Saturday, September 12, 2009

My Old School, Steely Dan (1973)

California tumbles into the sea. That'll be the day I go back to Annandale. 

Been feeling like a bit of a stranger in a strange land of late, what with the citizenry trying to paint a sitting president with the brush of a "pastiche of right wing hobgoblins," as writer Max Blumenthal put it on Fresh Air this week.  

However, for some of us, it's our lot in life, and we seek out others of like sensibilities to help us realize we're not going barking mad. Trolling around on last night, I was catapulted into memories of a musical enterprise that was the epitome of the stranger in the early 70s - and a most welcome one amidst the other dreck: the cornucopia of verbal and instrumental wizardry that was Steely Dan.

Although it was never a rip-roaring commercial success, my favorite showcase of the skills of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker has got to be My Old School, which as one YouTube commenter puts it, has the "tastiest brass, rippinest guitar riff." There's nothing about the song that doesn't please at the highest levels.

I have the feeling I could research for some time on the lore of the band and its genesis. On their website, I found this amusing remembrance, How I Turned Down Steely Dan, that gives a glimpse into the early days.

On their official website, they are described as having grown up as "disaffected suburban youths" who luxuriated in jazz from an early age.  They met while students at Bard College in the Annandale(-On-Hudson) that was immortalized in My Old School.  They were always more interested in being songwriters, and moved to New York after school to try to affiliate in some way with the Brill Building.  They weren't having any success peddling their songs, but it was there that they met Kenny Vance of Jay and the Americans.  He helped them record demos of their compositions and secure various gigs as players with other groups. 

And in fact one of those groups was Jay and the Americans!  In 1970-71, Becker and Fagen were part of the rhythm section for the touring band, a part of their curriculum vitae about which they're less than enthralled. In an old radio interview, to the question "how long did you play with Jay," Becker answered, "as long as we had to." They apparently took on pseudonymns, and Jay Black called them the "Manson and Starkweather of rock and roll."  Good times!
Once striking out on their own, concluding it was the only way for their songs to see the light of day, it's not clear to me what soured them on live performance, about which they're famously ambivalent if not outright filled with loathing (although of course they're touring right now).  It seems they've always had an enthusiastic audience, but being in the studio was their first love and their obsession. And they were damn good at it. 

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