William Gibson on Steely Dan

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distrust william gibsonWilliam Gibson, author of Neuromancer and various other novels, took science fiction out of space travel and aliens, and into the realm of computers and communication. And he does so with a prose style that's like watching a ballerina decimate a room of goons with thai kickboxing moves and a laser beam. In 1999, the Manchester Guardian said he's "probably the most important novelist of the last two decades" - and they didn't mean just within science fiction. He recently released his first collection of short non-fiction, Distrust That Particular Flavor, (fan-goddam-tastic read, buy it!) and in this short piece, originally published in 2000, gives his thoughts on Steely Dan. 


Artistic collaboration is a profoundly strange business. Do it right up to the hilt, as it were, and you and your partner will generate a third party, some thoroughly Other, and often one capable of things neither you nor the very reasonable gentleman seated opposite would even begin to consider. "Who," asks one of those disembodied voices in Mr. Burrough's multilevel scrapbooks, "is the Third who walks beside us?"

My theory, such as it is, about Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, is that their Third, their Other, Mistah Steely Dan hisself, proved so problematic an entity for the both of them, so seductive and determined a swirl of ectoplasm, that they opted to stay the hell away from him for twenty years.

He continues on, of course, in the atemporal reaches of electronic popular culture, and I have often raised an eyebrow at hearing him sing, as I push a cart down some Safeway aisle, of the spiritual complexities induced by the admixture of Cuervo Gold, cocaine, and nineteen-year-old girls (in the hands of a man of, shall we say, a certain age). At which point I look around Frozen Foods and wonder: "Is anyone else hearing this?" Do the people who program these supermarket background tapes have any idea what this song is actually about? On this basis alone I have always maintained that Steely Dan's music was, has been, and remains among the most genuinely subversive oeuvres in late-twentieth-century pop.

Hey Nineteen


Way back when, in sixty-seven
I was the dandy of gamma chi
Sweet things from Boston
So young and willing
Moved down to Scarsdale
Where the hell am I 

Hey nineteen
No we can't dance together
We can't dance together
No we can't talk at all
Please take me along
When you slide on down

Hey nineteen
That's 'Retha Franklin
She don't remember the Queen of Soul
It's hard times befallen the sole survivors
She thinks I'm crazy
But I'm just growin' old

Sure looks good
Skate a little, flow a little

The cuervo gold
The fine Columbian
Make tonight a wonderful thing

There's a story about some hapless moo, down under the stadium there in Chicago where they did the hands-on prep for the first atomic bomb, who finds himself in the deeply unenviable position of having to shove together two halves of some grapefruit-sized mass of critically radioactive material. It ends, as they say, in tears, and that is what I've always imagined happened to Becker and Fagen; why they opted offshore and waited a couple of decades for the Geiger counters to stop clicking Buried the two halves of that graphite core under their respective beds, maybe never to be reassembled.

Kid Charlemagne


steely danWhile the music played you worked by candlelight
Those San Francisco nights
You were the best in town
Just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl
You turned it on the world
That's when you turned the world around 

Did you feel like Jesus
Did you realize
That you were a champion in their eyes

On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene
But yours was kitchen clean
Everyone stopped to stare at your technicolor motor home
Every A-Frame had your number on the wall
You must have had it all
You'd go to L.A. on a dare 
And you'd go it alone

Could you live forever
Could you see the day
Could you feel your whole world fall apart and fade away

Get along, get along Kid Charlemagne
Get along Kid Charlemagne

Now your patrons have all left you in the red
Your low rent friends are dead
This life can be very strange
All those dayglo freaks who used to paint the face
They've joined the human race
Some things will never change 
Son you were mistaken
You are obsolete
Look at all the white men on the street

Clean this mess up else we'll all end up in jail
Those test tubes and the scale

Just get them all out of here 
Is there gas in the car
Yes, there's gas in the car 
I think the people down the hall
Know who you are

Careful what you carry
'Cause the man is wise
You are still an outlaw in their eyes

steely danNow whatever Mistah Dan might be - and I myself am inclined to think of him as a literary, or perhaps paraliterary, as much as a purely musical figure - Becker and Fagen are musos of the first water. Hence their respective solo output in the absence of Steely Dan. Which I've enjoyed, but in rather an oblique way, never quite able to stop glancing over my shoulder else that Third might loom suddenly into view, which he never did.

Now comes, as surely every Dan fan knows, Two Against Nature. The immediate and embarrassingly looming question being: Is He back? Have they resurrected His Bad Self?


They have. The Stranger has signed in, his toe-cleavage ostrich loafers flaking red Maui clay on the studio broadloom.

