Visionary William Gibson takes a trip to the grocery store and winds up in the middle of the frozen foods aisle experiencing a series of revelations about Steely Dan.
Addicted To Noise 6.03 - March 2000
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. Burroughs' 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 20 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 ouevres in late-20th-century pop.
There's a story about some hapless mook, 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.
Now 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 unfocused 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. "Cousin Dupree" is Steely Dan at the very peak of droll American pop narrative, deeply comic and quietly merciless.
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, OK?
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.