Sunday, 15 February 2015

Steely Dan: I've Got Plenty Of Java & Chesterfield Kings, But I Feel Like Crying

Writing good songs is not something most people can do right out of the box. Sure, it's easier than writing books, but so is surgery. Give me four years of intensive training and I'd like to think I could carve up some future stiff and take out some big tumor or whatever out of 'em like I was carving up a turkey. But I've been at learning songcraft for a decade now, and I'm only getting the hang of it now, after leaving a thousand or more corpses horribly disfigured in my wake. Quality songwriting is a tough and evil business. It has killed off people way smarter than me, and I have seen it make otherwise eloquent people into blubbering idiots.

Not only that, but if you ask the punters in the high school halls & the shopping malls, no one really cares who wrote a song. Songwriters don't get their own charts, the songwriters' awards never make the primetime Grammy show (there's Best Record, but it ain't the same thing), they don't get their own love, not without some tousled muppet in a miniskirt flogging the damned things on a video somewere, or some strategic placement in a movie soundtrack or car commercial. The avenues to recognition for a songwriter who isn't physically attractive are few, and that's always been the case. It's understandable, but that doesn't mean it doesn't suck.

Which makes the ascension of Steely Dan all the more wonderful. They were crack players who knew other crack players, and as a result their albums were always smooth and mellow-sounding wood-paneled opuses full of lush playing that drew your ear from one lead instrument to another like a movie star on a press junket.

And yet, if you parse the lyrics Walter Becker & Donald Fagen came up with, not only are they genuinely esoteric in places, but by god they can be bitter and angry. They're the kind of guys who would never raise their voice, but would just one day climb out of their la-z-boy chair and shiv you in the chest, brushing the extra blood off their blazer before freshening their Stoli & Dr. Pepper and sitting back down to impassively watch you die.

Some of the better examples of their excellent work can be found in the Steely Dan Dictionary, which is at least nominally about the esoteric references Becker & Fagen put in their songs. Some of the stuff isn't all that out there; if you can't grok Lugers or who Charlie Parker was, then maybe you need to drink your big Black Cow and get out of here.

Steely Dan were geniuses. They could write the living shit out of a song, and slip it under your door while you slept and the cab was waiting to take them out of your life. I dig them deeply, and wish I knew half of what either of those two bastards know.

Actually, I know about that much.

No comments:

Post a Comment