Take the body of work of any Classic Rock band—or that of any other genre—and you’d be hard pressed to name a group with more characters of note than in the lyrics of Steely Dan.
But these aren’t traditional heroes or villains. Instead, the Two Headed Mind Meld of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker give us weirdos and wackos, schnooks and junkies, dead end suburbanites and hipsters, wannabes and never-wases, hustlers, junkies, horny hotties and pedophiles.
They’re all within the pages of the wonderfully weird and insightful Quantum Criminals: Ramblers, Gamblers, and Other Sole Survivors from the Songs of Steely Dan (240 pp., $35, University of Texas Press). Set for release in May, it’s from the partnership of writer Alex Pappademas and illustrator Joan Lemay.
The Steely Dan story is a shifting and sometimes inscrutable enigma. They’re a “cult” band with more than a dozen identifiable radio hits. They took a 20-year break from touring. They’ve been unfairly lumped in with Soft Rockers of the ‘70s, “jazz rock” bands, and Dad Rock scorn. “Donald Fagen” and “Walter Becker” were even unceremoniously beaten up by “Don Henley and “Glenn Frey” in the satirical Yacht Rock miniseries.
But right around the time they came back after two decades of inactivity with 2000’s Two Against Nature, the “Danaissance” began. The pair and their entire body of work now deservedly receive critical hosannas and admiration from a surprisingly wide swatch of contemporary artists with meme-making Millennials leading the charge.
Pappademas starts the journey with the Dan’s first protagonist on the first song on their first album, the hapless Jack from “Do It Again.” He also notes Jack is an archetype the band will visit again and again over nine studio albums.
“He’s a loser strapped to the karmic wheel, forever slipping out of one trap set by his own dumb desires into another one, rescuing doom from the jaws of salvation,” he writes, adding that Fagen-as-vocalist will “sing about people who can’t help driving headlong toward one form of destruction or another, people telling themselves they’re doing something other than that even when they know the truth.”
It's heady and deep dive stuff in a book that’s part biography, part musical thematic analysis, and part snarky subversion. In other words, the Steeliest of all the Steely Dan books out there. And it’s wholly refreshing. Pappademas' prose is certainly fun to read.
Lemay’s illustrations—more than 100 in all—greatly deserve equal billing with the text. Her utterly unique style brings an almost folk-art look to her subjects, whether they’re real-life people like Becker, Fagen, Michael McDonald or bandmates, historical figures like Richard Nixon, or her own interpretations of Dan characters and lyrical references (a Squonk! A pair of Green Earrings!).
And dildos. Pappademas says if most people know one piece of trivia about Steely Dan, it’s that they took their name from the sex device mentioned in William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch.
Like any good SD biographer, Pappademas digs into their studio meticulousness—some would say obsessions. That means Fagen will mix the song “Babylon Sisters” some 278 times. And the record it hails from (Gaucho) will eat up 11 engineers, 42 studio musicians, and take more than two years to complete.
He also tells why the band has been something of a surprising go-to source for rappers and hip-hop artists to sample, and how Becker and Fagen gleefully (or greedfully) go after both authorized and unauthorized uses. Though they’re less, um, up front about some of their own musical pilfering (see Horace Silver and Keith Jarrett).
The pair return in the 2000s with two new albums and actually embrace touring. They’re inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where—true to their wry and iconoclastic nature—Becker “opens the floor to questions” from the audience. Becker died in 2017 and Fagen continues to tour under the Steely Dan name with a sizable band (but then again…there were technically only two “members” of the group, even in the early days).
In the end, Pappademas says real times have finally caught up with Steely Dan. “Donald and Walter’s songs of monied decadence, druggy disconnection, slow-motion apocalypse, and self-destructive escapism seemed satirically extreme way back when; now, they just seem prophetic.”
There have been a number of fine books on Steely Dan, but Quantum Criminals is the one whose spirit, vivacity, and off-kilterness matches its subjects and their body of work.