B is for “Barrytown”, one of Becker and Fagen’s oldest compositions, which finally saw the light of day on the band’s third album, Pretzel Logic (1974). The song is named after a hamlet near Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where Fagen and Becker first met in 1967. The sci-fi writer William Gibson is a huge Dan fan and references to their songs litter his work, including his novel, Count Zero, in which the futuristic settlement is named Barrytown.
C is for “Charlie Freak”, the eponymous character in a song (from Pretzel Logic) about the effects of drugs and the levels to which people are taken advantage of in their pursuit of them. On a par with those other classic drug songs, Bert Jansch’s “The Needle of Death” and Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done”, it is beautiful but chilling… ‘And while he sighed his body died in fifteen ways.’ Don’t do it, kids, just say no!
D is for “Doctor Wu” (from Katy Lied, 1975), one of the many Asian-Americans to inhabit the Dan’s songs. A song about loss, illusions and how the image we have of certain people fades in our minds. Or does it? The narrator goes searching in the Biscayne Bay, ‘where the Cuban gentlemen sleep all day’, for the song that Doctor Wu used to sing. But he finds nothing, only the shadow of a man he once knew.
E is for “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”, the cover of the Duke Ellington track that appears on Pretzel Logic. Becker and Fagen got hold of all the available versions of the song and combined elements of them for their ‘cover’. It amused them that a wah-wah guitar could sound so similar to a muted trumpet. The song was originally recorded in 1926 and is an early example of what Ellington called his ‘jungle music’ (See also the line in “Babylon Sisters”—‘turn that jungle music down, just until we’re out of town’).
F is for “FM”, the best Steely Dan track never to make it onto an original album. The track’s propulsion was built up entirely from a click track (metronome) in the studio. Becker did the guitar bits and Johnny Mandel did the string arrangement but, brilliant as both are, they are upstaged by Fagen’s fantastically sneering vocal. Lovely sax, too.
G is for “Green Earrings”, one of my favourite Steely Dan songs, taken from my favourite Steely Dan album The Royal Scam (1976). Its upbeat, infectious shuffle masks a very seedy story of the mysterious Greek man (a pimp? sugar daddy?) who is eyeing up a much younger woman. What catches the narrator’s eye is the rather fetching jewellery she wears, which he remembers because of their ‘rare design’. Lovely.
H is for Hoops McCann (who features in “Glamour Profession” from Gaucho)—another fantastic Steely Dan hipster. Apparently a ‘crowd-pleasing man’ with ‘brut and charisma’, but just who is Hoops McCann? What’s he doing lurking in the shadows, accepting packages outside a basketball court? Is he fixing a tournament? And why is he going to Barbados?
I is for Influences. Becker and Fagen were passionate devotees of jazz, obviously, but in the mix there is also some blues and numerous songs that would fit perfectly into the Great American Songbook, plus smaller amounts of rock, bossa, reggae, etc. Contrary to popular belief, Steely Dan are NOT predominantly a rock group. In the 70s, Rolling Stone magazine opined that ‘Steely Dan are the only group around with no conceptual antecedent from the 60s.’
J is for the swampy R‘n’B groove of “Josie” (from Aja), one of the many women who appear in the Dan’s songs, the others being Peg, Aja, Ruthie, Rose (Darling), Snake Mary, Rikki, Katy (who lied), Lucy, Babs (in love with Clean Willy), Lady Bayside, Cathy Berberian, Louise (the pearl of the quarter), the Broadway Duchess and the Queen of Spain. Fagen has said the name Aja came from a schoolmate whose soldier brother had returned from Korea newly wedded to a woman named Aja.
K is for “Kid Charlemagne” (from The Royal Scam), yet another druggy Steely Dan lowlife, dressed up (I imagine) just like the Harvey Keitel character in Taxi Driver—tight stripy pants, white vest and a trilby with a feather. Cooking up dope in his hotel room, Kid Charlemagne has to go to ‘LA on a dare and go it alone’. His cover is soon blown and he has to do a runner. Is there gas in the car? Yes, there’s gas in the car.
L is for Lhasa, which pops up in the song “Time Out Of Mind”, from Gaucho (1980): ‘I am holding the mystical sphere / It’s direct from Lhasa’. Seemingly continuing Fagen’s fascination with the Far East, the song was actually yet another song about taking drugs. Becker’s heroin addiction was getting out of hand around this time, culminating in him breaking his leg in a traffic accident. The song features a guitar solo from Mark Knopfler, who later explained how exasperating an experience his guest appearance was. Becker and Fagen insisted on take-upon-take but, as he couldn’t read music, Knopfler had to take a tape of the song back to his hotel room and work on it through the night.