Two Against Nature is actually a rather eerie experience in that regard, like being present for the arrival of a time machine. But not one from any particular past, or future; this music manages (as it always has) to transcend the duller registers of the cultural calendar. It's as though it was composed in the time machine, in its own little pocket of temporality. I suspect that this is somehow the result of an encyclopedic sense of American music, an effortlessly graceful facility at collage and that patented Steely Dan studio wax, as though one were listening down through a hundred coats of hand-rubbed sonic carnauba, each glossy layer somehow highlighting a different aspect of the composition. But best ignore that, as I am anything but a musician. Suffice it to say: It sure sounds like Steely Dan to me, and the more so the longer I listen to it.

The DNA match is perfect. The real question, I think, is how close together have Becker and Fagen been willing to bring the two halves of the graphite core? Well, sometimes very close, it feels to me, and sometimes not so. My Dan counter starts to sizzle most seriously with "Jack of Speed" and "Cousin Dupree," two very different pieces. "Jack of Speed" is an instant classic in the Dan Archive of Loping Psychedelic Naturalism, one of those luminously unfocussed mug shots they're so good at: Someone you once knew all too well, shuffled back, via the Dan magic, to stand in your doorway for a moment with Orphan Annie eyes.

Jack of Speed 

(there's interview footage at the end of this clip)

steely danTeddy's rolling now most every night
Skatin' backwards at the speed of light
He's changed - in a thousand little ways
He's changed - yes indeed
You know he's movin' on metal, yes he's
Hanging tight with the Jack of Speed 

Sheena's party - there's a case in point
That right-wing hooey sure stunk up the joint
He's gone - he walks through the old routines
But he's gone - guaranteed
He may be sittin' in the kitchen, but he's
Steppin' out with the Jack of Speed

You maybe got lucky for a few good years
But there's no way back from there to here
He's a one way rider
On the shriek express
And his new best friend is at the throttle more or less

He can't hear you honey - that's alright
Pack some things and head up into the light
Don't stop - he'll be callin' out your name
But don't stop when you hear him plead
You better move now little darlin' or you'll be
Trading fours with the Jack of Speed

Cousin Dupree 

"Cousin Dupree" is Steely Dan at the very peak of droll American pop narrative, deeply comic and quietly merciless.



steely danWell I've kicked around a lot since high school
I've worked a lot of nowhere gigs
From keyboard man in a rock'n ska band
To haulin' boss crude in the big rigs
Now I've come back home to plan my next move
From the comfort of my Aunt Faye's couch
When I see my little cousin Janine walk in
All I could say was ow-ow-ouch

Honey how you've grown
Like a rose
Well we used to play
When we were three
How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree

She turned my life into a living hell
In those little tops and tight capris
I pretended to be readin' the National Probe
As I was watchin' her wax her skis
On Saturday night she walked in with her date
And backs him up against the wall
I tumbled off the couch and heard myself sing
In a voice I never knew I had before

I'll teach you everything I know
If you teach me how to do that dance
Life is short and quid pro quo
And what's so strange about a down-home family romance?

One night we're playin' gin by a cracklin' fire
And I decided to make my play
I said babe with my boyish charm and good looks
How can you stand it for one more day
She said maybe its the skeevy look in your eyes
Or that your mind has turned to applesauce
The dreary architecture of your soul
I said - but what is it exactly turns you off?

I'd say more about the other songs, but I'm starting to feel like a reviewer, which makes me intensely uncomfortable. I'm not a reviewer: I just want to say I like this record a lot, okay?

And I can only hope that Becker and Fagen decide that they can afford to let their Third out of the box a little more often, as there's nobody else remotely like him, and we need him. I know I do.

william gibson

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  • Comment Link Mark Tweedy Monday, 11 June 2012 15:09 posted by Mark Tweedy

    Never mind all this. Whose number was Rikki not to lose?

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Saturday, 16 June 2012 00:21 posted by TJ Dawe

    Mark - great question. I've always found Steely Dan's lyrics to be at least somewhat cryptic, and after a bit of internet digging, here's what I found:

    (taken from an Entertainment Weekly article in 2006)

    One such unrequited crush might have been a professor's young wife named Rikki Ducornet, whose first name will be familiar to Steely Dan fans. Fagen won't admit it — he's always been extremely reluctant to explain his songs — but it's easy to imagine that Ducornet was the inspiration for one of his band's most famous tunes, ''Rikki Don't Lose That Number.'' ''I remember we had a great conversation and he did suggest I call him, which never happened,'' says Ducornet, now a well-regarded novelist and artist. ''But I know he thought I was cute. And I was cute,'' she laughs. ''I was very tempted to call him, but I thought it might be a bit risky. I was very enchanted with him and with the music. It was so evident from the get-go that he was wildly talented. Being a young faculty wife and, I believe, pregnant at the time, I behaved myself, let's say. Years later, I walked into a record store and heard his voice and thought, 'That's Fagen. And that's my name!'''


    So there's your answer: don't lose Fagen's number. And she never did call. If she had, he probably wouldn't have written the song years later.

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