Snark with Weight: The Music of Steely Dan

As I grow older, I find myself thinking more and more about what it is that I like about music, why certain songs appeal to me, why a very few songs go beyond appeal and into a zone that I can’t describe. And the older I get, the more I realize that I really don’t want to know.

I have a Spotify playlist called “Chris’s Writing Soundtrack” — I’m listening to it now and would link to it if I had the foggiest idea how to do that — which contains mostly songs that have to meet a very specific and (I think) unusual criterion: They have to touch someplace inside me that I can’t identify. They have to create an emotion in me that I have no name for. There aren’t many songs like this, at least when counted as a fraction of all the songs that have ever been recorded and gained some sort of reputation, however small. (I have “Voices” by Russ Ballard on the list. Remember that? No, I didn’t think you would. It never even hit the Billboard Hot 100 and I only know it from hearing it on the jukebox at a strip joint I would occasionally visit in the 1980s, but it has a small following, probably because it was once used in an episode of Miami Vice.) I use this playlist for writing because it helps me to tap into emotions that I’d have more trouble accessing without it. Okay, I’ll confess that not every song on the list meets this criterion. A few are just there because I think they’re excellent songs, like Rodgers & Hart’s delightful “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” But most of the songs on it go to that unidentified place.

The performers who belong on it most are Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, otherwise known as Steely Dan, because they hit that mysterious spot or spots more often than any other singer-songwriters I know. I can’t tell you what I love about them because I don’t know. And I think it would destroy my love of them if I ever figured it out. Fortunately, I don’t think that’ll happen.

Becker and Fagen as young men

Becker & Fagen in younger days

Not that there aren’t some overtly likeable things about their music. For instance, individually and collectively, they write some of the cleverest lyrics ever used in pop music. Since I regard Becker as slightly the better of the two lyrically when they work apart, I’ll just throw in a verse from his first solo album, the 1994 11 Tracks of Whack, from the song “Book of Liars”:

Time exploding, the long night passing
Electrons dancing in the frozen crystal dawn
Here’s one left stranded at the zero crossing
With the whole of his half-life left to carry on

This is actually the slightly variant version Becker sings on Steely Dan’s 1995 live album, Alive in America. In either version, this verse just leaves me breathless (as do all the others, come to think of it). Anyone who can create a gorgeous metaphor for heartbreak based on particle physics (and that term “the whole of his half-life” just rips me up) is a god to me. If he dies before I do, and he didn’t look too healthy at the concert two years ago, I’ll create a religion devoted to him. Fagen’s almost as good lyrically and better than Becker, I think, with melody, if not quite as edgy, which is why their talents complement one another so perfectly.

I also love their harmonies. Harmonies are the most reliable way of creating an emotion in me and once again I don’t fully understand why.  (The song “All Day Music” by War is also on that Spotify playlist and I think it may have the most gorgeous harmonies ever used in a pop song.) If you’re familiar with Steely Dan’s work, consider the song “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” from their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill. It’s sort of silly and trivial, yet there are moments in that song that send thrills up my spine and it’s mostly done with harmonies. For instance, the couplet:

This highway runs from Paraguay
And I’ve just come all the way

where the italics represent the sudden burst of harmony. I have no idea what that couplet means. I have no idea what the song means. (Either Becker or Fagen once said that all their Steely Dan songs are based on something real, possibly something that happened to them, but they won’t always tell you what it is.) It doesn’t matter, though. For me, the harmony, and perhaps even the cryptic lyrics that leave so much room for my imagination, are what cause that indefinable emotion to occur in me on those lines. I used to go weak in the knees, hyperbolically speaking, when I’d hear them.

What I love most, though, about Becker and Fagen’s Steely Dan work is the snark. One of them has said (I can’t remember where I saw this or which one it was) that all of their songs are essentially comedy songs and I think that’s true, if you regard relentlessly snarky, sardonic lyrics that rarely make you laugh out loud to be comedy. Yet it’s not the comedy aspects of the snark that interest me; it’s the deeper level of emotion hidden beneath the comedy that gets to me. I call this kind of comedy “snark with weight,” because it could easily be taken as simple sarcasm and yet it’s not. It has an emotional heft, an emotional punch. At it’s best, which is most of the time, Becker and Fagen’s sarcasm conceals something emotionally deeper and more serious, and the fact that it’s hidden by the snark and therefore is able to sneak up on me, catching me off guard, lets it hit that unknown button just that much harder. Take the song “Black Cow” from Aja, about a man who knows his girlfriend or wife is cheating on him and actually sees her with other men in a bar, something she makes no attempt to hide from him. It has fairly humorous snark like:

Down to Greene Street
There you go
Lookin’ so outrageous
And they tell you so

But it also has lyrics like this:

On the counter,  by your keys
Was a book of numbers and your remedies
One of these
Surely will screen out the sorrow.
But where are you tomorrow?

The use of the word “remedies” is funny, I think, but when you realize this woman has a serious alcohol and drug problem, and is probably suffering from deep depression and low self esteem as well, and that the guy singing the song keeps telling her to get out of his life and then comes looking for him, or that she seems to need him desperately for one thing — a shoulder to cry on — and he needs her desperately for everything, it’s not funny anymore. It’s not remotely funny. It’s about a complex and tragic emotional situation and that fact doesn’t come over you all at once. It may take several listenings. But you can feel it emotionally, in part from that burst of harmony on “But where are you tomorrow?,” the first time you listen to it, and to me that’s what makes it such a great song, one that touches that magic button.

Of course, I could reel off a lengthy list of Steely Dan songs that do the same thing, like what may be my favorite song by them, “Dr. Wu” (“Are you with me, Doctor Wu?/Are you really just a shadow/Of the man that I once knew?”) from Katy Lied or “Jack of Speed”  (“Don’t stop/When you hear him plead”) from Two Against Nature, or the last and title song of the last album they’ve done to date, 2003’s “Everything Must Go,” which is the most openly comic of all their songs I’ve mentioned, yet still has a sense of sadness, and even a hint of farewell, underneath it:

We gave it our best shot
But keep in mind we got a lot
The sky, the moon, good food and the weather
First-run movies
Does anybody get lucky twice?
Wouldn’t it be nice?

Becker and Fagen have both released solo albums (one, Circus Money, by Becker, and two, Morph the Cat and Sunken Condos, by Fagen) since Everything Must Go came out, but I want them to release another album as a duo before they call it quits, either musically or physically. I want to see if, together, they can still keep hitting that oh-so-mysterious button inside me. Maybe they won’t and I’ll be disappointed.

But at least I’ll know they gave it their best shot.

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One comment on “Snark with Weight: The Music of Steely Dan

  1. Pingback: Tom’s Top 5′s: Albums of 1994 | Revolutions Per Minute

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