M is for Mizar, a star in the constellation Ursa Major (better known as the Plough), approximately 88 light years from Earth. In fact, Mizar is not just a single star, but a ‘quadruple’ star—consisting of two binary stars orbiting each other. A reference to ‘Mizar Five’ crops up on “Sign in Stranger”, from The Royal Scam, and is typical of Fagen’s interest in sci-fi, more fully explored in his solo album Kamakiriad.
N is for Napoleon, who is name-checked in the song “Pretzel Logic”. The narrator says he’s never met him, but plans to find the time. “Pretzel Logic” is one of the Dan’s three 12-bar blues songs, the other two being “Bodhisattva” (from Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973) and “Chain Lightning” (from Katy Lied).
O is for oleanders (Nerium oleander), a poisonous evergreen shrub with fragrant white-to-red flowers and narrow, leathery leaves. Originating in the Mediterranean, it is now in common use as an ornamental plant in gardens around the world. The plant appears in “My Old School” from Countdown to Ecstasy another song about Bard College: ‘Oleanders / Growing outside her door / Soon they’re gonna be in bloom / Up in Annandale.’
P is for “Parker’s Band”, a track from Pretzel Logic, the Parker in question being Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, born 29th August 1920 in Kansas City. Renowned as probably the best and most influential jazz saxophonist of all time, he died aged 34 after a life of serious excess. In Ken Burns’ magnificent documentary, Jazz, Winton Marsalis described Charlie Parker as a man ‘who could never outrun his appetites; his appetites always outran him’.
Q is for … Nope, couldn’t think of anything for Q.
R is for Rikki. Whatever you do, Rikki, don’t lose that number because it’s the only one you want.
S is for Steely Dan, a type of (fictional) Japanese dildo featured in William Burroughs’ 1959 novel Naked Lunch: ‘Mary is strapping on a rubber penis. “Steely Dan III from Yokohama,” she says, caressing the shaft. Milk spurts across the room. “Be sure that milk is pasteurized. Don't go giving me some kinda awful cow disease like anthrax or glanders or aftosa.”’
T is for “Third World Man”, the melancholy story of demented youthful idealism gone psychotic. It was originally recorded at the Aja sessions but, when they needed a song to finish Gaucho, Becker and Fagen pulled it from the vaults, re-wrote the lyrics, kept Larry Carlton’s gorgeous guitar solo and built up a whole new song about a Rambo-like youth. Beautiful and silky smooth.
U is for Ulysses, whose story is retold in “Home at Last” (from Aja), another of the Dan’s most beautiful and accomplished songs: ‘I know this superhighway, this bright, familiar sun’. The song is filled with natural imagery—sky, sun, sea, shore, rocks. Although it is not technically a blues, it nevertheless has a firm bluesy shuffle (named the ‘Purdie shuffle’ after legendary drummer Bernie Purdie), lulling like waves. The sirens serve the road-weary narrator smooth retsina, they keep him safe and warm, but it’s just the calm before the storm.
V is for Las Vegas, where all the “Show Biz Kids” (from Countdown to Ecstasy) live in their corner houses with their booze, Steely Dan T shirts and all that money can buy. They’ve been all around the world, and they’ve even been to Washington Zoo. They try, they really do, but they just make movies about themselves and don’t give a fuck about anyone else.
W is for whores, or, more precisely, the “Babylon Sisters” (from Gaucho)—so fine, so young. ‘Tell me I’m the only one.’ A song full of lust and longing and the dust of the Santa Ana winds. The sisters are like a Sunday in TJ—cheap, but not free, and they will make you realise that you are not what you used to be.
X is for … Nope, couldn’t think of anything for X, either.
Y is for “Your Gold Teeth”, a title so good they used it, not once, but twice. “Your Gold Teeth” appears on their second album, Countdown to Ecstasy and is as much about the tobacco they grow in Peking as anything else. “Your Gold Teeth II”, which appears on their fourth album, Katy Lied, is in a jazzy 6/8 time. The drummer on part II was a young Jeff Porcaro, who described the track as ‘pure bebop’. In both songs, Donald Fagen implores their owners to ‘throw out your gold teeth and see how they roll’. The answer they reveal? Life is unreal.
Z is for drinking a ‘Zombie from a coco shell’ (“Haitian Divorce”). The Dan’s songs are filled with their favourite tipples—beer in “Here at the Western World”, retsina in “Home at Last”, coke and rum in “Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More”, piña coladas in “Bad Sneakers”, Scotch whisky in “Deacon Blues”, Cuervo Gold in “Hey Nineteen”, cherry wine in “Time out of Mind”, grapefruit wine in “FM”, kirschwasser in “Babylon Sisters” and a black cow in “Black Cow”.
This essay was first published in Vade Mecum.