group” directed by Becker and Fagen, including all of their albums, solo efforts, and other assorted musical projects and contributions.
Not surprisingly, the author says that both of the Dans declined to be interviewed for this project, though Becker told him "to carry on as if Donald and I were dead." But he quotes extensively from previous interviews with both men, as well as conducting original talks with several dozen friends, band members, associates, and even Fagen's own mother!
He cites many instances of the pair’s well-known insane attention to detail, re-recording, and sometimes open disdain of the studio musicians’ work. During the making of Gaucho, one reporter with rare access to the pair at work detailed how they spent four hours and 60 attempts to create a 50-second fade out on “Babylon Sisters,” to no avail.
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He does write with a bit too much emphasis towards techies and gearheads, spilling lots of words about certain instruments and the sounds they make; he also gives readers extensive comparisons and contrasts of the sounds made by the legions of studio musicians that the Dan burned through. So if you’re looking for a discussion of the different guitar styles of, say, Denny Dias vs. Elliott Randall vs. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter vs. Larry Carlton, this is the book for you. And don’t even get Sweet started on the Drummers of Dan.
As for the meanings behind their songs, Becker and Fagen famously rarely discuss that, and often would on-purpose just make stuff up for interviewers and fans as a grand put-on. So if you want to know if “Doctor Wu” is really heroin or “The Royal Scam” is about Puerto Rican immigrants or who Cathy Berbarian really was, it’s at least laid out here. Though I have to disagree about Sweet’s assessment that “Gaucho” is about two homosexual partners when it perfectly fits into a favorite Dan theme of older man/younger woman/sexual jealousy.
Today, Steely Dan exists as a dependable touring unit, though it's been 13 years since their last studio effort. And while the shows have often stuck to a set list familiar to the masses, conveyed by peerless-if-sometimes-too-polished players, fans still have their incredible albums and cast of shady characters in the songs to revel (or defile) in.