FUV Essentials: Darren DeVivo on Steely Dan
Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (photo by Danny Clinch courtesy of the artist, Facebook.com, PR)
I find it kind of fascinating that a nine-year-old boy would become intrigued with a band like Steely Dan. But that was the case for this young music fan in 1974.
I was bit by the music bug when I was around four-years-old and from that tender age, I began building my modest record collection. It was a diverse assortment of 45s that made up a vague overview of the hits of the very late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
In 1974, an oddly-named band had a hit song that struck a chord in my maturing ears. The recording act was Steely Dan and the song climbing the charts that spring was “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” I don’t remember when I heard it for the first time or what attracted me to it, but something drove me to ask my parents to buy it for me. What stands out in my memory was the strangeness of the title. My nine-year-old mind asked, “Who is this Rikki and why is the name spelled that way? Is it a reference to Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the mongoose from Rudyard Kipling’s short story in The Jungle Book? Plus, losing a number is an odd thing to sing about, isn’t it?”
Being a singles enthusiast, the B-side was almost as important to me as the A-side. On the other side of this new Steely Dan record was another strangely-titled song, “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.” I thought, “What is a major dude? Are there minor dudes? What is this major dude going to tell me?” Even the title of the album these two songs came from, which was printed in small type on the record label, was bizarre—Pretzel Logic. What on earth is that?
Despite these mysteries, this band or person named Steely Dan had recorded a song that grabbed my attention. Another aspect of my fascination with this particular song, and the physical single, was the record’s ultra-stylish label. Back then, Steely Dan recorded for ABC Records, which is now defunct. I was captivated with the black ABC label spinning around on my General Electric Show ‘N Tell phonograph. I was already very familiar with, and fond of, the ABC design because it graced some of my favorite records by Tommy Roe and Three Dog Night.
By 1977, I turned twelve and Steely Dan returned to my radar. I started seeing this television commercial for a new album from Steely Dan. Eartha Kitt's exotic voice says, “Welcome to the world of Steely Dan.” The word Aja appears in bright red letters as the title track plays. I was pulled into that commercial, with its mysteriously enchanting scene with an Asian woman standing by a creek.
Around this same time, I had started taking guitar lessons. Every Saturday afternoon, my parents would drop me off at Schuylerville Music Center on East Tremont Avenue in the Throggs Neck section of Bronx. My guitar instructor was a guy named Paul Casino, or at least I think that was his name. On days when my parents dropped me off early or picked me up a little late, I’d browse the store’s modest record section while waiting. Then, one day, there it was, on the wall—Aja by Steely Dan!
Everything about the album’s packaging mesmerized me—the reflective blackness, the stark minimalism of the cover artwork and the virtually blank back cover with just seven, brief song titles listed in plain, white letters. Those song titles were short and unusual: “Peg,” “Aja,” “Josie,” Black Cow,” “Deacon Blues,” “Home At Last” and “I Got The News.”
I realized that since there were only seven songs, some of them must long. As a kid, I was infatuated with long songs. That “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” band was doing it again, drawing me in to their realm. I eventually found out that one of the album’s songs, the peculiarly titled, “Peg,” was a hit single. Getting this single would be an inexpensive way of sampling this new Steely Dan album to see what lay beneath its black cover. After one of my lessons, my mom bought the single for me. When I got home, I threw it on my record player. The multi-colored, sunburst design of the updated ABC label stood in stark contrast to the old black label. As “Peg” began, I was overjoyed to discover that, not only did I know the song having had heard it on the radio many times, I even liked it!
Soon, I got the Aja album and the Steely Dan mystery began to reveal itself to me. From that point, Steely Dan became a passion. After Aja came the Greatest Hits collection in 1978. Santa Claus was kind enough to leave that for me under the Christmas tree. Two years later, in 1980, Gaucho was released. Again, Santa Claus knew where my head was at!
As a music lover, the end of the '70s and the beginning of the '80s was a period where my tastes and preferences began to really branch out. As I searched beyond the artists who shaped the soundtrack of my formative years, I gradually developed a hunger for more intelligent forms of music. This was when jazz began to appear on my radar.
Despite slipping into a period of inactivity that started in 1981 and lasted for nearly twelve years, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were largely responsible for nurturing my new, maturing tastes. The seven Steely Dan studio albums released between 1972 and 1980, augmented by several compilations and Donald’s first solo album, 1982's The Nightfly, were like my college textbooks.
I will always treasure Becker and Fagen’s highly intellectual, sarcastic, sometimes humorous and always cryptic lyrics set to sophisticated melodies and arrangements and executed by many of music’s best musicians. Always striving for perfection, Becker and Fagen also assembled some of best musicians on the planet as collaborators to meticulously perform their songs.
Nothing sounds better than a Steely Dan recording. Clearly, I am in awe of everything Becker and Fagen have created and I look forward to their every move, now and in the future. Steely Dan will always be a source of unbridled enthusiasm for me.
Here are just three of my favorite lines from the songs of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen:
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.
- "Kid Charlemagne"
It’s high time for a walk on the real side
Let’s admit the bastards beat us
I move to dissolve the corporation
In a pool of margaritas
So let’s switch off all the lights
and light up all the Luckies
Crankin’ up the afterglow
‘Cause we’re goin’ out of business
Everything must go.
- “Everything Must Go”
Who is the gaucho amigo?
Why is he standing
In your spangled leather poncho
And your elevator shoes?
such as your friend,
will never be welcome here
high in the Custerdome.