Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

The Big Lookback: Steely Dan, 1974

"Steely Dan's Boogie Has Its Own Boom," Newsday, April 14, 1974

Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

Turns out I've published two darn good Steely Dan pieces I failed to include in any of my esssay collections. The 1974 Newsday one below postdated the manuscript deadline for Any Old Way You Choose It and is beefed up here with an even better postscript by one of my very favorite rock critics, yclept Carola Dibbell. The 2000 Voice one was shut out of Is It Still Good to Ya? for space reasons, but look for it in this space soon.

Yeah, I remember meeting Steely Dan with my not-yet-husband Bob in the '70s, as in the lookback below, but my lookback is a little different. I think there were two meetings, the first in 1973 backstage at the Westbury Music Fair when they'd been so young, so much like the smart New York kids I'd grown up around that I didn't even lie when Fagen asked how his light blue suede pants looked onstage. "Wow! Those are suede? They just look like washed-out khakis under the lights!" I'd figured he'd find that funny, or at least ironic, but his face fell. For all they'd had a hit, Steely Dan were so brainy and dark that to dig this band was almost like a secret handshake back then, but Fagen dreamed they'd take over the world. However much buzz they were getting, these guys weren't ready to stop at that. They were really, really smart but I think they genuinely, genuinely didn't know why people liked them. Sometimes they didn't even seem to get that people liked them. Or so they said. Maybe they were just being funny. They were funny guys.

The second meeting was in a New York hotel room along with their producer Gary Katz, and Fagen and Becker made jokes about seeing Hall & Oates, who they claimed to have liked, but so ironically you couldn't tell if the joke was that they really hadn't liked them or that they really had--a double irony thing. By then the band had long since moved to El Lay. Hard to keep the dates straight but I think it was around the time Katz was producing the great lost Thomas Jefferson Kaye, who covered the only lost-love song the band ever wrote for the planet, "[You're playing with time] American Lovers."

When they stopped touring not long after that was when I started loving them so much I tried to figure out why. It was their art/rinkadink combo--so shallow, so deep. But last month, 50 years after the first time Bob and I heard "Do It Again," when Bob played Steely Dan at breakfast for seven days running and I never got tired of it, I realized it wasn't even that. I didn't even know what it was.

P.S. There was actually a third meeting when Fagen shared a table with me at some party in the '90s and I, always uncool, asked if he could explain "Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)." This is pretty much my favorite Steely Dan song. All enigmatic lyrics about gambling, laid, ironically, over a melody as comforting as an unvarnished hymn, with an ascending high-note peak where the singer can just about reach heaven. I knew Fagen would be ironic, and he was. But I also knew I'd regret it all my life if I didn't ask.

P.P.S. I'd forgotten Fagen's boogie-band aspirations Bob references, but, ironically, that is what, thanks to Tik-Tok and the social medium formerly known as Twitter, Steely Dan has become, in memes pasting dancers from little white kids to cool Black dudes to iconic Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly over the most unlikely and iconic Steely Dan songs. The secret handshake remains. -- Carola Dibbell

At the Westbury Music Fair last spring, Steely Dan featured a good-looking blond singer who seemed somehow out of place, like a cheerleader at a crap game. He went through the usual motions, mouthed the usual exhortations--clap-your-hands goodtimes boomelay-boomelay-boom--just as if Steely Dan were the usual band. I was pleased to find him gone when I went back to see Steely Dan at Avery Fisher Hall last week. And I was a little surprised when Daniel Fagen told me he liked boogieing.

Fagen is Steely Dan's piano player and writes the band's songs with bassist Walter Becker. He also is the lead singer, and if he isn't exactly a golden boy, that's just as well. Although he lives in the City of Angels, Fagen looks like a New York cabdriver. He is sallow and pinch-faced, and he wears his stage clothes--blue suede pants, black leather jacket, Mexican shirt--as if he had just pulled them on to go get the paper.

Once he had gathered the courage to replace the cheerleader, Fagen himself used to do the clap-your-hands number. He figured his fans had a right to a good time. Then he chanced to observe America's No. 1 boogieing Wasp, who was heading the bill, going through the same act. Fagen decided the Wasp looked like a seal and never clapped his hands in public again. But he's glad when the fans start to shake on their own.

In most places, Fagen says, they do just that, but not in the city he regards as home, New York. Fagen thinks this is just fate rolling the dice--he obviously derives the comfort of certainty from the notion that Steely Dan is in some sense "doomed," a word he used several times--but I fear worse. In the hinterlands, the kids probably boogie to Steely Dan because they boogie to anything, but here audiences are more discerning, They know that this music is not the usual thing, and they sit on their hands until they figure it out. Which they don't, else they would be up and boogieing on their own.

I think Steely Dan is one of the best bands in America, but I can't blame those who find the music confusing--I find it confusing myself. At the concert last week, I came up with a tag phrase, "the Grateful Dead of bad vibes," but when I tried it out on Fagen he was less than flattered. Allow me to explain the compliment, which has to do, once again, with boogieing.

The Grateful Dead didn't invent boogieing--that happened long before rock and roll--but they and their fans did revive the idea. The first time I heard the word used in its current sense was when Jerry Garcia explained why the band had parted with Tom Constanten, the avant-garde pianist who was with the group in the late '60s: "He just didn't boogie." At the time, January 1970, this was a very witty thing to say. It was also a healthy reaction to an atmosphere in which rock musicians specialized in rendering their stoned-out fans even more comatose with one-chord solos. Emphasizing the boogie reaffirmed rock as active and entertaining. Steely Dan represents an antithetical healthy reaction, overdue for a long time now.

Boogieing involves a direct, uncritical relationship with life as it is symbolized by music. Unlike dancing, it requires no control, no technique, no knowledge, no wit or subtlety, and at its most mindless it defines that point when the harmless pursuit of good vibes becomes dangerously asinine. The eclectic ensemble playing of Steely Dan permits such involvement--thus distinguishing itself from most progressive rock and acoustic post-folk music--without demanding it. By encouraging a certain detachment, it acknowledges the presence of bad vibes in the world.

This detachment begins with the band's anti-histrionic demeanor. Steely Dan doesn't act bored with its music or oblivious to its audience, but it refuses to make a big deal out of either. Fagen and the other vocalists--especially new conga player Royce Jones--project friendly interest. Their gestures don't so much dramatize the lyrics as establish their identity as entertainers.

Since they transcend the usual romantic/cosmic banalities---the subjects of the band's two hit singles have been compulsive behavior and wasted pretensions--the lyrics would be hard to dramatize in any case. To underline their difficulty--and the difficulty of the reality to which they correspond--they often include references so personal and arbitrary that to sing them like a cheerleader, with every word counting, is to make them ridiculous, and in the wrong way.

The alienating factors in the music come from the jazz to which it is indebted--the new album, Pretzel Logic, includes tributes to Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, both geniuses so irreducible that ordinary jazz-rock fusions pass them by. Steely Dan swings as much as it rocks, a decision fatal to most white rock and essential to Steely Dan's post-boogie. The chord changes continually defy our subconscious harmonic expectations. And the schlocky vocal harmonies, what Fagen calls the Uncle Ben sound, work against the jazz feeling in a final anticategorical convolution.

This is not unpleasant stuff, but it's not obvious, and that makes its future hard to predict. Fagen and Becker have 50 songs in the kitty, so the present rate of one solid LP every eight months can continue indefinitely. I don't know about anybody else, but the next time they come through I expect to be out of my seat, clapping my hands, boomeleay-boomelay-boom.

And It Don't Stop, November 29, 2023