Reelin’ From The Years

Walter Becker died yesterday, at age 67.  Becker, along with Donald Fagen, was one of the co-founders of Steely Dan, the ever-changing band that was a dominant musical force in the ’70s and unquestionably one of the greatest American rock bands of all time.

The clip above from the old rock TV show The Midnight Special — where the band is jarringly introduced by a mustachioed Bill Cosby — captures the group performing live in 1973, which is about the same time I first heard their music.  The song they performed live on that show, Reelin’ In The Years, is a guitar-driven classic that was one of the first Steely Dan songs that caused me to buy their albums.  It was perfect for those high school days, allowing the boys with the bad ’70s haircuts and monster bellbottoms and tight polyester shirts to play some air guitar when the song came on the radio in the car before belting out lyrics that didn’t really make a lot of sense but were great to sing, anyway.

Becker and Fagen were genuises at coming up with the riffs and the obscure, tantalizing lyrics that wormed their way into your head.  Like Neil Young in that same time period, they kept reinventing themselves.  When you bought a Steely Dan album, whether it was Katy Lied or Can’t Buy A Thrill or Aja, or any of the other great albums they put out in the ’70s, you never were quite sure what you were going to get — but you knew it would be interesting.  And you could spend hours debating what the hell the lyrics to songs like Black Cow or Bodhisattva or Deacon Blues were all about, too.  Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, I think of Steely Dan’s Black Friday, and as it plays back in miy mind it stills sounds as great as it did when I first heard it, back in college.

Farewell, Walter Becker, and thank you for adding a little bit of richness and mystery to our lives.  (And 67 seems like a pretty young age to go, by the way.)

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When Black Friday Comes

Black Friday can bite me.

I’m tired of hearing about it, tired of the spectacle of grown people embarrassing themselves and acting like idiots to try to get the latest hot toy or specially priced flat-screen TV that will only be available to the first 50 customers, and tired of the talking heads talking, talking, talking about how important Black Friday is to the health of our economy and its retail sector.

Go out and buy, buy, buy!  Curse the lack of parking!  Groan when you see the length of the check-out line!  Feel the surge of anger when some jerk cuts in front of you or blocks the aisle or doesn’t watch their bratty kid who is knocking items off the shelves!

So today you won’t find me at the shopping malls.  When I think of Black Friday, I think of the classic tune from Steely Dan’s Katy Lied, performed live below in 2006.  My favorite lyrics from the song have a certain resonance on Black Friday, the dreaded shopping day:

When Black Friday comes
I’m gonna dig myself a hole
Gonna lay down in it ’til
I satisfy my soul
Gonna let the world pass by me
The Archbishop’s gonna sanctify me
And if he don’t come across
I’m gonna let it roll

Black Friday (With Steely Dan)

It’s Black Friday, the day when retailers have big sales and the news media will report on American shoppers getting into fistfights and trampling fellow citizens into the dust in their ludicrous zeal to get the advertised deals.

I hate shopping generally, and Black Friday sounds especially horrible.  So, today I’ll be staying as far away from the shopping as I can, and listening to Steely Dan’s take on Black Friday to further improve my mood.

When Black Friday comes
I’m gonna dig myself a hole
Gonna lay down in it ’til
I satisfy my soul  

The Best American Band: Poll Results

It’s time to declare winners in our “best American rock ‘n’ roll band” poll, and it ends in a three-way tie between Aerosmith, the Beach Boys, and the Doors.  Other bands receiving votes were the Allman Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Eagles, Steely Dan, and Van Halen.

In terms of hits on the blog, the most popular best American band posts have been, in descending order, Steely Dan, Pearl Jam, the Eagles, the Beach Boys, the Allman Brothers, the Doors, Rage Against the Machine, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the White Stripes, and R.E.M.

Thanks to everyone for voting on this crucial cultural question!

The Best American Band: Time To Vote!

We’ve published a number of posts with our thoughts on the Best American Band, and we’ve given everyone time to think about that extraordinarily weighty issue. Now, it’s time for you to vote. We’ll check back in a week and declare a winner. Please, vote for just one of the candidates.

The Best American Band: Steely Dan

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

After we started this discussion I mentioned that I think Steely Dan has to be considered in any discussion of great American rock ‘n’ roll bands. In response my friend JV asked — with some incredulity — “Are they really a rock’n’ roll band?” I think it is a fair question, but I also think the answer is yes. The difficulty is that Steely Dan was so different that they are difficult to categorize, with lyrics that were as opaque as you can get and musical styles that varied widely from one album to the next. Nevertheless, the songs clearly fall within the broad spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll, even if they hit different points on that spectrum. Reelin’ In The Years is one of the best guitar songs ever recorded, and Bodhisattva isn’t too shabby, either. Black Friday and Dirty Work are very strong keyboard compositions. Then you have a song like Do It Again, which has an almost jazzy, Afropop feel to it, and The Fez, with its memorable chorus . . . if you were working in a record store in the 1970s, where would you have put the new Steely Dan album, other than in the rock section?

I admire the way Steely Dan kept looking to new musical styles and sounds, all the while staying true to their trademark tight harmonies, catchy melodies, and extraordinarily cryptic lyrics. You had to listen carefully to their songs to try to figure out what the hell was going on, and even then you always felt like you were missing out on the joke or the rest of the story. What was it about Guadalajara that wouldn’t do, and who were Gino and Daddy G? Why was it relevant that people call Alabama The Crimson Tide? Why wouldn’t you do it without the fez on? Was the 19-year-old being plied with Cuervo Gold? These were intriguing questions to ponder on a lazy college afternoon.

Steely Dan easily was one of the most influential bands of the 1970s, and albums like Aja and Can’t Buy A Thrill were played repeatedly on the 101 W. 8th Ave. stereo system. Appropriately, the band’s songs are well represented on the Ipod. The selections include FM, Do It Again, The Fez, Reelin’ In The Years, Black Friday, Dirty Work, My Old School, Deacon Blues, Hey Nineteen, and Only A Fool Would Say That.

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!