Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Steely Dan

This essay originally appeared in Issue #4 of Paste Magazine in the fall of 2003, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.


I must have been the summer of 1989 when my uncle foisted a Steely Dan cassette on me—a Maxell Gold, with Katy Lied on one side and The Royal Scam on the other. I was 17. I remember it was incredibly hot, and I had a job driving around St. Louis as a courier for a law firm. Truth is, it was the only recording I had in my little stick shift Toyota Corolla. Whenever classic rock radio got unbearable, I would play it. I had to.

Steely Dan is hard to get used to. It seems like bad music, really overdone in some ways. As a friend of mine would later argue in an attempt to get me to stop playing it, it sounds like cheesy hotel jazz. Also the lyrics are strange, awkward. And what’s with the lead singer’s voice? Kind of a hollow nasal. Kind of unbearable, actually.

But even in that first summer I was able to spot moments in Steely Dan that transcended normal pop fare. One of them was the long transition in “Caves of Altamira,” which just kept ascending, ascending, shifting, and then sort of tumbled into the next musical passage. It reminded me of Bach, a recording of whose organ music I had worn out a year prior. Another moment was in the bouncy “Sign In Stranger,” in which the singer asks, “Do you like to take a yo-yo for a ride?” and the guitar mimics, musically, the sense of the question. Yet another was the story “Haitian Divorce,” which begins,

Babs and Clean Willie were in love they said
So in love the preacher’s face turned red.?
Soon everybody knew the thing was dead;
He shouts, she bites, they wrangle through the night.

What I liked about this was what I grew to love about Steely Dan: the specificity of it, the clunkiness of the words, the grinning melancholy. The names “Babs” and “Clean Willie.” What are these, mobsters? The fact that “she bites.” A poetry instructor once told me that each line must advance past the previous, and this happens in the passage above; each line contains something new. The first and third lines give general storyline information, which the second and fourth lines amplify and humorize. Not a bad model for an aspiring writer.

Steely Dan’s stories don’t always make sense. They seem like references to a private world, and we’re rarely given enough information to complete the picture. What’s great about these lyrics is that the detail that is supplied is interesting enough on its own terms. “Rose Darling” is an example of this, with a casual aside such as,

I would guess she’s in Detroit
?With lots of money in the bank,?
Although I could be wrong.

The voice here sounds world-weary; you can hear it in the name of the city, Detroit, and in the concession that he might have no idea where this woman is. Does it even matter where she went? Although all we’re given is a fragment, it’s a suggestive one, both of the speaker’s personality and of the situation at hand. A world comes to mind.

Steely often affects a street-cool posture, but it’s one that’s loaded with irony. People get shot, caught in messy love triangles, or with their fingers in the till, or with drugs in their luggage. People are jaded, wisecracking and persevere in spite of a strong sense of hopelessness. Most of the characters are eccentrics, and of course, dressed in the finest Steely Dan humor. “Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More,” a sardonic goodbye to a notorious character, contains the lines,

Daddy can’t get no fine cigar,
?But we know you’re smoking
?Wherever you are.

The music works the same way, sounding like it’s trying to be hip jazz-rock but undercutting that with self-conscious, philosophical lyrics. The music and lyrics not only reinforce but nuance one another; it’s complex work. It’s poetry; it’s art.

Looking at a book my wife received for her birthday last fall, it’s no surprise Steely Dan appealed to me so much in 1989. The book, I Can’t Fight This Feeling: Timeless Poems for Lovers from the Pop Hits of the ‘70s and ‘80s, reads like a K-Tel television commercial: “I’ve never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight. / I’ve never seen you shine so bright,” and “Well, I’m hot blooded. / Check it and see. / I got a fever of a hundred and three,” and “Your love is like bad medicine. / Bad medicine is what I need.” Hundreds of other such vacuous words are etched in my mind forever, and in them no irony, no sad people, no eccentricity, no private world—no clunky words—all cars, beach scenes, bed scenes, a two-dimensional sense of life and love. Steely Dan gave me so much more.