Yesterday was the 66th birthday of Donald Fagen, singer and lyricist for Steely Dan. Fagen and the Dan have enjoyed various waves of “comeback” in the last two decades, but, for me, their rise and dominance and almost immediate senescence occupies the years 1972-1980. They are, to me, unavoidably, creatures of the Seventies.
That view derives from the band's history, certainly. The first LP, Can’t Buy a Thrill, was released in 1972 and 1980’s Gaucho was the last LP for a very long time. But it also reflects my own listening habits. In 1972, the Dan began to make their mark on AM radio, with “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” two songs I liked well-enough to hear on the radio (particularly the latter, more rare), but didn’t buy. Then came “Rikki, Don’t Lose that Number,” which was one of those songs you couldn’t escape and whose chorus became insufferable through frequent repetitions. I began to give the Dan a wide berth.
“Rikki” is the lead-off song on Pretzel Logic. Consequently that LP was the last Dan LP I purchased when, from winter 1978 to winter 1979, I acquired all their albums. I was never a completist. I go with the Old Testament command: and if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, or, if a track offend thee, buy not that LP upon which it may be found. I finally gave in and bought Pretzel Logic in the winter of 1979. There would be no new Dan till the winter of 1980. A long time, as things were going then.
(The album that convinced me to start acquiring Dan LPs was Aja, released at the end of 1977. The LP was the darling of FM radio, which is what I was listening to exclusively by then. By that time, too, stereo components loomed large on my horizon of desirable commodities, the way cars and other gizmos never did; I became aware of things like signal to noise ratios . . . and Steely Dan were the slickest of the slick when it came to maximizing the wonders of recorded sound for the modern stereophile. Which meant hearing them only on the radio was a disservice.)
So I pick today’s song, “Pretzel Logic,” because, perhaps by pretzel logic, it’s one I came to know only after I got the LP and at that point, already, the heyday of the Dan—both in their own careers and in my listening—was on the wane. Aja was their peak. Gaucho was an afterword. The late Seventies and early Eighties belonged to “New Wave,” in some fashion or other, and the Dan weren’t that. They were throwbacks, of a sort. Cutting-edge throwbacks. Cutting-edge in terms of sound recordings and arrangements and the art of marshaling celebrated session men, and, perhaps, in jazz-rock combinations, but throwbacks to the era of classic rock. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, with this retrospective glance, that they were a transition from the time of The Rolling Stones and The Who at their best to the time of a whole host of new kids on the block.
|Steely Dan: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen|
The Dan didn’t “rock,” or but rarely, and neither would most of what was coming. Maybe “Pretzel Logic,” in looking back on whatever it was that gave formation to Donald Fagen, serves best to look back on the Dan’s day too. There will always be a place in my heart for Fagen's hip cynicism, his way with a phrase, and his nasal voice and Jersey inflection.
“Pretzel Logic” is from 1974, and it was suitable to me in 1979, living in a room in a friend’s house and singing along with: “I would love to tour the southland / In a traveling minstrel show / Yes, I’m dying to be a star / And make them laugh / Sound just like a record on a phonograph / Those days are gone forever / Over a long time ago.”
“He looked so fine / Upon that hill / They tell me he was lonely / He’s lonely still.”
Happy birthday, Donald.