Since the first time I heard “Peg”,the first Steely Dan song I recall clearly being exposed to,only the radio during my grade school years it began a lifelong fascination I’ve had with implicit lyrical messages in the American popular song. And i’s easy to admit that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are experts at that very thing. In a special rack of CD’s that I reserve for my very favorite full length albums Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho,as well as Fagen’s The Nightfly and Kamakiriad have a permanent location. If someone were to ask me how I’d define Steely Dan,I would simply describe them as a jazz-funk/pop duo you’d likely find in the rock/pop section of your record store. On the other hand,there is another side of that coin.
A few weeks ago I read an article in the late summer edition of Believer magazine written by a man named Peter Coviello called The Talk That Does Not Do Nothing. The story is basically about Peter having a rather unresolved argument with a friend about the true intention behind Steely Dan’s anonymous lyrics. Not only does he tend to spend a great deal of time justifying every single sentence of his prose,but there seems to be this unsettling emphasis on the darkest possible side of Steely Dan. Mostly having to do with their drug use. For a short period of time after reading this article,my opinion of Steely Dan was strangely lowered. Happily shortly after that I locked my door,put my headphones on and proceeded to hum along to “Florida Room” and “Black Cow” for the umpteenth time. And voila! I was back to loving the music more fully than ever.
I suppose the reason for the article having such an unexpected effect on me has to do with its use of the condescending term “yacht rock” to describe Steely Dan’s jazzy funk/R&B music and it’s view of them almost as a guilty pleasure. Sometimes it’s just hard to avoid the opinions of others. It may also have to do with some musical idolatry on my part. Becker and Fagen were people personally as anonymous as their lyrics,tending to let their music do the talking. Much as once occurred with people such as Rick James,George Clinton,Sly Stone and Jamiroquai’s JK,what I didn’t know personally about these people didn’t hurt me. In the end the one positive thing I’ll say is music,like film,is ultimately the expression of its creator,writer,singer and/or producer. And an invitation to the listener to create their own song. That works as well for Steely Dan in the end as it could for anyone who implies with their words.